Excerpt from “The Alternate Nation of Abanindranath Tagore” by Debashish Banerji

Excerpt from


Debashish Banerji

In this excerpt from Chapter 5 (Practices of Community and the Alternate Nation) the communitarian performance of interusbjective naming is represented through the medium of art.  The implications of such a practice for nationalism is explored.

Abanindranath took to making portraits of friends and family members from an early (pre-Havell) stage of his art practice. These portraits were done mostly in oil pastels and, particularly in their early late 19th c. phase,seem to have concentrated on a density of surface effect, with texture and chiaroscuro combining to heighten an impression of character. This is the one practice of

Figure 27 – Portrait of Rabindranath/Abanindranath Tagore (Viswa Bharati Univ.)

Abanindranath which retained till a late stage a semblance of photo illusionism, so as to keep his engagement with ‘classical’ European aesthetic values active. His portraits of the young Rabindranath [Figure 27] and the ageing Debendranath made in 1894 are still available. The Debendranath painting shows a thickness of paint and a focus on hair highlights, skin tone and bone modelling which betrays a Rembrandtesque influence while the Rabindranath painting shows a subtler and finer use of shading and a luminosity of feature pointing to his later practice.

Reinforcing the sense of European inheritance in its Indian history, Abanindranath told the apocryphal story of Raja Ravi Verma who visited the Jorasanko house to meet with Rabindranath while he himself was absent and chanced across this portrait of Rabindranath, remarking on its fineness. With this story, Abanindranath appropriated for himself the mantle of Ravi Verma’s successor in the field of portrait painting.

By 1904, when he painted his portrait of Dwijendranath Tagore, he is continuing to use oil pastels but moves towards a new technique in keeping with his discovery of the ‘wash’, where he rubs the paints to produce a softer multi-toned ‘washed’ effect. Skin tone, modelling and texture play a subsidiary role now though a distinct light source is still in use to produce a ‘glowing’ effect. This shows a shift from character to mood, and thus from the interiority of the subject to a seeking for its innate capacity (swabhava) to embody feeling (rasa) and thus the reversed ‘classicism’ of ‘Indian aesthetics’ as adapted from Havell’s Indian art history by Abanindranath. This change also implies a transformed temporality – from the teleology of progressive subject formation to one of submission to states of emotion codified and translated in a variety of cultural practices developed through different times and places in India. An example of this kind of portrait is that of Dwijendranath Tagore (1904). From this period till the mid-1920s, Abanindranath’s portraits are marked with this moody subtlety of washed color.

From about 1925, Abanindranath’s portraits underwent another change, towards a thicker chromatic density, clarity of features and a ‘glow’ which seems to be emanating from within the portrait more than from an external light source, though the reality of such a source is never abandoned. Abanindranath achieved this “inner glow” by using his pastels directly on cardboard, so that the “golden” background shone through the paint. Underplaying surface detail, these portraits achieve a stable impression within the flow of time, reminiscent of Renoir and it is likely that prints of Renoir’s portraits sent by Andree Karpeles may have occasioned this change. Examples of this kind are the portrait of Nandalal Bose’s daughter, Jamuna, and of his

Figure 28 – Portrait of Toto/Abanindranath Tagore (Indian Museum, Kolkata)
youngest son, Manindranath (Toto) [Figure 28], both done in 1926. This subtle change returns from mood to interiority, not one of “character” as in his earlier portraits, but rather of “presence.” This is an attempt to bypass the teleology of subject formation replacing it with a seeking for permanence within the fleetingness of modern temporality. This permanence, however, is not the memorable materiality of the flaneur’s observations, but rather an immanence whose hidden plenitude becomes disclosed through ontic practice in the act of creation, as in Heidegger’s essay on “The Origin of the Work of Art.”

