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ABANINDRANATH TAGORE: WRITER AND PAINTER

Abanindranath Tagore, one of the most talented members of the Jorashanko Tagore family, leaves his marks both in the fields of literature and painting. The question that becomes almost apriori in studying personalities like Abanindranath, who have more than one artistic self, is whether the artist prioritizes one of those selves, or his artistic qualities co-exist in a balanced manner. In my paper I will try to show how the two artistic selves of Abanindranath Tagore- the writer self and the painter self, merge together and become equally important in giving his thoughts entirety.

It is the cultural background of the Tagore family that helps in the natural outcome of Abanindranath’s genius in writing and painting. In the case of literature it is Rabindranath who urges Abanindranath to start writing. Abanindranath’s favourite Robi ka’s inspiration makes him so enthusiastic that he produces Shakuntala (1895), his first literary work within a brief period of time. Afterwards he enriches the Bengali literature with his exclusive creations likeKhirer Putul (1896), Raj Kahini (1909), Bhutpatrir Desh (1915), Nalak (1916), Pathe-Bipathe (1919), Khatanchir Khata(1921), Buro-Angla (1941), Jorashankor Dhare (1944), Apon-Kotha (1946), Mashi (1954) etc.

One of the important characteristics of Abanindranath’s writing is colloquialism. Not only in his fictions but also in his serious non-fictional writings like Bageswari Shilpa-Prabandhabali, he is found to write in colloquial language. It is his spontaneity in language that turns him into a storyteller from a writer. This storytelling factor which is often found in poetry and rare in prose brings a pictorial quality in Abanindranath’s writing. Almost every text by Abanindranath provides the readers with the visual representation of the characters, dramatic situations, landscapes within the texts. This pictorial quality is noticed excessively in Abanindranath’s fictions namely Raj Kahini, Nalak, Buro Angla, Khirer Putul etc.

In Raj Kahini a tale based on the history of the kings of Rajasthan, Abanindranath’s way of depiction helps the readers to visualise the history of Rajasthan through a series of pictures; characters like Bappaditya, Goho, Shiladitya, Rani Padmini become alive in the author’s hand. Abanindranath’s detailed description of Padmini’s reflection in the mirror can be taken as an important example of his picturesque language:

“aMe l¡e¡ i£j B¢m®f¡ ®c®nl fËL¡ä HLM¡e¡ Bue¡l pÇj¥M ®b®L HLV¡ flc¡ p¢l®u ¢c®me- L¡LQr¥ S®ml j®a¡ ¢eljm ®pC Bue¡l ¢ial f¢cÈe£l l©®fl RV¡, q¡S¡l q¡S¡l h¡¢al B®m¡ ®ke B®m¡ju L®l fËL¡n qm! h¡cn¡ ®cM®a m¡N®me ®p ¢L L¡®m¡ ®Q¡M! ®p ¢L p¤¤V¡e¡ i¥l¦! f®cÈl jªZ¡®ml j®a¡ ®Lje ®L¡jm c¤M¡¢e q¡a! hy¡L¡ jm fl¡ ¢L p¤¤¾cl c¤M¡¢e l¡P¡ f¡! d¡e£ l®Pl ®f®n¡u¡®S j¤®š²¡l g¥m, ®N¡m¡f£ Jse¡u ®p¡e¡l f¡s, f¡æ¡l Q¥¢s, e£m¡l Bwnb¢V, q£®ll ¢QL! h¡cn¡ BÕQk q®u i¡h®me- H¢L j¡e¤o e¡ fl£?”

Through the beautiful language of the author the description of Padmini seems to be a portrait rather than a mere narration. Abanindranath’s painterly self is reflected in his writings as he continuously tries to draw the readers’ attention towards the pictorial quality of his texts. It becomes evident in other texts by Abanindranath as it is in Raj Kahini. In Nalak Abanindranath gives an account of Goutam Buddha’s life through a little boy Nalak. After Nalak’s guruDebolrishi sets out for Kapilavastu in order to have a sight of Buddha, Nalak sees the entire life of Buddha in his spiritual insight:

