‘ Takei Bole Ami’ You Are Said to Be Me
uring the Jorasanko days, Rabindranath Tagore [ 1861-1941] was transformed into an icon by Gaganendranath [1867-1938] and Jyotirindranath [1849-1925] Tagore, although they believed they were portraying him as a human being. Personally, I encountered the image of Rabindranath, a picture of him, quite early, as a child. Around 1982-83, I had bought several pictures of renowned Indian personalities (cut out drawings), some of which remained with me for many years. One of them was of Rabindranath. Maybe the picture was a photograph of a person wearing a robe, setting him apart from the rest; that might have caught my attention at that age and I think this was my first visual introduction to Rabindranath. I had read his writings by then but this picture captured my heart and mind. Later, while a student in Santiniketan (1989-96), I tried to understand his philosophy.
In 1994-95, I bought a print of a picture from Rabindra Bhavan in Santiniketan for Abhijit Chanda (son of Rani[1912-1997 and Anil Chanda). In that picture, Rabindranath was looking at Abhijit and talking to him, while continuing to work. It felt remarkable. A towering personality who was talking to a child in an intimate manner. Later during a conversation with Rani Chanda, I learnt that the picture was taken by none other than the renowned photographer Sambhu Saha,[1905-1988] who was already an established artist by that time. She even said that, ‘Sambhu babu (Sambhu Saha) always use to click Gurudev in different manner’. As a photographer myself, those words became embedded in my mind. As a graduate student, while writing my research paper, I came across a very different type of picture of Rabindranath from Rabindra Bhavan. Rabindranath backlit by a night lamp or a candle (Pic.1). Even the brightness of the frame could not overpower the personality of the poet in the photograph. Somewhere in the mild flickering light the intellectual persona comes alive. The poet is working with intense concentration. From time to time, when I look closely at it, this picture taken by Sambhu Saha, reveals the photographers compositional style as well as bringing out the personality of Rabindranath in the foreground. Half of the photograph is filled with geometric framework but a human presence enhances the strength of the composition. Generally we view an image from left to right, but here, the frame speaks more about the depth of three dimensional space than about the spatial movement from one side to the other; in other words the image does not remain confined to the two dimensionality of a space but goes to the greater depth of revealing the personality in a different light. Even today this photograph is of great importance. Another important photograph from the Santiniketan Rabindra Bhavan archive shows the poet keenly studying his own painting (Pic.2). It an amazing moment captured by an unknown photographer.
There are a whole host of photographs available depicting Rabindranath’s paintings and sculptures, and of course the artist himself, in different poses and situations: full figures, portraits or other frames. Again the portraits of Rabindranath are varied but personally I feel they tend to show certain specific moods, for example: the sublime state, eyes closed or open, self-contained, relaxed (even though rarely), in deep concentration, sometimes someone any Bengali can identify with and sometimes a less approachable personality. There are photographs of him acting, with family, with intellectuals, caricatures, images where he is lost in his thoughts or seems terribly self-conscious, all states which reflect his true being.
Personally, amongst the innumerable interpretations of his various moods, I would speak of three portraits of Rabindranath that stand out from the rest. The first one is a drawing by Asit Kumar Haldar[[ 1890-1964] (Pic.3), the second, the poet’s pen and ink drawing on his own photograph, and the third a photographic portrait of Rabindranath (half bust) taken from behind by Sambhu Saha .
In Asit Haldar’s paintings and drawings, it feels as if piece has been plucked out of ancient architecture to create a new structure, which carries with it the essence of ancient history. A visual adaptation of the excavated ancient civilization, represented in a two dimensional space, which has a deep-rooted association with Rabindranath’s philosophy. The second one is drawn by the poet himself, on his own photograph, which was used for the cover of the Rabindra Bharati Quarterly. Maybe the manner in which he has drawn on the photograph is a portrayal of his inner conflict with the visual representation on the cover (Pic.4). The third, a photograph by Sambhu Saha, is clicked so that Rabindranath’s multifaceted personality is enhanced from any angle.
