ART: Through Tagore’s eyes


Rabindranath Tagore’s works reflect his feelings and philosophy about the times he was living in. John Tiong visits The Last Harvest

He was a  a self-taught artist who only started painting when he was 67. Within 15 years, he had completed over 3,000 paintings, which have since become part of India’s national treasure.

The Last Harvest exhibition at the National Visual Arts Gallery in Kuala Lumpur is a showcase of 49 of Rabindranath Tagore’s works. The exhibition, until July 15, is held in conjunction with the 150th anniversary of his birth.

Even in his twilight years, the first Asian Nobel Prize winner for literature was still “pottering” on with his brushes, ink and pen, putting onto paper, things closest to his heart.

The paintings, most of which have a modernist touch, demonstrate that with perseverance, one can master just about anything. He held as many as nine exhibitions in Europe and the United States between May and December 1930.

The largest of the exhibited paintings at the gallery is 76.9cm x 56cm while the smallest is 16.7cm x 24cm. All images are either ink on paper or pastels, with one on silk.

In addition, there are also pictorial exhibits of the momentous events of his life.

Art critics have maintained that Tagore’s works were not influenced by any one artist or any school.

No matter. These paintings display a flair for childlike spontaneity and creativity that brought Tagore close to the  people’s hearts. The paintings are a blend of the Orient as well “primitive” and modern influences which give his works a stamp of originality.

It’s said that Tagore’s earlier paintings were developed from doodles when he tried to translate crossed out words and discarded lines into visually exciting motifs.

However, whether it is a crow, dog, portrait of a man or woman or a female dancer, they have a grim feel, which evoke the difficult times India was going through during the fight for independence. The images are in  deep and dark hues and with gaunt faces.

Tagore did not produce any paintings that took the world by storm but the paintings he did mainly at the Jorasanko mansion in Calcutta before he died at age 80 were voluminous, far more than the 2,000 over songs he had composed throughout his life.

The paintings sum up the colourful life that the Bengal Renaissance man had led as a major contributor to Bengali songs, dance dramas, novels and poetry which convey to us his love for life, and especially his struggles to give a breath of life to Bengali art. The artist gave colour to the poor and downtrodden, the dancers, the singers, actors, labourers, and even animals through his works.

Tagore’s dancers especially have a very lively feel. We can sense the fluidity and grace. One thought-provoking piece shows a row of sari-clad women, some with shawls, with their backs towards us. The painting seems to convey the life of women in his time, how they shouldered their burdens without complaint.

Tagore had said he painted for pleasure and that his works were “Sesh boisher priya’ (an affair in the evening of life).

Tagore’s landscapes showed another side of the artist’s genius. He used space and greenery, especially trees, to let the sky glow, evoking a spiritual feel.

His animals, with their distorted bodies, evoke a feel of fantasy. These are his earlier paintings and are slightly crude.


The Last Harvest

Organised by the National Visuals Arts Gallery, the High Commission of India in Malaysia and the Indian Cultural Centre in Kuala Lumpur. The paintings are from the collections of the National Gallery of Modern Art in New Delhi and the Viswabharati University in Shanti Niketan, of which Tagore is the founder.

Where: National Visual Arts Gallery, 2 Jln Temerloh, off Jln Tun Razak, KL
When: Till July 15
Admission: Free
Call: 03-4026 7000

Ink sketch of a man

Self-taught artist Tagore

Tagore’s take on Indian women

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