Untitled | Mumbai | coloured ink and poster colour on paper | 36.5 x 54 cm.
"I am hopelessly entangled in the spell that the lines have cast all around me."
Rabindranath Tagore is best known today as the poet who, in 1913, became the first non-European to win the Nobel Prize in Literature. But Tagore was the consummate artist; his fearless, humanistic vision manifested in many forms. He wrote poems, plays, short stories, novels, essays, musical dramas and two autobiographies. He was also an exceptional painter and illustrator in his later life, whose painterly vocabulary influenced many of the early Indian Modernists whose orbits intersected his own.
Tagore had already staked his claim in history as a writer by the time he turned his talents toward painting in earnest. He had tried his hand at representational painting before, but had given up hope of ever doing it professionally by around 1900. As suddenly as he dropped it then, he resumed it during a sojourn in Argentina in 1924, at age 63. He had always sketched and doodled in his private notebooks. But in Argentina the scribbles and scrawls at the edges of his calligraphy became less of a flirtation, became more elaborate. Painting became an integral part of his creative life in the interim. As he declared in a letter from 1928, “The most important item in the bulletin of my daily news is my painting. I am hopelessly entangled in the spell that the lines have cast all around me… I have almost managed to forget that there used to be a time when I wrote poetry.”
His paintings were shown in public for the first time in 1930, at the Galerie Pigalle, in Paris, as Tagore neared his 70th birthday. They showed the following year in his native Kolkata. Over the next decade, his painting style evolved through several stages, beginning with animals, often fantastical in nature — what he once described as “a probable animal that had unaccountably missed its chance of existence… a bird that only can soar in our dreams.” Around 1932 he became more interested in self-portraiture. His style and experimentations seemed to obey a rhythm uniquely his. As the preeminent Modernist painter, Paritosh Sen argued in 1974, Tagore was the “first modern Indian painter, for his paintings do not show any conscious borrowing from anywhere and because they reflect the spirit of the age.”
Tagore's paintings were not his only gift to future generations of visual artists. In 1901, he founded the Patha Bhavana school on family lands in the small town of Santiniketan, north of Kolkata. In 1919, with the help of Nandalal Bose, he established the Kala Bhavana at Santiniketan, a school for the visual arts, an important training ground for artists of what was known as the Bengal School. (Patha Bavana was expanded into Visva-Bharati University in 1921; Kala Bhavana is the university’s center for visual arts.)
The artist died where he was born, in Kolkata. At the time of his death, he was perhaps the most famous Indian national of his time behind Mohandas K. Gandhi. Six years later, their shared dream of an independent India was realized.