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Travelling exhibition

Harvest of rhythm, colour & lines

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Although painting came late to Rabindranath Tagore - in his 60s - the Nobel laureate went on to create a vast body of work. A travelling exhibition, in its Delhi stopover, explores his imaginative visual vocabulary.

Dreamy, sad-eyed women gaze at you from the bondage of their frames. A minatory bird stares angrily. Poison-blue flowers with flaring petals snuggle on tumescent branches. The images hang from walls of Indian red, terracotta, yellow ochre signalling a dramatic ambience. Melodious strains of Rabindrasangeet waft through the air. Video copies of Satyajit Ray's documentary on Tagore are being shown continuously through the day.

The Last Harvest, an exhibition of paintings by Rabindranath Tagore, now showing at the New Delhi National Gallery of Modern Art Exhibition Hall is an impressive visual experience. Says NGMA director, Rajeev Lochan, "The 200-plus exhibits showcase the rarest of the rare Tagore paintings. They have been collected from Rabindra Bhavana and Kala Bhavana of Visva Bharati and the NGMA. " The exhibition commemorates the 150th birth centenary of Rabindranath, and divided in three segments, it travelled in three circuits to nine cities - Berlin, Paris, London, Rome, New York, Chicago, Toronto, Seoul and Kuala Lumpur. It is for the first time the show in its entirety is being mounted in Delhi. A large number of the works have never been seen before. The reason for their rarity in the exhibition circuit is their fragility and their high value. An expert committee has valued this body of exhibits at roughly Rs. 150 crore. Painted on paper some 80 years ago, the exhibits demand handling with utmost care. And so they nestle safely in reserve collections. For Delhiites, it is a never-seen-before experience of a lifetime.

Of the exhibition, younger generation artist Manisha Gera Baswani says: "The show has been haunting me. It is a show in which everything comes together with great force - the images, the quality of display, the music - and all of it touched me. It reminded me of Santiniketan as it used to be about which I have heard so much from my guru A Ramachandran. "

And it is easy to understand why Baswani felt haunted by the show. First, there is the magic of Rabindranath's rhythmic lines. See them sensuously unfurling or tensely coiling into little circles, cascading like a veil or criss-crossing, lines that are thick and supple forming into curlicues, arabesques or angular, geometric patterns.

Then there is the enchantment of colours. Observe the elegant bird in flaming orange, the glowing sunset sky against the brooding trees, or the fantastic figure in red against a dusky, blue-purple background. And finally, there is the dazzling array of forms. Some of these are lyrical and romantic like the female heads and figures, others are gothic and mysterious. There are the absurd, goblin-faced creatures. There are the grotesque, composite forms, bizarre figures and witty beasts. The versatility of Rabindranath's imagination is quite overwhelming. And surprisingly, compared to the refinement and romanticism of his writings, music, theatre, the subliminal drive is more patently felt in his paintings. Says Lochan, "Rabindranath's art transcends the physicality of matter and touches deep down into emotions which are not easily communicable. " And it is true that one senses greater manifestations of fear, eroticism, a profound response to grotesquerie and absurdity.

Although Rabindranath was always interested in visual arts, painting came to him fairly late in life when he was in his mid-60 s. It all began with doodles made on the scratching and erasures on his manuscripts and turning them into fantastic forms. Slowly, he began painting independent images. Like a volcanic eruption, he painted a few thousand works in the last 15 years of his life. Contemporary accounts say that he painted like a driven man.

In spite of this large body of works, curator of this exhibition and eminent art historian R Siva Kumar says, "Rabindranath was little known as a painter, compared to his writings, especially abroad. While curating this travelling show, I kept this in mind. I wanted to focus on his art so that it would appeal to the general viewers, as well as to the connoisseurs. " He adds that he also wanted to highlight how the poet-painter had the aesthetics of a modernist and how he was a "catalyst of modern Indian art. "

Siva Kumar has introduced a thematic focus in the show and has divided it into four sections. The first section constitutes Animals, Designs, Composites. In this section, Siva Kumar has shown a large number of paintings that was first shown in Paris in 1930 at Rabindranath's debut exhibition. The second section consists of Landscapes and Flowers. According to Siva Kumar, although Rabindranath is known for his love of nature, the landscapes form a smaller part of his oeuvre. The third section showcases Gesticulating Figures and Dramatic Scenes. In this substantial section, Siva Kumar subtly reminds the viewers of Rabindranath's other forms of creative expressions like theatre, dance, music as well as his innate sense of rhythm. The fourth section is Faces. And here we have a veritable gallery rising from memory's folds. Rabindranath had travelled widely and met many people. These diverse impressions he caught in pen, ink and paint. The collection of paintings is augmented with blow-ups of rare photographs and lucid texts.

Says architect A R Ramanathan, "This is a very special exhibition. " He, along with his colleagues Snehanshu Mukherjee and Gaurav Kapoor at TEAM, designed the display and coordinated the logistics of moving such a high-profile exhibition. The display was designed after an intense dialogue with the curator in order to project the facets of Tagore's life and art. Says Ramanathan, "We decided to suggest the colours, textures and imagery of rural Bengal. In planning the layout, we were concerned with the available space and the viewing distance. " The first positive reactions to the background came from New York and Chicago, informs Ramanathan. "Everything about this exhibition is customised from framing to packaging to transport, " he adds.

(Ella Datta is a Tagore National Fellow for cultural research)

The exhibition is on at NGMA, Delhi, till January 13, 2013

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