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A LIFE IN IMAGES - Rabindranath Tagore's engagement with the camera

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By Malavika Karlekar
  • Published 23.11.14

From the 1850s onwards, photographic processes were successfully used to affirm the iconic status of celebrities. While well-composed studio shots were usual during the early years, as the camera became more mobile, on location commissioned shots, those taken by domestic photographers or by early paparazzi became more common. Thus photographic archives of significant individuals are often a mélange of formal images as well as those by admirers and amateurs. Quite often, some of the more interesting and possibly intriguing images are those taken perhaps unbeknownst to the subject, such as this one of Rabindranath Tagore. One of a collection of thousands of photographs of the poet that are archived and digitally available in Rabindra Bhavana at Visva-Bharati, it is part of Kshemendramohan Sen’s collection that was donated to the university. The caption — or comment — with the image is “showing his hand to a palmist; Suren Kar and Nandalal Bose and a few others are anxiously listening”. Tagore’s curiosity in what the astrologer is saying is palpable from his slightly furrowed brow and eyes that are concentrating hard on his hand being read by the palmist. So do Kar and Bose appear involved in the process.

Tagore had a distinct interest in fortune-telling: way back in 1891, in a letter that he wrote from the family estate in Sahajadpur to his wife, Mrinalini, he reported in some detail on the visit of “a major astrologer of the region” who “for the best part of the morning badgered me”. Tagore had just settled down to work, “but he rattled on so much that I could not write”. On the basis of sun and zodiacal signs, the astrologer said that though Tagore was generous with money, he “would still be accused of being a miser”. He was handsome, well-dressed and with a fine wife — but “was rather irascible”, would fall out with his brother and not live beyond 62 — at best 70. “It worried me a lot to hear this,” wrote Tagore, but he added in jest that his wife should not brood on this as she would have his company for at least another thirty to forty years; however, Mrinalini died in November 1902 when Tagore was 41 and she not even 30.

In the 1950s, the poet’s son, Rathindranath, started the photo archives section in Rabindra Bhavana. He needed to find an appropriate home for the many loose photographs and albums that visually mapped his father’s life. Today, the RB holdings consist of 16,943 images, the majority focussing on Rabindranath Tagore. Apart from loose photographs, there are 102 albums presented to the poet as records of his foreign trips. Over 500 file folders consist of sets of loose images while large-format photographs are located in 15 files. Of the total images, about 3,000 are duplicates, if not triplicates.

Scholars and Tagore aficionados have used the archives extensively and over the last few years, there have been pictorial biographies, by Nityapriya Ghosh, Abhik Dey and Uma Dasgupta, who also curated an exhibition of photographs of the poet at India International Centre in May, 2014. Most images have come from Rabindra Bhavana as this has the largest single collection of photographs of Tagore, his family and Shantiniketan, the establishment of Visva-Bharati, Sriniketan and so on. Some files and albums are well annotated regarding the provenance, origin and so on of images. Others are tantalizingly silent. Most photographs are in fairly reasonable condition.

