The artist brothers, Gaganendranath (1867-1938) and Abanindranath (1871-1951), were young nephews of Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941). The two youngsters were always at hand to collaborate with their uncle’s creative projects, in particular, music, dance and theatre in their sprawling Jorasanko house in Kolkata. Both had acted in Rabindranath’s plays (such as Dak Ghar, 1916). Interestingly, as Gaganendranath was growing creatively, he developed close affinities with the creativity of the great poet. Gaganendranath visualized befitting illustrations for Rabindranath’s Jeevansmriti, My Reminiscences, in 1911. During 1920s Gaganbabu created stage settings for Rabindranath’s plays such as (Rakta Karbi, Red Orleanders) which influenced his own paintings compositionally. And more than the poet himself, it was Gaganbabu who evolved evocative pictorial images for some of Rabindranath’s poems, especially those on the theme of ‘Death’. Tagore family members played a leading role in the Cultural Renaissance of the country beginning with the literary forays by young Rabindranath during the last decades of the 19th century and through their paintings in the first quarter of 20th century Abanindranth and Gaganendranath ushered in a rejuvenation of the art of Indian painting to be joined by Rabindranath with his old-age paintings in the 1930s. The entire phase traverses the vast trajectory from Revival to Modernity. [1]

The general impression about Gaganendranath Tagore, which persists even today, is that of a dilettante, an amateur, though a brilliant one for that matter. But the fact has been missed that in his later years he became a seriously involved painter and this fact has not been taken into consideration for the purpose of evaluating his artistic contribution. An analysis of his entire work from early phase to the later phases also amply bears it out as to how seriously involved a painter he had developed into. As happens with most great artists who are ahead of their times, only a handful of close associates had realized the amount of this involvement in Gaganendranath. This gradual development then from an amateur to a dedicated painter, is a crucial aspect of Gaganendranath’s life. [2] His chronology and development pose many problems befitting art-historical investigation. We do not possess a full biographical account of him and his activity, like there exists for his more famous brother, Abanindranath. [3] Again unlike the latter, Gaganendranath never indulged in introspective or confessional writings. [4] It seems that Gangababu was a painter most supremely indifferent to the value of his own creative genius as was noted by Rathindranath. [5] Among the few dated pictures there are portrait sketches, (1907), sketches of pundits and Shibu Kirtanya, (1911), cartoons dated between 1917 and 1921, some cubistic pictures dated between 1923 and 1925 and finally a Himalayan landscape dated 1928. On the evidence of the reports of contemporaries, the dated and datable pictures, and the internal evidence offered by the stylistic analysis of the pictures themselves, a broad stylistic sequence of phases could be inferred as given bellow. Here, we may note that it is very fortunate that Rabindra Bharati Society of Kolkata has preserved a most comprehensive collection of Gaganendranath’s paintings.

First (early) Phase (up to 1911): Puri landscapes, portraits and other figure sketches, scenes from Calcutta and illustrations for ‘My Reminiscences’, some of them in Japanese brush technique. Second Phase (1911-1915): Chaitanya series and other related paintings done from imagination including the Pilgrims series, most of which are done in black ink (SUMI-E). Night scenes and paintings on gold paper may also belong to this phase. Third Phase (1915-1921 Bichitra period): most of the caricatures and the Himalayan paintings, Fourth Phase (1921-1925): Cubistic experiments in colour and black ink. Last Phase (1925-1930) Post-cubistic paintings mostly in black and white. Cardinal points in his development are (i) the involvement with Japanese technique, (ii) the confrontation with Cubism and (iii) the highly personal and complex imagery of the late pictures.

Early sketches

The earliest dated examples of Gaganbabu’s paintings are of 1907 in the form of postcards sent from Puri to his daughter. [6] These comprise seascapes done with a few quick brush strokes and thin washes of color. The other possible earliest works are pencil portraits in the manner of Jyotirindranath. In this period (i.e. before or around 1910) also fall the sketches both in pen and ink and in pencil of pundits and kritankars besides his family members. We are told of the incident of the death of his elder son, the shock of which cast a great gloom over the family and in order to provide a congenial diversion kirtans and kathas were arranged, where Gangababu made these sketches. [7] A few of them are dated 1911, and they form a closely related stylistic group. These could not have been done over a longer period of time. One of the drawings from the repeatedly depicted Shibu Kirtanya, the Kirtana singer, was published in Jeevansmriti. As he gained confidence on the pencil he took up the use of ink, see the pencil portrait of his sister Sunayani Devi and the ink portrait of Ananda Coomaraswamy dated 1909. This portrait also records the art historian, Coomaraswamy’s interactions with Tagore family in the same manner as does the pencil portrait of the Japanese artist and art critic, Okakura (his second visit in 1912). Besides Jeevansmriti, Gaganendranath began illustrations of Rabindranath’s short story, Kabuliwala and poems such as the one in which the sad face of mother is compared with the melancholy of colonized motherland, and it is represented by drooping lotus petals. He also illustrated Phalguni and some poems from Gitanjali.

