An extraordinary man and an extraordinary life

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The National Gallery of Modern Art at Bangalore celebrates visionary, poet and artist Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore through a series of memorable photographs, copies of his literary works as well as paintings in a rare exhibition curated by Virender Bangroo of the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts.

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The collection of photographs throws light on the personality of one of the most extraordinary men that lived in the country and the first Asian to be awarded the Nobel Prize. Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1913 for his book Gitanjali.

Not many would know that besides being a writer of poems, plays, novels and short stories; a music composer and an artist of note, Gurudev was an actor too. He acted in several plays written by him. The collection of black and white photographs has quite a few stills of Gurudev as an actor. Particularly eye-catching is one in which he plays Valmiki.

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Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore with Albert Einstein.

Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore all set to address an audience in Japan.

Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore all set to address an audience in Japan.

As Virender Bangroo mentions, Gurudev led an astonishingly active life. He travelled worldwide to promote Indian culture. So popular was he that Heads of State came over to the airport to receive him. There are photographs of the Indian polymath in Germany, the United States, Iran, and Japan. And there are pictures galore of Gurudev with distinguished personalities.

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There is a large collection of photographs centred on Santiniketan which he developed into Vishwabharati University. Developed with an objective to impart education amidst sylvan surroundings and in the lap of nature, Gurudev strained every sinew to develop the prestigious institution. He is believed to have even pawned a lot of his family jewellery for the educational space. There are various photos of Gurudev at Santiniketan; there is one where he greets Mahatma Gandhi and Kasturbha Gandhi; and another of Indira Gandhi who also studied at the coveted institution. Gurudev was a great nature lover. Every year, Gurudev organized the Briksharopan Festival on the campus and students planted saplings.

Numerous family photographs also adorn the walls of the NGMA. Some of the striking ones are the one of a newly married Rabindranath Tagore with his wife Mrinalini Devi; a group photograph of Tagore with his children; a photo of his father Devendranath Tagore who was a noted Persian scholar; grandfather Dwarakanath Tagore who was a contractor and one of the doyens in the development of Calcutta (now Kolkata); and a photo of Tagore with his siblings in drama costumes.

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Like most writers, Gurudev had favourite spots for writing. One of them is ‘Padma’, a houseboat where he would spend endless hours writing or painting. The exhibition has innumerable pictures of him busy at work and also a picture of Padma.

While showing visitors around the exhibition, Virender Bangroo tells us that on the personal front Rabindranath Tagore’s life was mired with problems. He lost his wife when he was only 40 and two of his children didn’t live past their childhood. He battled all of life’s tragedies with his creative genius. So busy was he that he hardly had time to mourn all his losses.

The exhibition has innumerable writings of Tagore. Surprisingly, most of Tagore’s works which are in Bengali haven’t been translated. The maximum translations of his works have not been in an Indian language but in Spanish! Many of the English translations were done by the poet himself. Of late, a lot of initiatives are in place to translate Gurudev’s works.

Many of Gurudev’s works have inspired filmmakers. Loud movie posters of films based on some of his works also grab eyeballs. Particularly, striking is a poster of Choker Bali directed by Riturparno Ghosh featuring Aishwarya Rai.

With talks of Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose’s files being a serious topic of discussion these days, visitors at the exhibition are bound to get startled seeing a photograph of Netaji addressing a Indian National Congress rally in the august presence of Gurudev.

There is plenty in store for the visitor at this fascinating exhibition (on till 27 October) celebrating the country’s greatest cultural icon and most importantly a genius like no other. The soothing Rabindra Sangeet playing in the background makes the visit to this exhibition all the more memorable. Try not to miss!

The Last Harvest

There is more to Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore than his being the creator of our National Anthem, his Nobel Prize winning work Gitanjali, his university Shantiniketan and his songs famously known as Rabindra Sangeet. Not many of us know that this literary genius was also a great artist. What is more amazing is that he took to painting seriously only at age 67 and has to his credit a whopping 2500 paintings.

As part of the great man’s 150th birth anniversary celebrations the National Gallery of Modern Art organised a travelling exhibition of some of his paintings. The collection of paintings has so far travelled to museums in Berlin, New York, South Korea, London, Chicago, Paris, Rome, Kuala Lumpur, Ontario, New Delhi, Mumbai and is now being showcased at the National Gallery of Modern Art in Bangalore. The exhibition curator is Professor R Siva Kumar of the the Viswa Bharati University. At the inauguration of the Bangalore exhibition titled ‘The Last Harvest’, Prof. Siva Kumar spoke at length about Tagore as an artist. Rabindranath Tagore took to painting to express through pictures
what words could not express.

The title of the exhibition derives from the fact that  almost all of Tagore’s paintings were done in the last 13 years of his life. He often used the word ‘harvest’. To quote an example, this is what he said to a close friend during the time he immersed himself into painting, “I would live by the Padma and gather a harvest of pictures and nothing but pictures to load the Golden Boat of Time with.”

Interestingly, Tagore had dabbled with painting earlier in his life but somehow didn’t like the look of his works and lost interest in pursuing this line. He had the habit of drawing very pretty doodles when writing. And when he struck out words he transformed them into ornamental motifs which bore a strong resemblance to art-nouveau-like arabesque (see picture below of a scored out page).

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During a trip to Argentina in 1924, Tagore’s impressive motifs were noticed by writer Victoria Ocampo and she was mighty impressed, “He played with erasures following them from verse to verse with his pen, making lines that suddenly jumped into life out this play: prehistoric monsters, birds, faces appeared.” Later in 1930, it was Ocampo who helped Tagore put up his first exhibition of paintings in Paris. Ocampo’s role in shaping Tagore’s stint as a painter is celebrated in a Rabindra Sangeet composition where she is fondly referred to as ‘Bideshini’.

During the inauguration of the exhibition in Bangalore, a guest who is very well-known in the culture circles, came out with another revelation – Tagore was reportedly colour-blind and perhaps this explains why all his paintings are of a dark shade.Here are some of Tagore’s paintings…they are all photos of photos of I wouldn’t be able to tell how many photos:

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Tagore never titled his paintings because he wanted them to be free of literary imagination. In the words of Prof. Siva Kumar, “he encourages the viewers to embark on a curatorial process. This exhibition is one such effort”.

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A landscape painting by Tagore. He used ink, poster colours, water colours, pastels on mediums ranging from paper to tinted paper to silk, brown paper, folder paper and more.

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A lot of Tagore’s paintings are representations of the human face.

Rabindranath Tagore was a genius. Men like him are rarely born. However, his successful stint as an artist beginning at the age of 67 reinforces the fact that it is never too late to be whoever you want to be and should serve as an inspiration for the generations to come.

For those interested, the Bangalore exhibition is on at the National Gallery of Modern Art till the 14th of August, 2013.

My favourites were:

A 1928 painting of a dog

– I liked the childishness around the work

Man riding a crocodile (1929-30)

– An example of awesome creativity

Six seated women (1929-30)

– The colours are very eye-catching

Girl with guitar (1938)

– I loved the girl’s expression

Painting in red with two seated women (1933)

– Looked very romantic

Dancer with red scarves (1936)

– A very vibrant piece

Woman looking over shoulder (1935-36)

– Amazing use of light. Half of the woman’s face is lit.

Veiled figure in orange saree (1936)

– Depiction of the veil over the woman’s face is striking

Dancer in fanned-out skirt (done during a trip to Teheran in 1932)

– A very peppy piece

If you happen to visit the exhibition do tell me  what your favourites are:)