Wednesday, November 21, 2012

The Last Harvest and the Best Too: Rabindranath Tagore Exhibition at the NGMA, New Delhi

(Rabindranath Tagore)

Two hundred and eight paintings by none other than Rabindranath Tagore are now on display at the National Gallery of Modern Art, New Delhi. The spacious galleries at the new wing of the old establishment are painted in deep maroon and brownish yellow colors in order to give a ‘feel’ of Santiniketan, where the bard-artist had spent most of his creative years. Titled ‘Last Harvest’, this show is now India after traveling around eight international venues. The organizers promise that at least five Indian cities will have the opportunity to witness this historical exhibition produced by the full support of the Ministry of Culture, Government of India as a part of the 150th Birthday celebrations of Rabindranath Tagore, and curated by the biggest scholar of Bengal School and art historian, Prof.R.Sivakumar.

There is a poetic justice in calling this comprehensive exhibition culled from the collections of Rabindra Bharati, Kalabhavan (Santiniketan) and the National Gallery of Modern Art, The Last Harvest. As Sivakumar says, this was the last harvest from the vast and rich creative ‘field’ of Rabindranath Tagore who was well versed in all imaginable forms of fine arts. Tagore did not paint till he was in his sixties though throughout his life he felt that there was a painter in him. He tried his hands at making some drawings but had left it behind out of some sort of frustration. But when he was traveling in Argentina, his hostess and publisher, Victoria Ocampo found out that her ‘guest’ was very good at drawing things more out of ‘erasure’ than addition. Her recognition was something important for Tagore as it paved the way for international exhibitions of his works; perhaps, the first Indian artist to exhibit internationally and got appreciation from the established professionals of the time.

 (Painting by Tagore)

Sivakumar, in his curatorial note, rightly points out that Tagore’s paintings were more misinterpreted than interpreted when they were shown abroad. As it was the custom, the critics who lauded the painterly efforts of an ageing poet, said that they were more ‘western’ in outlook as they promoted a sort of universalism sprang up out of his deep understanding of the ‘primitive’ cultures. As we know that most of the western art experiments of the first half of the 20th century were based on the re-articulation and co-optation of the primitive visual cultures. It had a lot to do with the anthropological findings and the resultant publications by the western scholars. Most of the western artists of the early 20th century were looking for an ‘authentic’ and ‘original’ expression as they understood the fact that the notion of originality had been severely undermined by the advent of photography and industrial production.

It was imperative for most of them to go to the primitive cultures or to the ‘oriental’ civilizations (which interestingly was also thought in a way ‘primitive’ and the cultures of the ‘other’ as argued by Edward Said) in order to draw energy for their  ‘original’ expressions. The critics who had been produced by this milieu interpreted Tagore also as an artist who drew his inspiration from the primitive cultures as his works showed similar spontaneity, naivety and unbridled expressiveness that defied the classical notions of form and content correlatives. They failed to regard the works of Tagore against a larger context that defined the very artistic self of Tagore, though he himself was a great proponent of universality of human creativity and philosophical thinking.

(Prof.R.Sivakumar, Bengal School Scholar and Curator of the Last Harvest- bad picture quality regretted)

When you stand in front of these works, which another Tagore scholar and an alumnus of Santiniketan, A.Ramachandran deems as the essence of Tagore’s works though there are more than two thousand works that Tagore had produced towards the end of his life (which Abanindranath Tagore cited as a ‘volcanic eruption’ of creativity), you tend to feel that you have seen all these works and you know the art of Tagore very well. Perhaps, this is something an artist would always cherish to have from his/her viewers of all times. This feeling of Déjà vu comes from the fact that Tagore’s works, though do not get exhibited at every other occasion, are in our collective consciousness as an integral component of our cultural make up. I do not dare to say that Tagore’s stylistic expressions or the lingua of art has influenced the successive generations considerably, the ideas that he propounded about art and aesthetics in his writings have definitely influenced the creative people of this country, I should add, ‘sub-consciously’.

I would quote from the catalogue of the show to justify this reading: “..But one thing which is common to all arts is the principle of rhythm which transforms inert materials into living creations. My instinct for it and my training in its use led me to know that lines and colors in art are no carriers of information; they seek their rhythmic incarnation in pictures. Their ultimate purpose is not to illustrate or to copy some outer fact of inner vision, but to evolve a harmonious wholeness which finds its passage through our eyesight into imagination. It neither questions our mind for meaning nor burdens it with unmeaningness, for it is, above all, meaning.”

