We Are Blind to Beauty

What the lack of interest in a spectacular show on Tagore tells us about India’s art brigade
Life & Letters

It’s a glorious winter afternoon in Delhi and the birds could have been singing, if there had been birds above the busy Sunday traffic, and the brook could have been gurgling, if there had been a brook in sight. But a walk across the road from the non-bucolic sight of crowds and cars orbiting the city’s epicentre of India Gate, there is an object of exquisite beauty inside the building known as Jaipur House. The object is a painting.

The painting depicts a woman’s face. But standing in front of the larger-than-life head hanging on a red wall next to a row of other framed heads, you start seeing much more than just a face. The eyes, pencilled and erased and pencilled over again, bear a weight that some of the living bear; hinting pride, but offset by a calm quietness that the lips below—pencilled and erased and pencilled over again—hold.

Even as one stands transfixed in front of this object, the face starts receding, and cracked lines, upturned ellipses and inverted parabolas emerge. Encased within two layers—the outer one a dark brown sheath as if made of old papyrus and streaked by vein-like lines, the inner one a light brown shroud—lies the face as if protected from all the world’s concerns and joys. It radiates a mathematical beauty.

And yet, this large room, in which this painting has been hanging since 19 November, is practically empty except for a few security guards. In a week, I have visited the exhibition four times, and the busiest it has been was when over a two-hour period, I counted six people—a White couple, two middle-aged ladies (who stayed for a whole ten minutes) and two people who looked like art students—enter and exit the gallery. A friend tells me that a bunch of school children on a field trip was also sighted one day.

This exhibition, titled The Last Harvest and curated by art historian R Siva Kumar, showcases for the first time in India the paintings of Rabindranath Tagore on such a large scale. After sections of the exhibition toured Berlin, Paris, Rome, New York, Chicago, Toronto, Seoul and London the whole of last year and over the first half of 2012—strangely leaving out Dhaka, where Tagore’s works would certainly have been celebrated and admired much more than in any Indian city—this show brings together three astounding collections under one roof: works from Rabindra Bhavan and Kala Bhavan of Visva-Bharati, Santiniketan, and the National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA), Delhi. It is an astounding display of 208 works of India’s finest modernist. In any other country, such an exhibition of one of its very best would have drawn crowds from both the art-loving world as well as those inquisitive about beauty. In Delhi, the exhibition is running empty.

“So are you interested in art?” one of the guards had walked up to me and asked in English on the first day of my visit to the gallery, expressing surprise that I lived in Delhi and had still come over to “see the pictures”. (“Tourists come here.”) He tried to play down his boredom by saying that the crowds should pick up over the weekend. I spent considerable time that Saturday and Sunday at the NGMA. The crowds did not ‘pick up’. The guard was still there, this time looking more apologetic, going on to explain that maybe “this kind of thing isn’t for everyone”. This kind of thing, it seems, isn’t for anyone even in ‘We-know-our-Tyeb Mehtas-and-Subodh Guptas’ Delhi.

Sitting in the high-ceilinged office of NGMA Director Rajeev Lochan, I asked him why such a landmark exhibition was drawing a blank. After knocking back some cough syrup straight from the bottle, he explained, “This is Delhi. Very few people care about art unless they have a price tag attached to a work. There was a man who came up to me at the inauguration [of The Last Harvest] and asked me, ‘Anything here on sale?’ I took him aside and handed him a Rs 250 portfolio of Tagore prints on sale.”

Lochan went on to bemoan the fact that “young people don’t seem to want to have anything to do with the past”. Which is when I tell him maybe, just maybe, the lack of interest, at least among those who follow art, has a lot to do with no one even knowing that an exhibition of the magnitude of The Last Harvest is on under their very noses. I had earlier asked at least three art-loving, art-collecting friends about the exhibition. They had been clueless.

Luckily for me, a friend had pointed out a black-and-white advertisement on page 8 of the 14 November issue (the day of the inauguration) of the Delhi edition of Hindustan Times. The ad was below the crosswords and weather forecast and next to the obituaries. The names of ‘Smt Chandresh Kumari Katoch, Hon’ble Minister of Culture, Govt of India’ and ‘Smt Sangita Gairola, Secretary, Ministry of Culture, Govt of India’ were the only ones highlighted in bold while it wasn’t clear whose paintings were on display. In smaller print, there was a line about the exhibition being ‘drawn from the collections of Rabindra Bhavana, Kala Bhavana, Visva-Bharati, Santiniketan and the National Gallery of Modern Art’ and that it had ‘travelled to nine venues across three continents to mark the 150th birth anniversary of Rabindranath Tagore’.

