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Artist in Focus : Gagendranath Tagore

In this section for Art From Us, we pick one artist to showcase their work and creative journey so far. Today, we look at Gagendranath Tagore.

Gagan babu’s name is linked with the massive resurgence of art in Bengal. Nineteenth-century Bengal was the hub of culture and creativity. The era was synonymous with the rise of education, ideas, enlightenment and empowerment. Born of a churning from the Calcutta Presidency, the names that emerged in this era are legendary. Reformist Ram Mohan Roy, who founded the Brahmo Samaj. Ishawar Chandra Bandyopadhyay–better known as ‘Vidyasagar’. The writer Michael Madhusudan Dutt. The scientist Jagadish Chandra Bose. The spiritual leader Narendranath Datta – Swami Vivekananda. And a clutch of brilliant Tagores.

Early Life

Gagendranath Tagore was born in 1867. One must understand how deeply the family is steeped in history. Gaganendranath was the eldest son of Gunendranath Tagore. Grandson of Girindranath Tagore. And great-grandson of Prince Dwarkanath Tagore. His brother, Abanindranath, was a famous artist, who was a pioneer and leading figure of the Bengal School of Art. Furthermore, he was a nephew of the poet laureate Rabindranath Tagore and the paternal great-grandfather of actor Sharmila Tagore. The two of them also shared a great artistic camaraderie. 

Gagendranath grew up in an atmosphere where art and literature, in all its forms were practiced. Growing in the same household that would rebel through his art, against the aping of European aristocracy. “Once he [Gaganendranath Tagore] and his brothers [Samarendranath and Abanindranath Tagore] removed all the pictures by famous French and Italian artists, which their forefathers had collected, from the walls of their large hall and gave them away. The sumptuous flower-vases and other objects, which for many years adorned the tables in the hall as they were made in Europe, received a similar treatment at the hands of the brothers. In divesting their palatial building of everything of foreign origin the brothers seemed to take such pleasure as is perhaps enjoyed by the iconoclastic.” Wrote scholar and friend Dr. Dinesh Chandra Sen.

Although he received no formal education, he trained under the watercolourist Harinarayan Bandopadhyay. Abanindranath and Gagan Babu founded the Indian Society of Oriental Art which later published the influential journal Rupam, in 1907.

Technique : Gagendranath Tagore

Early examples of Gagan babu’s paintings were in the form of postcards sent from Puri to his daughter. These dated back to 1907. They comprised seascapes done with a few quick brush strokes and thin washes of colour. The other possible early works are pencil portraits in the manner of Jyotirindranath.

When he made these sketches it was also a very difficult time for the family. The death of his elder son had shocked everyone and subsequently cast a great gloom over the family. In order to provide a congenial diversion kirtans and kathas were arranged. Gagan babu proceeded to sketch some of the pundits and kirtankars. During 1906 and 1910, he studied and honed Japanese brush techniques, inspired by Far Eastern art. He then incorporated this into his own work. He illustrated Jeevansmriti, for his famous nephew. As well as several of his short stories, Kabuliwala, Phalguni and some poems from Gitanjali.

1917 would see a definite shift in his style of work. Gangendranath Tagore abandoned the revivalism of the Bengal School and took up caricature. The Modern Review published many of his cartoons in 1917. From then onwards, his satirical lithographs appeared in a series of books, including Play of Opposites, Realm of the Absurd and Reform Screams.

Gaganendranath also took a keen interest in theatre, and wrote a children’s book in the manner of Lewis Carroll, Bhodor Bahadur (‘Otter the Great’)

The Babu/Bhadralok and The Bengal Rennaisance

Where the 1820s had seen the orthodoxy of the Bengali bhadralok, further into the 19th century one saw the growth of the Brown Sahib. Bhadralok was the popular nomenclature for the English-educated and cultured, mostly upper-caste, wealthy Hindu Bengalis. To understand the Babu, the Bhadralok has to be understood. A bhadralok can be a Babu but not the other way round. Why you ask – here’s why.

The Babu was a distinct class in Bengal, birthed from the subservience to the British Raj. Thus, the Bengali babu was admired for his fortune and mocked for his luxurious lifestyle. Dandies they were, obsessed with their opulence. Tagore, himself a member of the landed gentry of Bengal, often did use the babu as fodder for a scathing study through cartoons. He had distinctly positioned himself from the Brown-Babu culture. The Tagore family was invested in the revival and nurturing what was endemic to Bengal. 