The photographic recording of Tagore’s life and works is also a competent example of the history of photography and changing discourses around it. That the Tagores were quite clearly committed to extensive use of the camera, the photographic studio and the image is quite evident from the holdings at Rabindra Bhavana as there are a number of albums belonging to various wings of the extensive family. Bourne & Shepherd studio was clearly a favoured space, although there are others too that were patronized such as the Bengali-run studio of S.C. Sen. The first known photograph of Rabindranath was taken around 1873, when he was 12, and the absence of a backdrop indicates that it could have been taken at home, perhaps sometime before his upanayan (sacred thread ceremony) and his journey to the Himalayas with his father. It is a well-composed image that shows Rabindranath, Soumendranath and Satyaprasad (son of Soudamini, Debendranath’s daughter) standing behind Srikantha Sinha, who taught the boys to sing. Much of Rabindranath’s schooling was with this brother and nephew. Srikantha was full of enthusiasm for his youngest charge’s poetic abilities — the young boy had started writing poetry at the age of eight and plays a little later. An interesting image shows Tagore acting as Valmiki in his Valmiki Pratibha, shortly before his marriage to Bhabatarini (to be re-named Mrinalini) in 1883. There are at least two much-reproduced images of the young couple taken at the Bourne & Shepherd studio, and in both, the discomfiture of the bride who was not even ten, is palpable. By this time, Rabindranath is quite at ease in front of the camera, having been photographed many times in group studies with his siblings, sisters-in-law Jnanadanandini and Kadambari, nephews and nieces. The years that followed were those of extreme personal loss — between 1902 and 1907, Rabindranath’s wife, father, daughter Renuka and son Samindranath had died. On his 50th birthday in 1911, there are some informal photographs of him seated on a bed on the top floor of the Jorasanko house. Taken perhaps by his son, Rathindranath, there is a certain wistful quality about these images.

A couple of years later, after the awarding of the Nobel prize, there was no looking back, certainly as far as being lauded, travelling and being photographed were concerned. The poet was now truly a well-known figure, at ease in the world of literature, one to whom Robert Bridges, the poet laureate of Britain, commented informally in a letter, “I never wrote you any compliments when that mysterious committee of international judges crowned you with banknotes...” Between 1878 and 1932, Tagore had visited more than 30 countries in five continents. Several of the later trips were lecture tours to help fund Visva-Bharati. Rabindra Bhavana has many formal as well as informal photographs of Shantiniketan and later Visva-Bharati and a historic (though, sadly, a bit damaged) 1905 image of Rabindranath sitting at what was later to develop into chhatimtala. A few decades later, photographers such as the Frenchman, Raymond Burnier, and Calcutta-based Shambhu Shaha were to visit and visually document extensively the poet, life at Visva-Bharati, its interesting buildings and compelling physical ambience.

Of the foreign albums, from the point of view of compositional quality, the 1924 photographs taken at Miralrio, the home of a maternal relative of Victoria Ocampo, are perhaps the best. Tagore intended spending a few days in Buenos Aires on his way back from Peru when a bad attack of influenza intervened. Ocampo, a great admirer of his work, invited him and Leonard Elmhirst— his companion/honorary secretary — to recuperate in the villa overlooking the Rio de la Plata. The scholar, Ketaki Kushari Dyson, who has edited the Tagore-Ocampo letters writes that aware of “Tagore’s deep love of rivers, [Ocampo] realized that the view of the river from the balcony of Miralrio was the only gift worthy of him that she could offer”. A photographer was obviously hired to document his two-month stay; there are attention-grabbing photographs of the poet seated at a corner of the frame, his dark robes carefully positioned while the backdrop of a sunlit Miralrio vies for the viewer’s attention. In another, Ocampo’s long shadow becomes a part of a portrait to be followed by a photograph of both of them sitting under one of the property’s many majestic trees.

As the visits continued, the albums piled up, some with informative captions. Of his visit to the United States, a long shot of his talk at the packed Grand Ballroom, Ritz Carlton Hotel, New York, on December 7, 1930, has a hand-written inscription on the photo: “The New History meeting reception in honor of Sir Rabindranath Tagore; 2000 people present.” Though his 70th birthday celebrations at the Calcutta Town Hall, where he is shown addressing a huge crowd, was officially documented by press and other photographers, the last years are given over to the camera and imagery of amateurs, carefully preserved in private albums maintained by members of Shantiniketan’s extensive community. Some are quick shots for posterity, while others focus on compositional details: an image of May 1941 shows the frail poet seated at Udayan, looking out of the window to the verdant beyond. His hair is trimmed and beard groomed, the shawl and blanket are neatly arranged as is the vase with a few flowering branches carefully positioned. It is a finely crafted photographic tribute to a man who valued aesthetics and the natural world so deeply.