Abanindranath Tagore: A Survey of the Master’s Life and Work

— Mukul Dey

Abanindranath Tagore
Photo: Mukul Dey Archives
This article on Abanindranath Tagore, was written by his disciple Mukul Dey and is reprinted from ‘Abanindra Number, The Visva-Bharati Quarterly, May – Oct. 1942’.


Dr. Abanindranath Tagore, C. I. E., the famous artist of modern India, was born in Calcutta on August 7, 1871, at the Jorasanko residence of the Tagore family, 5, Dwarkanath Tagore Lane. The day happened to be Janmastami, the birthday of Sri Krishna. He is the youngest son of the late Gunendranath Tagore and grandson of Girindranath Tagore, the second son of Prince Dwarkanath Tagore.

His eldest brother Gaganendranath was also an artist of repute, and the next brother is Samarendranath Tagore who is of a studious and retiring disposition.

The history of this branch of the Tagore family shows a hereditary inclination towards art, so that the present members of this family had the advantage of living in an atmosphere of culture.Girindranath, Abanindranath’s grandfather, was himself a painter of considerable merit and used to paint portraits and landscapes after the European style.He made copies of the oil paintings in the Belgachia Garden House gallery. He had for his collaborator, Dr. Gouri Sankar, the first Indian painter in oils of note.

‘Black Girl’ a very famous Water colour wash-painting by Abanindranath Tagore.
Photo: Mukul Dey Archives
Girindranath was not only a painter but a dramatist and musician as well. He composed many songs and jatra plays. The well-known Bengali poet Iswar Chandra Gupta was his contemporary and friend. 

It was a favourite pastime with Girindranath to sail out in his boat on the Ganges when the sky was overcast with clouds and a storm was threatening, to the accompaniment of music with drums. Girindranath was a great friend of Radha Prosad Roy, the eldest son of Raja Ram Mohun Roy.

In the year 1864, Gunendranath and his cousin Jyotirindranath, an elder brother of Poet Rabindranath, were the earliest students of the Art School at Bowbazar where Gunendranath studied art for two or three years. This School was started in 1854 as a private enterprise by a number of Indian and European gentlemen who formed themselves into a society under the name of the Industrial Art Society.

Their institution was known as the School of Industrial Art during the time of Dr. Rajendra Lal Mitter. This was afterwards turned into the Government School of Art, Calcutta, when Lord Northbrook was the Governor-General of India. Lord Northbrook added an Art Gallery to the school about the same time. 


Amongst many others, such eminent men as Dr. Rajendra Lal Mitter, Maharajah Sir Jotindra Mohan Tagore, Mr. Justice Pratt were members of this Society. The School was first situated (1854-1855) at a house in Jorasanko (now the residence of the Mullick family) and in turn moved (1856-1858) to the premises in Colootola (now the Medical College Eye Infirmary), to Sealdah (1859-1863 ) and finally to Baithak-khana, Bowbazar (1864-1892).

‘Returning from Work’ a polychrome picture post card by Mukul Dey issued from Indian Society of Oriental Art, Calcutta by the patronage of Abanindranath Tagore. The price for this post card was kept at four annas in 1919.
Photo: Mukul Dey Archives
Like Girindranath, his son Gunendranath was also a man of varied talents. He took a keen interest in photography, botany, gardening, as well as in zoological and other scientific studies. He used to send flowers grown by him to different exhibitions and was the recipient of several prizes. He helped the well-known florist, S. P. Chatterji, with Rs. 500/- to start a nursery of flowers. He was a life member of the Agri-Horticultural Society established at Alipore and a member of the Royal Asiatic Society of Bengal. He was very fond of dramatic performances.



This will give an idea of the environment in which the two artist brothers, Abanindranath and Gaganendranath, were brought up.

When Abanindranath was about five years old his father sent him to the Normal School, then situated on the site of Mr. Haren Sil’s house in Chitpore Road, Jorasanko. He studied there for about two or three years. One day his English teacher pronounced “pudding” as “padding”, and when Abanindranath pointed out the mistake, as he had puddings for dinner every night, his teacher flew into a rage, flogged him severely and tied him up with the punkha rope to the school bench.

He was left thus confined till the school was over at 4 o’clock, when he unfastened the rope and ran home. This kind of punishment annoyed his father very much and Abanindranath’s connection with the Normal School was thereupon ended.

One of the hobbies of Abanindranath’s father was to make architectural plans and sketches in colour. After leaving the Normal School, Abanindranath made use of his father’s paint-box to paint rural scenes with cottages and palm trees. He gradually acquired considerable skill in drawing similar interesting pictures with his father’s red and blue and other coloured pencils. He was then about nine years of age.