Lochan promised that there will be “another ad” in the papers before going on to tell me how the NGMA, funded by the Ministry of Culture, has a tight budget. When I tell him that the NGMA shop should at least have a credit card machine—the sumptuous commemorative book of The Last Harvest costs Rs 2,500 and I had to walk down to the ATM inside the nearby Delhi High Court to withdraw the cash—Lochan explains how he has to account for everything on a daily basis. “That kind of decision [on a credit card facility] can only be taken by the Ministry of Finance.”

But there is some truth in what Lochan and others trot out as ‘excuses’ to explain the general lack of interest in public art in this country. There is a marked difference in what interests the regular Indian art collector and the art lover. Is there really a critical mass of art lovers here at all? Going by how the media covers art in general—if it can’t be priced, it ain’t worth the while—and the utter emptiness at The Last Harvest in particular, the answer has to be a resounding ‘no’.

Two winters ago, Indian newspapers splashed across its features pages reams about Anish Kapoor’s fantastic exhibition at the NGMA. People lined up and came to see the works of a contemporary master artist. When it comes to Tagore’s masterpieces, interest has been practically zilch. Well, it is easier to run interviews and profiles of a contemporary visiting British artist of Indian origin and get people interested in his works than to resuscitate a dead Bengali who exists in the minds of most people as the object of catatonic Bengali deification more than 70 years after his death.

And yet, the blind devotion for Tagore—so off-putting for non-Bengali Indians and of the kind that Shah Rukh Khan fans display when they insist that SRK is ‘the greatest actor’ rather than a superstar—pays little recognition to the man’s genius as a painter. For an overwhelming number of Tagore fans, their deification is Satan worship without actually believing in the devil. In such a scheme of things, his art, so aesthetically different from anything else created by him and treated like a Christian relic, is practically absent from the rituals of Tagore worshippers. Which should have made it easier for the world at large to recognise the beauty of his paintings without having to deal with all the Tagore baggage.

Tagore was deeply interested in art from an early age. In a letter to his friend, the scientist Jagdish Chandra Bose, he wrote in 1900 when he was 36, ‘You will be surprised to know that I am sitting with a sketchbook drawing. Needless to say, the pictures are not intended for any salon in Paris. They cause me not the least suspicion that the national gallery of any country will suddenly decide to raise taxes to acquire them. But just as a mother lavishes most affection on her ugliest son, so I feel secretly drawn to the very skill that comes to me least easily.’ It was only in 1924, when Tagore was 63—already frozen in his role as a celebrity man of letters—while in Argentina that the critic and publisher Victoria Ocampo chanced upon the swirling fantastical patterns and incredibly formed crossings-out and erasures that Tagore had made during his sea voyage in the manuscript of a collection of poems, Purabi.

These doodles would later manifest themselves into full-blown paintings that combined the early creature-scratchings with a more uninhibited desire to express himself, something he would be able to do without expectations or inhibitions only through his art. His first works were displayed as part of a group show at the Kala Bhavan in Santiniketan in October 1928, and his first solo exhibition took place at Galerie Pigalle in Paris in May 1930 thanks to Ocampo. By this time, when he had decided to ‘come out’ as an artist, Tagore was already ‘the great poet-sage from the East’. Even fellow Bengalis, whose deification of the man started in earnest when he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1913, saw Tagore’s foray into the world of visual arts as a fanciful extension of a creative sage—and not that of a real visual artist.

But it becomes startlingly clear that Tagore’s paintings—some 3,000-odd works that he created through the 1930s—are infused with a quality that not only fellow artists in India lacked, but Tagore himself did not show possessing in the other mediums he was famous for. A small square painting in The Last Harvest depicts a woman, sprawled back on, and partially hidden by, a giant red armchair. She is naked and the viewer can see her legs and one breast whose lines echo the curvature of the chair. The colours and objects in the picture depict a rare ‘indoor chamber picture’. It is stripped of any sentimentality and shot through with an expressionist quality. Through his travels and his viewings of the works of the Surrealists, the Dadaists, the Japanese masters, the Bauhaus movement and especially his unbridled admiration for ‘primitive art’— which, like Pablo Picasso, he so made his own—Tagore soaked in all his influences and celebrated through his art the sheer thrill of being modern.

I catch art critic and head of exhibitions and publications at the Delhi Art Gallery (DAG) Kishore Singh as he walks into his office at the DAG in Hauz Khas Village. Across the room and in the corner next to a large MF Husain group portrait of a family, hangs a stunning ‘Tagore head’. This one is a dark painting of a woman’s face breaking through swirls of black and resembles a storm caught in a frame. It is on sale for a valued price of Rs 1.2 crore and had been bought by DAG from Victor Banerjee, the actor and art collector who in 1982 bought the painting for the princely sum of Rs 10,000.