“”pæÉ¡p£ Bpe ®R®s E®W cy¡s¡®me, e¡mL®L hm®me- “L¢fm¡hÙ¹¥®a h¤Ü®ch SeÈ ®e®he, B¢j ay¡l clne Ll®a Qm®mj, a¥¢j p¡hd¡®e ®bLz’

h®el j¡T ¢c®u ByL¡hy¡L¡ pl¦ fb, pæÉ¡p£ ®pC f®b Ešl-j¤®M Q®m ®N®mez e¡mL Q¥f¢V L®l hVam¡u dÉ¡®e h®p ®cM®a m¡Nm- HL¢Vl fl HL¢V R¢hz”

Abanindranath’s emphasis on the word “R¢h’ (‘chhobi’) can be clearly noticed in the passage. In this text the concept of visualization is being highlighted by the author through Nalak’s spiritual insight in order to make the readers aware of the visual potential of the text.

Another interesting aspect of Abanindranath’s writing is his use of simple present tense, which in my observation is the author’s conscious choice. The author’s use of simple present tense not only shows the immediacy of the incidents, but helps in creating the visual in the readers’ mind:

“”L¢fm¡hÙ¹¥l l¡Sh¡¢sz l¡Sl¡Z£ j¡u¡®ch£ ®p¡e¡l f¡m®ˆ O¤¢j®u B®Rez…Hje pju j¡u¡®ch£ ®S®N E®W hm®Re, “jq¡l¡S, ¢L QjvL¡l üfÀC ®cM®mj!…

l¡S¡-l¡Z£ ü®fÀl Lb¡ hm¡h¢m Ll®Re, C¢aj®dÉ pL¡m q®u®R, l¡Sh¡¢sl ehvM¡e¡l hy¡¢n h¡S®R, l¡Ù¹¡ ¢c®u ®m¡LSe Qm¡®gl¡ Ll®R, j¢¾cl ®b®L ny¡M-O¾V¡l në Bp®R, A¾cljq®m l¡Sc¡p£l¡ ®p¡e¡l b¡m¡u f¤®S¡l g¥m …¢R®u l¡M®Rz l¡e£l ®f¡o¡ ju§l R¡®c H®p hpm, ®p¡e¡l My¡Q¡u öLn¡l£ M¡h¡®ll SeÉ c¡p£®cl p®‰ TNs¡ öl¦ L®l ¢c®m, ¢i¢Ml£ H®p “Su l¡e£j¡’ h®m clS¡u cy¡s¡mz…”

Reflection of the pictorial quality can be noticed also in some of his non-fictional works, and most important among them is ‘Haoa-bodol: Sobdochitro’. This travelogue, written in the form of a diary, in which Abanindranath captures his experience in Karshiong, seems to be the best example of the author’s dealing with the theme of nature. As the very title ‘Haoa-bodol:Sobdochitro’ suggests, the author tends to draw the landscapes, natural beauty of Karshiong through words.

The form of the book plays an important role in bringing the pictorial quality in the text:

 fcÈ¡

®m¡q¡l T¡T®ll TevL¡l, a¡¢l am¡u fcÈ¡l ¢ebl Sm l¡¢œl pj¡e e£m Ù¹ìz L¨m ®eC, ¢Le¡l¡ ®eC, O¡V BO¡V Blñ ®no ¢LR¥ f¡C®e, öd¤ f¡C ®cM¡ c§l ®b®L HLM¡¢e ®e±®L¡l j¡T c¢lu¡®a- ®p O¤®j i¡¢l m‰l e¡¢j®u ¢ÙÛl q®u®R!

 

Smf¡C…¢s

 

c¤d¡®l j¡W h®m E®W®R l¡a L¡Vm- ®lmN¡¢s qy¡f¡®a qy¡f¡®a R¥®V®R Cp¢V®p®el O¢s ¢L h®m a¡C ®cM®az

 

p¤¤Le¡l S‰m

 

¢cec¤f¤®l ¢eö¢al¡®al L¡SmY¡m¡ Nqehez h®el am¡ ®l¡®c ¢TL¢TL, N¡®Rl BN¡ Qy¡®c ¢QL¢jLz N¡R ®h®s®R l©fLb¡l l©®fl ma¡, g¥m d®l®R pL¡m ®hm¡l påÉ¡j¢ez

 

¢aÙ¹¡

 

BL¡®nl e£m, f¡q¡®sl N¡®u N¢s®u f®s®R, f¡q¡®sl e£m h®el d¡®l ¢h¢R®u ¢N®u®R; h®el e£m h¡¢mu¡¢sl h¤®Ll f®b hC®R L¨mq¡l¡ pj¤âS®ml üfÀ ®cM®a ®cM®a!

