Celebrating Abanindranath Tagore, the art teacher for a modern India

At the turn of the 20th century, a national artform would emerge for a new India, with it a new art education, and at the helm of these currents was one man, Abanindranath Tagore.

by Jones John Published on : Sep 04, 2020

When celebrating the lives of great artists, an often overlooked facet of their personalities is their roles as educators. While it is their practices that, often precipitously, drive the direction and development of art discourses, it is through their ability to promulgate their cumulative experience in a coherent manner that they are able to consciously take part in the shaping of art history. Many artists are able to do this informally through manifestos and other forms of didactic literature but many more do so, albeit less spectacularly, from teaching positions at the art departments of universities around the globe.

In India, a number of artists who have had a hand in moulding contemporary art discourse have done so by actively taking up both these roles. The histories of notable art institutions in the country are often entwined with those of the artists who have walked their halls as instructors and mentors. Ramkinker Baij, KCS Panicker and KG Subramaniam are few examples of pedagogues who have had more than a small role in creating a foundation for art practices for an independent India. On inspecting the ranks of this first generation of post-independence art instructors, one witnesses a singular commonality within their backgrounds: like tributaries of a great river, many of their academic lineages can be traced back to the nationalism of Abanindranath Tagore by the education they received under his many influential students and in diversely diluted forms the philosophies he encouraged can still be traced with each of their unique pedagogic approaches.

A photo of Abanindranath Tagore as found in ‘The Paintings of Abanindranath Tagore’ by Raman Siva Kumar | The Paintings of Abanindranath Tagore | Raman Siva Kumar | STIRworld
A photo of Abanindranath Tagore as found in The Paintings of Abanindranath Tagore by Raman Siva Kumar Image: Courtesy of Raman Siva Kumar

It is to be noted that despite the influence Tagore had on the structure of formal art education in India, he was largely self-taught and that his far-reaching influence was a result of a conscious break from the norm. Though he picked up the skills necessary for employing the naturalism as preferred by the colonial administration, his fascination for the Mughal miniature tradition and the nascence of the Swadeshi movement lapping against his intellectual persuasions found him looking towards more indigenous idioms to articulate his artistic vision.

The artworks that Tagore produced along this path in the 1890s, including illustrations based on the life of Krishna, caught the attention of Ernest Binfield Havell, who in 1905 appointed him to the position of vice-principal at the Government School of Art in Calcutta. While his career here was short, its impact on the national imagination was incredibly immense. Together with Havell, Tagore ushered in a spirit of revivalism into Indian art that went hand in hand with the anti-colonial polemic that was stirring up across the length and breadth of the country. Also, as the British orientalist absconded to England in 1906 on an indefinite leave, which culminated in his expulsion from the institution in 1908, his vice-principal was left to his own devices in implementing this vision.

‘Departure of Prince Siddhartha’, 1914, as found in ‘Myths of the Hindus and Buddhists’ by Sister Nivedita and Ananda Kentish Coomaraswamy | Departure of Prince Siddhartha | Abanindranath Tagore | STIRworld
Departure of Prince Siddhartha, 1914, as found in Myths of the Hindus and Buddhists by Sister Nivedita and Ananda Kentish Coomaraswamy Image: Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Under Tagore, this revivalism became intrinsically methodological, rather than merely formal, as the artist promoted a form of instruction akin to the gurukul system that his illustrious uncle Rabindranath Tagore would bring into effect at Viswa Bharati University in Santiniketan. He would encourage his students to practice their art by his side as he carried on with his own work so that the novices might learn by witnessing the craftmanship of their teacher. Some of his students were also encouraged to learn under the tutelage of Iswari Prasad Verma, a master of Patna Kalam, while all of them enjoyed the presence of a scholar on campus who would recite tales from the Ramayana and the Mahabharata so that they may be familiar with the tales from these epics. Asit Kumar Haldar, Nandalal Bose, and reportedly Krishnappa Venkatappa would also benefit from having been a part of Lady Christiana Herringham’s excursions to the Ajanta caves where the young artists were amongst those employed to document its frescoes.