The Re-nomination of Masks

Though Abanindranath continued sporadically to paint these kinds of portraits, since 1929, he opened for himself a new approach to portraiture, which he termed “Mask Drawings.” This approach began with his painting of stage characters from Rabindranath’s play Tapati (1929), linking this practice once more to the performative domain of alterity and intersubjective subject constitution.  A grandson, Mohanlal Gangopadhyay writes in his remembrances of life at Jorasanko that while working on a spate of portraits in the late 1920s, Abanindranth commented that he could see a “mask” that people wore just under the skin. He then proceeded to paint 60-70 ‘mask’ portraits of members of the extended community of Jorasanko – relatives, friends, servants, visitors. But though this statement provides an impression of “inner objectivity” to the masks, and though these “portraits” bear some resemblance to the person referenced, a considerable stretching of objectivity is evident, deliberately investing the face with deviant cultural, psychological and/or material properties so as to re-nominate it.

If the earlier portraits, aiming at presence-within-impermanence may be related to Heidegger’s essay on “The Origin of the Work of Art,” these portraits come closer to Derrida’s deconstructive practice in his critique of Heidegger’s essay – that is, the “truth” or “presence” of a work of art cannot be restituted to its subject or object but lies in an indeterminacy, supplementarity, marginality whose interpretable excess cannot be exhausted but can lend itself to a variety of interested fictions. This understanding, carried over to representation in general, also opens the possibility of a constructive practice of communitarian mutuality. The analogy here lies in the fact that in these portraits, instead of pretending to capture presence, Abanindranath “performed” a temporal intersubjective “naming” which invited inhabitation and recirpocity. Considering the communitarian domain of Jorasanko, with its core of family and friends and its extended periphery of subaltern workers, international contacts and rural and foreign diaspora, Abanindranath embarked upon a project of creative and hybrid worlding through these “masks.”

The “masks” evoke a variety of cultural echoes ranging from Japanese Noh masks through African, Javanese and aboriginal “fetish” masks. Since 1922, with the exhibition of Bauhaus paintings in Calcutta instigated by Rabindranath and Gaganendranath, French avant-gardism and German expressionism were becoming prominent influences in a new modernist Indian art practice. Members of the Jorasanko house were not foreigners to the currents of European modernism in art from before this. Gaganendranath began producing his Cubist adaptations from 1920. Abanindranath does not seem to have been sympathetic to the deconstruction of the subject attempted by Cubism. In a conversation with Nandalal Bose and Kshitimohan Sen on Rabindranath’s German expressionism-influenced paintings, he spoke of Cubism as having “brought anarchy in its train.” However, it is very likely that Picasso’s paintings opened him to the world of African masks and German Expressionism provided him with an archive of grotesque and angst-ridden faces which make their appearance in his “masks.”

The cultural practice of “masking” relates to the production of alterity in the domain of sympathetic magic which Abanindranath was interested in as evidenced in his studies on brata rituals. The fetish masks of Africa, Indonesia or Polynesia would invoke such a domain of magic, where the shaman/wearer would be enabled to transform into an embodied non-human spirit-being capable of altering the quotidian environment and manifesting para-normal phenomena.  However, Abanindranath’s “masks” were neither socially bestowed nor self-assumed by the wearer. Nor did Abanindranath like to think of them as “projections,” which is why, in his statement quoted earlier he made the effort to assign objectivity to them.

In a lecture “Roop,” among the last of his Calcutta University Bageshwari Lecture series, which he completed in 1929, contemporaneously with the painting of the “masks,” he makes a distinction between two kinds of “forms”(roop)  in art. These he classified as “swaaropak roop” and “swaroopak roop.” Swaaropak, from swa meaning “self” and “aarop,” meaning “projection,” refers to forms self-projected by the artist, a practice of autonomous subjecthood. Against this, he contrasts “swaroopak roop” or “swaroop,” which means “innate form” of the object. In his essay, he seems to imply that artistic form arises from a relational mutuality between these two objective and subjective realities of that which is to be represented. One could easily refer this theory to a conscious practice of intersubjective identity formation in the “mask” portraits.

Moreover, given the performative context of masking practices, whether in the shamanic acts of aboriginal magic or the elite alterity of Noh theatre, these painted “masks” must be seen as performative gestures of relational mutuality located in space and time and inviting specific responses to complete the act of environmental transformation. Thus the “masks” are like significant “pet-names” offered tentatively to the prospective wearer in an ongoing play of negotiated acceptance, rejection, reciprocity and mutual transformation in a communitarian context of intimate familiarity which combined the affective with the critical and the creative.