Portrait of Dhira Devi by Abanindranath Tagore.
Photo: Mukul Dey Archives
At this time there came a change, in the household affairs of Gunendranath Tagore. The whole family moved to a garden house at Champdani on the river Ganges. The atmosphere here was quite different from that of Calcutta. It was an old rambling house reputed to be haunted and standing on extensive grounds which were originally inhabited by robbers and men of ill fame, and stood close to the French territory of Chandernagore.

The park attached to the house spread over nearly 100 bighas of land and was strewn with bones and skulls. This haunted house served to stimulate the boy Abanindranath’s artistic faculties. In the park there were peacocks, cranes and many other kinds of birds; and deer and other animals freely roamed about in it. In the morning the grounds remained strewn with the feathers of various kinds of rare and beautiful ducks which had been devoured at night by jackals.

The house itself was like a museum stored with artistic vases, carpets, screens and other antique furniture, of diverse colours and designs which left a deep impression on the mind of the young artist.

Abanindranath used to make free use of his father’s pencils and brushes as we have already seen, and here the animals and birds served as living models, while the vases and carpets offered him many kinds of designs and colour combinations.

Water colour wash-painting by Abanindranath Tagore.
Photo: Mukul Dey Archives
From this garden house Abanindranath used to see the village maidens returning from the Ganges with their pitchers full of water and all the other usual sights to be seen in typical Bengali villages. Thus at the early age of nine the love of nature was implanted in him. On seeing his sketches one of his uncles, Nilkamal Mukerji, was so pleased that he presented him with a drawing-slate of ground glass and some coloured pictures for him to copy.

All this gave him encouragement and helped his talents to grow. Sometimes he embroidered a tapestry piece and at other times he would with his bare fingers shape into being figures of Kartika, Ganesa and other Pauranic gods and goddesses out of thick flour-paste. But the house and gardens which were the main source of his artistic inspiration were also the scene of his first severe bereavement.

Here his beloved father died when Abanindranath was only ten years of age. After this bereavement the Tagore family returned by boat to their Jorasanko house. The three young brothers’ appointed guardians Joggesh Gangooly and Nilkamal Mukerji henceforth looked after the boys.

Abanindranath’s mother desired once more to give him an ordinary school education and his guardians accordingly sent him to the Sanskrit College. While studying here he composed a hymn on Saraswati, the Goddess of Learning and secured the first prize. He also received many Sanskrit books as prizes There was no drawing class in the school but, along with his classical studies, Abanindranath began to write Bengali verses, illustrating them with pictures of dilapidated temples, moonlight scenes, etc.

Original hand drawn picture post card by Abanindranath Tagore to Mukul Dey and W. W. Pearson in Japan, 1916.
Photo: Mukul Dey Archives
While still at the Sanskrit College (1881-1890) Abanindranath took a few lessons in Art from his class-mate, Anukul Chatterjee of Bhawanipur whom he still remembers clearly and the beautiful pencil outline drawings that he used to make. Although he was not very strong in his English, Abanindranath somehow managed to get promoted to the first class, being exceptionally well for his age in the Sanskrit language and literature. 


In 1889 he married Srimati Suhasini Devi, the eldest daughter of the late Bhujagendra Bhusan Chatterjee, a descendant of Prasanna Coomar Tagore. At this time he left the Sanskrit College after nine years of study and studied English as a special student at St. Xavier’s College, which he attended for about a year and a half. At this institution he greatly enjoyed lectures of Father Lafont on scientific subjects.

Between the years 1892 and 1894, many of his early efforts at pictorial illustration were published in the Sadhana magazine and in Chitrangada, and other works of Rabindranath. He also illustrated his own books, Sakuntala, Khirer-putul, and made several pictures for the story of Bimbavati.It was at this time that Rabindranath used to compose songs and sing them himself to the accompaniment of Abanindranath’s esraj. This period was also utilised by Abanindranath in practising music. Some beautiful stories and dramas in Bengali came out of the pen of Abanindranath at this time which were published later.

Brush and ink study of a Vaishnava Guru by Abanindranath Tagore.
Photo: Mukul Dey Archives
About the year 1897 when Abanindranath was about twenty-five years of age, he took private lessons from Signor Gilhardi, an Italian artist, (then Vice-Principal of the Calcutta Government School of Art) on cast drawing, foliage drawing, pastel and life study. Later he began to attend the studio of Mr. Charles L. Palmer who had arrived from England. After undergoing a severe training under Palmer for three or four years, Abanindranath attained such a proficiency in portrait painting in oils that he could finish a picture within two hours.

