Monday, March 08, 2010

Abanindranath's art was a hermeneutic negotiation between modernity and community

Friday, Feb 12, 2010
Debashish Banerji seeks to set the record straight about Abanindranath Tagore.

Abanindranath Tagore (1871-1951), was the founder of a ‘national' school of Indian painting, popularly known as the Bengal School of Art. His admirers term him as the first modern Indian artist to have successfully inculcated among his illustrious students a sense of belonging and allegiance to the rich tradition of India's culture. But then, his legacy of artistic nation building is often debated.
Professor Debashish Banerji, the great-grandson of Abanindranath who teaches at the Pasadena City College and at the Department of Asian and Comparative Studies at the California Institute of Integral Studies, San Francisco, has attempted to provide a revisionary critique of the art of pioneering artist in his latest book, “The Alternate Nation of Abanindranath Tagore”. Published by Sage, this well researched book, illustrated with many of Abanindranath's creations, has created a debate in the art and history circles. Excerpts from an interview with the author:
Why a book on Abanindranath after such a long gap?
I have been working on it for over five years. I felt that the accusations on Abanindranath that he was precursor of an anti-colonial political revolution and being an elite artist, neglected the underclass or ‘subaltern' cultures, needs to be sorted out now.
How did you do that?
I have argued that the art of Abanindranath which developed as part of what has been called the Bengal Renaissance in the 19th to 20th centuries, was not merely a normalisation of nationalist or Orientalist principles. Instead, it was a hermeneutic negotiation between modernity and community. It worked towards the fashioning of an alternate nation which resisted the stereotyping of identity formation of the nation-state. I have established through his various plates that his art which was embedded in communitarian practices like kirtan, alpona, pet-naming, syncretism and storytelling through oral allegories, sought a social identity through dialogues within the inter-subjective contexts of locality, regionality, nationality and trans-nationality.
Are his works in suitable condition still? We don't get to see them anywhere.
That's the saddest part. I had very difficult time in picking his works. There is a private organisation run by a lawyer in Kolkata. It has shut his important works in a trunk in a dingy room which is never opened. These works hence don't get displayed and they have all got damaged inside.
I have also learnt that they extort money from those who come to see these works or take photographs. It is in a state of utter neglect. Kala Bhavan, Santiniketan, has some wooden toys he made towards the end of his life which are again inaccessible to commoners. Albert Museum in London has some of his letters that I could see.
Was he overshadowed by Rabindranath Tagore and his charismatic legacy?
I would say that he was well recognised within the country and especially Calcutta (then) but not in the school that developed around him which was marginalised. His making was sophisticated and he was immensely impressed by the style of Rabindranath, who introduced him to Y.B Yeats. What he felt about him is very clear in a ‘theatrical' portrait in which he gags his eyes and ears in 1929. He respected him but the portrait suggests he certainly felt the pinch. RANA SIDDIQUI ZAMAN

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