Blind Thamyris

As two examples of these “masks”, we may look at Abanindrnath’s mask-portrait of his uncle Rabindranath [Figure 29] and his own self-portrait [Figure 30]. Abanindranath made a number of portraits

Figure 29 – Rabindranath Mask/Abanindranath Tagore (RBS)

of Rabindranath, his uncle and elder by ten years, whom in many ways he hero-worshipped but whose views he also deviated from in important ways. I have already referred to Abanindranath’s early sensitive portrait of Rabindranath, which he linked in his memoirs to Ravi Verma. Subsequent to this, he made a number of other portraits of Rabindranath, often related to roles in his own plays, such as the 1916 depiction of the poet dancing with a stick in his hands as a Baul in the play Phalguni. In 1929, Abanindranath did a pencil sketch of Rabindranath as King Bikram from the play Tapati. The king is shown with a gaunt black-bearded face, his head covered with a cloth and his eyes closed. The closed eyes in the painting refer to Bikram’s blindness – not physical blindness but the blindness of self-willed obstinacy in the face of injustice, prudence and worldly wisdom. The “mask” of Rabindranath [Figure 29], painted in the same period, bears some resemblance to this. If the portrait of Rabindranath as a baul catches the unpredictable freedom of the heterodox mystic in him, this “mask” captures a radically contrary persona – it shows a narrow head with an aquiline nose and no eyes. In fact, it appears as if the eyes are not merely closed or blind but have been sealed over with skin. What seems, from its texture, to be a cut piece of white cloth or rubber seems pasted over the back part of the head, forming what must be the hair and sideburns, but pulled tightly over the head like a cowl and resembling at the same time, the shape of an ancient Greek or Trojan helmet. There is no ear or if there is, it is completely hidden behind the white cut piece. Extending downwards in a straight line below the nose and widening through a couple of abrupt jagged cuts to connect with the larger white shape, is a smaller independent cut-out of the same color and material as the larger one, forming what must be the moustache and beard. This shape completely swallows up the mouth (or as with the other sense-organs, perhaps there is no mouth). A closer inspection of this smaller shape shows it to be a silhouette likeness of the full body profile of Rabindranath, as in an iconic photograph, walking in his flowing robe with his hands behind his back and a stoop to his capped head and shoulders.

The narrow face with the cowled head, straight lines and the absent sense-organs gives a strong impression of rigid abstemious orthodoxy or a stubborn adherence to his own ideas, blind to world-opinion. While it is not clear if this depiction was occasioned by something personal to the relationship between Rabindranath and Abanindrnath, it is known that the late 1920s had been a hard time for the poet, as he had, indeed stubbornly stuck to his ideas regarding the expansion of Viswa-Bharati as also his resistance to various aspects of Gandhian nationalism against widespread criticism from friends and foes. So much so, that on December 22, 1929, the Founder’s Day for Viswa-Bharati, he sent a card out to his friends and acquaintances across the world with a handwritten message: “My salutations to him who knows me imperfect and loves me.” Indeed, as we gaze at Abanindranath’s image, its hard narrowness reveals another dimension. The quasi-Grecian helmet-like shape combined with the eyelessness bring to mind the long tradition of blind Greek prophets, as evocatively described by Milton in Paradise Lost:
And TIRESIAS and PHINEUS Prophets old.

In this passage, the blind poet Milton is calling witness to a great tradition of blind poets and prophets – Maeonides, who is Homer, the arch-poet of the “western tradition” along with the prophets Thamyris, Tiresias and Phineus, so as to invoke all the more powerfully the light of God to shine inwardly so he can reveal what no man has seen. This association also brings to mind the blind Vedic poet Dirghatamas (“Deep Darkness”) whose eyes were turned within to know the sourceless Light. The sense-deprivation of the monumental regional/national/world poet then becomes his extraordinary strength – that of secret or occult knowledge. Against this background, the stooped walking-profile of Rabindranath, fractally constituting his beard (symbol of wisdom, the part containing the whole) in its simplified iconic cut, assumes the mythical proportions of arch-prophet. But still this impotent inwardness carries within itself the pathos that makes, in various ways, social misfits of all these blind prophets, in this case, the most pernicious of all, mouthlessness, the gagging of the oracular fount by the icon of prophecy. Is Abanindranath saying to his uncle, then – O great seer-poet, though awake within today, you are closed to the reality of the outer world and have grown rigid through the inability to bridge the inner and the outer. Is this deep inwardness a voluntary turning within, or is it a result of the unreceptive hour or is it a vocal self-obscuration by the iconic projection of your own fame?