“Jeevansmriti” paintings and grappling with Japanese technique:

We begin with the documented group of his works, the illustrations for Rabindranath’s autobiography in Bengali, “Jeevansmriti”, published in 1912. Here for the first time we come across some paintings, which definitely derive from the Japanese brush technique. Mention may be made here of the well-known and recorded incident of Okakura’s first visit (1902) and his sending of two Japanese artists. [8] The general enthusiasm for Japanese art among the Tagore circle can be gauged by the fact that the Oriental Society had brought together around 1910 a large collection of original examples of Japanese art for an ambitious exhibition. Gaganbabu’s direct acquaintance with Japanese painting may have been through this exhibition and also through the reproductions in the then famous albums of Kokka. [9] The “Jeevansmriti” ink paintings have several types of brushwork. The fact that several types of techniques are used in them suggests that he worked in various manners all at the same time. Differentiating them from one another will enable not only to pinpoint them but also to observe how simultaneously he also attempted to synthesize them till a stage came around 1914 when he evolved his own approach to the use of SUMI-E. [10]

Oriental ink work is definitely used in ‘Banyan Tree’, where the rich and dark tones of fluid ink are juxtaposed to bring out the effect of density and largeness of the gigantic banyan tree. This is one of Gaganendranath’s finest and powerful works of this period. Another exercise reveals brushwork, which is undoubtedly Japanese where leafy branches and foliage are depicted with characteristic oriental brush strokes called variously in Japanese BOKUSHOKU or TSUKE TATE. [11] Although the brushwork of leaves and foliage is easily recognizable to be oriental, even in certain depictions of human figure and birds it is possible to distinguish the oriental brush treatment, the rice dot (BEI TEN) and the nail-head and rat-tail line (TEI TOU SOBI BYOU) as in ‘Head of a man’. Gaganbabu’s interest was not limited to only the brush technique of Japanese art but also the whole conceptual range of this art. This is particularly found in certain landscapes where it is not impressionistic space but oriental vastness and infiniteness of space that is evoked. This can be observed by analyzing examples from each of the two types. ‘Calcutta Roof Tops’ and ‘Women at the Banks of Ganges’ are impressionist, whereas The Ganges Again (from “Jeenvansmriti”) has an oriental quality. The ‘Crow’, ‘Arrival of Tutor in Rain’, ‘Abanindranath Tagore Painting while smoking hooka’ and ‘Portrait study of Mrs. Gaganendranath Tagore’ are worthy examples of SUMI-E type ink paintings.

How deeply the Japanese spirit was ingrained in his work can be gauged by noting the fact that Japanese painters always showed water in the landscapes; either water itself, sea, river, mountain stream, or water in the form of rains. Gaganendranath also based his landscapes on the same scheme of heaven-man-earth (Ten Chi Jin) as did the Japanese. Also he has their simplicity and understatement; more being suggested than what was represented ‘leaving to the imagination to suggest itself the completion of an idea’. For further parallels with Japanese landcapes compare ‘The Waterfall of Nachi’, Kase School with that of Gaganendranath which also contains a similar motif of a stream falling over a precipice.

Another type of landscape found in “Jeevansmriti” is that done with this washes of color with minimum of tone and hue contrast, the entire looking almost pale grey as in ‘The Boat Padma’. It is the sheer limitless expanse that is represented within a small frame. This too is oriental but such landscapes could also have been inspired by similar ones of Whistler, who in his turn also derived such effects from a synthesis of Impressionist and Japanese techniques. Gaganbabu’s definite interest in Whistler is however more positively established when we see the slightly later landscapes of night subjects which were significantly titled ‘Nocturnes’ which had been a favorite theme for Whistler too.

To recapitulate this early and formative period of Gaganbabu’s art activity, it can then be observed that his attitude was realistic. He aimed at representing direct visual experience on to the painting, either straight from nature or unfiltered even if transcribed from memory. He began with a broadly impressionist technique but depended heavily on Japanese technique and its variations. Thus it can be claimed that Japanese art played a great deal of influence on his formative period, during the course of which he achieved a considerable mastery over the technique. In the handling of SUMI_E, Gaganendranath displayed all the skill, all the subtleties that the Japanese expected from a master which is especially conspicuous in the two studies of crows.

Chaitanya Charitamala

These paintings are undated. Most probably they were done after the “Jeevansmriti” illustrations, i.e. after 1910. They were all exhibited in the 1914 exhibition of the Calcutta School held in Paris and London. [12] Almost all of them were listed in the catalogue, a very important document, as it is the first listing of the paintings of both Abanindranath and Gaganendranath till that date. Thus it can be safely surmised that none of the Chaitanya paintings date after 1914.

Why was Gaganendranath interested in the Chaitanya story? Partial answer to this is in the fact that his interest was aroused when kirtans were arranged for the family as a diversion from the shock of his son’s death. Being Vaishnavite by faith he may have felt drawn toward the personality of the saint which itself is a comment on Gaganbabu’s mental attitudes. Chaitanya’s approach to religion, that of frenzied devotional ecstasy, may have also appealed to Gaganbabu, which would show that there were mystic strains in his personality. [13] It would then seem that he had two faces, the outer one with which his friends were familiar, that of joviality, liveliness etc. The inner self, which came through his paintings, was different. He continued to show the face of joviality till he fell ill in 1930 but as he grew older the mystic and introvert in him became more so, which is found in his later paintings for which the Chaitanya series provided the stepping-stone. It is from this point onward that his paintings and his psychic personality became inseparable, and references to psychological values become inevitable. [14]

The earlier in the series are those which are more linear and closer to the style of Abanindranath. The one titled ‘Chaitanya and foot prints of Vishnu’, has some crude elements as found in the delineation of hands because of which it could be even earlier than 1911, although it is executed in similar sketching technique as found in the ‘Pundit’ of that date. ‘Chaitanya prostrating before Vishnu’s feet’ has the use of curved lines of the kind which are typical in the contemporary works of his brother, Abanindranath. The artist would have used the familiar Chaitanya Charitamala and related texts as his thematic sources. [15] Chaitanya’s life is divided in two parts and accordingly Gaganendranath devised two kinds of imageries; one before his renunciation with long thick locks of hair; the second with a shaven head after performing the ceremony of being ordained as sanyasi. In one of the episodes from the first part painted by Gaganendranath, we recognize young Chaitanya with his wife, Vishnu Priya, apparently at the river bank in Nabadwip performing a morning ritual. Next follows the episode called Nagarkirtana, the outward expression of the crucial experience of divine ecstasy in the form of music, singing and dancing in groups, that is Sankirtana. The climactic moments were reached when followers gathered around and sang along with the ecstatic Chaitanya, who would be crying, perspiring and collapsing, while the whole crowd went round the lanes of the town. In the complex crowd scene devised by Gaganendranath, each dancer is shown in different postures with swaying body and raised arms, so that all the movements together integrate into a dynamic frenzy. In the crowd can be recognized Nityanand, the white bearded Guru, Ishwar Puri, as well as a Muslim follower wearing turban.

