Rabindranath Tagore's Exhibition
— Satyasri Ukil
Reprinted from ‘Art & Deal’, August-September, 1999.
It would have been proper to provide a backdrop of Rabindranath Tagore/Mukul Dey relationship before attempting to restructure these pragmatic aspects of an exhibition, which might generate controversies regarding certain ideological questions in the end.
Artist Mukul Dey, the sponsor of this historic exhibition was a student of Tagore’s school at Santiniketan during the years c. 1906 till 1912. Once a disciple and protégé, later on a rebel and a deserter (Dec. 13, 1917) Mukul Dey came back from U. K. to take the charge of Government School of Art, Calcutta, on July 11, 1928 as its first Indian Principal.
Our story begins here: at Calcutta, in the year 1928.
As source material to examine and narrate the topic mentioned above we have a set of nine letters of Rabindranath Tagore to Mukul Dey between Nov. 1928 and Nov. 1933; one printed and published illustrated catalogue of this exhibition; a set of six money receipts; one letter of poet’s son, Rathindranath Tagore to Mukul Dey dated March 18, 1932 and two newspaper clippings of ‘The Statesman’, Calcutta, 1932.
We know that the first ever Tagore exhibition took place in Gallerie Pigalle, Paris from May 2, 1930 till May 19, 1930. What history and several chroniclers tell us as a chance discovery of a genius by a French journalist at an obscure country-house on the shores of South of France may not be a matter of as simple a coincidence as that.
During this period he had absolutely immersed himself in his paintings and, if not more, completed at least one hundred and twenty six finished works. During the very same period Mukul Dey, as a loyal admirer of Tagore’s art had photo-documented his paintings/drawings to make 53/4” x 61/2” glass-plate negatives, to prepare finally half-tone blocks out of them.
However, after about two years, when the obvious question came of organising an exhibition of his paintings, Tagore very decidedly chose the cultural arena of Paris and Berlin to hold his show. As early as 4th Agrahayan, 1335, (corresponding to Christian era November 1928) he writes to Mukul Dey:
“(here) a few people are advising to exhibit them in Paris and Berlin. If that gets finalised then I will not be publishing them (the paintings) prior to that. Some of these I wish I could engrave on wood… shall discus (with you) when you come”.
In a subsequent letter dated December 10 1928 Tagore writes:
“Rathi and Bouma have gone to Calcutta for two days. If you hand them over my paintings blocks and negatives, they can bring them here. If I need to make any payment for them, let me know the amount and send the bill so that I can settle it. I am very busy these days for the Viceroy’s forthcoming visit”.
For one long year, from May 1930 to May 1931, Tagore’s exhibitions in France, U. K., Germany, Denmark, Switzerland, U. S. S. R. and U. S. A. were sheer history with a remarkable trail of success and appreciation. However, when back in India, Tagore was as skeptical as before about his Indian audience but never short of pragmatic wisdom. He writes to Mukul Dey on June 6, 1931 from Darjeeling:
“I have titled the paintings. You can view them when I am in Calcutta. But let me tell you if they do not sell, I do not want to exhibit them. Aban was telling me (that) in these bad times of the world there is hardly any chance of selling them. If, at least, I get fifteen thousand rupees, that will take care of my needs for the time being. Otherwise, I don’t see any reason to expose myself to the critics’ sarcasm. I do not believe that these strange paintings of mine will elicit any appreciation from the people of my land. When I go abroad next, I will take them with me”.
Precisely, why Tagore expected to sell his paintings to an apparently unappreciative and dull audience is beyond my personal comprehension! At this point of our story I am almost certain that there is definitely a body of correspondence from Mukul Dey to Tagore, but unfortunately, all my efforts to access them at Rabindra Bhavan, Visva Bharati have not yielded any result so far.
On 3rd Ashadha, 1338, (Christian era June 18, 1931) Tagore writes to Dey:
”Okay I will unveil my veiled paintings (purdah-nasheen) during the winter, then let the people speak out and say whatever they feel. When they will felicitate me at Calcutta, the painting exhibition should coincide (with it), so many more will come to notice it”.
Here, obviously, Tagore was referring to his forthcoming felicitation at the Town Hall; Calcutta scheduled in December 1931. However, most of the chroniclers are strangely silent about this chronologically first exhibition of Tagore on Indian soil, and that too in the city of his own home.
Automatically the question arises whether the audience had not been appreciative or, was the sales been poor? Personally, I am yet to learn anything conclusive about this particular exhibition of Tagore, which was most flimsily chronicled even by his noted biographer.
