The Visionaries -3

In the last issue on pedagogues we discussed the contributions of E. B. Havell. If Havell provided the theoretical impetus for the revivalism of Indian art in the wake of a European cultural hegemony, Abanindranath Tagore provided its artistic foundations. We also understood the context in which Havell and Abanindranath were devising such responses. It also led to the emergence of what we now know as “Bengal School” and the “Revivalism”. The revivalism was not simply a revival of traditional Indian art practices. As many have noted Abanindranath brilliantly re-interpreted and mutated these practices and developed a new visual language as an antinomy to European Academic Realism. More than a visual style it was an ideologically charged movement inspired by Swadesi which also clearly identified its artistic medium. It referred to past traditions as an influence. Its impact was so huge that artists across Bengal and other provinces started following the style.

Abanindranath Tagore, Courtesy: Wikipedia

In her monograph ‘Abanindranath Tagore and the Art of His Times’ (1968), Jaya Appaswamy notes that: “The Bengal School, while it originated in Bengal with the work of Abanindranath Tagore, nevertheless soon became national… in the second generation the activity of his followers spread over the country and their students (the third generation) were from many parts of India. Local artists who had no connection with the master or his disciples also adopted the style, which finally lost itself in remote, attenuated and weak variations.’ Abanindranath’s intervention enabled Indians in developing better understanding of their history and traditional art forms. In this issue of Art1st’s “The Visionaries” we will take a look at the contributions of Abanindranath Tagore.


Abanindranath was born on 7th August, 1871 in the Tagore family residence at Jorsanko. He was educated at Sanskrit College, Calcutta and took his painting lessons from British and Italian instructors on a private basis. At a young age, he came under the influence of Signor O. Gilhardi, Principal of the Calcutta school of Art and another acclaimed artist, Charles Palmer. His visit to Monghyr is believed to have had a significant impact in his career. He returned as a changed man who abandoned oil painting and decided to work on watercolours. Very soon he chanced upon an old illuminated Indo-Persian manuscript which impacted him so much that he decided to adapt the visual style for a new set of paintings based on the life of Krishna. This was titled as “Krishna Lila”. This was his first artistic step towards embracing the visual tradition of India by rejecting the European conventions. This was accentuated by his collaboration with Havell ten years later. He worked closely with Havell at the Calcutta School of art. Their attempts to revive Indian art and use this revival to infuse in a new art practice and teaching was also supported by Gaganendranath Tagore. This culminated in the establishment of Indian Society of Oriental Art. This was a path breaking step towards not only establishing an institution but also a new way of teaching and learning art.


Abanindranath moved away from the Western materiality and sought a spiritual abode in Indian art and philosophy. Rabindranath Tagore also played an important role in introducing him to important Asian cultural figures such as the Japanese art historian Okakura Kakuzō and the Japanese painter Yokoyama Taikan. This inspired him to adapt elements of Chinese and Japanese calligraphy and style in his art. He was leading an Indian renaissance. His friendships with European thinkers and scholars such as Sir William Rothenstein, H. Ponten-Moller, Norman Blunt, Sir John G. Woodroffe gave a currency to his ideas in the European art circles.


The University of Calcutta honored his efforts by appointing him a few years ago as the Bageswari Professor of Oriental Art. The series of lectures he then delivered are considered as authoritative and inspiring utterances on art. It is great to know that these lectures have recently been published in a book form to the delight of all lovers of art. His ideas and style were circulated through his equally talented students such as Nandalal Bose, Samarendranath Gupta, Kshitindranath Majumdar, Surendranath Ganguly, Asit Kumar Haldar, Sarada Ukil, Kalipada Ghoshal, Manishi Dey, Mukul Dey, K. Venkatappa and Ranada Ukil.


Abanindranath knew the impact of art education in young minds and he constantly engaged with young minds. Unlike many modern artists he illustrated for and wrote children’s’ books. He also wrote poems and articles. He was popularly known as ‘Aban Thakur’. His important books are Rajkahini, Budo Angla, Nalak, and Khirer Putul are landmarks in Bengali language children’s literature.


His interventions in restoring the pride of Indian art and architecture was not limited in creating a new movement. He also made radical decisions during his tenure in Government College of Art, Calcutta between 1505 and 1515. He replaced the European paintings on the school walls with Mogul and Rajput paintings. He made arts like stencil cutting and origami compulsory for all students. The school also invited miniature painters to teach the students through a modern outlook.

Here is the link to Abanindranath’s autobiographical book “Apon Katha”

  • Premjish, Director-Outreach, Art1st




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