Rabindranath Tagore grew up in a family of reformers and patriots, his father Debendranath Tagore was a leader of the Brahmo Samaj and his family was famous for debating ideas on religion, politics and literature. His approach to life, his graciousness, dignity, fearless universal humanism and true understanding of social responsibility is as inspiring and timely as it was during his lifetime. Today, the world remembers him primarily as the first Asian to win the Noble Prize in Literature in 1913. This achievement alone stands as testament for an extraordinary life, but Tagore was much more than a Noble Laureate -- he was the very embodiment of cultural awakening and is as much a national figure, influential in shaping modern India as Mohandas K. Gandhi.
At the age of sixty-three Rabindranath Tagore became a painter. By the time of his first exhibition of paintings and drawings at the Galerie Pigalle in 1930, Paris, Tagore had been recognised as one of the greatest writers who had ever lived. Tagore had an early inclination toward representational art but had given up hope of being a professional painter around 1900. Over the years, Tagore maintained private journals where he continued to doodle and sketch. Then almost suddenly in 1924, while in Argentina as Victoria Ocampo's guest, his doodles assumed more elaborate and expressive intent.
Ocampo recognised Tagore's talent and found spiritualism in his images of prehistoric monsters, birds and faces - they were much more than naturalistic interpretations. Compared to his early doodles these were not entirely spontaneous, but inspired by his interest in anthropology and the examples of both primitive and modern art he had seen. On his first trip to England and Paris, 1879, Tagore visited the British Museum and attended the Universal Exposition. During his tour of 1912, Tagore discovered Rodin and probably saw the Armory Show in Chicago, and he owned a copy of Friedrich Ratzel's History of Mankind, 1898 and Walter Lehmann's The Art of Old Peru, 1924.
R. Siva Kumar elaborates, "The inclination to know and understand other cultures was innate to his personality, and contributed to his emergence as an artist. A world traveler and a creative artist with interest in cross-cultural contacts, he looked at the art of the countries he travelled to. Sometimes he did this with greater purposefulness and self-awareness, as he did during his 1916 visit to Japan. But often he merely absorbed them, and without discussion or record allowed them to sink to the bottom of his awareness, from where they subliminally guided his thoughts and rose to the surface when required. Primitive and modern art that he saw during his many travels abroad played such a role in his emergence as an artist." (R. Siva Kumar, 'Rabindranath Tagore as Painter and Catalyst of Modern Indian Art', The Last Harvest, Ahmedabad, 2011, p. 56)
These influences on Tagore evolved over his lifetime and emerged as expressions of innovation and modernity through his paintings which were unlike anything being produced by Indian artists at the time. Tagore's painting of birds, on offer here is an outstanding example of his technique - the use of erasures, the application of colour and ink, the working and reworking of lines, perfectly expresses the enigmatic energy, rhythm and freedom that so overwhelmed his audiences in Europe and America. In her review of Tagore's first exhibition, Andree Karpeles passionately described Tagore's bird paintings, "Tagore paints lotus-birds which move with melancholy in the unknown. Two strange doves unite, for a second, their delicate beaks. What is there that is unforgettable in this couple of birds? With sudden flashing and the sharpness of a lightning the simple outline that demarks them stands out against the dark background of a stormy night, while silently music, emanating from their aerial kiss, covers the rumbling of clouds." (A. Karpeles, 'Tagore's Paintings', 1930)
Painting allowed Tagore to break away from the limitations of language. He felt that painting, unlike any other art form was closer to nature and could be universally understood and shared. Through his travels, Tagore observed first-hand the rapid changes in the world during the early part of the 20th century and the shaping of modern art in Europe and America. At home, he was immersed in the cultural revival that led to India's nationalist and anti-colonial movements. Ahead of his time and often at odds with political developments in India, Tagore believed that the highest form of humanity accepted and lived on the ideals of a universal culture. On this principle, Tagore founded Santiniketan and as Manmohan Singh, Prime Minister of India, eloquently states, Tagore was a "genius of modern India who built bridges between East and West as well as the past and the future." (R. Siva Kumar, ed., Rabindrachitravali: Paintings of Rabindranath Tagore, Kolkata, 2011, vol. 1, frontispiece)