Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
June 29, 2011
Debashish Banerji The Alternate Nation of Abanindranath Tagore New Delhi: Sage, 2010. 228 pp.; 32 color ills. Cloth $39.95 (9788132102397)

The Alternate Nation of Abanindranath Tagore is a revisionist study of the leading artist of the early twentieth-century Bengal Art School. Abanindranath Tagore (1871–1951) was the vice principal of the Government School of Art in Calcutta from 1905–1915. Tagore’s art and writings helped spawn a nationalist art movement known as New Indian Art (Nabya Bharat Shilpa) tied to the larger cultural nationalism of the Bengali Renaissance, in which he and several family members, including his uncle, the famous poet Rabindranath Tagore (1861–1941), played a leading role. The book argues that overemphasis on Tagore’s involvement in the nationalist art movement has obscured the artist’s personal ties to regional and local art traditions that enabled him to produce a kind of alternative nationalist style in his paintings, one that Debashish Banerji believes is inherently dialogical and therefore always open to reinterpretation (xvi). Banerji reinterprets Tagore’s work on its own terms by proposing an appropriately eclectic theoretical model; thus, the project is both a social history of an important figure in India’s modern art history and an exploration of new methodological frameworks.

Bannerji’s book fills a lacuna in scholarship of early modern South Asian artists as well as establishes a dialogue with previous studies of the Bengal School including those of Tapati Guha-Thakurta (The Making of a New ‘Indian’ Art: Artists, Aesthetics and Nationalism in Bengal, c. 1850–1920, South Asian Studies 52, Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1992), and Partha Mitter (Art and Nationlaism in Colonial India, 1852–1922, Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1994). Like Guha-Thakurta and Mitter, Banerji focuses on the role of visual art within the larger discourse of Indian nationalism; however, Banerji expands this discourse to include the role of regional art traditions. Tagore’s interest in his native Bengal and the cosmopolitan culture of Calcutta in which he lived becomes the locus for Banerji’s theorization of an alternate nationalism. To this end he has produced a definitive monograph on Tagore that is long overdue and thus should be enthusiastically received as current scholars are only beginning to write the canon of modern and contemporary South Asian art. According to Banerji, Abanindranath Tagore was heavily informed by his upbringing in the eclectic cultural milieu of the Tagores’ middle-class Bengali (bhadralok) family in the Jorasanko section of northern Calcutta. This extended household lived in a house built in the eighteenth century by Tagore’s great grandfather, Dwarakanath Tagore, which functioned as a hub for cultural activities surrounding the Bengali Residence. The house still exists today as part of Rabindra Bharati University.

Banerji argues that Tagore’s art is in part a manifestation of the Bengali communitarianism espoused by the urban, middle-class bhadralok of Calcutta in the early twentieth century. Communitarianism was a cornerstone of the Subaltern Studies Group’s postcolonial critique of liberal individualism in the 1980s. Most important for Banerji, communitarianism posits an alternate model for society rooted in community-based traditions, and restores agency to groups that were marginalized by mainstream nationalists. For his discussion of communitarianism, Banerji relies on the scholarship of Partha Chatterjee (The Nation and its Fragments: Colonial and Postcolonial Histories, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993) and Dipesh Chakrabarty (Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000).

The overarching theme of Tagore’s alternate nationalism is explored in each chapter through detailed analysis of Tagore’s paintings, not only in terms of form and content but as a reflection of the artist’s “hermeneutic negotiations between modernity and pre-modernity” (xvi). Although Banerji’s methodology is at times difficult to unpack, it strategically serves his desire to methodically unravel the multiple levels of meaning to be found in Tagore’s work. Throughout the book Banerji rigorously engages social theory, applying it in a richly contextualized study of Tagore’s artistic practice. Banerji’s insights into the artist’s creative occupations profit greatly from his familial ties as a great-grandson of Abanindranath Tagore (in his acknowledgments, he recalls growing up listening to the reminiscences of the artist by both his mother and his maternal grandmother, Tagore’s youngest daughter).