During this period he painted many subjects in oils. In 1900 Abanindranath went to Monghyr where a complete change took place in his artistic activities. He gave up painting in oil after European style and took up painting in water colour. He returned to Calcutta and took a further course of training in water colour painting under Palmer, and then he again went to Monghyr taking the work he had done under Palmer with him. 


Here sitting at Kastaharini and Bisram Ghats, he devoted himself wholeheartedly to water colour painting from life and nature. From these ghats he could watch the graceful, slow moving pageantry of village life between the homesteads and the river. These first hand glimpses of Indian life combined with the former impression on his mind of old dilapidated Moghul forts turned his mind towards India of old, and the rich realm of Indian art definitely revealed itself to him.

Radha and Krishna by Abanindranath Tagore. Note the Persian manuscript-like inscriptions on the painting in stylized Bengali script, from a old photograph.
Photo: Mukul Dey Archives
The turning point in his artistic career came when one day, in his ancestral library at Jorasanko house he came across an old illuminated Indo-Persian manuscript.The marvellous drawings and calligraphy in the book fired his imagination and inspired him to reveal his own self in his art.

Abanindranath then began his famous series of pictures descriptive of the familiar scenes in the life of Sri Krishna, the divine cowherd, which are popularly known as the “Krishna Lila”. These productions are the effects of the subtle changes in his artistic outlook gained at Monghyr.

This led him to give up his once cherished hope of becoming the Titian of Bengal. This happened nearly forty years ago and Abanindranath, then a young man of thirty, found his own expression for his art. Once for all he abandoned the European style. 


Ten years later he met E. B. Havell, then Principal of the Government School of Art, Calcutta. In him the youthful enthusiast found a congenial friend and sympathiser. Both worked conjointly at the Institution. Since that time the Bengal School of Painting has always sought for the revival of the Indian traditional art and motifs.



The life story of Abanindranath will remain incomplete if the contribution of Gaganendranath, his elder brother, to the success that has crowned Abanindranath’s efforts remains unmentioned. In the pursuit of his creative work and in the building up of the “Indian Society of Oriental Art” in Calcutta, Gaganendranath rendered invaluable help. His other brother, Samarendanath, was also, in an indirect way, responsible for the success of Abanindranath’s mission, for, by taking upon himself the onerous duties of administering the ancestral property he relieved his brothers of much worry and trouble and earned for them the necessary leisure to pursue the ideal they had set before themselves.

Mountain Goats by Abanindranath Tagore, from a colour reproduction.
Photo: Mukul Dey Archives
The orientation in the artistic outlook of Abanindranath created a new awakening in India and brought about a revival of the Indian Art which for centuries lay decadent and hidden from the public view. Just as in the period of Renaissance the savants of Europe, after ages of gloom and desolation, discovered the ancient culture, so it was Abanindranath who found out India’s lost art treasures. This awakening from darkness and the new understanding which followed, impressed its mark on almost all branches of artistic activity, in painting, sculpture, architecture, book illustration, design, commercial art, lithography, engraving, etc.

It would be an impossible task to give a detailed catalogue of the paintings of Abanindranath, a large number of which may be favourably compared with the productions of the most famous masters of Europe. His “Avisarika” (1892), “Passing of Shah Jahan” (1900), “Buddha and Sujata” (1901), “Krishna Lila” series (1901 to 1903), “Banished Yaksha” (1904), “Summer” from Ritu Sanghar of Kalidasa (1905), “Moonlight Music Party” (1906), “The Feast of Lamps” (1907), “Kacha and Devajani” (1908), “Shah Jahan Dreaming of Taj” (1909), illustrations of “Omar Khayyam” (1909), “The Call of the Flute” (1910), “Asoka’s Queen” (1910: painted for her Majesty Queen Mary), “Veena Player” (1911), “Aurangzeb examining the head of Dara” (1911), “Temple Dancer” (1912), “Pushpa-Radha” (1912), “Sri Radha by the River Jamuna” (1913), “Radhika gazing at the portrait of Sri Krishna” (1913), “Moonrise at Mussouri Hills” (1916), “Poet’s Baul-dance in Falgurni” (1916), “Chaitanya with his followers on the sea beach of Puri” (1915), “Baba Ganesh” (1937), “End of Dalliance” (1939), are only a few which may be mentioned among the many that have extorted unstinted admiration in India and Europe.

Mukul Dey’s Mask by Abanindranath Tagore.
Photo: Mukul Dey Archives
The famous picture “Alamgir” is a sublime masterpiece. The Moghul Emperor is standing bent with age, his hands at the back clasping a book inside which the blade of the sword is seen as a bookmark. The fingers of the aged monarch. are like the iron claws of an eagle which catch its prey without mercy. There are many other pictures such as the “Birds and Animals” series (1915), “The Last Journey” (1914), which have also been very much admired. The “Passing of Shah Jahan” is an oil painting in wood and looks like a superb Dutch miniature. One of the latest works from his brush is a series of illustrations of the Tales of Arabian Nights (1928) where the age-old desert tales spread themselves before the eye with all their romance and mystery unimpaired.