In the year 1999-2000, I had another opportunity to have a close look at the images of Rabindranath, as well as papers relating to him, at Jorasanko Thakurbari[ Kolkata] Archive while documenting their Archive. At that time, I was able to view many images of Rabindranth (photographs). In my solitude, I thought of discovering a different aspect of Rabindranath Tagore’s pictures. As far back as I remember, the aspect I knew the best at that time was Rabindranath as a poet and litterateur, so the thought of searching for his human side had never crossed my mind before. As a student, during various conversations with Rani Chanda, a clear picture of Rabindranath as a person started to take shape in my mind. Later, I understood that in their writings very few scholars had tried to portray Rabindranath as a person. In my own words, I would like to say that as a person the poet interacted with very few people and one of the chosen few was Rani Chanda. Through her writings we discover another side of the poet, which does not limit our understanding and knowledge of him only to his existence as a world-renowned poet, Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore. Personally, I felt that her memory was also quite reliable as I found many similarities in her writing and what she shared with me during my conversation with her (1991-96). Her writings also serve as a critical affirmation providing truthful attribution. On the other hand, in his painting, the artist Mukul Chandra Dey,[1895-1989] portrayed the very persona of Rabindranath. Anyone looking at this painting would experience or feel that. He may well be the only Indian artist who portrayed Rabindranath in more than one medium, through print-making, drawing and photography and all of his portrayals deserve a special mention (Pic.5]
In 2003-04, I exhibited photographs of Rabindranath Tagore’s houses and buildings in Delhi and Mumbai (the photographs were taken by me). During that period, while I was going through the photographs meticulously several times, I began to think of searching for Rabindranath as human being. . I started reading ‘Chinno Potro’ again, essays on Santiniketan, along with writings by Rani Chanda, Mukul Dey, Rani Mahalanobis, Hirendranath Dutta and Moitreyi Debi, specifically. From then on, over the space of a few years a clear picture of Rabindranath as a person emerged for me. It was an image of a boundless expansion of the multi faceted architecture, which was in no way subordinate to the persona revealed by ‘Chinno Potro’. His paintings, writings, houses, his sense of dressing, his philosophical disposition, his letters and various other collections all helped me to understand Rabindranath in a significant manner .
In the words of Professor Hirendranath Dutta: ‘Jodi Rabindranath moha kobi, tahole Santiniketan holo mohakabbo (If Rabindranath is a great p,oet then Santiniketan is great poetry)’ [Achena Rabindranath/p.25/Dey’s Publishing].
During this period in the Indian visual arts we see a variation in the manner of depicting Rabindranath in portraits. Everyone who painted his picture or captured him through their lens was renowned in their respective fields, so the nature of their creation in portraying Rabindranath is also very important as a whole. Some of the noteworthy names are Gaganendranath Tagore, Jyotirindranath Tagore, Abanindranath Tagore, Rani Chanda, Mukul Chandra Dey, Upendrakishore Roychowdhury,[1863-1915] Raymond Burnier, William Rothenstein,[1872-1945] Jacob Epstein,[1880-1959] Sambhu Saha, J. Swaminathan and many others . Apart from the hand painted portraitures, photographs capturing the various moods of the poet as well as the person that was Rabindranath are also a convincing testimony. As one of those who revealed Rabindranath through caricature, Gaganendranath’s name deserves special mention at the same time the portrayal of Rabindranath by Abanindranath, a drawing in the form of a mask, takes the representation of Rabindranth as a poet or as a person to another level .
In the year 2008-09, while working on a research oriented book, I collected portraits of Rabindranath depicting him in different ways, as well as a range of other books from Rabindra Bhavan in Santiniketan and I realized that these were not just portraits, but they were also a reflection of the poet’s inner being. I also began to see that in some places he is portrayed as the renowned poet and sometimes he is quite close to the common man. In many places, the poet Rabindranath tried, deliberately but unsuccessfully, to hide the person within him, then again at times his inner self was not visible externally in any way. Even if he had the desire to emerge from the inner embellishments of the ‘me’ or the ‘self’, the outward expressions did not illustrate this. In some places the artist or the photographer had no desire to reveal anything beyond that state. Maybe the image of Rabindranath we see in every Bengali’s home has just remained a representation of a great poet or a cultural representative. With regard to the field of publication it is the same, as we can see, for example, in Rabindranath’s essays (Rabindra Rachanabali), The Golden book of Tagore, Tagore Centenary volume, Visva Bharati publications and other books, where his me or self is projected as a frame of mind or an idea .
Maybe it is in the autobiographical illustrations by Gaganendranath that for the first time we see hand drawn depictions of young Rabindranath, and in it is in the house at Jorasanko that he became an icon . The first image of the early portrayal of Rabindranath as a poet as well as a person also belongs to this space. The innocent figure of a youthful, lean Rabindranath was drawn by Jyotirindranath Tagore. That awestruck image and its title make the pictures talk [‘Rabi is singing’, ‘Rabi is acting’].[pic-6] It may have been during the period when Indian two-dimensional painting was changing its course. In the same manner, Sambhu Saha named his photograph, ‘Rabindranath ditio juddher khobor sunchen’ (Rabindranath is listening to the news of World War II) .