Chaitanya’s departure from Nabadwip to Puri has been depicted in two effective paintings by Gaganendranath. In the first the lean and clean-shaven Chaitanya takes leave of his mother on the chabutara of their hut, in the presence of several waiting followers. The other painting depicts the hushed silence and sorrow which fell in the house after Chaitanya and his followers had departed. Once again Gaganendranath employed a high vantage point, zooming this time on the back view of Chaitanya’s wife, Vishnu Priya, as she looks through the open door over vacant space. The grief as a result of the departure of Chaitanya from Nadia is recorded in many songs sung by Basudeva Ghosh, which touched the hearts of Bengali audience, as it would have inspired Gagnendranath. He seriously visualized the unusual rapturous ecstasies experienced by the completely possessed Chaitanya. Two of the paintings depict such events fittingly set in the semi-dark atmosphere of the garbhagriha of the Jagannath temple. In one of them Chaitanya is blissfully watching the image of Jagannath, holding the Garuda pillar, whose face has a Buddha-like expression of deep concentration. It has been softly lit by a hanging lamp made visible by subtle highlights. Finally, we may mention the two paintings which depict Chaitanya’s last days. His meditative moments at the Puri sea-beach under moonlight are recorded where his huddled posture wrapped in monk’s uttariya cloth is indicated by a few strokes. The other painting depicts what is considered Chaitanya’s Nirvana. Gaganendranath chose to depict Chaitanya’s meditative face softly visible under the transparency of the sea-waves over which spread the glistening moonlight. The artist adopted the well-known Sarnath Buddha image for Chaitanya’s blissful face.

Pilgrims, Mahabharata Scenes, Himalayan Landscapes and Nocturnes

His approach to pictorial composition at this stage can be visualized by taking the example of ‘Chaitanya Knocking at the Temple door’. Fortunately it exists in several versions including one complete pencil drawing of the whole composition. There also happens to be one of the finest pencil drawings made by the artist in which the earlier handicap in draughtsmanship has been overcome. On the basis of the pencil drawing another drawing with brush and ink was made followed by an incomplete version done in masses and washes of direct ink. The last has probably no preparatory outline and the entire painting is done directly displaying amazing control of ink and its gradations. Because of the infinite space and mysterious shadows these works can be called romantic. The romanticism becomes more pronounced in the late phase. Also now a definite shift in Gaganbabu’s attitude is noticeable. He is no more concerned, like in the earlier works with representing the visual impressions of the outer reality. But what now concern him are his own feelings about the outer world and finding suitable and appropriate pictorial equivalents to them. The so-called pilgrim series are done entirely from memory and imagination, unlike the earlier landscapes.

In continuation with Chaitanya Charitamala, Gaganendranath kept up the tempo of painting narrative compositions, selecting themes from the Mahabharata. As chance would have it, he dated it 1913 and signed the painting which depicts the ‘Pandavas safely escaping the Lakshagraha’. Several water colour paintings could be associated with the theme of ‘Karna-Kunti Samvad’ which had been adapted from a long dialogue poem by Rabindranath. The warrior Karna was the first son of Kunti who was abandoned by her at the time of his birth. Now on the eve of the Mahabharata war, she decided to reveal to him that she was his real mother and that he should join his Pandava brothers rather than choosing to be on the side of Duryodhana. Aware of Karna’s habit of worshipping the Sun god in the early morning, Kunti follows him to the river bank. Among the many compositional variations Gaganendranath drew the scene in ‘long shot’ depicting Karna being followed by Kunti with several attendants one of whom carries a parasol over the queen. In a painting with a lone figure, probably represents Karna in a close-up view. In yet another painting Kunti catches up with Karna and is depicted next to him. In a number of remarkable ink sketches depicting three or four figures in a landscape setting, one can observe Gaganendranath’s mastery of suggestiveness of narrative characters and episodes. A very subtle ink sketch symbolically represents the spiritual growth of a sensuous devadasi towards a sanyasini. A girl looking out from the terrace of her house is the intriguing subject of a number of drawings. They remind of the shringara theme of nayika awaiting for her lover, but it could also be a character from Rabindranath’s prose or poetry writings.

The site of Gaganendranath’s painting of a prominent waterfall is the well-known Pagla-Jhora (the Mad Stream) of Darjeeling. It was the backdrop of Rabindranath’s play Muktadhara, according to a note published in the Modern Review. [16] One of the earliest landscape trips to Darjeeling by Gaganendranath has been recorded by the then young Mukul Dey, who had made a pencil portrait of the painter and inscribed it, drawn in Darjeeling in 1914. (Tagore’s residence in Darjeeling was called Ashantully House.) Initial Himalayan scenes are before about 1920, but the quality of the ‘sublime’ achieved through the exploitation of scale, and bringing out the celestial grandeur of the sacred mountains with the way light is handled, ties up with Gaganendranath’s late post-cubist paintings of 1920s. They have ‘visionary’ element, found in William Blake and Turner. The towering snowy mountain peaks shimmering in the glow of light suggested to Gaganendranath the profile face of Mahadeva looking heavenwards. Here, we have a ‘visual, pictorial’ (in contradiction to ‘literary’) interpretation of what the Himalayas have meant to Indians through the ages (as the abode of Shiva). These paintings not only indicate the artist’s frame of mind but also how far he traveled from his Impressionist and Japanese days. Significantly Gaganendranath created Shiva’s counterpart, Parvati, within the maze of cubistic planes of the Himalayan Mountains in a small size ink painting. Characteristically, some of Gaganendranath’s Himalayan scenes are of the same class as the spiritual-symbolic landscapes of the German Romantic painter, Casper David Friedrich. Himalayas rendered in broad patches are among those which a close relative of Gaganbabu’s mentioned represent his last works around 1929. Significantly a dated Himalayan landscape, inscribed Jan.1928, takes us upto this year of his activity. Gaganendranath also painted the life of the mountain people from Darjeeling such as the ‘Tribal Couple’ and ‘Flower Show in Darjeeling’. In the latter painting, the treatments of colourful flowers establish Gaganendranath’s understanding of impressionist colour theories.

