Art News & Views

Gaganendranath: Painter and Personality

by Ratan Parimoo

The general impression about Gaganendranath Tagore has been 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 bear 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.1 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 which exists for his more famous brother, Abanindranath.2 Again unlike the latter, Gaganendranath never indulged in introspective or confessional writings.3 It seems that Gangababu was a painter most supremely indifferent to the value of his own creative genius as was noted by Rathindranath.4 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 follows:

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), comprised 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.

“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 derived from the Japanese brush technique. Mention may be made here of the well-known and recorded incident of Okakura's visit and his sending of two Japanese artists.5 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.6 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 1915 when he evolved his own approach to the use of SUMI-E.7

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. (Plate 1) 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.8 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.

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, (also comparable to the Japanese painter, Sesshu). (Plate 2)

Chaitanya Paintings

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.9 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, who 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. 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 then 1911, although it is executed in similar sketching technique as found in the 'Pandit' 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. (Plate 3)

Pilgrims 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 later 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. Where to place the nightscapes-the Pratima Visarjan series, the Festival of Lights, Santhals dancing at night around a fire, etc.? These look forward again to the late works due to their 'luminism'. (Plate 4) 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.10

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'.11 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 here so that there is little room for argumentation. 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 better 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”.

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, 1922.12 It included mostly water colors and graphics 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).13 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.14 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 establishment 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'. (Plate 5) 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.

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.15 Probably this is how certain paintings have been done. 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' (Plate 6) and 'Satbai 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'.

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 (Swarnapuri)' the two versions of 'Satbai Champa' the cover of Rabindranath's play Rakta Karbi (Red Orleanders) which was published in 1925 and the maze like 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 'Satbai Champa' is dated 1924. The two versions of 'Swarnapuri' were probably also done at the same time. Along with the 'Temple Cubistic', they are among the last pictures done in colour by Gaganendranath. (Plate 7)

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 form, light, space and surface design in a coherent whole, never achieved by any Indian painter, thus far.16

The artist brothers, Gaganendranath and Abanindranath, were young nephews of Rabindranath. The two youngsters were always at hand to collaborate with their uncle's creative projects, in particular, music, dance and theatre. Both had acted in Rabindranath 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 Karabi or 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'.

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.17 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 1930,18 forcing him to cease painting, his work from now 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? (See also the painting entitled 'The Magician'. (Plate 8) 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 (Plate 9). 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”.
19 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).

There is a conscious attempt on the part of Gaganbabu to tap personal dreams as some paintings are titled such (see Dreamland). 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.20 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 spectre 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' it can be regarded as the final summation of his creative adventure. (Plate 10)

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 twentieth century.21


Foot Notes:

  1. See e.g. Abani Banerji, 'Gaganendranath Tagore's New Indian Art,' Modern Review, March, 1924, Calcutta.
  2. See his Joransankor Dhare, Santiniketan, 1944.
  3. See Kanyalal Vakil in the Bombay Chronical, 30th June, 1926.
  4. Rathindranath Tagore, On the Edges of Time, Calcutta, 1958, pp. 88-94.
  5. Abanindranath, in his Jorasankor Dhare, has given a detailed information about Okakura's visit and the demonstrations given by the two Japanese painters.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. 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).
  9. 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.
  10. Some of these are in the collection of Smt Uma Devi (daughter of Abanindranath) in Calcutta.
  11. The Englishman September 4, 1928.
  12. Statesman, 15th December, 1922, Rupam, no. 13 and 14, January/June, 1923.
  13. Gaganendranath did the settings for Phalguni, Post Office, etc according to O. C. Ganguly, Obituary, op. cit. and Rathindranath, op. cit.
  14. The well-known books of Gordon Graig are On the Art of Theatre, 1911, and Towards a New Theatre, 1912.
  15. My attention was drawn to this biographical fact by Dwarik Chatterji,who described it in detail during an interview.
  16. For detailed analysis of Cubist movement see John Golding, Cubism A History and Analysis, London, 1959.
  17. See Review of 22nd Annual Exhibition of I. S. O. A., Calcutta, Advance, December, 24th, 1930.
  18. See D. C. Sen, op. cit. and the Press cuttings.
  19. 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.
  20. 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.
  21. Because of constraints of space, I have excluded to comment on Gaganbabu's rich Satirical Drawings.


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