It may sound strange to many, but it is a fact nevertheless, that Abanindranath had a wide recognition in Europe as an artist of great merit long before Rabindranath Tagore was known there.It was the friends of Abanindranath and Gaganendranath, like E. B. Havell, Thomas Sturge-Moore, Sir William Rothenstein, H. Ponten-Moller, Norman Blunt, Sir John G. Woodroffe who encouraged the Poet to publish his Gitanjali in English through the India Society, London, which brought him international fame.

Birth of Krishna, en early painting by Abanindranath Tagore done in Pahari miniature style.
Photo: Mukul Dey Archives
Painting and Sculpture are but two of the many attainments of this versatile genius, Abanindranath Tagore. His manifold and valuable contributions to literature in some of its important branches would rank him as one of the greatest litterateurs of the time. Children’s literature specially has received his devoted and affectionate attention.

The more important of his works on juvenile literature are “Raj-Kahini”, “Sakuntala”, “Kshirer-Putul”, “Bhutapatri”, “Nalaka”, “Nahush”, “Buro-Angla” which please the old and the young alike.
The literature on art has been considerably enriched by his works “Bharat Silpa”, “Six Limbs of Painting” and ” Artistic Anatomy”, and his various contributions to the Journal of Indian Society of Oriental Art.

Apart from all these books many original contributions from his pen have appeared in the pages of periodicals both here and elsewhere which have now passed out of memory.

Abanindranath’s love for children has led him to devote his limitless energy to the compilation of the Ramayana and Mahabharata, the sacred epics of Hindusthan, for the benefit of his young friends. When the books will come out, they will undoubtedly be hailed as monumental works in literature. Poems that have come out of the gifted pen of Abanindranath are not many. But their deep meaning, simple ease and spontaneous flow give them a distinctiveness and charm which are rarely met with in present day literature.

Yashoda and Krishna by Abanindranath Tagore, from an early colour reproduction.
Photo: Mukul Dey Archives
The University of Calcutta expressed its appreciation of his talents by appointing him a few years ago as the Bageswari Professor of Oriental Art. The series of lectures he then delivered will for all time to come be regarded as authoritative and inspiring utterances on Art. These lectures have recently been published in a book form to the delight of all lovers of art.

Abanindranath’s artistic mind expresses itself not only in the field of painting but also in diverse other ways.He is interested in music and can play beautifully instruments like sitar, veena, esraj and reed pipes. He takes more than an amateurish interest in gardening.He did some bas-relief work on common marble used for the purpose of preparing hand-made bread and numerous portraits in pastel and oil, and has also done some fresco painting on walls.

The drama and stage decorations are also among the various subjects of Abanindranath’s interest. He is himself an actor of no mean merit. The success of many of Rabindranath’s famous plays was due in no small measure to the artistic setting designed by Abanindranath’s imaginative mind.

He has a great fund of humour and his rendering of comic parts in the plays of Rabindranath staged in Calcutta will long be remembered by those who have seen him acting.

Parvati playing with baby Ganesha by Abanindranath Tagore, fron an old coloured reproduction.
Photo: Mukul Dey Archives


Special mention may be made of his post-card paintings and sketches which he is in the habit of sending to his pupils as a sort of encouragement to them in their pursuit of art. A small thing in itself, this however reveals an important trait in his character. They should be collected and published in a book form.

Of warm and affectionate disposition, Abanindranath has always looked after the welfare of his pupils, and besides ungrudgingly giving his help and encouragement in their work he was always ready to help them out of their difficulties with financial aid. Indeed his timely and secret financial assistance has enabled many of his students, whose careers would otherwise have come to an end to attain success for themselves. It is a rare fortune to be one of his pupils.

Abanindranath is still with us. His powerful mind is still creative. His work has been of great value in the regeneration of national culture in India. But our countrymen never rendered proper homage to him.Bengal has been slow to understand his gifts to her and even when she has come to appreciate them she has been slow to give recognition to the sublime attainments of the great master.It is not often in the history of a nation that a genius like Abanindranath is born.

A pertinent question arises in the mind of every genuine lover of art. What will happen to these pictures of unique value when their creator has passed away? Would all these be allowed to vanish with him? Conquerors like Napoleon preferred removing to their own country art treasures to carrying away precious metals from different lands. Should we on our part let our treasures perish unknown, neglected and uncared for?

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