In Rabindranath Tagore, India found and lost the greatest artistic symbol it never knew it needed. There is even an ongoing unwillingness, among his countrymen, to admit the full range of his talents; perhaps  it was the snake-oil mysticism in which they saw him cloaked by deprecating foreign commentators that put them off? Or the internationalism which so many staunch nationalists seem to think will dilute our cultural heritage (the same one they claim was hopelessly disfigured by centuries of foreign rule) beyond recognition?

This sluggishness extends furthest in the realm of his painting, the area of Tagore’s artistry that has been roped off most sullenly by his detractors and People Who Know Best. These gatekeepers are of the opinion that his visual works are ‘amateurish’, the obsessive doodles of an old man and a great mind that finally required an outlet for its more mundane wanderings. After all, this aspect of such a respected figure is almost too much to bear for educated India- an old man who took up a discipline as enduring and demanding as painting at the age of sixty? While still cranking out stories, poems, and lectures at a mile a minute? And not even calm, reflective paintings. No, these are pictures of a sort that  makes sour-faced old Brits cough up their tea- cadavers like Brian Sewell and Mark Currah have labeled them “abysmal hash” and “expressionless”. “Repetitive and uniformly non-committal”, oozed William Feaver in the Observer… Precisely what they were saying about Rothko before the reliably intelligent started praising him enough to drive the prices up.

And where were they for Tagore? Naturally silent. Indeed, these sorts of posthumous evaluations are the best place to observe outdated criteria in the heat of action. The strange, haunted colors of his work were lambasted as “muddy”. So Impressionistic? For the same accusations were leveled at Monet. In truth, Tagore puzzled the Western art establishment, in much the same way that his  staunch anti-nationalism puzzled many of his fellow citizens. Here was someone who, by all indications, was a desert rose of the scene. Poetry, politics, drama, music, everything came to him apparently without effort, with all the subtleties one might expect from a man whose education truly never ended. So that when he finally landed on painting, the expectation was an immediate mastery; but the terms of that mastery were never discussed. Writing and music don’t carry the weight of the whole visible world with them; in this sense, they are easier to dismount from expectation. A certain playfulness of intention is there which is harder to bring out in line and colour. 

A key element here is the inherent non-Western approach of his art. The lack of spatial perspective in his paintings, together with a clear favor for mood and colour over all, betrayed an important element of Tagore’s artistic practice- the grey area of intention. A key feature of his writing is  a particularly subconscious sense of language that seems to evoke images and emotions with uncommon immediacy, tying the word directly to its contextual ‘place’ and eliminating the middle man, so to speak. Almost like breaking the fourth wall- forget the narrator, you’re in it now. In painting, he seemed to view his job as a similar one, that is to bring the world and the viewer a little closer together (similar ideas seem to lie behind some other groundbreaking Indian art of the time- works by Ramkinker Vaij, Rathin Mitra, Nirode Mazumdar, for example- but their focus on a single discipline made them harder to ridicule). 

Relatively few of his works are named and dated, so discussing them can be difficult. But it is time they were discussed properly, for at root I believe that within Tagore’s artistry lies the way forward for all arts. Influenced by German expressionism, the scrimshaw art of New Guinea natives, and the Haida carvings of the Pacific Northwest, there is a panhuman artlessness in these paintings that conveys an almost palpable compassion and sensitivity. In one, a faceless nude- only legs, raised arms, and part of a torso visible- reclines on a carved red divan in a darkened room. A shadow falls on the side of the seat, while an extinguished lamp stands sentry-like behind. What is it about these shapes and colours that evoke something so particular, so distant and yet so real? The meaning of Contextual Modernism is crystal-clear here, as Tagore’s intentions seem to be inverted from those of most artists; instead of singling out elements and taking them out of context to create an effect, he changes certain elements in order to create an effect that is still dependent on the whole. The grey skin of the woman and the red divan are both coloured and textured in a way that make them stand out, not only as elements in a greater whole, but objects in their own right, imbued with particular power but taking direction from their surroundings. The thick black etchings he uses for outlines thus take on a sculptural quality. In another, dated 20.10.37, several times of day appear as if interwoven, as deep daytime blues highlight a strip of sky while the trees are engorged by a rusty twilight. The hardness of the dappled trees that lean this way and that, yawning in and out of the foreground, betray Tagore’s brisk, often violent technique. And in the lower right-hand corner, a band of five men and/or women who appear so utterly cloaked in dim evening that any assumption of ghostliness would be natural; all in robes, it is impossible to tell whether the figures are moving or stationary, smiling or frowning. They appear to exist in some in-between world, heightened by the strange dreamlike blending of perspectives.

Of course, Tagore’s favorite visual material, much like his writing, was the daily life of the materially poor of India, the Dalits. Most of his scenes are culled from the slow but deep grooves of life in rural India, yet it is not their ‘reality’ that makes his work so meaningful, but the way in which it manages to straddle worlds. It now remains impossible to overlook the viscerality, not only of Tagore’s brushwork, but his vision- of an art created not to honor the past or attempt to shape the future, but to amplify the absolute present; where the violence of hues that so many critics decried as “muddy” is revealed as a rush to capture the fleeting impression of the Thing upon the Soul, and the strange murky light that travels through his work like some bright shadow to be the light of Memory.

By Dhani Muniz