The introduction carefully outlines Banerji’s main argument—that the prevailing interpretation of Tagore’s art as a reflection of nationalist or Orientalist discourse overlooks the individual artist’s awareness and contemplation of the fragmented nature of colonial subjectivity through a “critical engagement with post-Enlightenment modernity” (xiv). Subsequent chapters follow the trajectory of Tagore’s career and oeuvre “as sites of hybrid cultural production where the creative agency of the artist negotiates subjectivity between home, region, nation, continent, and world within the dialectic of modernity and community” (xii). Thus Tagore’s art serves Banerji’s own endeavor to formulate new interpretive strategies with which to articulate multivalence and intersubjectivity.

In chapter 1, Banerji discusses Tagore’s Krishna Lila series (1897), generally marked as his point of departure from his training in Western academic-style painting. He argues that Tagore’s selection of the Krishna Lila mythological story cycle, in which the Hindu god engages in various leisure activities with cowherds and amorous dalliances with cow maidens in the countryside of Brindavan, as a subject for a series of twenty-three watercolor paintings evokes the communitarian ethos of the Bengali renaissance (4). Banerji links Tagore’s selection of the Krishna Lila to the ritual kirtan—a reenactment of the Krishna Lila story through collective singing and dancing—and specifically to the Bengali lila kirtan. According to Banerji this was a recurring event in the Jorasanko household. Through analysis of the Bengali verse-inscriptions that Tagore himself composed to accompany the visual narrative, he reveals concordances with traditional Bengali pāla-kirtan devotional texts (17). As Banerji writes: “The Krishna Lila paintings therefore, metonymically subtend a multi-sensory experience grounded in the collective ecstasy of the kirtan” (18).

Banerji continually returns to the hybrid culture of the Jorasanko household (as descendents of “Pirali” Brahmins—a Hindu sect outcaste from the mainstream around the fifteenth century) and how it informed the artist’s sensibility (59). Growing up in an environment where folk theater and religious rituals were performed regularly, Tagore documented the world around him both in image and text, as reflected in his writing several plays and children’s stories. While chapter 1 deals with Tagore’s beginning experimentation with Indian painting styles and popular regional traditions in the context of his personal and familial upbringing, chapter 2 shows that Tagore was not immune to outside influences. Here Banerji addresses the popular narrative of Tagore’s life as India’s premier national artist through his relationship with the British Orientalist E. B. Havell and the Japanese artist Okakura Kakuza, a leading figure of the Pan-Asianist movement. Banerji reevaluates the paintings produced by Tagore during this period from roughly 1896–1906, at the height of his involvement in the Swadeshi art movement. Here he takes on previous interpretations of Tagore’s work, particularly the views of Mitter and Guha-Thakurta. Rather than viewing Tagore’s work as historicist (Mitter) or as a reification of Orientalist binaries of spiritual East and material West (Guha-Thakurta), Banerji defines Tagore’s Orientalism as a nostalgic mourning for the past which is better understood through the discourse of cultural hybridity outlined by literary scholars such as Mikhail Bakhtin (The Dialogic Imagination, trans. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist, Austin: University of Texas Press, 1981) and Homi Bhabha (The Location of Culture, London: Routledge, 1994). Here Banerji’s extensive analysis of Okakura’s Pan-Asianist philosophy of spiritual transcendence is instructive, and allows for a reconsideration of Tagore’s experimentation with techniques from Japanese nihonga washes in his paintings as expressions of cultural hybridity and intersubjectivity. Banerji sees Tagore’s use of both traditional Indian painting styles and Japanese watercolor as something that transcends the discourse of Indian cultural nationalism, allowing the artist to engage with the broader discourse of the transnational Pan-Asian movement. According to Banerji, this is best articulated by the notion of hybridity. Banerji notes the full realization of this in Tagore’s Rubaiyat series of paintings made from 1906–1911, which were based on the twelfth-century Persian poems of Omar Khayyam.