(Painting by Tagore)

A poet who has loaded his poems and other literary creations with political symbolism and metaphorical lyricism, while talking about the visual arts, here speaks of pure communication. This idea of pure communication is pivotal to understand the painterly oeuvre of Tagore. Here he does not ‘burdens’ the visual forms with meaning or unmeaningness because he deems the very form (or formlessness) is meaning.  This gives us an interesting clue why Tagore did not paint or ‘failed’ to paint during the first six decades of his life. As a communicator of ideas, as a poet and as a thinker, in my opinion, Tagore was very much ‘comfortable’ with the meanings and unmeaningness that could be carried by words. As a wordsmith, Tagore understood the power of words and the music, harmony and rhythm that the words could create. And there is a stage or phase in everyone’s life that he/she then becomes more silent than eloquent in explaining the inner workings of one’s own self. Tagore, it could be deduced that, started painting when he realized that it was silence that pervaded his mindscape during the latter part of his life than eloquence that could set things right that had gone terribly wrong in the world thanks to factionalisms and the World War II.

That does not mean that Tagore remained silent while painting or stopped articulating himself using words altogether in this phase. He was more pained at the happenings of the world that prompted him to seek solace in what he could ‘speak’ without words. This exhibition under review here has four parts namely doodles, landscapes, human dram and faces, which rightly explain how Tagore’s intense introspection had got expression in a sort of word-less speech act. He was in fact erasing the words in the beginning, perhaps realizing the futility of speech (in a world that had moved away from harmonious speech to belligerent cacophony) and investing the erased areas with some sort of meaning or meaningless-ness. It slowly turned into a speech act, a sort of mime carried out on a piece of paper, which eventually turned into a set of paintings, which he had always thought he would want to do as his peers and relatives pursued vigorously when he was involved completely into wordsmith-ing.

 (National Gallery of Modern Art, New Delhi)

Erasure could be considered as anti-scripting or anti-scripture, which in turn produces a counter scripting. Each erased area carries the traces of memory of the erased, which Tagore knew for sure. He knew that the erased areas had a voice as expressed in the form of a word which now stood erased and his counter-speech act (which was his painterly act) became a re-encryption of his rhythmic thoughts which he deemed, needed no ‘meaning’. He smudged or covered areas with ink or colors thereby giving a new ‘volume and value’ to the vacant space. So in this phase one could see Tagore’s paintings evolving out of three acts: Conscious articulation through words (which became the first layer of the final painting), deliberate erasure of the same (the second layer) and the final inking process towards getting a rhythmic form with or without meaning (the third layer and the final painting). So in effect what we see here is a verbal thinking transforming into visual thinking through the process of erasure and inking. Hence, we have all the reasons to believe that Tagore’s paintings are encrypted silences that he created out of his eloquence.

Counter writing using silence, for Tagore was not an end in itself, we understand while standing in front of these paintings. When he reaches his landscapes paintings, he absolutely removes the presence of the word from the first act itself. That means he removes the first layer of speech act. Its place is taken over by the paper/surface. He painted from memory as well as by looking at the landscapes around him. This was a direct act of transforming the felt essence of his surroundings into a visual form. There are evidences that we see where Tagore doing the initial drawing as a base (words replaced by conscious lines) and then the filling up with colors. At times, he directly applies colors on the surface. Here the speech act, which the viewer would find caught in while interpreting the works of Tagore, is pushed to the third layer, as a resultant layer of a Tagorean painting. This aspect of doing away with the speech act and handing over the responsibility of the same to the viewer leaves the paintings of Tagore open ended. Barring the biographical references and the familiarities that one would find in the ‘faces’ created by Tagore, these paintings assume a universal nature because like in a lyrical poem (which is a hallmark of the Tagorean literature) they overcome self-referentiality and transcend themselves into ‘visual utterances’ which show the essential creative proficiency of a creative genius rather than his ideological positioning on the world affairs.

(JohnyML with Prof.R.Sivakumar)

Sivakumar has written four fantastic volumes on Tagore’s oeuvre which is currently the ultimate documentation and study of the Tagorean art. And the fifth one is in the making. And the set is complete with a ready reckoner catalogue that helps in navigating the four hardbound huge volumes. Besides, the present exhibition has an accompanying comprehensive catalogue by the curators and a take away hand book that details the theoretical and historical premises of this exhibition along with a few necessary image reproductions. There are some shows that are life time experiences. The Last Harvest is one such exhibition. If at all there is a negative take on this show, I would cite the lack of publicity given to it amongst the citizens of Delhi. As it is a long duration show, we could always seek solace in the fact that in the coming days more people would come and experience Rabindranath Tagore’s works. 

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