Friday, June 11, 2010

Sunil Sethi: Two sides of Tagore's art

An inveterate traveller all his life, the poet Rabindranath Tagore in 1930 visited Dartington Hall, a 1,200-acre estate in Devon established by his long-standing Anglo-American camp followers Leonard and Dorothy Elmhirst as a Santiniketan-type institution in England. The hosts and their guest had an old association: in the 1920s Elmhirst, an agricultural economist from Cornell, had been invited by Tagore to run his farm project near Santiniketan as an experiment in rural reconstruction; later, he acted as Tagore’s personal secretary on his travels in China, Japan and Argentina. Tagore was instrumental in persuading Elmhirst (who married the daughter of American railroad millionaire and financier William C Whitney) to buy the Dartington Hall estate in 1925.
Revisiting Dartington in 1930, the 69-year-old poet asked for some bottles of coloured ink and, according to Elmhirst’s diaries, “when these arrived, there began to emerge a series of paintings and sketches”. A rare cache of 11 of these drawings are the highlight of Sotheby’s auction of South Asian art in London next week. They are mostly works in watercolour, pastel and ink on paper (not large, on average about 15 to 25 inches) and typical of Tagore’s art — mostly lugubrious long heads with limpid staring eyes and a couple of blurry, vaguely impressionist landscapes. Put up for sale by the Dartington Hall Trust, their estimated prices range between $27,600 and $61,500 each (approximately Rs 11 to Rs 25 lakh each). It will be interesting to see how the bidding goes on June 15; if the estimates on Tagore’s art are exceeded, it should come as a welcome revaluation of what was, after all, a sideline in the Nobel laureate’s vast output that chiefly centred on verse, song, drama and prose writings.

As coincidence will have it, the National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA) in New Delhi has a special display of several dozen of Tagore’s artworks on at Jaipur House at the moment. The exhibition occupies a couple of large rooms and commodious corridors but what a poor and inadequately curated show it is! In 12 pages of its small catalogue, Sotheby’s gives us more information about a small slice of Tagore’s life, philosophy and art, together with excellent colour reproductions than India’s premier art gallery run on public funds. The NGMA show is accompanied by the thinnest information — there is no reappraisal of Tagore’s work or worth as an artist 70 years after his death; no scrutiny, in light of the wealth of new Tagorean research, of when and how these were created, or how they came to be acquired; nor any effort to place them in the context of a polymath’s life. On the contrary, it is Sotheby’s sale catalogue that attempts to succinctly answer many questions using multiple sources — Tagore’s own history of Santiniketan, accounts by his biographers, the Dartington Hall archives and critical studies of his art. From these we learn that Tagore began by doodling on his working manuscripts and his career as an artist became an obsession after 1930. “It is thought that in the last 10 years of his life he produced over 2,000 pictures. His work was publicly displayed for the first time in Paris in 1930 followed by an exhibition in Calcutta in 1931.” The present lot of drawings on sale were first exhibited in London’s Calmann gallery in 1938 before being gifted to his friends the Elmhirsts.
Each of the London Tagores carries a detailed description, including an ink portrait that is said to resemble his friend Lady Ranu Mukherjee, wife of the industrialist Biren Mukherjee. Most eloquently, here is Tagore himself on his art: “People often ask me about the meaning of my pictures. I remain silent even as my pictures are. It is for them to express and not to explain.” Unfortunately, the NGMA show has taken Tagore’s word to heart for it tells us almost nothing.

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