According to Raman Sivakumar, the author of Paintings of Abanindranath Tagore, who brought a large body of Tagore’s artworks for consideration by the general public for the first time, “what he wanted them (his students) to do was to get a sense of the imaginative quality of Indian literature. He was not asking them to illustrate these texts but I don’t think every student got the message. The main idea was that you do your work, you use your imagination and that skills are something you can pick up, that you develop as you work. It was working and learning through working, and also by interacting and seeing other artists’ works”.

Though his official stint as a teacher came to an end in 1915, as differences with Havell’s successor Percy Brown became irreconcilable, Tagore maintained his interest in art pedagogy through some of the activities undertaken by the ‘Bichitra Studio for Artists of the neo-Bengal School’, as it was named by Rabindranath Tagore. The younger Tagore, along with his brothers Gaganendranath and Samarendranath, transformed the south veranda of their Jorasanko residence into a hybrid salon-workshop where the three artists would work with and conduct classes for a host of like-minded individuals. The Bichitra Club, as it is more commonly referred to, also hosted the number of artists from outside India, including the Japanese artist Kampo Arai, whose interventions would introduce members to novel artistic possibilities.

‘The Victory of Buddha’, 1914, as found in ‘Myths of the Hindus and Buddhists’ by Sister Nivedita and Ananda Kentish Coomaraswamy | The Victory of Buddha | Abanindranath Tagore | STIRworld
The Victory of Buddha, 1914, as found in Myths of the Hindus and Buddhists by Sister Nivedita and Ananda Kentish Coomaraswamy Image: Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

While most of Abanindranath Tagore’s activities were focussed around the environs of modern-day Kolkata, his students would find their way into influential academic positions around India. Nandalal Bose and Asit Kumar Haldar would go on to teach at Kala Bhavan at Visva Bharati University, an institution that would attract students from a wide variety of social and geographical backgrounds on account of the public image of its founder, while Mukul Dey would take up the reins of administration at the Government College of Art, Calcutta, in 1928 to systematically purge it of many of its colonial influences; Kshitendranath Majumdar also taught at Santiniketan but parallelly held the position of principal at the Indian Society of Oriental Art, an institution founded by Abanindranath Tagore and Havell, before taking up the same post at Allahabad University from 1942 to 1964; Sarada Ukil, along his brothers Barada and Ranada, would teach art from his residence at Esplanade Road in New Delhi after a short stint at Lala Raghubir’s Modern Art School, setting up what would be the precursor for the Sarada Ukil School of Art for art teachers, which as set up by the Indian government in 1994; Samarendranath Gupta would become vice-principal of the Mayo School of Arts in Lahore and from that position he would influence Abdur Rahman Chugtai, Pakistan’s national artist; Devi Prasad Roy Chaudhary was the principal of Government College of Art, Madras, until his retirement during which he also served as the founding chairman of the Lalit Kala Akademi, India’s national academy for fine arts. While this list is not sufficiently representative of the breadth of Tagore’s influence, for if artists belonging to the second generation of this lineage, such as Baij, Panicker and Subramaniam, are considered, it would appear that his teachings, in one form or the other, penetrate deep into the fabric of contemporary Indian art.

In our postmodern world, where multidisciplinary approaches to learning are progressively becoming the norm, it is easy to take for granted the various movements that have led to today’s sense of pedagogic holism. By initiating an education that focussed on several layers of cultural perspectives and practices, Tagore sowed the seeds for the artistic sensibilities that are valued today. While many of his students would develop more systematic approaches to art pedagogy, unlike Tagore, for whom freedom was rather important for developing an artistic mind, they were borne largely from the sense of autonomy that he instilled. “He always said that the skills you need to become a painter can be acquired in six months,” reflects Sivakumar. “There was a model where you were taught that art was all about skill. Now, he brings in something that says it’s not about skill. It’s about your imagination, your subjectivity”.

‘Journey’s End’, circa 1913 | Journey’s End | Abanindranath Tagore | STIRworld
Journey’s End, circa 1913 Image: Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

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