Where to place the nightscapes-the ‘Pratima Visarjan’ series, the ‘Festival of Lights’, ‘Composition No.2’, ‘Santhals dancing at night around a fire’, etc.? These look forward again to the late works due to their ‘luminism’. These groups of paintings, although based on visual experience, are actually drawn from imagination, once again confirming the trend from depiction of outer reality to that of the inner world. In a way we can see Gaganendranath turning gradually from the depiction of landscapes in the daylight to sunsets (evenings) and the night effects. It is these pictures which reminded the contemporary reviewers of the parallels from Turner’s and Whistler’s sunsets and the latter’s nightscapes. [17] ‘Puri Temple’ may be earlier in the series out of which emerged the ‘Temple of Light’. Very creatively Gagnendranath did a series of ink paintings on gold background where gold colour serves for the light. Thus, these paintings also relate to the ‘Nocturnes’ such as a ‘Pilgrims in front of Puri Temple’, and ‘Poet in the Sala Grove’. The ‘Javanese puppets’ and ‘Composition No. 2’, also executed on gold background however, are connected with theatrical performances.

Satirical drawings and Caricatures

In the theatre activities and stage performances of the Bichitra club, Gaganbabu had been fully active as an actor and stage designer. An interest in the ‘comic’ and ‘comedy’, as contents of a play and challenging assignments for an actor, would have been immediate inspirational stimulants even for his pictorial satirical depictions. This brings us to the predecessor writers on the ‘comic’, that is, social satire, the playwrights of comedies and staging of farces. Thus, the ‘social issues’ as well as the ‘topics’ which had to be satirized, were already being debated as part of social discourse. Ultimately, the sources for Gaganendranath’s caricatures were his own responses to Bengali society of his generation. In a sense Gaganendranath was creating a pictorial counterpart of satirical farces written for and enacted on stage.

An immediate phase of theatrical development which certainly influenced Gaganendranath Tagore, are the plays written and performances directed by Girish Ghosh (1844-1911) at the turn of the 19th century. Under the influence of Vivekananda, Girish Ghosh felt disgusted with those enlightened leaders of the society who aligned themselves with the alien government and undertook to alleviate the lot of masses whom they spurned every hour as savages. This has been observed in an in-depth analysis of Girish Ghosh by the reputed theatre personality, Utpal Dutt. [18] Gaganendranath’s criticism in his satirical drawings is of the different category than the Hindu reformers who took to European destructive reformation. In a way, Gaganendranath’s satire on Hindu religious bigotry was influenced by Vivekananda as it was in the case of Girish Ghosh.

The pictorialization of social satire had already been initiated in the visual medium by the Kalighat painters. Kalighat painters could easily adopt facets of contemporary life simultaneously with religious icons, but naïve folk painters did not realize that the ‘style’ of their language did not have the expressiveness for the imageries of the ‘comic’. Besides, drawing typical caricatures and regularly printing them in newspapers and magazines had become a regular feature during the last quarter of the 19th century under the influence of European journalism. We may presume that Gaganbabu along with other Bengali intellectuals of the time would be aware of such satirical weekly journals as the GERMAN SIMPLICISSIMUS, which regularly published (between 1896 and 1926) serious satirical drawings of prestigious artists (including Expressionists). It is considered to be one of the greatest picture magazines in the history of journalism. [19] One should talk of Gaganendranath in the context of social satire in the graphic arts as developed in Europe. Gaganendranath’s caricatures should be considered in the same class as the European painter-illustrator whose themes were usually social issues and their work was often circulated through sets of multiples. Gaganbabu’s profuse output as a caricaturist in the hectic seven years (1915-1921) establishes him as the major caricaturist of India, and the only Indian painter who has left a significant body of satirical drawings.

Birup Bajra (Strange Thunderbolt) and Adbhut Lok (Realm of Absurd): both these sets of caricatures were published in 1917 and are among the earliest such satirical paintings by Gaganendranath. A careful observation would reveal a remarkable sophistication of style, because of which it is possible to link them with Gaganendranath’s Chaitanya series, most of which had been completed by 1914. Especially be noted the experience of evolving the imagery of the central character, with a suitable atmosphere and setting, together with relevant cluster of subsidiary images and objects to complete the caricature. Therefore, these do not appear as a sudden shift in Gaganendranath’s creativity. The use of thin lines, at times quite wiry, going over the surface of the paper as well as large patches of black, not only shows Gaganendranath’s sensitivity for surface design, but also is an attempt to give them a quality like Aubrey Beardsley’s much acclaimed illustrations.

By babu we should not necessarily imply all middle class Bengalis as perceived by the British colonial administrators, or babu as a section of the Bengali middle class who were seen as the ‘other’ or ‘them’ and who thus deserved to be severely criticized by the enlightened middle class. Such a babu is represented in the drawing titled ‘The Rich Lord at home’. The satirizing of the babu is also part of the efforts of the middle class towards self-criticism, if not leading to social improvement but certainly to face the facts and laugh at human weakness. [20] The babu’s mentality of looking like and being accepted as a Gora or white Sahib, has been satirized in several witty drawings by Gaganendranath. Essentially the idea enters around the change of dress, the dichotomy of the native dhoti-kurta with the western black suit consisting of a coat and pants. In the train the babu does not wish to be disturbed while he puts on the western dress so that he can pass as a Sahib. Again at the railway platform the guard addressed him as babu, inspite of having put on the black dress. Waiting for a train while it is raining, the babu protects himself, his luggage and the dog, with an umbrella held above him. His wife has to stand alone and get drenched. This is the respect shown to women. There is a reference to such an episode in Rabindranath’s great novel, ‘Gora’. ‘The Dance’ or ‘Ball Room Dance’ (also called Waltzing Mahila) is available in many versions. The dark complexioned male figure is wearing a coat with tail to refer to his westernization, while his feminine counterpart’s dress is a cross between a sari and skirt. Their dancing together is an attempt towards harmony that is slated to failure.