In chapter 3, Banerji addresses the dual nature of Tagore’s paintings and writings as markers of both a regional Bengal style associated with local elite as well as “regional subalternity,” underlining the artist’s deep interest in rural art and performance traditions such as jātrā (a village theater genre) and brata (a popular rural Bengali narrative tradition typically performed by Hindu women). As in each of the other chapters, it contains a rich analysis of Tagore’s personal aesthetic and his choice of subject matter, beginning with his Actors and Actresses of Bengal series of portraits of jātrā actors in their costumes produced in 1913–1914, and continuing throughout his life’s oeuvre. Banerji emphasizes Tagore’s proclivity to wander between two social worlds, as a member of elite bhadralok who frequently comingled with the lower-class communities and attended their ceremonies. He likens Tagore’s interest in Bengali lower-class society to the nineteenth-century French flaneur’s fascination with the quotidian pleasures of urban life and popular theater tradition. Insightful analogies are drawn here to the nineteenth-century paintings of Moulin Rouge actors by Toulouse-Lautrec as well as Japanese Edo period ukiyo-e paintings of Kabuki actors. From 1930–1938, Tagore composed a series of original jātrā plays based on vernacular versions of the epic Ramayana and Puranic texts. He also adapted the Bengali narrative scroll tradition known as pata to a series of individual paintings depicting popular Bengali stories of the Goddess (Kabikankan Chand) and the Hindu god Krishna (Krishna Mangal).

In chapter 4, Banerji moves from the notion of regional subalternity to “intersubjective narration,” or multivocality, in Tagore’s 1930 Arabian Nights series based on the famous folk tale, One Thousand and One Nights. Banerji views Tagore’s use of multiple versions based on the traditional frame story of the nefarious ruler Shahryar and his wife Scheherazade as an explicit strategy of intersubjective narration. It is this creative strategy that Banerji focuses on as the defining aspect of an alternate nationalism in Tagore’s art. Banerji’s close reading of Tagore’s painting depicting the story of The Hunchback and the Fishbone serves as the primary example of this strategy, particularly the artist’s adoption of the modern urban setting of twentieth-century Calcutta and specific locale of the Jorasanko neighborhood to represent the medieval cosmopolis of Kashgar in which the original story took place. Banerji does this first by parsing out the various textual sources Tagore draws on to produce his own version of Arabian Nights, and then by identifying the modern architecture and signage of Jorosanko that he chose for the setting of this visual narrative.

Chapter 5 serves as the conclusion of the book with a look at Tagore’s shifting interest from painting toward sculpture and performance from 1930 on. This is the same period in which Tagore produced the series of jātrās discussed in chapter 3, composed for the household children to perform in. During this time he also created a series of “Mask Drawings,” which reflect the artist’s long-standing interest in portraiture and depictions of local performers, close family members, and friends. With the loss of his closest relatives—his elder brother, noted artist Gagendranath, his uncle Rabindranath, and his wife—Tagore eventually gave up painting entirely and spent the last ten years of his life producing over a thousand carved portraits of “relatives-in-wood” known as kātum-kutum, or small wooden toys, from found pieces of wood (118). Banerji suggests that the kātum-kutum reflect Tagore’s nostalgic preoccupation with the passage of time and disintegration of the once close-knit community of the Jorasanko extended family (116).

This comprehensive study of the life and art of Tagore, which includes a forward by Mitter and thirty-two high-quality color illustrations of rarely reproduced works by Tagore, should serve as an invaluable contribution for scholars of modern Indian art and postcolonial studies alike. Banerji’s treatment of Tagore’s individualism and agency mapped against the broader nationalist art movement will hopefully compel more nuanced studies along this vein.

Julie Romain
Assistant Curator, South and Southeast Asian Art, Los Angeles County Museum of Art