| The first letter of the Bengali alphabet takes the shape of a bird by the brush of Abanindranath Tagore. Picture by Pradip Sanyal
How would you expect the Bengali alphabet to look like when it is designed by the man who said he wrote paintings' Picturesque, at the very least. As a curious collection of sketchbooks, design portfolio, drawings and small paintings — 30 in all — recently acquired by the Victoria Memorial Hall proves, Abanindranath excelled in all the fields.
Inspired by the curves, angles and curlicues of the alphabet, Abanindranath gave free rein to his brush strokes as they traced fancy-free figures. Thus, the first letter turns into a bird, the second is another feathered creature with a long tail. ‘Hrashai’ is a fish, ‘dirghai’ a shape half-piscine, half-nutcracker, ‘a’ traces an enlarged shadow of its own shape and coils within itself, and ‘oi’ becomes the trunk of Oirabat, the elephantine vehicle of Lord Indra. ‘O’ transmutes into a makar, half-fish, half-elephant, ‘hrasau’ into the profile of a turbaned man with a beard, ‘dirghau’ into a woman wearing her hair in a bun. ‘Ri’ is a man sitting on his haunches and ‘li’ a quaint being who pulls a long face. All masterpieces of graphic design.
Abanindranath experimented with the Bengali alphabet on plain paper and the pencil lines and brush strokes still look quite fresh. This collection was acquired from Abanindranath’s descendant, says Chitta Panda, curator and secretary of the Victoria Memorial. A temporary exhibition of Victoria Memorial’s Bengal School collection will be held in December-January. A permanent gallery for this collection will be constructed and the National Institute of Design has been commissioned to design it. The new Abanindranath collection will be exhibited there.
Culture and tourism minister Jagmohan wants the gallery to display Bengal art and has made a budget provision of Rs 40 lakh that can be extended to Rs 50 lakh. The minister wants paintings to be loaned from the National Gallery of Modern Art, which has the richest collection of Nandalal Bose. Governor Viren J. Shah has lent his support to this project.
Besides Abanindranath’s self-portrait, painted in 1944, there are painted sketches of an Arab with glowing eyes in a burnouse on one side of the board and three hastily-executed faces on the other. Another painting depicts armour, the colours still fresh.
The tiny pencil drawings have faded with age and the paper on which they were executed is crumbling. Abanindranath did some quite unremarkable sketches of boats, ships, shuttered windows, a palanquin and the head of a peacock. Another blurry sketchbook documents his visit to Puri in 1906-07. It contains a remarkable lion in a temple, gargoyle-like against the sky, and some beautiful seascapes. Perhaps they were aides-memoire.
Abanindranath, like Gaganendranath, experimented with forms and shapes. These experiments were informed by the modern art movement, in vogue in Europe. This becomes evident from his arabesque, that suggests the form of a woman. There are some classic pen-and-ink drawings of a lamp under a shade and a hubble-bubble next to a chaise longue. In another notebook, he had penned a poem.
There is only one painting — that of an ancient Shahjahan on a seat. Part of this valuable collection is a portfolio of 75 designs by members of the Tagore family. Elaborate kalkas, floral wreaths, hot-air balloons, geometric shapes, raths and coats of arm are painstakingly drawn on the plates. They could be designs for embroidery or tiles. They leave you wondering what they were meant for.