With an intense social sensitivity, Gaganendranath created a complex satirical drawing on Bengali attitudes and practices concerning marriage. In his satires on the religious attitudes of Hindus, Gaganbabu depicts the priests as “an insensitive tribe who crushes all sensibility” as observed by Mulk Raj Anand. [21] In ‘Imperishable Sacredness of a Brahmin’, feasting himself with wine, women and flesh, the artist has exaggerated the priest’s jaws and lips which give him a resemblance to the demons of hell in the Hindu cosmogony.

The connecting link among Gaganendranath’s satirical drawings contained in the third and last volume, Reform Screams (published in 1921) is the announcement of the Report of the Indian Constitutional Reforms: The Montague-Chelmsford Report. The Report formed the basis of the Government of India Act 1919, which came into operation early in 1921. The drawings in Reform Screams reveal Gaganendranath as a bold nationalist, which must be acknowledged as a significant pictorial document of that period of the Independence struggle. Obviously Gaganendranath had observed crucial contemporary political events for nearly three years (1919-1921) and gave them expressive form. The reforms of 1919 did not satisfy the national aspirations of our countrymen, and their effect upon the national struggle for Independence had been like fresh fuel. Mahatma Gandhi’s famous resolution of Non-Cooperation was adopted by the Congress Party at the special session held in Calcutta.

The immediate causality after the implementation of the Act of Reforms, 1919, was the disbanding of Legislative Council of Bengal. This occasion was pictorialized by Gaganendranath as a grand Western-style funeral. He coined the title: ‘State Funeral of H.H. Old Bengal’. While the dead body is not visible, the Indian and British personages (some of whom have been identified) are clearly delineated in distinct mourning dresses. Black is worn by the British members, but the white-costumed Indian members symbolize the grief stricken nationalists. [22] An Automatic Speech Making Machine targets the zamindars, maharajas and nominated councilors of Bengal for their lack of conviction and passive intellect. The speeches they delivered in public were prepared by others like automatic machines, while the writers are merely thoughtless automatons conforming to colonial restrictions. Often the drawings in Reform Screams are given titles with ‘Screams’ as suffix. So ‘Astronomical Scream’ represents a faceless hand-picked native Governor, hence the tile: ‘First appearance of Bengali Governor. Where is H.E.?’ Under the heading ‘Poetical Scream’ and a specific title ‘The Latest Flight of the Poet, Query: Is it cooperation or Non-cooperation?’, Gaganendranath created a satire on his own uncle, Rabindranath. There are several versions of this theme, one of them dated 1921. Seated on his easy chair, and holding an ektara in his hand, the poet is depicted flying in the sky. His notebooks attached with pen and reading glasses (pince-nez) are seated in space and he looks bewildered. In a witty manner Gaganendranath has juxtaposed two events together so that one signifies the other. It has been recorded that Rabindranath’s journey to London on April 16 was also his first air travel. The other was the ongoing ‘Non cooperation movement’ led by Mahatma Gandhi. Rabindranath has disagreed with the latter. Since this trip was decisive for fund-raising to set up the International University at Santiniketan, non-cooperation with Mahatma Gandhi for the ‘Non-cooperation movement’, only underscored co-operation with the British establishment.

Confrontation with Cubism

Now we come to the knotty problem of Gaganendra’s confrontation with cubism and what emerged out of it. The first series of cubistic paintings that we know of by Gaganbabu were reproduced in RUPAM in 1922, along with an article by Stella Kramrisch which are definitely referred to as cubist by the author who titled her article significantly as ‘An Indian Cubist’. [23] The reviewers too referred to the work of Gaganendranath during 1920s as cubist and post-cubist. What is the justification to call the cubistic paintings so? Already we have referred to how the contemporaries regarded them. Also from those published in RUPAM we can establish convincing comparisons with certain Futurist works, with those of Delaunay and the German Blaue Reiter painters, Franz Marc and Feininger. Also surprisingly there is a similar painting by the Russian Rodchenko. Even Larianev’s and Goncharova’s Rayonist works have resemblance with Gaganendranath’s works. These parallels are so striking that it is impossible to believe those who say that either Gaganbabu’s works are not cubist or that they are superficially so arrived at independently. I have deliberately taken recourse to extensive juxtapositions in my book so that there is little room for argumentation. [24] Moreover his own words may be quoted here (the only statement directly attributed to him) as given by Kanyalal Vakil when he interviewed the painter in 1926 “…………… (the new experiments) have enabled me to discover new paths and I am now expressing them batter with my new technique developed out of my experiment in cubism than I used to do with my old methods. The new technique is really wonderful as a stimulant”.

However, with all these variations and adaptations of cubism mentioned above, Gaganendranath shared the fascination for the space-defining characteristic of interpenetrating planes. The difference is that he is basically interested in ‘light’ and not ‘volume’. That is to say, the contriving of receding and protruding planes of negative and positive value, in such a way that they establish a relationship between light and space. Another comparison once again points out to the kinship with Feininger rather than Braque. Feininger’s painting was done in 1913 and there is a possibility that Gaganendranath knew his work since he probably also had come across his caricatures which is suggested by comparing Feininger’s Die Morgen-Zeitung with a similar painting of Gaganendranath. This aspect of Feininger is not much mentioned today but during the first decade of the 20th century he had been a highly successful caricaturist. Finally, may be noted ‘The Dancer’ of Gaganendranth which is perhaps his only attempt at volume analysis where human figure is fragmented in planes in the same manner as Larianov did his Portrait of Vladimir Tatlin, 1913-14. This delving into differences and similarities was attempted here in order to point out that Gaganendranath did not resort to “the direct application of the first principles of Analytical cubism”. Rather the above analysis indicates a selection, a deliberate choice, intuitively made by him.