In February, 1932 (initially, from Feb. 20-29,1932, but later on extended till March 7,1932) and after about one and a half months of the Town Hall exhibition, the audience at Calcutta had witnessed the grand spectacle of an Exhibition of Drawings, Paintings, Engravings, Pottery and Leather work by Sir Rabindranath Tagore at Government School of Art at 28, Chowringhee Road. That was how the illustrated catalogue, brought out on this special occasion, had introduced Tagore the artist, to his own people in Bengal.
How ironical! Tagore the poet, receiving critical acclaim in Bengal only after his Nobel Prize, and at a later point of time, Tagore the painter, skillfully engineers his shows in the West first and then only ventures to meet his Indian audience armed with a defunct knighthood discarded long ago after the April 13,1919 massacre of Jallianwala Bagh, at Amritsar. I anticipate that Mukul Dey could be blamed for that unwanted prefix to Tagore’s name, but was he alone responsible for it? Could it not have been an aspect of a broader stratagem?
The February 1932 exhibition was entirely sponsored by Mukul Dey. It consisted of two hundred and sixty five original works by Tagore in various mediums, apart from seventeen craft works by his son Rathindranath and daughter-in-law Pratima Devi. In the illustrated catalogue published on the eve of this event Principal Dey had introduced Tagore the artist in no uncertain terms.
“It may be asked why the World Poet, in the evening of his life, has almost forsaken his masterly pen to wield the brush. The reply is not far to seek. What appears to not an inconsiderable number of critics as the effeminate characteristics, which mar the beauty of New Bengal School of Art, has not escaped the notice of such a keen observer as our Poet. On the other hand, in Rabindranath’s opinion, it is idle in these days to make efforts to revive anything approaching the sublime grandeur of the Ajanta School.
The Poet-Painter makes an entirely new departure in representing the reality of life with his own vigorous masterstrokes, which know no faltering. In his seventieth year, the poet’s fingers are tense, and show no tremulousness. His pen and ink pictures are veritable masterpieces. The figures drawn by the poet with a single stroke of the brush vividly bring out the vitality of the inspired art of Rabindranath. His paintings have in them great movements. His portraits are the very embodiments of vitality of expression”.
Mukul Dey concludes his Foreword with equal clarity. He writes:
“Already his (Tagore’s) paintings have attracted worldwide attention. Very high prices were paid for them in Germany, America, France and other places. Museum and private collections in the West bought his pictures and paid prices to the extent of 400 to 700 dollars each. This exhibition offers an opportunity for the first time in this country to secure specimens of his priceless paintings and drawings with his autograph at a moderate price as the illustrated catalogue will show”.
As was expected, the exhibition proved to be a grand success both in terms of attracting the glitteratti and sales. Rani Chanda, Principal Dey’s younger sister had narrated vividly the general mood of jubilation prevailing at 28, Chowringhee Road where Tagore was staying those days. However, immediately after the exhibition was over, something went wrong.
Whereas Dey kept on making payments of the sale proceeds to Tagore’s son Rathindranath; the poet assumed and complained that no payments were being made since nothing reached him finally. We do not know what exactly was happening. May be at a future point of time some scholar who could access Dey’s letters to Tagore in Rabindra Bhavana collection will be able to tell us what exactly went wrong and where!
So far I have been able to locate five revenue stamped and dated money receipts for a total amount of Rs. 5,025/- (Rupees five thousand and twenty five only) and further a list showing the break-up of the prices of lacquer and leather goods purchased by Dey from this exhibition. According to this list a debit balance of Rs. 23 & 8 Aanas still stand in the name of Mukul Dey. The last of the receipt was issued on April 12,1932.
However, Rabindranath is most vocal in his letters regarding the sale proceeds. On July 2, 1932 he writes to Dey:
“I never had a word with you regarding the sale proceeds of my paintings. I thought I would remain silent in this matter. But the difficult times force me to write. You know that my zamindari has stopped functioning. Even then I was not perturbed. But (now) I have received information from Germany that Nitu is affected with consumption. I have to send Mira there. Therefore, at this difficult hour, I am compelled to remind you about my due payment. You had repeatedly told me that while dealing with you I would never have to bother about the payment. (It is) useless to worry now. I will appreciate if you would willingly settle the account. I will dislike entering into any controversy with you regarding this”.
It is strange that in none of the letters Rabindranath mentions of having ever received any payment through his son to whom Mukul Dey had made at least five different payments between Feb. 28 and April 12, 1932. Dey’s Visitors Book bears testimony to the fact that both at the opening and closing of the exhibition Tagore himself was physically present at the venue. Even then why the payments were always made to Tagore’s son remains a mystery.
Mukul Dey went to debts considerably, as a result of holding this grand show. His wife Bina Dey reported that it took him till the first half of 1934 to clear his accounts with his creditors. On one such occasion Dey’s wife had to mortgage her gold ornaments to pull him through the bad patch!