“The price of Tagore paintings are artificially suppressed because his works come under the category of ‘national treasure’,” Singh explains as I tear my eyes away from the painting. “This means that Tagore’s works can’t be taken abroad even if an Indian decides to buy one and hang it on his London apartment wall.” Which makes the travelling The Last Harvest show even more precious. It is the first outing of the bulk of Tagore paintings from India. The 1,000-odd Tagore works in private hands—apart from the 2,000 catalogued and in various galleries, including the collection in Britain’s Dartington Hall, which in 2010 sold a group of 12 Tagore paintings through a Sotheby’s auction—remain outside the realm of public viewing.

Singh also blames a general lack of interest in public viewing of art in India. “Art lovers here do increasingly value Tagore. But people here are more willing to go to Kingdom of Dreams [a kitschy theme park in Gurgaon] or malls than to ever visit and spend time in a gallery. Even collectors don’t seem to want to go out to see exhibitions.” I ask him what he makes of Tagore as an artist. “Oh, he’s undoubtedly one of the finest we have. But I would consider him to be 30 per cent ‘below’ the best. If he had been a trained artist, he would have been right up there,” says Singh. “I see him as a catalyst in the history of Indian art, closer and pre-figuring the Bombay Progressives, who reacted against the then prevailing Bengal School of the time. He was our first modernist.” In the DAG, which is hosting the seventh chapter of its bi-annual Manifestations: 20th century Indian Art exhibition, the Tagore exudes contemporaneity as it shares wall and aesthetic space with the 1959 MF Husain canvas, the FN Souzas and Ram Kumars.

A few days later, I ask artist Manu Parekh what he makes of Tagore’s art works. He disagrees with Singh and tells me that the startling quality of Tagore’s works lies in the fact that he was not trained as an artist and, therefore, “not limited by trained artistic notions and practices”. Parekh goes on to tell me how, when in Santiniketan years ago during a black-out, he realised that Tagore’s faces were drawn from this world of “dark, unilluminated faces and figures” with whom the artist shared a deep-rooted connection. “He had an astounding clarity and his being untrained made him more free than any other artist,” says Parekh.

This freedom and will is completely absent when it comes to official India showcasing Tagore’s works. Former Secretary, Ministry of Culture, Jawhar Sircar, one of the people behind getting The Last Harvest off the ground, tells me of the “nightmares” involved in convincing Visva-Bharati to allow paintings from its collection—the ‘national treasures’—to travel outside Santiniketan for The Last Harvest exhibition commemorating Tagore’s 150th birth anniversary. Galleries in Paris and London, which are booked some three years in advance, were approached six months before. The ambassador at the Indian Consulate in New York didn’t bother to reply to emails from Delhi and most officials had no idea or interest in Tagore’s paintings and made any planning “hell”. A bitter contest pertaining to who should get credit for the landmark exhibition continues furiously and is not pretty to hear at all.

The Last Harvest will travel across India—it will be in Delhi till 13 or 16 January, a final date hasn’t been fixed yet—to Mumbai, Bangalore, Hyderabad, Bhopal and Kolkata. “The only query I got from the media in Kolkata was why the exhibition did not start in Kolkata,” Lochan tells me. I recall how the Government College of Art and Craft in Kolkata organised an exhibition in 2011 in which of the 23 Tagore paintings on display, 20 turned out to be fake. The Last Harvest curator R Siva Kumar had, in fact, warned the college principal, Dipali Bhattacharya, against holding the exhibition. But Bhattacharya, a certified Tagore bhakt, went ahead and maintained even after she was dismissed that the paintings were “genuine”.

It is in front of Tagore’s paintings at the NGMA show that one can escape the charlatans, the high priests and the mandarins of culture. And the beauty-scoffing public at large. A fantastical ink-on-paper creature that resembles a Disney bird in mid-stride on its compass-like legs; a crazy-eyed dog-tiger spreading its paws across the framed paper wearing a smile; a couple, joined at the waist and staring severely at each other with ravishing, imperial coldness; a black-and-white ink work in which the lone figure standing in a daunting palace-like place vaguely resembles Batman in his Batcave; a gaunt dark figure in a robe shaped only by a white anti-line standing behind a rectangle of maroon and a strip of orange; and yet another haunting face, ghostly dark except for her piercing eyes, which are doubly pierced by the fiery orange in the background—all these images come from a world that lies beyond the usual territories of contemporary art.

As Lochan tells me excitedly how, during the inauguration of the NGMA’s new wing in January 2009, Sonia Gandhi spent “one-and-a-half hours with me”, I have this terrible urge to carry away one object that’s hanging in the gallery a walk away from his office. It depicts a woman’s face with mathematical beauty. I am absolutely sure that no one will miss it.