 

f¡q¡sa¢m

 

pL¡®ml L¥u¡n¡ ¢q®j j¿Ûl- j¡W ®R®s ®p ®k®aC Q¡ue¡! h¡¢ml h¤®L ec£l d¡l¡ n£®a j¿Ûl-Qm®aC Q¡ue¡ f¡q¡sa¢m ®R®sz N¡¢s R¥®V®R ®a¡ R¥®VC®R-b¡j®aC Q¡ue¡!

The readers often get the feeling of watching a large collage from this kind of passages in the text. Besides the form, the use of different colours quickly draws the readers’ attention toward the pictorial quality of the book:

“”®N¡m¡¢f O¡Ol¡, e£m Jse¡, e£m O¡O¢l a¡l Ef®l S¡gl¡¢e ®O¡jV¡-Hj¢e e¡e¡ l®Pl fËS¡f¢al j®a¡ f¡q¡¢s ®j®u Q¡ h¡N¡®el ph¤S ®T¡®fl Ef®l E®s h®p®Rz e£m BL¡®nl B®m¡ e£®Ql f¡q¡®s ®h…¢e l®Pl N¡t fË®mf j¡¢M®u ¢c®u®R, Ef®ll f¡q¡®s L¢Q f¡a¡l l®P ®R¡f¡®e¡ ®l¡®cl ®O¡jV¡, pjÙ¹ Q¡ ®ra…®m¡ ®ke ®Nl¦u¡l Ef®l Q¡L¡ Q¡L¡ ph¤®Sl ®R¡f-dl¡®e¡ …m-h¡q¡l HL HLM¡¢e n¡¢s, A¢a k®aÀ j¡e¤o f¡q¡®sl N¡®u S¢s®u ¢c®u®Rz…’’

The author’s intense desire of expressing his painterly self through his writing is revealed in the passage quoted above. Abanindranath use of colour, his sense of colour contrast and blending of different colours turns the written text into a painting.

After noticing the excessive influence of painting on Abanindranath’s writing, critics often consider painting to be the dominant art form in Abanindranath’s  life; however a close reading of his paintings may contradict such argument posed by the critics.

Abanindranath’s interest for art went back to his childhood. His grandfather Girindranath Tagore was a trained artist who painted landscapes and portraits in watercolours and oils in the western style. His father Gunendranath and uncle Jyotirindranath were among the eatly students of the Calcutta Art School. However none of them took art seriously. Abanindranath’s career in painting began as an illustrator around 1891 when his first work- his illustration for Dwijendranath’s poem ‘Swapnaprayan’

 

appeared in the inaugural issue of a Bengali journal called ‘Sadhana’. The subsequent issues of that journal carried more of Abanindranath’s illustrations including those for Rabindranath’s poems ‘Badhu’ and ‘Bimbabati’

Abanindranath’s interest for illustrations at the beginning of his career as an artist reveals his intense desire of relating literature with painting.

His illustration for ‘Swapnaprayan’ earned him the attention of his elders. His uncle Jyotirindranath Tagore urged him to take art seriously and his aunt Jnanadanandini Devi, wife of Satyendranath Tagore, arranged for his training under an Italian painter Olindo Gilhardi who trained Abanindranath in water colours and pastels. After becoming proficient in water colours Abanindranath left Gilhardi and started learning oil painting from Charles Lewis Palmer.

The influence of the writerly self is not found excessively in the earlier paintings of Abanindranath when he was deeply influenced by  the Western style of painting. However the western style of painting could not satisfy him for a long time,as he did not find it suitable for expressing himself, and thus he moved on to the indigenous technique of painting. Even in the  paintings of the Krishna Lila series, his first attempt of painting in Indian style seems to be a failure as he had not yet got over his western influence.

For Example, in ‘Avisar’ (above) the primal among the Krishna Lila series, Abanindranath depicts Radha out on her tryst, framed with text and a floral border. He himself eventually came to feel that his image of Radha was more like that of a European woman clothed in a sari set out in the open on a cold winter night. Krishna Lila series often seems to be aconscious effort of the painter to adopt features associated with traditional Indian miniatures such as multiple border, calligraphic texts etc, however in most cases they co-exist with western realist conventions.

