Abanindranath Tagore: The Man Who Revolutionised Indian Art

When you hear the name Tagore, the first person that will probably come to your mind is the legendary poet Rabindranath Tagore. However, he was not the only personality with an artistic inclination in his family. Notable Indian artists such as Gaganendranath and Abanindranath Tagore, though less popular, have made significant contributions to the field of Indian Art in their own way.


Abanindranath Tagore was a revolutionary artist who played a critical role in the Bengali Renaissance. He was the central figure in establishing the Bengal School of Art that aimed at reviving traditional Indian art forms. His most famous paintings like the Passing of Shah Jahan, Bharat Mata, Radha Krishna, and Omar Khayyam were legendary artworks that not only attracted an international audience but also helped Indians to appreciate their cultural heritage.

Abanindranath-Tagore
Abanindranath Tagore

At a time when Indians were increasingly adopting the Western culture, how did Abanindranath Tagore's paintings helped in popularising Indian Art? Let's discover his journey quickly.

THE YOUNG TAGORE

Abanindranath Tagore, born on 7th August 1871, at Jorasanko (Calcutta), belonged to an artistic family where both his father Gunendranath and his grandfather were celebrated artists.


His early education began when he was five years old in a school at Jorasanko. A popular incident from his school days is when he had corrected his English Teacher for wrongly pronouncing the word "pudding" as "padding.” Even though the young boy had pointed to his teacher's mistake in a polite and humble manner, he was punished by his teacher in the name of indiscipline. Abanindranath's father, on hearing the unfair treatment meted out to his son, couldn't control his rage. He immediately dropped Abanindranath from that school, thus putting an end to his normal school journey. From then onwards, he was home-schooled with his brothers Gaganendranath and Surendranath under the guidance of tutors and pundits.

As he spent most of his time at home in the company of passionate artists and poets, it is not surprising that he also got drawn to it. The artistic blood that flowed in his veins showed prominence when he started producing his first paintings as a small child. His favourite subject was nature, especially birds and animals. When he was ten years old, Abanindranath lost his beloved father. Thereupon his guardians decided to send him to Sanskrit College where he learned to compose hymns and also won the first prize for his hymn on Saraswati, the Goddess of learning. He soon began using Sanskrit books as references to write Bengal verses and illustrated them with his paintings.

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Early work of Abanindranath Tagore (Source: Google Arts and Culture0

The formal education interested him little. He spent most of his time playing, painting or writing poems. Although he had not planned to pursue art as a profession, destiny led him towards it. Celebrated artists from all over the world such as Signore Gillhardy and Charles L. Palmer taught him various styles of painting such as oil painting, portrait making, watercolour painting and so on. Sura-Sundari was one of his early oil colour paintings. He mainly worked with oil and water colours when he met E.B. Havell, the principal of Government School of Art, Calcutta, the man who gave his life a new direction.

CONTRIBUTIONS TO THE BENGAL SCHOOL OF ART

A visit to E.B. Havell’s home, introduced Abanindranath to the forgotten world of Indian Art. He soon started exploring the Rajput, Mughal and Persian Art forms. He made a series of Krishna Lila paintings during this time. In the 1900s, under the guidance of the Japanese artist Okakura Kakozo, Abanindranath Tagore learned the Japanese wash technique and developed a new technique that was a fusion of both Tempera and Japanese was technique. Overall, his work covered techniques of European, Japanese, Rajput, Mughal Persian art and tradition. He clubbed all the techniques and added his own flavours to come up with unique colour patterns.

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Birth of Krishna painting by Abanindranath Tagore (Source: Google Arts and Culture)

In 1905, to encourage and motivate students to learn Indian paintings, E.B. Havell launched the Advanced Design Department with Abanindranath Tagore as the head. Now the Bengal School of Art had a similar status as any other government training course. After teaching there for some time, Abanindranath started training students at the Indian Society of Oriental Art along with his brother Gaganedranath.


The subject matter of his paintings mainly involved Sanskrit epics and mythology. He also gave space to cattle, nature, birds and foreign culture. His first creation "Abhisarika" involved the subject matter from the poetry works of the great poet Kalidasa in Sanskrit. On his way of inspiration, he created paintings on the poetical works of Michael Madhusudan Dutta, the Banished Yaksha, and Mahaprabhu Chaitanya. He also got inspired by the Persian and Mughal poetry. He made several portraits, most of which are of Rabindranath Tagore. From Tagore’s works it can be understood that he was a true devotee of nature. Fruits, nuts, frogs, pigeons, Dave, swordfish, rabbits, parrot, woodpeckers have been deeply studied by him and reproduced in his paintings. His works Basant ka Phool and Shefali exemplify his interest in plants and flowers.

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The Snipes painting by Abanindranath Tagore (Source: Google Arts and Culture)

Apart from this, he was a strong patron of handicraft, craft and fine arts. His most famous creations are small dolls made by using twigs, roots, wood also known as "kattam-kuttum". Kattam-Kuttum has been used as an element of interior decoration for a long time. Abanindranath Tagore was also a supporter of Brahmo Samaj. Blending the ancient religion, civilization, and culture of India with modern Europe was the policy of Brahmo Samaj. This theme was also reflected in his works as a contributor.

CREATIVE QUESTS

The place where you dwell doesn't stop your quest and he stands as an example for it. Though he has drawn most of his paintings at the South veranda of his house at Jorasanko, his work drew appreciation at a global level. Abanindranath was well known in Europe even before Rabindranath Tagore. In fact, it was the friends of Abanindranath and Gaganendranath Tagore like Sturge-Moore, Sir William Rothenstein, Havell, Norman Blunt and many more who motivated Rabindranath to publish Gitanjali in English through the Indian society, London which later made him a global celebrity.


Abanindranath Tagore was not only an artist. He was also skilled in other areas such as music and literature. He played instruments such as sitar, veena, esraj and reed pipes. Many of his works were the secret behind the success of some of Rabindranath Tagore's most famous plays. He was also an expert storyteller.


In addition to this, he had written many children's stories. The famous ones are Khirir Putil, Raj Kahani, Buro-Angla, Shakuntala, and Boat Patrir Dasi. Another hidden skill of Abanindranath was prose writing. He wrote poetic prose along with his illustrations which we do most commonly in our social media (Instagram). At Calcutta University, he a speech on painting in Rani Bageshwari college which was compiled in Bacieshwarishilp Prabandhawali book. His literary works like Bharat Silpa, Six limbs of painting and Artistic Anatomy were his celebrated works. His compilation of the great epics Ramayana and Mahabharata shows his interest towards literature.


Keeping aside all his creative pursuits, Abanindranath Tagore, most importantly, was a great teacher and guide, who gave India notable artists such as Nandalal Bose, Asit Kumar Haldar, and Surendranath Ganguli.


THE END OF AN ERA