Here, mention must be made of the exhibition that was arranged of modern German paintings in Calcutta as an outcome of Rabindranath’s visit to Germany in 1921. The Bauhaus Archive says it was arranged at his suggestion. O.C. Ganguly claims that the idea was of Gaganendranath. At any rate it was the Indian Society of Oriental Art, which sponsored the exhibition on a reciprocal basis. According to reviews in the Statesman and in RUPAM, the exhibition was held in December, 1922. [25] It included mostly water colors and graphic prints of the Bauhaus painters: Feininger, Johannes Itten, Kandinsky, Klee, Gerdhard Marcks and George Muche. What are the other sources through which he got acquainted with cubist language apart from certain art books? I think through theatre during the Bichitra years (1916-19). [26] There are two aspects here to be noted in the context of theatre. One is the ‘lighting’ and the other is the arrangement of sets. There exists an undated scenographic sketch which may date from this period. Here the sets are conceived in terms of overlapping and receding planes. Such an approach to stage décor was conceived by Gordon Craig, who was the leading revolutionary scenographist of his time. It is possible that Gaganbabu was acquainted with his ideas through his books as we know Gaganendranath’s character of keeping in touch with the latest ideas and trends. [27] He might also have been acquainted with some of the new ideas of leading Russian scenographists who were among the first to adopt Cubist, Futurist and Constructivist ideas to stage décor.

A new approach to stage also constituted in the use of lighting where more dark shadows were preferred and beams of light were thrown from various angles focusing on the principal characters. The light beams criss-cross each other, creating an effect of faceted planes, which form an integrated complex together with the opaque planes of sets and their cast shadows. Such a ‘unified’ or ‘total’ approach to scenography was also in the air among the leading experimental theatrical establishments of which Gaganendranath might have got the wind. Evidence exists of his interest in ‘lighting’ of the kind described above. I am referring to the paintings ‘Tagore reading his poem at the Congress session’ and ‘Sir Jagadish Chandra Bose demonstrating his new apparatus’. In Tagore reading his poem (believed to have been painted after 1917 Congress session) we see a beam of light being focused from behind Tagore silhouetting his majestic looming figure, making it appear large, though almost weightless, while the ‘light’ makes ‘visible’ the multitude below. There is a sketch (or version of it preserved in Santiniketan), which is freer and Impressionistic but the final version is a bit formalized. In the other painting (which bears a date 1925, thus belonging to a later stage) the light is dispersed by means of shafts forming cubist-like planes. Thus the entire painting consists of intersecting planes of light juxtaposed with shadows. Or rather by such a juxtaposition a spatial structure is created so that blacks become dark recesses and not convex protrusions of volumes. From these experiments were derived light effects found in his ‘House Mysterious’ paintings which in turn happen to be similar in quality to the design for a back-cloth by Vladimir Tatlin.

We must also take into consideration his early enthusiasm for photography when his interest was probably aroused in the play and juxtaposition of lights and shadows created by artificial means. Also we have already noted Gaganbabu’s preoccupation with light in nature, the sunlight of the daytime, the evening sunsets and the nocturnal light. Thus when he confronted cubism, he had already developed his peculiar approach to light and the mysterious shadows. In terms of technique too we notice in his ink paintings (e.g. Pilgrims series) fascination for light and shadow, the whites of paper assuming the role of light and dark tones that of shadows. Although relatively less concerned with colour, his attitude to it was conditioned by that to light, which he never used as a mere filler. He is reported to have been greatly interested in watching the phenomenon of dispersion and separation of spectrum colors in overlapping streaks, when beams of sun rays are allowed to pass through a prism. He would hold a crystal with his left hand against sunlight over a sheet of paper on which he would lay quick washes of colour tones of the same saturation as they are actually dispersed through the prism on to the paper surface. [28] Probably this is how certain paintings have been done. While ‘Composition’ has evolved from the prismatic experiment of refraction of light, the same structural language of planes is used to create intriguing figure compositions of ‘Parvati in the Himalayas’ and ‘Whispering’. Interestingly enough these two works come very close to one of Rayonist paintings of Larianov, who had said in his Rayonist Manifesto, “The style of Rayonist painting promoted by us is concerned with spatial forms which are obtained through the crossing of reflected rays from various objects, and forms which are singled out by the artist”. From these exercises in colour Gaganendranath evolved his mode of intersecting colour planes he used in a highly abstract aquarelle. Similar colour planes are found again in his ‘Swarnapuri’ and ‘Satbhai Champa’. The chromatic rhythms in these paintings are of great beauty. It is for such paintings that we can say (like it has been said for Feininger’s late works) that Gaganendranath attained ‘the condition of music’. With reference to the second and stormy version of ‘Swarnapuri’, Gaganendranath took inspiration from the drastic atmospheric phenomena described in Musala Parva of Mahabharata. But what is interesting is that he extended mythological description to the handling of the cityscape in what may be called ‘frozen fury’. Significantly, the first part of Mahabharata descriptions recall of Rabindranath’s imaginary conceptualization of the creative phase of the mysterious universe as in his poem Chanchala (Restless One). The poet perceives that the formless energy (shakti) can be compared with a vast formless invisible river, which courses with a terrible speed. [29]

The most typical and fully worked out paintings of the so-called cubistic phase from the second half of the twenties are the two versions of ‘Destruction of Dwarka (Swarnapuri0’ the two versions of ‘Satbhai Champa’ the cover of Rabindranath’s play Rakta Karbi (Red Orleanders ) which was published in 1925 and the mazelike paintings in black and white in Kasturbhai Lalbhai collection. The last-named is perhaps earlier in the sequence because of its similarity with ‘Laughter’ reproduced in RUPAM of 1922. One of the two versions of ‘Satbhai Champa’ is dated 1924. The two versions of ‘Swarnapuri’ were probably also done at the same time.

