Abanindranath Tagore (1871-1951)

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Abanindranath Tagore | Biography | Life | Artworks

Abanindranath Tagore the great-grandson of Prince Dwarkanath Tagore, questioned the validity of adopting the Western stylistic norm as the only viable one. Like Ravi Varma, he too belonged to the rich aristocratic class of the landlords. The development of the Bengal School is closely linked with the art of Abanindranath Tagore. 
Abanindranath was an outstanding painter and a compelling story- writer. In a biography on him by his son Alokendranath Tagore, there is an anecdote that reveals his character. When Abanindranath was sixty years old, an age rich in experience, a Dutch professor bought his painting, Zeb-ul- Nisa—the veiled poetess. To the professor’s praise: 

‘Mr. Tagore, you are a remarkably skilled artist,’ Abanindranath modestly remarked, ‘You are mistaken, professor, I am still learning.’ 
It is a revealing remark reflecting his attitude towards art—to study, to borrow and to assimilate. 

Initially, Abanindranath received formal training in pastels, watercolors and life studies under the private supervision of his Italian tutor, Signor Olinto Ghilardi, a Calcutta based professional, to whom he had once confided that his desire was to become as great an artist as Rembrandt, Titian or da Vinci.

Thereafter, Abanindranath attended the studio of Charles Palmer, an English painter (also based in Calcutta) and received training oil painting and portraiture. 

As a result, his oeuvre until 1895 showed a strong academic bias. The works included sketches, studies, and paintings in oils and watercolors and a set of pastel portraits. 

E B Havell, the then principal of the art school in Calcutta was greatly impressed with the originality of his paintings and offered him the post of vice-principal of the school (1898), so far held only by Europeans. Under the guidance of Havell, Abanindranath studied the Mughal and Rajput schools of painting which brought a remarkable change in his style and technique. 

He came to realize that Indian art could never attain great heights by merely adopting European styles. 

He began a new phase in 1895 with a series of paintings on Abbisar or the tryst of Radha, followed by the series on Krishna Leela, which marked his shift from the world of perceptual realism to the world of allegory, symbolism and presumptive imagination. 

This was followed by a further prodigious output, with a grand finale in the Arabian Nights series in 1930. 

The elements that inspired Abanindranath’s style were varied. The Abhisar and Krishna Leela were prompted by a desire to assert his individuality and personality. 

He freely synthesised the decorative elements of Irish music’ sheet illumination, compositional elements of Indo-Persian miniatures and the literary sources of medieval Bengali Vaishnava poetical works. 

His palette expressed this synthesis. He combined traditional Indian tempera with transparent watercolors, and in some of his works incorporated calligraphic rendering of the text with decorative borders. 

His meeting in 1903 with two visiting Japanese artists, Yokoyama Taikan and Hishida Shunro, further stimulated him to synthesise the Japanese and the British watercolor techniques for evolving a novel way of using the media. 

This came to be known as the ‘wash’ technique and became the hallmark of the Bengal School. This marked Abanindranath’s departure from the indigenous tempera method.

The striking aspects of the Japanese influence in his work are a certain spatial quality, a breadth of pattern and organic simplicity. 

The color washes are repeatedly laid around sensitive outlines, in a synthesis of the Eastern and Western watercolor techniques. The transparent pigment alternates with gouache to secure both luminosity and volume. 

Modeling and finish of figures are rendered in impeccable decorative lines and subtle high- lights are added to the delicately contrasted color. His Masks are powerful character portraits—dramatic and imaginative. 

As noted, Abanindranath was influenced by the Indian miniature tradition. He also employed the ideas of the Muglval painters, in an innovative tanner, synthesizing the same with the Chinese system of staggers or multiple horizons and a raised skyline. 

He treated space as an integral unity with linear and tonal tensions leaving no allusive point in the pictorial space. 

In some cases, though, he divided space into geometrical blocks, with human figures placed in a calculated order to create a relationship between the space divisions and the figures.

Abanindranath’s admirers like Havell, Sister Nivedita, Sir John Woodroffe, and Others founded the India Society Of Oriental Art in 19t)7 with the object of promoting his style. 

This group of Indopliils, mostly-Europeans and some Indians educated in England recognized the national value Of his works. 

The late Victorians had believed that any aesthetic endeavor which did not possess a moral value had no validity. For these Indophils, national and moral values were linked. 

They hailed Abanindranath as a ‘revivalist’ (now considered a term of abuse), though his style proved otherwise. Caught in this magic spell Of the nationalistic approach, he also started glorifying the art treatises of the past. 

That is why, perhaps, he has in fact suffered from highly irrelevant contemporary estimates of his significance. 

Abanindranath’s nationalistic impulses must be viewed in the context of the national movement which claimed the new art movement, the Bengal School, as its offspring. 

Its Indianness and idealism seem to have obscured its aesthetic importance for it has historically been adjudged a nationalist movement more than an art movement. 

His works reveal a deep sensibility and a poetic imagination. Despite freely assimilating influences from many sources, he -remained innovative and refreshingly original. 

According to art historians the most significant aspect of Abanindranath’s art was that he broke away from the ‘decorative extravagance’ of the Delhi and Patna Schools, both of which were declining, and at the same time freed himself from the ‘seductive realism’ of Western art that was gaining a firm footing. 

In fact, he developed a synthetic style wherein he fused the delicacy of Mughal portraiture, the spatial quality of Japanese painting balanced by a certain discipline of Western technique. 

He was essentially an eclectic in his ceaseless search for aesthetic quality which he achieved in a highly personal style. 

Abanindranath was very sensitive to suffering. His painting Sbab)a/yan in his Death-bed, became a masterpiece as, in his own words, ‘It was because I was overwhelmed with sorrow over the tragic death of Sova, my youngest daughter. 

It is my bereavement which I tried to project in the last lingering look of the emperor as he watches the mausoleum raised to the memory of his beloved, from his death-bed at the fort.’ 

Another painting “The Last Journey” on the death of Rabindranath Tagore is equally touching. 

Allusions to myths, legends and stories down the ages have lent traditional Indian art figurative, narrative and literary substance. 

Abanindranath’s link with tradition was based on these conceptual elements and not superficial conformity with any particular style of the past. 

His style was original and always remained tentative and evolutionary. His oeuvre reflects the dimensions of his personality, his creative ability, his sense of humor. his technical excellence, culminating in a wonderful style with a nationalistic flavor. 

Abanindranath had his own ideas about teaching art. He championed the cause of individual creative freedom. 

He believed that a teacher should ensure a congenial atmosphere and everything would then automatically take its own course. 

That is why, perhaps, his students, among them Nandalal Bose, Asit Haldar, Suren Ganguli and Kshitin Mazumdar, the exponents of the so-called Bengal School, propagated and promoted a contemporary Indian style of their own. 

Abanindranath’s discourses in his capacity as the Vageswari Professor of Art, Calcutta University, were remarkable for their aesthetic value and artistic insights. He was one of the first Indian artists to gain international repute.


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