Abanindranath’s prescriptive credo of meditation with eyes open (sajag sadhana) and his distaste for the ardours of exclusivist world-negating spirituality find expression in a number of his writings (and paintings – eg. Naamaiva Kevalam). Rabindranath too, had made explicit his allegiance to a freedom which found itself in the thousand bonds of life. The ambiguous questions posed by Abanindranath through this “mask” then demand an answer from Rabindranath, an intimate reciprocity which accepts, rejects, modifies, specifies or transforms this nomenclature.

Jogan Trophy

Abanindranath’s self-portrait [Figure 30], done in the “mask” style is also the presentation of an unexpected portent. This mask has not been securely dated, but is likely to be from c.1930. Abanindranath had made a few self-portraits before this – one at an early stage in a Rajput style showing himself with an esraj in hand and one in the “moody wash” stage. Self-portraits as a genre represent an attempt to objectify oneself and thus constitute a practice of transcendence – i.e. the exercise of finding

Figure 30 – Self-Portrait Mask/Abanindranath Tagore (RBS)

a vantage of consciousness outside or at the limits of and thereby superior by power of witnessing, to the constituted subject. Given such a transcendence (or approach towards it), it is possible to conceive of a creative re-presentation of the subject within the intersubjective matrix in a way which acts as a self-naming for interaction.

Abanindranath’s own “mask” then would be a way of signifying/signalling his relational expectation of others. In a conversation with a young Shantiniketan friend he reformulated the notion of the “mask” in terms of the pupal stage of a butterfly, linking this to his own appearance and behaviour. He speaks there of the grotesqueness of the pupal mask which serves to scare off predators during the helplessness of the pupa while the beauty of the butterfly gestates within. This is reminiscent of Bakhtin’s notion of the “grotesque” as an indicator of “process.” In Craig Brandist’s words, “The grotesque ‘discloses the potentiality of an entirely different world, of another order, another way of life. It leads man out of the confines of the apparent (false) unity, of the indisputable and stable.’ The grotesque image of the body, as an image which reveals incomplete metamorphosis no longer represents itself, it represents what Hegel called the ‘universal dialectic of life’.”

If one is to think of Rabindranath’s mask as a self-withdrawal, one may catch another connotation from this disclosure. However, as self-referential, it may apply with greater certainty to Abanindranath’s own “mask” as a Foucauldian self-fashioning at the borders of discursive/intersubjective constitution. Abanindranath’s “mask” presents a heavy somber forbidding face whittled into a thick block of natural tree-wood. The frontally presented face (“con-fronting us”), of a light reddish brown seems to be mounted on a deeper red background, as of polished rosewood. It thus looks like a headhunter’s trophy, an impression amplified by the intense, almost pained expression focused into the lips and eyes. Like his uncle’s iconic persona as regional/national/world celebrity, this brings to sharp perspective the ironic “framing” of the “national artist” as a “national treasure” or “museological fossil,” decapitated from his living context, exhibited in national galleries and replicated for domestic use through the marvels of modern technology so as to populate the mythic memory of the subject-citizens of the nation.

However, unlike the poet, the artist’s eyes and mouth are not sealed over, though they are compressed into narrow suspicion and painful distaste respectively. Towards the center, the face still lives, betraying an organic softness which progressively hardens near the edges, becoming undifferentiated wood-bark erasing and lignifying hair and ears. However, as in the case of Rabindranath’s “mask’, we may detect other readings in the artist’s masked self-representation. The heavy forbidding wooden face also reminds us strongly of Japanese Jogan Buddhas. The wide face with double chin, the downward curled lips, the narrow eyes, the wooden materiality and the face lines drawn cleverly to resemble telltale long cracks add up to what seems this deliberate impression of the most withdrawn, severe and unapproachable Buddhas in Asian art.

