I convey my heartfelt homage to Abanindranath Tagore on his 64th death anniversary. He was the principal artist and creator of ‘Indian Society of Oriental Art’ and the first major exponent of swadeshi values in Indian art, thereby founding the influential Bengal school of art, which led to the development of modern Indian painting. He was also a noted writer, particularly for children. Popularly known as ‘Aban Thakur’, his books Rajkahini, Budo Angla, Nalak, and Khirer Putul are landmarks in Bengali language children’s literature.
Tagore sought to modernise Mughal and Rajput styles to counter the influence of Western models of art, as taught in Art Schools under the British Raj and developed the Indian style of painting, later known as Bengal school of art. Such was the success of Tagore’s work that it was eventually accepted and promoted as a national Indian style within British art institutions under the epithet of Indian Society of Oriental Art. landmark
Abanindranath Tagore was born into the distinguished Tagore family. He was born to Gunendranath Tagore, son of Girindranath Tagore, the second son of the famous “Prince” Dwarkanath Tagore, in Jorasanko in Calcutta in British India. His grandfather Girindranath and elder brother Gaganendranath were also prominent painters, who painted portraits and landscapes in the European style. Additionally, Girindranath was a dramatist and musician apart from being just a painter. Born to such a talented and eminent family, Abanindranath himself grew up to excel in painting as well as writing. He attended the Sanskrit College from 1881 to 1889 where he gained interest for painting. As such, he took a few lessons from his classmate Anukul Chatterjee of Bhawanipur. Soon after he left college, he was married off to Suhasini Devi in 1889. Suhasini was the daughter of Bhujagendra Bhusan Chatterjee, a descendant of Prasanna Coomar Tagore. Soon after that, Abanindranath took admission in St. Xavier’s College to study English, for one and a half years.
At about 25 years of age in 1897, Abanindranath started taking private painting lessons from an Italian artist, Signor Gilhardi, the Vice Principal of the Calcutta Government School of Art. He studied cast drawing, foliage drawing, pastel, and life study. Later, he attended the studio of Charles Palmer, an English painter from England, for three or four years to attain proficiency in oil painting and portraiture. It was during this period that he painted several eminent people in oils and achieved such perfection that he was able to complete a picture in just two hours. He even worked on the Krishna-Lal series, displaying a unique blend of European and Indian styles. The principal of Calcutta School of Art, E.B. Havell, was so impressed by his works that he offered him the post of Vice Principal at the same school. With this, began Abanindranath’s journey of mastering several forms of arts and paintings. He studied Mughal and Rajput painting styles under the guidance of Havell.
Abanindranath followed his own traditions which were successfully depicted through his paintings. Though the British assumed his views to be spiritual, since they were a common part of British art at that time, several Britishers were sympathetic with his ideas. With this, his philosophies and ideologies started spreading in the West. Thus, began Abanindranath’s contact with the outside world, beginning with various Asian artists, such as Chinese and Japanese calligraphic traditions. He learnt Japanese art under the guidance of the distinguished artist Okakura, who had come to India with Swami Vivekananda. Despite returning to Japan, Okakura sent Yokoyama Taikoan and Hilsida Shunso, two other famous Japanese artists, to India to help out Abanindranath in his training. Thus, he established a new national vocabulary in art and helped in regenerating the decadent art and aesthetic scene in India.
During his stint at the Government Art College, Abanindranath made stencil cutting and origami obligatory for students, replacing the once-proudly resting European paintings by Moghul and Rajput paintings on the school wall. Another interesting change that he brought about was the establishment of the department of fine arts. This gave his students an opportunity to meet reputed artists from all around the country and exchange their ideologies and principles. In the year 1907, Abanindranath established ‘The Bengal School’ and ‘Indian School of Oriental Art’ to promote his-style of painting at a national level. It was him who brought the modem art movement in Bengal and also proved that Indian artists had their own contribution to make to the world of painting. Later in 1913, Abanindranath was fortunate enough to exhibit his paintings in London and Paris. This further gave way for another painting exhibition in Japan in 1919. Abanindranath created over 500 paintings, some of which are displayed in Rabindra Bharati Society’s collection at Jorasanko in Calcutta.
The world does not simply include Abanindranath’s name in the list of versatile geniuses; this mastermind made a significant amount of contribution to literature as well in some important branches that declared him as a great litterateur in some time. He worked particularly on children’s stories that spoke for themselves. Kshirer Putul, Buro Angla, Raj Kahini, and Sakuntala are some classics that still stimulate young children of Bengal. Other eminent works include Apankatha, Gharoa, Pathe Vipathe, Jorasankor Dhare, Bhutapatri, Nalaka, and Nahush. Abanindranath also penned essays on theories and philosophies of art that earned him great respect and admiration from artists and intellectuals.