Following the Tagore Trail

Wall Street Journal Asia

November 7, 2011

In 1912 the Irish poet William Butler Yeats came across a poetry manuscript freshly translated from Bengali to English by a writer then largely unknown beyond his native India. Rabindranath Tagore had just translated his collection “Gitanjali,” or song offerings, and Yeats was enthralled. “I have carried the manuscript of these translations about with me for days…and I have often had to close it lest some stranger would see how much it moved me,” Yeats wrote in the introduction to “Gitanjali,” published in English in 1913. The rest is history. That year, at age 52, Tagore won the Nobel Prize in literature and became the first Asian (and first non-European) to win a Nobel.

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Lesser known abroad is that India’s greatest literary luminary was also a prolific visual artist. Tagore took up art in 1924 at age 63, continued until his death in 1941 and left behind some 2,500 drawings and paintings.

Rabindranath Tagore. Untitled (Striding  bird), 1928. Collection of Rabindra Bhavana, Acc. No. 00-2208-16.

Rabindranath Tagore. Untitled (Striding bird), 1928. Collection of Rabindra Bhavana

This year marks the 150th anniversary of Tagore’s birth, a milestone commemorated around the world, from Chicago to Beijing to Delhi, with readings, performances, lectures and even a special train that chugged across India with a roving exhibition on the writer’s life and works. To cap off the celebratory year, India’s ministry of culture, the National Gallery of Modern Art in New Delhi and the Asia Society in September launched “Rabindranath Tagore: The Last Harvest,” an exhibition of his art work in New York.

More than 60 works on paper are on view at the Asia Society through December, many of which are being displayed in the U.S. for the first time. The works are culled from three collections in India.

These paintings are remarkable, especially when viewers consider that Tagore had no formal artistic training, though his uncle and nephews were painters. His art began as doodles and revision marks on manuscripts that adorned the page with, for example, leaves and vines, or splotchy forms.

He frequently used ink on paper to create raw, spontaneous-looking images with a modern feel. “Untitled (Man Riding Crocodile),” dated 1929-1930, fantastically depicts a man atop an oversized reptile scratched out in spiky strokes from a dark, inky background.

Zoomorphic forms are a recurring subject. In “Untitled (Striding Bird)” from 1928, the legs and beak of a stylized bird in black ink radiate across yellowed paper. Here, the strokes of Tagore’s pen are more delicate, successfully expressing the fine marks of the bird’s feathers and its single wide eye.

In fact, the rhythms and color of nature later figured prominently in Tagore’s art in serene landscapes often devoid of people. “Untitled (Landscape With Yellow Sky Silhouetted By Trees)” from 1935-36 shows an intimate view between dark trees; an atmospheric sky is suffused with buttery light. Smudges of colored ink and poster color suggest trees and light with a dream-like quality.

Tagore had a keen eye for nature and constantly used it as a motif in both his paintings and his poetry. Though not exactly Pantheistic in the way English Romantic poets were, he infused his portrayals of nature with vivaciousness. He saw it as a powerful way to champion life.

Tagore wanted to promote these ideas, which may today be called “humanism,” through a tumultuous era when he himself felt that humanity was being lost. He lived through two world wars and India’s struggle for independence against the British Empire. The British Crown knighted him in 1915 for his cultural and intellectual contributions, but he renounced the title four years later to protest the massacre of Indians in the northern city of Amritsar. He made a mark not only symbolically on India’s freedom movement, but also by directly influencing future leaders of the movement—including Mohandas Gandhi—with his emphasis on humanistic values.

Born into an erudite Calcutta family, Tagore enrolled at University College London as a young man but abandoned ideas of becoming a lawyer to pursue writing at home in Bengal (today the Indian state of West Bengal and Bangladesh). By the time Yeats met Tagore through a mutual friend in London, the prolific writer had written several volumes of poems. Throughout his life he also wrote short stories, plays, novels and essays and thousands of songs, including the national anthems of India and Bangladesh.

Bengal itself was a major influence in Tagore’s work. In the late 1880s, he took charge of his family estates in Bengal. That experience brought him close to rural life there and he often wrote about the beauty of nature. “Many look down on Bengal as being only a flat country, but that is just what makes me revel in its scenery all the more,” Tagore wrote in 1894. “Its unobstructed sky is filled to the brim, like an amethyst cup…and the golden skirt of the still, silent noonday spreads over the whole of it without let or hindrance.”

Tagore’s fame and his own interest of course went far beyond Bengal. The Nobel Prize fully launched Tagore onto the world stage. He had already traveled much outside of India—he once said he felt “homesick for the outside world”—but his acclaim took him further, from southeast Asia and Europe, to Mexico and Peru. Tagore traveled the globe giving talks on literature and philosophy. Crowds thronged to listen to him present his ideas of cross-cultural fertilization and global citizenship. These ideas were prescient in those days of hyper-nationalism.

A century and half after his birth, Tagore’s legacy remains in words, song, ideas and images, perhaps a testament to their timeless nature. “There are other factors of life which are visitors that come and go,” Tagore wrote in 1940. “Art is the guest that comes and remains.”

Ms. Yee is a journalist based in New Delhi.

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