The curtain came down on this historic event in the form of a short, terse letter of Tagore, dated Nov. 6, 1933.
He wrote to Mukul Dey from Santiniketan:
“I am very pleased to receive your letter of Oct. 12th. I am not aware of any expenses incurred by you for my exhibition of paintings. Rathindranath had a word with you regarding that, and he is experienced. Therefore, I think it is a futile exercise on your part to elicit any proper answer from me regarding this. I never knew that I would have to share any expenses to mount that show. If now you are facing any financial trouble due to my exhibition, I am really very sorry”.
Thus, almost exactly after five years, the affairs of one of the most important Tagore exhibitions ever organised in India came to a close as far as Mukul Dey was concerned.
Many scholars believe that 1924 manuscript of “Purabi” contains Tagore’s first efforts of drawing. However, this can be contested, chronologically. In the Foreword of the 1932 illustrated catalogue Mukul Dey reports about a black leather-bound drawing book of Tagore, which he received from the poet, as a gift, in April 1909 at Santiniketan. This drawing-book contained the earlier artistic efforts of Rabindranath Tagore. If I am not wrong, about ten years ago (August, 1989), I remember of having read in ‘Desh’ (Ananda Bazaar Publications) that the same drawing-book now forms part of a collection of Sri Indrakishore Kejriwal of Calcutta. Lastly, a few words about the collection of source materials for this article may not be out of place here. In 1943 Mukul Dey had opted for a premature retirement from the services of Government School of Art, Calcutta and had shifted his residence to Santiniketan. There, in his residence all his papers used to lay scattered everywhere in huge heaps and dumps. Dey, more-or-less, had lost interest in them. Much were destroyed during the 1978 floods and by the voracious appetite of the termites.
In 1983, for the first time, I had chanced upon a few torn pages of Dey’s 1917 diary (Aug. 23, 1917 to Dec. 13, 1917) in this abyss. It contained most valuable information about the Tagores of Jorasanko, Calcutta. I prepared a manuscript of this diary in 1983 itself. Later on this manuscript was stolen from our family home in Santiniketan by a noted scholar of Visva-Bharati and subsequently was published in his daughter’s name (vide ‘Samatat’, Calcutta, July - Sept. 1995 issue). However, my interest in Dey’s papers had continued, and which is why I searched more and more for important documents till I could piece together this story.
August 24, 2010
The Statesman, dated August 22 and 23, 2010 reported that in the coming February, 2011 the Government College of Art and Craft, Kolkata will be holding an important Tagore exhibition at its premises to comemmorate the poet’s 150th birth anniversary celebrations. In this connection, it is heartening to note that the reporter Aparajit Chakraborty did not forget to mention the role of Mukul Dey in organizing the first ever solo exhibition of Rabindranath Tagore in India; especially, as the recognition comes after decades of neglect Mukul Dey suffered at the hands of so-called Indian art historians.
We are happy to post here an image of Rabindranath Tagore’s exhibition poster, designed by artist Satish Chandra Sinha and his students at Government School of Art, Calcutta in 1932. We are grateful to Samit Das for sharing the image with us.
Delhi, on March 16, 2011
On February 27, 2011 the Governor of West Bengal M. K. Narayanan had inaugurated the Tagore exhibition at the Government College of Art and Craft (GCAC), Kolkata. Initially, the show was scheduled to be opened on February 22, but was postponed five days to suit the convenience of the Governor. In the meanwhile official invitation card was distributed, which carried all the big names of famous Bengali scholars, artists and academicians such as Sankha Ghosh, Nirendranath Chakrabarty, Anup Matilal, Dr. Suranjan Das (Vice-Chancellor, University of Calcutta), Jogen Choudhury and Dipali Bhattacharya, the principal of the Government College of Art and Craft.
This apart the GCAC principal Dipali Bhattacharya had also crafted a most impressive personal invitation letter addressed to distinguished guests, wherein she declared:
“The exhibition will feature Tagore’s original work, his letters and other documents, along with poems by eminent poets on him and the works of art by renowned artists based on Tagore’s thoughts.” [!] [Emphasis added].
However, almost as soon as the exhibition was inaugurated there was a huge furor in the media, and The Telegraph Metro edition of March 2, 2011 claimed blatantly that the so-called “original” Tagore paintings were all fakes. Reporter Soumitra Das wrote:
“The thriving cottage industry in churning out fake paintings has invaded the Government College of Art & Craft, where an exhibition of paintings purported to be by Rabindranath Tagore has been categorically branded fake by experts.”
Das further wrote:
“Dipali Bhattacharya said both Jogen Choudhury and Ganesh Haloi were associated with the exhibition, and that Choudhury had bought one of the works, a fact that was later confirmed by the artist who has lived and worked in Santiniketan for decades.”