The nose, bent at the top and the compressed lips and eyes now betray an intense inward concentration of attention that renders this image living but remote; and like the Jogan Buddhas, the slit-like eye apertures, though narrow, are nevertheless open and stare back at the viewer surprising and defying the smug sense of national/domestic collection/possession with their independent and unpredictable agency. In this way, the “national trophy” turns inscrutable and refuses access to those who claim to possess it.  To the imprisonment of the social imaginary it responds with the living and unknowable transcendence of the Buddha.

But this “modern” transcendence, unlike the Buddha’s, is hardly unequivocal, lacking the resources or the intent to escape from samsara. It’s strategy of liberation is paradoxically twinned with an intersubjective helplessness in which, apart from the cultural connotations of “wood” in the mask (fossil, trophy, Jogan sculpture), the psychological echoes of “withering” and “refuse” cannot be dismissed. There is a tragic sense, not merely of “national framing” but of Abanindranath’s old friend, the “passing of time” which has returned to haunt him now like Shah Jehan in his last days. Like Shah Jehan’s imprisonment, the imprisonment of national projection serves to exacerbate for Abanindranath his deep sense of the passing of his age.

Close to sixty years old, with all his students gone, his elder brother Gaganendranath who painted by his side at the south facing verandah at Jorasanko rendered dysfunctional through paralysis in 1930, the sinking of the Jorasanko house deeper into debt through bad business decisions of a younger generation and the increasing fragmentation of its communitarian way of life due to the new taste for independence bred by modernity, Abanindranath felt perhaps the beginnings of a withdrawal of vitality as of a discarded piece of tree wood. In his Bageshwari Lectures he had spoken evocatively of the rich accrual of memory in ageing or dead life-forms, demanding this intuition as a necessary part of the artist’s perceptive and executive apparatus: “The hopes and despairs of the withered tree – dreams of fullness in its leaves through how many a monsoon, through how many a winter its song of falling leaves, memories of how many a spring swinging decked with flowers, all these cling to the dead tree, messages of how many a migration, with how many shimmering shadow enchantments the dressing of its fulfillment – if these cannot be captured in the magic net of the form-ensnarer, then what achievement?”

In the soft center of this lignifying head, hung like a trophy possessed by the nation, its presence denied and consigned to the past, there lives, as in Sindbad’s wooden treasure chest or the dying withered tree of the lecture, the richness of a flaneur’s life of carefully gathered experiences. Guarded by a forbidding exterior this living center engages its viewer with the appeal of its barely-open eyes to unlock its Jogan profundity, release it from the mythic imprisonment of nationality and modernity and engage its living treasure of experiences in relational play. The recognition of such an appeal draws its viewer immediately into the corresponding recognition of the realm of fairy stories which surrounds the mask – a realm where frogs, sleeping princesses and fossilized storytellers are in eternal waiting for the appearance of a fearless child with a magic wand to release them from the curse that has imprisoned them. Abanindranath’s “mask” asks perhaps this intersubjective question of his viewer: “Will you be that child?” As Mohanlal Gangopadhyay draws out in his Dokkhiner Baranda, Abanindranath’s preferred intersubjective community at this stage was already becoming increasingly restricted to the world of children and nature.

Tagore, Abanindranath, Jorasankor Dhare, Abanindra Rachanabali, Vol. 1, Calcutta, 1979, pp.301-2.

See the discussion on ‘Nation and Imagination’ in Chakrabarty, Dipesh, Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference, Princeton University Press, Princeton and Oxford, 2000, pp. 149-79.

Heidegger, Martin, Poetry, Language, Thought, trans. Hofstadter, Albert, Harper & Row, New York, 1971, pp. 36-56.

Gagopadhyay, Mohanlal, Dokkhiner Baranda, Calcutta, 1980 (2nd reprint), p. 63.


Derrida, Jacques, ‘Restitutions’ in The Truth in Painting, trans. Geoff Bennington and Ian McLeod, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1987, pp. 256-323.