It is now possible to actually define in what terms cubism interested Gaganendranath and influenced him. He understood the structure underlying cubist paintings realizing at the same time, how much of Indian painting of his contemporaries was devoid of it, being rather puerile and over-decorative. He agreed with the simplicity and stark essentials of cubism. He also realized that light and space, as expressive values, had never been used in Indian painting before. He sought to combine structure, stark simplicity of from, light, space and surface design in a coherent whole, never achieved by any Indian painter, thus far. [30]

The complexity of his post-cubist paintings

The term post-cubist is first found being used by reviewers in 1930, thus not only indicating a change in his work but also pointing out to the fact that some observers too intuitively noticed this change. [31] After about 1925 Gaganbabu continued to experiment and was intuitively now able to define the course his research could possibly take after the brief cubist honeymoon. Till he fell fatally ill in 1930, [32] forcing him to cease painting, his work from around 1925 onwards can be classed as a homogeneous group and quite distinguishable from that of the first half of the decade. The fundamental creative problem of the later works could then be defined as the reconciliation of loose, ‘floating’ quality and the infinite space of his earlier manner as developed in association with Japanese painting, with the compact structure and closely knit spatial configuration of interpenetrating planes of cubism. Besides, these works are highly introverted with an element of fantasy in them so that their subjects are difficult to read and interpret. They have a profundity about them with highly personal and rich imagery, full of deep hidden meanings, which are suitable subject for psychological analysis. This group of paintings constituting his late manner, ultima maniera, also represents the culminating stage of his development where the earlier eclecticism is now thoroughly synthesized in an extremely personal style to become probably the first individualist in the country. It is on the basis of these that Gaganendranath’s contribution both on national and on a wider level will have to be adjudged. It is here now he can no more be called dilettante but indeed a serious involved painter.

A heightened effect of mystery is permeated through and through in the series called ‘House Mysterious’. There are several of them and interpreting them becomes quite enigmatic, which is the hallmark of the late pictures. One version of it is patently theatrical in which there is a ‘closed’ space arrangement of shadows and shafts of light emanating through doors and windows creating a haunted interior. Spatial recession is further increased by depicting the foreground (comprising large portions of the picture surface) in shadow representing a sort of courtyard in front of the mysterious architecture. The steps seem to lead nowhere or into infinity, as it were a recurrent motif from now on. The presence of the image of a cat at the doorsteps, adds to the haunting quality of the interior. Is it the dark interior of the mind or is it the universe, both of which remain fathomless mysteries into which it is not possible to penetrate? This leads on to more pictures comprising of dreamy interiors, fantastic architectural complexes, with groups of ghostlike veiled women ascending or descending spiral staircases leading into what appears like an abyss. Who are these women, anonymous with no volume or substance but immaterial, rather like shadows? They look less human more phantom-like, but they also appear submissive, submitting to some super human force. Such a feeling of submission is also present in pictures where gigantic mythical figures, supernatural beings, to whom the mortal humans seem voluntarily submitting themselves, appearing midget-like in front of the towering hovering images. Who are all these women? They are not the gentle, delicate images of innocence and purity or of beauty like those painted by his contemporaries. They are unapproachable, formidable, one bows down to them, one asks for protection, mercy. One does not caress them for they are superhuman and not images of love. Are they goddesses? Could they be a personalized version of the female archetype (using the Jungian interpretation)? Erich Neumann has said. “The archetypal image of the Great Mother lives in the individual as in the group, in the man as well as the woman”. [33] Presumably it is not the fertility aspect of the female but its protective and destructive aspects that are symbolized. That they are mother symbols is obvious in such representations where actually a child is shown in woman’s lap. In its protective aspect it can be compared with the iconography of an Italian painting of Madonna of Mercy (or Misericordia). Some of them are given celestial connotation with such titles as ‘Morning and Evening Star’ or just ‘Evening Star’.

There is a conscious attempt on the part of Gaganbabu to tap personal dreams as some paintings are titled such (see, ‘Dreamland’, ‘The King’s Palace’, ‘The Cave of Mystery’). The preoccupation with fairy tales is also evident again from some of the titles. Also we have a record of some fairy tales he wrote at this time (during late 1920s) of which manuscripts exist. Revised version of these was published posthumously under the title Bhaondad Bahadur. [34] In this there is a vivid description of a fairy Joter Jotebudima, an old woman riding through the wind on horseback. It could be interpreted as specter of death and in that sense it too has a premonitive significance. It is structurally a more elaborate and closely knit painting among his last works in which scale is again effectively exploited, if one notices the tiny little woman in the left corner at the bottom. Along with the ‘Flight of the Soul’, and the ‘Passing of the Artist in the other World’, these three paintings can be regarded as the final summation of Gaganendranath’s creative adventure. Afflicted with the attack of paralysis sometime around 1930, which had incapacitated Gaganendranath and rendered him speechless, his paintings on the theme of death have a signification of premonition.