It seems that “a gang of counterfeiters” were at the helm of affairs of this most shameful show, and Kolkata greeted Rabindranath Tagore with a bunch of fakes on his 150th birthday!
Delhi, on March 17, 2011
There’s a general belief among noted Indian art historians that Rabindranath Tagore never titled his paintings. In connection to that we are uploading the attached image, which shows a part of Tagore’s letter to Mukul Dey dated June 6, 1931 from “Asantuli”, Darjeeling. This letter is in Tagore’s own handwriting, wherein he writes that his paintings were indeed titled.
As most of Rabindranath / Mukul Dey letters are yet unpublished, we are unable to give the entire text of this historic letter here.
Delhi, on March 28, 2011
Indian Express reports:
“The Calcutta High Court on Monday directed the Archaeological Survey of India to form an expert committee to examine the authenticity of 20 paintings, purported to be works of Rabindranath Tagore, which ran into controversy after they were labelled “fake” by art experts.
A division bench comprising Chief Justice J N Patel and Justice Asim Kumar Roy directed the Director General of ASI to complete the tests to ascertain the authenticity of the paintings and submit a report to the court within three months.
Sculptor Tapas Sarkar had filed a petition before the High Court seeking formation of an expert committee by a competent authority to unravel the truth behind allegations of the “fake” Tagore paintings exhibited at the Government Art College gallery between February 27 and March 8 to mark the 150th birth anniversary of the Nobel laureate.
The paintings were later withdrawn after being labeled “fake” by several painters and art critics. Sarkar’s counsel Kaushik Chanda submitted that under the Antiquities and Art Treasure Act, Tagore’s paintings have been declared as a national treasure. Section 24 of the Act empowers the Director General of ASI to decide on any dispute regarding genuinity of the paintings, Chanda submitted.”
Delhi, on April 5, 2011
During the controversial exhibition of Rabindranath Tagore at the premises of GCAC, Kolkata in February - March, 2011 a pirated facsimile edition of the original exhibition catalogue of 1932 was put on sale with a 250 INR price tag! On the rear jacket flap of the pirated edition the GCAC claimed the copyright of this edition. In this regard, Mukul Dey Archives wishes to put on record that the original catalogue of 1932 was produced and published by Dey out of his personal funds, and as per the regulations of copyright act the same copyright is still vested with the heirs and inheritors of Mukul Dey.
In support of our assertion, and for the education of the noted Indian art historians, we wish to draw their attention to Mukul Dey’s letter to Rabindranath Tagore, dated October 12, 1933—wherein he categorically stated that the entire cost of holding the 1932 exhibition, including the production of the exhibition catalogue, was done with his own funds.
This historic letter of Mukul Dey in original manuscript, is in the collection of Rabindra-Bhavana Archives at Visva-Bharati University in Santiniketan. The above mentioned letter was replied by Rabindranath Tagore on November 6, 1933, which is preserved in the collection of Mukul Dey Archives in original. Apart from these two evidences, MDA has the original salary account pass-book of Mukul Dey, which shows that he indeed had paid the printers of 1932 catalogue out of his salary funds.
We deplore the authorities of Government College of Art and Craft, Kolkata for this shameful robbery!
Delhi, on November 26, 2011
Now it is official! The Archaeological Survey of India submitted its report on the controversial “Tagore paintings” as ordered by the High Court, Kolkata. The report declared that all 20 paintings, which were exhibited by Dipali Bhattacharya as fakes.
Delhi, on December 8, 2011
Time and again Ms. Dipali Bhattacharya and Mr. Jogen Chowdhury’s names are appearing in press in connection to the fake Tagore paintings. Public want proper investigation into the thriving racket of fake art in Kolkata and Santiniketan. Some demanded that Ms. Bhattacharya should resign.
Santiniketan, on December 26, 2011
Renowned artist Jogen Choudhury publicly denied that he had any role to play in organizing this most shameful and controversial exhibition of FAKE Tagore paintings at GCAC, Kolkata [!!]. Equally, Dipali Bhattacharya claims that he was involved. Mud slinging has started, we wonder when bean spilling would begin!
Delhi, on October 19, 2012
A number of Bengali and English regional newspapers reported that West Bengal police has registered a criminal case against Dipali Bhattacharya, Jogen Chowdhury and Jayanta Bandyopadhyay on the basis of a FIR filed by two students and artists of Government College of Arts and Crafts, Kolkata on October 17, 2012. Jogen Chowdhury has publicly denied his involvement in this scandal. We will follow the investigation closely.
We hope that the forgers should be awarded adequate punishment as per the law of the land.
* We are grateful to Sh. Nityananda Kabiraj for supplying us all the recent newspaper clippings ragarding ‘Tagore Fakes Scandal’ at the Government College of Art, kolkata.