Rabindranath Tagore was two completely different artists is two different phases and the difference is so much so that Tagore experts and art historians do not even consider his first phase drawings and sketches as belonging to the genre “Tagore paintings”, known for his works between 1923-24 and 1941.
The first phase of artwork - drawing and sketches - dates back to late 19th century and initial years of 20th century. Then there was a completely blank phase, especially between 1913 and 1920, when he was too occupied with his writing commitments. From ‘23-’24, with the doodles in Raktakarabi and Purabi, started the journey of a different Tagore as an artist. “There is nothing of the Tagore that the world knows in his first phase drawings and sketches,” Raman Siva Kumar, en eminent authority on Tagore paintings, told HT.
“They were some studies. It seemed he tried to follow Jyotirindranath Tagore’s portrait drawing skills. But Rabindranath’s drawings and sketches lacked the artistic quality of Jyotirindranath’s portraits,” Siva Kumar, who has seen the sketches and drawings only in photographs, said.
Strikingly, there is one only reference of his first phase works. Mukul Dey, organiser of Tagore’s first exhibition in India, at the Government School of Art and Craft (now college) in 1932, had written in the foreword of the exhibition catalogue that, in April 1909, Tagore gifted him “a magnificent black leather bound drawing book”.
It contained “some head and figure studies from life, done in pencil, and some decorative designs in ink, done with his writing pen on pencil drawings,” Dey wrote.
He also said that in 1913, during a trip to Ramgarh hills near Almorah, Tagore had done three pencil sketches on Dey’s sketchbook, one of them was of Tagore’s daughter-in-law, Pratima Devi, and the two others of Dey’s.
Later, Dey sold that drawing book to Hanuman Prasad Poddar and from his collection it went to the collection of Kolkata-based Indra Kishore Kejriwal, an eminent art collector. The three sketches are in another private collection.
“However, no one else, including Abanindranath, Ganagendranath or Nandalal Bose, has ever mentioned about Tagore’s first attempt with sketches and drawings. However, Tagore himself had written to Jagadish Chandra Bose that he was trying his hand at drawing but was failing,” Siva Kumar added. These attempts refer to the late 19th century period.
According to eminent Tagore scholar Sushovan Adhikary, the most distinctive difference between the two phases is that the first phase was mostly influenced by portrait drawings by his elder brother, Jyotirindranath Tagore.
“They virtually have no similarity with the later works for which he is known as a painter,” he added.
Jyotirndranath was an avid portrait artist and had done portraits of almost all his family members, and even visitors to their home. Lalan Fakir’s only portrait drawn during his lifetime was by Jyotirindranath. In 1914, London-based Emery Walker published a collection of twenty-five portraits by Jyotirindranath London and William Rothenstein wrote the forward.