A thought that is not unlikely to occur to a viewer at the Victoria Memorial Hall’s An exhibition of paintings by Gaganendranath Tagore (till March 15) is that not only have Bengalis all but lost their once-formidable creativity and ingenuity but also their unmistakable talent for using the weapon of laughter to hold up to ridicule the follies and foibles of fellow human beings.
Gaganendranath’s genius is overshadowed by the towering personality of his uncle, Rabindranath, as well as by his younger brother, Abanindranath, whose life and work are better documented. But like both of them, he was not averse to experimentation and had a deeply analytical mind. Gaganendranath (1867-1938) was introduced to painting at St Xavier’s Collegiate School but it was only after their Jorasanko residence played host to three Japanese artists, including the eminent Okakura, between 1902 and 1903, that he began to take lessons from Harinarayan Basu, then principal of the government art school. Thereafter, he began his first series on crows with Chinese ink and brush.
His experiments in the cubist style — rather his interpretation of it — attest to his standing as a trailblazer. Amrita Sher-Gil was born in Budapest in 1913, and at 16, she was in Paris to be trained as a painter. She was in the thick of the Modernist movement but her paintings were throwbacks to a post-impressionist style practised by Cezanne and Gauguin. Gaganendranath, like Abanindranath, had never left the shores of India although exhibitions of his work were held at prestigious venues in Paris, London, Belgium and Holland. Yet the Tagores were progressive enough to keep abreast of the avant-garde ideas of the West, and their well-stocked library must have stood them in good stead.
The 108 paintings on display are part of the collection of modern Indian painters received recently by the Victoria Memorial Hall from the Rabindra Bharati Society, which itself is the custodian of an invaluable collection that is going to pieces, thanks to neglect and the dog-in-the-manger policy of those in charge.
The scholar, Ratan Parimoo, who facilitated this exhibition, in an essay on the artist that appeared in the July 2011 issue of Art Etc, wrote: “The general impression about Gaganendranath Tagore has been that of a dilettante, an amateur, though a brilliant one for that matter. But the fact has been missed that in his later years he became a seriously involved painter...” This view is borne out by the current exhibition of his works executed between 1909 and the 1920s, when he experimented with cubism.
The paintings have been divided into six sections. Viewers will be drawn to his depictions of the Jorasanko Tagore residence with the giant banyan tree looming in the foreground that Rabindranath had written about in Jibansmriti, the rooftops of Calcutta houses, the tutor arriving in driving rain, and the crow with a wise look painted in 1911 that would remind one of Kakeswar Kuchkuche in Sukumar Ray’s Ha Ja Ba Ra La published in 1924. These were painted in black and white using ink and brush and point to Gaganendranath’s interest in the effects of light and shadow that perhaps adumbrated his nightscapes like the well-known Pratima Bisarjan, showing a Durga immersion procession, paintings in which he caught the subtle gradations of light from daybreak to gloaming, and the later mysterious Fantasia series of the post-cubist period.
The dramatic effect of light and shadows can be seen in his depictions of the Puri and Bhubaneswar temples and he used layer upon layer of wash to produce the effect of limpid light. In his cubist paintings of the 1920s, he seems to observe the world through a prism as his images turn into simple geometric shapes and interlocking planes, as if a fractured reality was being caught. Parimoo quoted an interview with Gaganendranath to prove conclusively that his works of that phase were indeed cubist:“...(the new experiments) have enabled me to discover new paths and I am now expressing them better with my new technique developed out of my experiment in cubism than I used to do with my old methods.”
His satirical drawings of the babu blindly apeing the Brits (picture), Bengali women clambering on high heels and the corrupt Brahmin have not lost their rapier thrust at a time when we are obsessed with an “international” image makeover. Gaganendranath, however, looks more indulgently at a cloud-borne Rabindranath as he flies from London to Paris. One wonders if the artist was familiar with the art of Aubrey Beardsley.