We have here in these works a personal mythology, at the base of which, of course, lies the collective unconscious. But the mythology that emerges is not pedantic, deliberate, collateral, but at once personal and individual. Therefore Gaganendranath is also the first Indian painter to create personal mythology by delving into his own unconscious. Thus, he reflects the modern Indian psyche and belongs completely to the 20th century. His experimentation was purposive and when analyzed in totality appears heading towards a concrete fruition. His technique so much fused with his personality that choice of medium and pictorial elements became one with what he intended to express. Surprisingly, only a few of his contemporaries [35]could recognize his genius, the radicality of his experiments and their success, fully aware of their western origin. Unfortunately, recent critics have utterly failed to assess his significance for his time, his profoundity and the self evident links binding together his various preoccupations, which all came to a final fruition in his late works. He was a lone rebel in a sea of conservatism. He met the challenge of modernity on its own ground. The closeness of shared spirit between several paintings of Gaganendranath and Rabindranath’s theatre and poetry analyzed by me leaves no doubt that Gaganendranath’s creative work should in many respects be understood as equivalent of Rabindranath’s alternative pictorial persona.


[1] details see, Ratan Parimoo, The Art of Three Tagores: From Revival to Modernity, New Delhi, 2011.

[2] See, Abani Bannerji, Gaganendranath Tagore’s New Indian Art, Modern Review, Calcutta, March, 1924.

[3] See his, Jorasankor Dhare, Santiniketan, 1944.

[4] See, Kanyalal Vakil in the Bombay Chronical, 30th June, 1926.

[5] Rathindranath Tagore, On the Edges of Time, Calcutta, 1958, pp. 88-94. These are in Calcutta in the possession of Dwarika Chatterji, son of Gaganendranath’s daughter. The present author had met him in 1967.

[6] Dinesh Chandra Sen, Gaganendranth Tagore As I Knew Him, Journal of Indian Society of Oriental Art, June/December, 1938.

[7] Abanindranath, in his Jorasankor Dhare, has given detailed information about Okakura’s visit and the demonstrations given by the two Japanese painters.

[8]The importance of the reproductions of Japanese art in the files of the famous magazine KOKKA is noted by Lawrence Binyon, Painting in the Far East, New York, 1908.

[9] In the first edition of “Jeevansmriti”, the illustrations by Gaganendranath are signed only with his initials (G.T.). In the subsequent editions there is also the seal showing Vishnu’s feet. This suggests that he started using the seal after c. 1912 and he put the seal on the originals of the illustrations after the first edition which appears in the blocks made form them subsequently.

[10]For detailed information on Japanese brush techniques see, Henry P. Bowie, On the Laws of Japanese Painting, New York, 1951. (This book was first published probably in 1911 and might have been known to Gaganendranath).

[11] Victoria and Albert Museum – Indian Section, Catalogue of the paintings of New Calcutta School lent by the Indian Society of Oriental Art, Calcutta 1914. Printed under the authority of Majesty’s Stationary Office, London.

[12] Gaganendranath may have been influenced by Keshab Chandra Sen’s sect of Brahmo Samaj who had adopted the samkirtan in the Vaishnava style for the purpose of propaganda. “The passion of Bhakti (devotion) seized the members and in true Vaishnava style many of them prostrated at each other’s feet and especially at the feet of Keshab’s”. See, Majumdar, et. al., Advanced History of India, London, 1965.

[13] See, Nirad Chaudhary, The Art of Gaganendranath Tagore, The Modern Review, March, 1938.

[14] Ramakant Chakravarty, Vaishnavism in Bengal, Calcutta, 1985.

[15] Rabindranath Tagore’s play Muktadhara, The Free Current (The Water Fall), a note in Modern Review, May 1922.

[16] Some of these are in the collection of Smt. Uma Devi (daughter of Abanindranath) in Calcutta.

[17] Utpal Dutt, Girish Chandra Ghosh, Makers of Indian Literature, Sahitya Akademi, New Delhi, 1992.

[18] SIMPLICISSMUS, 108 Satirical Drawings from the famous German Weekly, Text by Stanley Appelbaum, New York, 1975.

[19] For the description of Babu, see Nagri (Magazine) Tilotama Thoru (ed.) Ladies study Group, Calcutta, 1990.

[20] Quoted in Mulk Raj Anand,’Gaganendranath Tagore’s Realm of the Absurd’. JISOA, Birth century number of Gaganendranath Tagore, Pulin Bihari Sen (ed.) 1972.

[21] For details, see Amit Mukhopadhyay, Lalit Kala Contemporary, no 39, March 1994.

[22] The Englishman September 4, 1928.

[23] Ratan Parimoo, 2011, op.cit.

[24] Statesman, 15th December, 1922, Rupam, no. 13 and 14, January/June, 1923.

[25] Gaganendranath did the settings for Phalguni, Post Office, etc. according to O.C. Ganguly, Obituary, op. cit. and Rathindranath, op. cit.

[26] The well-known books of Gordon Graig, On the Art of Theatre, 1911; and Towards a New Theatre, 1912.

[27] My attention was drawn to this biographical fact by Dwarik Chatterji, who described it in detail during an interview. (See End Note 6).

[28] Rabindranath Chaudhary (translator), Love Poems of Tagore, New Delhi, 1975.

[29] For detailed analysis of Cubist movement see John Golding, Cubism – A History and Analysis, London, 1959.

[30] See Review of 22nd Annual Exhibition of I. S. O. A., Calcutta, Advance, December, 24th, 1930.

[31] See D. C. Sen, op. cit. and the Press cuttings.

[32] For Jungian interpretation of the female archetype and its application to art See Erich Neumann’s (i) The Great Mother, New York, 1954, and (ii) Archetypal world of Henry Moore.

[33] Signet Press, Calcutta, 1956. Two manuscripts of fairy tales, belonging to Pulin Sen, are kept in Rabindra Bharati Society, Calcutta. One of them is dated 1333 B.S. = 1926 A. D.

[34] i) Anonymous article on Gaganendranath Tagore in Welfare. ii) Abani Bannerji, 1924, op.cit. iii) Stella Kramrisch, An Indian Cubist, Rupam, 1922. iv) G. Venkatachalam, Contemporary Indian Painters, Bombay.

[35] i) Bishnu De, Review of India and Modern Art, V.B.Q., Summer, 1959. ii) Amina Kar, L.K.C., No.2.
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