Tagore, Abanindranath, “On Rabindranath’s Art”, Visva-Bharati News, May-December 1996, Shantiniketan, pg. 3

Tagore, Abanindranath, Bageshwari Silpa Prabandhabali, Ananda Publishers, Calcutta, 1941, 1999, p. 252.

Mukherjee, Benodebehari, “A Chronology of Abanindranath’s Paintings” in Visva-Bharati Quarterly, Vol. VIII, Parts I & II, May-Oct. 1942, p. 129, printed in Ibid, plate 30.

Ibid., 131, printed in Ibid., plate 48.

See ‘Tapati’ in Tagore, Rabindranath, Rabindranath Tagore: Three Plays, trans, Lal, Ananda, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2001.

Dutta, Krishna and Robinson, Andrew, Op. cit., p. 286.

Milton, John, Paradise Los and Other Poems, ed. Maurice Kelley, Walter J. Black, New York, 1943,

Book III:35-36,, p. 145.

Ibid., Book III:51-55, p.146.

Tagore, Abanindranath, Bageshwari Silpa Prabandhabali, Ananda Publishers, Calcutta, 1941, 1999, p. 252.

Tagore, Rabindranath, Naibedya, Centenary Volume, Visvabharati Prakashan, Shantiniketaqn, 1962, p. 30.

K.R. Kripalani’s chronology dates it to 1928, but this is questionable, since it exhibits an advanced approach to his “masks,” which he began with the Tapati masks of 1929. “Abanindranath’s Paintings” in Kripalani, K.R., ed, Visva-Bharati Quarterly: Abanindra Number, Op. cit., p. 136.

Chando, Rani, Shilpiguru Abanindranath, Calcutta, 1972, p.5.

Brandist, Craig, “The Bakhtin Circle” from The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, http://www.iep.utm.edu/b/bakhtin.htm. The quote within is from Bakhtin, M.M., Rabelais and his World, Trans. Helen Iswolsky. Bloomington: Indiana U P, 1968, p.48.

Tagore, Abanindranath, Bageshwari Lectures, Op. cit., p. 252.

Gangopadhyay, Mohonlal, Dokkhiner Baranda, Op. cit., p. 34.


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5 thoughts on “Excerpt from “The Alternate Nation of Abanindranath Tagore” by Debashish Banerji

  1. Rossi Claudio says:

    Yes, very informative , thank you very much.

    Do you know in your archive-record:

    1. Did Sri Abanindranath Tagore net at Shantiniketan or thereabout in the years between 1935-1939, one Westerner Scholar Dr. G. H. MEES from Holland?

    2. Did Sri Abanindranath Tagore gave away (or anyway) painted a beautiful paint in water color wash-painting; titled:-“JOURNEY OF SHIVA AND SATI”-? PL.REPLY.

  2. debbanerji says:

    I have no knowledge of Abanndranath Tagore meeting Dr.G.H.Mees from Holland at Shantiniketan between 1935-39. However, if Dr.Mees was only at Shantiniketan, such a meeting would be unlikely, since Abanindranath hardly visited Shantiniketan during that period. He went there only for short periods after Rabindranath’s passing in 1941.

    Regarding a painting titled “Journey of Shiva and Sati,” I am not familiar with such a title. But what you may have in mind is the painting of Shiva Carrying the Corpse of Sati. This was painted by Nandalal Bose, not Abanindranath Tagore.

  3. Rossi Claudio says:

    Dear Sir,

    Thank you for your reply above.

    Yes, it may be correct what said above, in our records (only verbally) by my teacher, who was the pupil of Dr. G . H. MEES, mentioned to me that this particular painting: which is an ORIGINAL now in my legal possession, was somehow an outcome from a meeting which took place at Shantiniketan (sometimes between 1935-1940) and this painting has on the reverse a sticker in which is printed:

    If you would like to see this painting (watercolor- size 63×48 cent.) i can sent you a picture.
    P.S. I have seen the painting from Sri Nandalal Bose, i am aware of the work mentioned by you.
    Please do write to my e-mail, as above, for further communications.
    Thanking you, with best regards, C.Rossi

  4. debbanerji says:

    I would love to see the painting you speak of. You have not left your email for me to contact. Please send me a scan of the image to debbanerji@yahoo.com.
    Thanks much.

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