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Portrait of a Nobel Laureate poet as an artist

It’s not widely known that paintings by Rabindranath Tagore are one of the most sought-after artworks in the auction circuit

Portrait of a Nobel Laureate poet as an artist
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It is a well-known fact that India's - and Asia's - first Nobel laureate in any discipline, Rabindranath Tagore, won it for literature in 1913. He is India's best-known polymath because he practiced many disciplines and achieved superlative success in almost all. He was a writer, poet, lyricist, composer, performer, educationist, institution builder, and of course, a painter as well, picking up paint and brush at the grand old age of 60 years. What, however, is not very well-known is that his signature continues to be hot property on the art market to this day.

As the auction season is yet to kick off (it's a good month-and-more away) and the summer slumber is yet to wear off completely, it's a great opportunity to revisit the art of Rabindranath Tagore, in a week which marks his death anniversary; he passed away on 7 August 1941, at the age of 80 years and three months.

Tagore on the Art Market

Tagore was a prolific artist, especially since he began painting relatively late in life - he painted nearly 2,000 works in the last two decades of his life, of which 1,500 are housed in Santiniketan while the National Gallery of Modern Art has about a hundred. However, his works shone for their excellence, and for their unique quality of addressing primitivism, right from the start. He held multiple exhibitions of his works, debuting in Paris.

In more contemporary times, every time his works appear at any auction, they exceed the pre-auction estimates, almost always, with a wide margin. For instance, a well-publicised auction of his works in the recent past was the sale of 12 of his paintings from the Darlington Hall, held by Sotheby's in London in June 2010. Against the pre-auction estimate of all the paintings at £250,000 (approx. Rs 1.7 crore), the entire batch of paintings had fetched a whopping £1.6 million (approx. Rs 11 crore). Of these 12, an Untitled portrait of a woman had fetched the highest price of £313,250 (approx. Rs 2.15 crore). These dozen paintings had been gifted by Tagore to his friends Leonard and Dorothy Elmhirst of Darlington Hall in Devon, UK, where they had stayed for 71 years till the Darlington Hall Trust decided to sell them in 2010 via Sotheby's.

This particular sale had been in the eye of a storm as many in India at that time had demanded government intervention to get these paintings home given Tagore's undeniable supreme stature. Though nothing much came of it in terms of 'getting paintings home', the phenomenal prices the works commanded over the estimates underscored what had always been known to experts - that Tagore will always remain one of the most sought-after signatures in the art market.

Another reason that makes the appearance of Tagore's work on the auctions, especially abroad, a highly anticipated event is because of his status as the National Treasure artist of India. He is one of the nine Indian artists, who were declared National Treasures in the 1970s, by virtue of which their works cannot be exported out of India. So, an opportunity to buy a Tagore work outside of India are rare and will get rarer still.

It goes without saying, therefore, that prices for Tagore's works are likely to only go north in the years to come. Right now, the highest price achieved by any of his works belongs to a work made in mixed media on paper laid on card, Untitled (Couple) that sold for $637,500 (approx. Rs 4.70 crore) at a Christie's auction in New York on 22 September 2021.

Tagore the Artist

Given the stature of Rabindranath Tagore as one of the most stellar personalities of the entire world in the 19th-20th centuries, it is not a surprise that the artworks bearing his signature would always command superlative prices. However, purely from an academic perspective, his flowering as an artist was not a flash in the pan at all. None of his contemporaries, nor any art lover now, praised his works because they came from the Tagore brush.

So, what is it that makes Tagore's paintings important from an art perspective, beyond what their signature signifies? It's his decided adoption of a style that was distinctly not inspired by any Western influence, but rooted in India's indigenous traditions, that made him one of the emerging set of Indian artists of the early years of the 20th century, who were vehemently discarding European influences to forge an individualistic vocabulary.

When viewed from a western lens, these works have been called 'primitivist' by scholars. Primitivism, from the perspective of the West, is something that is outside the European artistic canons (rooted in Asian, African and other non-European cultures). But when looked from an Indian perspective, it is art that is indigenous to the land, whose definition of 'primitivist' is not only incorrect but also regressive.

Tagore's career trajectory is a pointer enough to the fact that he would have chosen nothing but an indigenist vocabulary to express himself through paint and brush. A nationalist to the core, who set up India's first indigenous university, the Viswa Bharati University at Santiniketan, that aimed to adhere to Indian principles of education, there was no other inspiration but Indian that Tagore would have chosen, even for his art. It's interesting to note that around the time Tagore began to paint, his nephew Abanindranath Tagore - also a National Treasure artist of India - was pioneering a return-to-the-roots movement for Indian art, which is now known as the Bengal School. The proponents of the Bengal School were inspired by the frescoes of the Ajanta caves, dating from the 2nd century BC to the 5th century CE. However, Rabindranath Tagore did not adopt this idiom.

History is witness to the fact that while the characteristics of the Bengal School were also discarded eventually by the younger generation that sought a new, modern yet Indian idiom for art, primitivism, that Rabindranath Tagore pursued, continues to be an important element of the story of modern Indian art. As a trope, it continues to be adopted by artists of every generation, each bringing its unique understanding of it to the repertoire of Indian art. This again, is one of the several factors that renders the art of Rabindranath Tagore timeless.

(The writer is a New Delhi-based editor, journalist and arts consultant. She blogs at www.archanakhareghose.com)

Archana Khare-Ghose
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