Owing to Lord William Bentinck’s Permanent Settlement Act of Bengal, property in land was vested in a certain number of landlords. They had to pay a feudal tax to the Company and to retain the bulk of the rent collected from the peasantry for themselves. This was creation of the first middle-class of India, the landed gentry, and Bhadra Lok in Bengal. These gentlemen were absentee landlords. Who derived their earnings from their vast estates in the country, but lived between the enormous palaces in the village and the big houses in Calcutta. They were also honoured with the titles of Raja, Nawab, Rai Bahadur, etc. Furthermore, they were jocularly known as the “Brown Barons”.

Gagendranath Tagore and the Babu Series

Between 1915 and 1921, Tagore produced three series of caricatures. These were Adbhut Loke: Realm Of The Absurd, Virup Vajra and finally, Reform Screams. The focal point of his art was the critical eye he cast on Hindu orthodoxy. This was accompanied with the inherent contradictions and conceits of the practice.  Gagendranath was adeptly brutal in his burlesque version of the takedown of the Bengali babu. And the babu’s struggle to ape the Europeans in British Kolkata.

It is difficult to separate the babu’s who ruled the land and those who eventually became stalwarts of revival. Dr. Dinesh Chanrda Se documents of Gaganendranath about his inherent graces, nobility of character, hospitality and magnanimity. Which were the best remnants of the feudal tradition. This is what the class fought to preserve apart from their wealth. Rabindranath Tagore too speaks of his “spontaneous graciousness” and “combination of sweetness and light” and of his “social wisdom—quiet dignity and distinction which may be called aristocratic, although it had not the slightest hint of proud aloofness, for he strangely attracted even those who belonged to alien races by his genuine spirit of welcome, free from the show of conventional effusiveness usual in our society.”

This is a true distillation of this persona.  Gagan babu (as he was referred to) was a part of the pie that he was cutting himself off from, the hypocrisy was what he fought. This is the place from where his art was born. It is apparent in the comic grotesque features that he caricatures the characters with.


The Offending Shadow

This is cartoon of a man smashing up his own reflection in a mirror. Even as his own shadow behind him still looms large. This made up the cover of Gaganendranath Tagore’s Realm of the Absurd. It was the first book of caricature he published in 1915. The book contained 16 lithographs satirising the caste system, the hypocrisy of Hindu priests and also the affluent anglicised Bhadra Log.

There is a hybrid Bengali representative of the Bhadra Log, the new middle class, standing on the stage. Half of his body clad in kurta and dhoti and the other half in English frock-coat and trousers. This gentleman is the hydra-headed monster who appears again and again in the cruel satire on sartorial manners in Gagan Babu’s portfolios.

In another work, Babu asks the railway official not to disturb him while he is changing from dhoti into trousers. This because he is “About to become a Sab”. Not all his labour in ‘becoming a Sab’ is rewarded, however, because in another picture the worthy in English clothes is shown sweating all over, and Gagendranath Tagore adds the caption: “By the sweat of my brow I tried to be mistaken for a Sab but still that man calls me a Baboo”.

He has adroitly put the struggle that the brown sahibs faced as well, while caricaturing them. This is very well a Tagore trait of delineating complex situations all at once, through art.

Confusion of Ideas

Two babus visit a temple in Western attire. One has a new born chick bursting out of the egg in his jacket pocket (a site that would be disturbing for vegetarian Hindus). The other, while raising his sola topee to the deity holds a cigarette in his other hand.

Legacy of Gagendranath Tagore

Starting out as an amateur painter, he left behind an incredible legacy of work. He experimented with different genres and forms. Unfortunately there are no detailed preserved accounts of all his achievements, unlike his brother Abanindranath’s work. Gaganendranath never indulged in introspective or confessional writings. It seems that Gangababu was a painter, who was supremely indifferent to the value of his own creative genius as was noted by Rathindranath. One can find references of some series as per the stylistic evolution of the works

The first phase (till 1911)  were based on Japanese brushworks, he did small scenes and scapes. The Second phase (1911-1915) was with black ink on gold paper. This finally evolved to the Cubist experiments in ink and colour.

The Tagore Family, between them boast of a history of over three hundred years. It is one of the leading families in India and is regarded as a key influence during the Bengal Renaissance.

The illustrious family has contributed substantially in the fields of business, social and religious reformation, literature, art and music.

To learn more about iconic artworks and their socio-political context, visit the Artist in Focus archive.

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