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The reflection of the writer Abanindranath can be traced very clearly in his later paintings made in Indian style, which have more indianness than wetstern realism. For example, in his paintings like ‘Buddha and Sujata’, ‘The Building of the Taj’, ‘Shahjahan at his death-bed’ Abanindranath is more successful in evoking an internal disposition or ‘bhava’ through the restrained gestures of the characters. Abanindranath’s attempt to capture specific historical and dramatic moments, reveals his intention of creating a different narrative through painting.

Abanindranath’s project of creating narrative along with the painting that fails in the Krishna Lila series becomes successful in the Arabian Nights Series produced in 1929. Arabian Nights Series, considered as the sophisticated work because of the painter’s attention toward the perfect blending of colour, minute details etc. was often devoid of its honour as painting. The paintings of this series were regarded as mere illustrations of the stories of the Arabian Nights, and did not capture the attention of the earlier critiques of Abanindranath’s paintings. The importance of Arabian Nights Series is felt much later by the critiques. While judging the artistic merit of the paintings of the Arabian Night Series,Professor R. Siva Kumar says,

“As I tried to read them against the texts of the Arabian Nights I realized that his paintings were not illustrations. They were, I discovered, not even visual transcreations of the text but a parallel text in images…” 

Professor Siva Kumar has found out that in these paintings Abanindranath actually narrativizes colonial Calcutta, and in doing so he used the Arabiann Nights( the text) as a metaphor for the contemporary city.

The local world of heterogeneity ,which resulted because of the unprecedented mobility of colonial modernism, comes alive through the presence of characters in Arabian Nights from different socio-cultural backgrounds.

“His Alladin could be a vendor of bric-a-brac on a Calcutta bye-lane; his Shahrazade the pretty and sharp witted daughter of the darzi next door…”

Not merely the characters, but also the descriptions of the scenes, rooms, furnitures everything is taken from the then Calcutta. Abanindranath who experiences the gathering of people from different socio-cultural backgrounds in his house, understands easily the gradually changing culture and arrival of various cultural identity.

Abanindranath’s attempt of telling story through his painting reaches its culmination when at the end of his career as an artist he shifts to the indigenous form of paiting of Bengal- Patachitra. These last paintings by Abanindranath not only mark a paradigm shift in his paintings, but also highlights his inclination towards such a form of painting, the purpose of which is to narrate tales through pictures.

The intricate relationship between art and literature of Abanindranath that becomes one of the major issues of discussion among critics, draws the attention of the artist too. In one of his essays in ‘h¡®NnÄl£ ¢nÒf fËhå¡hm£’, titled as¢nÒf J i¡o¡ he says the final words in defining the relationship between art and literature,“h¡LÉ k¢c qm EµQ¡¢la R¢h, a®h R¢h qm l©®fl ®lM¡l l®Pl p®‰ Lb¡®L S¢s®u ¢e®u l©f-Lb¡z”

 

It is worth noting that, while the painter Abanindranath became famous just after the publication of his earlier works,the writer Abanindranath gained popularity much later, though he started writing almost at the same time when he started painting (Illustrations for Swapnaprayan are published in 1891, and Shakuntala is published in 1895). Critics often find the presence of Rabindranath Tagore as the reason behind Abanindranath’s lack of popularity in his earlier period as a writer. However the impact of Abanindranath’s two artistic selves over each other proves his impartial nature towards his dual artistic selves. Once Lila Majumdar while commenting upon Abanindranath’s artistic selves in her book called ‘’ says,

“”®k Lb¡ ay¡l lP a¥¢m h®m ®no Ll®a f¡®l¢e, L¡N®Sl Ef®l L¡¢ml ByQ®s ®pC Lb¡C g¥®V ®h¢l®u®Rz” (What he cannot express in his writing, he expresses that through his painting.)

(“Ahe£¾cÊe¡b’)

 

 

This statement by Lila Majumdar seems to be absolutely appropriate for Abanindranath as his two artistic selves are not found to be in tussle with each other, but to merge in one another. Thus we find the painter Abanindranath to tell stories through paintings, and the writer Abanindranath to write paintings through words.
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