Rabindranath’s aesthetically etched features and his characteristic traits of an exceptional individual had inspired many famous people worldwide to re-interpret him in a new or renewed manner. Some of the well known people amongst them were, Upendrakishore Raychowdhury, William Rothenstein, Abanindranath Tagore, Asit Haldar, Raymond Burnier, Ramkinkar Baij, [1906-1980]Jacob Epstein, Boris Georgiev,[1888-1962] Sambhu Saha, Jyotindranath Tagore, Gaganendranath Tagore, Mukul Chandra Dey, Rani Chanda and many others Above all, Rabindranath himself had painted a self-portrait. It is difficult to say whether it was easy to photograph him or whether one had to ask for his permission, but it can be said that in the majority of the photographs he is self-conscious. He projects a strong statement of his existence. The conflict in the rise and fall of his inner solace and his me or self is prevalent in many of his images. Even in a group photograph he projects himself in a different manner from the others. In the portrait drawings too he projects himself as a patient and self-controlled being. Maybe Rabindranath helped the artist to create these moods by giving them enough space and time. There are rapid sketches of him, made by different artists, amongst them Debiprasad Roychowdhury[ 1899-1975][pic-7] and Zainul Abedin[1914-1976] deserve special mention . In the case of the photographs there is little or no sense of movement, liveliness, or speed. In most cases, the images projected appear to be slow paced and pre-planned, in a manner familiar to Bengali’s, Indians and the world at large.
As a typical Bengali and as someone one can identify with, Rabindranath is seen in a rare moment, leaning against one side of the wall of his Surul Kuthi house, absorbed in reading his book in the picture . It feels as if he is one of us, and there is no sense of his representing himself as a poet. This picture leaves the viewer with the sensation that he would not be disturbed by anyone approaching him. Personally I would say I have not seen any other image of him similar to this one.
A small taktoposh (wooden bed), a series of jalchoukis (small stools) piled one above the other construct an amazing creative architecture, which reminds us of the architecture at Santiniketan. [In this respect, it is of great importance that in India, Rabindranath’s design of his Ashram at Santiniketan addresses a new direction in Indian architecture]. This was the time when Rabindranath’s extraordinary contribution of multi-dimensional architecture emerged.
The image of Rabindranath entered the lives of Bengali’s through the specific manner in which he is represented, just as he made his way into their imagination through his essays published by Visva Bharati, books by other publishers, different sculptures, decorative items and popular inexpensive calendars. Apart from this, I found him on a cinema negative, lying in the scrap bin. Since I only found a small part of the whole film, it is very hard to identify the actual source of the image.
Generally, we are far more familiar with the image of Rabindranath, the world famous poet rather than that of Rabindranath as a person, the reason might well be that his me or self is generally drawn by him. Through these paintings he tried to speak about his inner soul rather than talk about his me or self. Maybe the different representations of him by various people, in paintings and photography, was the beginning of his journey of depicting the me or self, as well as his quest to overcome the sense of the me or self within. This became far more pronounced later on . However, it is difficult to arrive at an accurate answer to this question because his internal conflict with regard to going beyond his me or self is quite strong but his collection of self-portraits is priceless. In the history of Indian Art, Rabindranath’s paintings occupy as important a place as his self-portraits, which we can see in ‘Chinno potro’ and they also illustrate the progress in the field of visual arts.
- Rabitirthe, AsitKumar Haldar, Distributer -Pioneer Book Co. 1365
- Tagore /The Universal Message [ An Exhibition of photographs by Alain Danielou and Raymond Burnier Catalog , Curated by Dr. Samuel Berthet] Santiniketan an Architectural Journey by Samit Das 2011
- Amar Katha , Mukul Dey , Visva Bharati , 1402
- Santiniketaner Ek Joog – Hirendra Nath Dutta , Visva Bharati First Edition Ashwin 1387
- Pratham Diner Rabi , Ashok Kumar Mukhopadhya , Deys Publishing/2000
- Chithipatra , Vol-8 Visva BharatiEdited by Pulin Bihari Sen 1399
- Chithi Patra. Vol- 18 Visva Bharati, Edited by Prashanta Kumar Pal 1409
- ChinnaPatra,Visva Bharati,1411
- Rabi Jibani – Prasanta Kumar Paul vol- VII Ananda Publishers Limited Kolkata First published –May 1997 Chinnapatrabali – Rabindra Nath Tagore Written priode September 1887- December 1895, First published October 1960 ,Revised Reprint Baishakh 1370, New Edition Chaitra 1399
- Rabindra Jibani – Prabhat Kumar Mukhopadhya Vol-I Visva Bharati First Published –Aghrayan 1340 ,Revised Edition Baishakh 1353, Third Edition Poush 1367, Fourth Edition Baishakh 1377