In 2004, Rabindranath Tagore’s Nobel Prize medal and other memorabilia were stolen from the university town of Santiniketan, West Bengal, to the consternation of his admirers and the literary world. Investigating agencies made no headway in catching the thieves or tracing the medal, and the case was closed a few years later, unsolved.
But the theft had an unforeseen spin-off that has helped preserve for posterity paintings done by Tagore: A police officer tasked with advising the Visva-Bharati university on security became instrumental in freeing from its confines works of art—most of which hadn’t ever been seen and will likely perish in a few decades
It was at the suggestion of Soumen Mitra, former head of the detective department of Kolkata Police, that Rajat Kanta Ray, then vice-chancellor of the university, began the process of putting together Rabindra Chitravali: Paintings of Rabindranath Tagore, a four-volume book with high-quality reproductions of 2,000-odd Tagore paintings—1,600-plus from Visva-Bharati. The book was brought out last year by Visva-Bharati and Pratikshan, a Kolkata-based publishing house.
Only about 300 of Tagore’s estimated 2,500-3,000 paintings had been seen in print before. Some of his works have been shown in exhibitions, starting with the first in Paris in May 1930, but most had never been seen. Prof. Swapan Chakravorty, director general of the National Library of India, Kolkata, describes the unseen works of art as “victims of institutional custodianship”.
Visva-Bharati’s defence: Most of Tagore’s paintings are in a terrible state and could not be taken out of the strongrooms where they were stored. Even exposure to light could be harmful.
Tagore drew mostly on paper, his “preferred surface”, according to R. Siva Kumar, a professor of art at Visva-Bharati. “He worked on every kind of paper… (even) cheap writing or wrapping papers,” he writes in the introduction to Rabindra Chitravali. He used quick-drying inks, pastels and watercolours and not the more enduring oils, because they took too long to dry.
Conservation is challenging. Forty-five paintings from Visva-Bharati’s archives could not be included in the book because they are in tatters, says Pratikshan’s owner Priyabrata Deb.
Tagore’s paintings at Santiniketan may not survive beyond 50-70 years, says Prof. Ray, adding that in some, the colours have already started to mutate. In time—say, a hundred years—a large body of Tagore’s paintings may survive only through reprints of the Rabindra Chitravali and the high-resolution digital pictures that were shot for this book.
The reproductions in the book are at least 97% accurate, according to Prof. Ray, and that’s what makes this little-known collection of paintings “a phenomenon” in the history of publishing in India. Even compared with the best among such books of art from across the world, Rabindra Chitravali is a “rare achievement” for its production quality, says Prof. Ray. The photographs were processed by technicians of the printer, the Hyderabad-based Pragati Offset Pvt. Ltd, by comparing them with the originals at Santiniketan. Visva-Bharati had to hire 13 extra guards and install four new security cameras to make this possible.
Pratikshan has so far sold around 2,500 copies of the book, which is priced at Rs.20,000. Visva-Bharati, which received 500 copies for free, has distributed them among key universities with faculties of fine art. The Union government, which paid 75% of the total production cost of Rs.6.35 crore, has gifted 300 copies of the book to eminent people in the field of art and culture.
When Rabindra Chitravali was conceived in 2008, the university’s own publishing division didn’t have the wherewithal to handle a project of this magnitude, says Prof. Ray. That is why, in consultation with the Union government, the university selected Pratikshan from among the few publishing houses that had expressed an interest in producing the book.
The project cost was estimated at Rs.5.2 crore, with a first print run of 6,000 copies, according to Deb. The cost eventually rose to Rs.6.35 crore. Pratikshan has the right to print copies till 2016.
The project was behind schedule by several months when the Union culture ministry announced, without apparently consulting the publisher, that Rabindra Chitravali would be launched on 7 May 2011. There was no way the entire collection could be printed by that date. Deb tried to persuade the ministry to defer the launch.
Eventually, one volume was printed within the deadline, 80 copies of it were sent to Delhi, and Congress president Sonia Gandhi launched Rabindra Chitravali at the appointed hour.
Asked what he thinks is his biggest achievement from this publication, Deb says, “I have seen all the paintings that have been reproduced in the Rabindra Chitravali”—borrowing perhaps from a poem in Tagore’s Nobel Prize winning collection Gitanjali: “When I go from hence let this be my parting word/that what I have seen is unsurpassable.”
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Delhi culture pick: ‘The Last Harvest’
After travelling to cities like Berlin, Rome, London, Paris, New York and Chicago, ‘The Last Harvest’, an exhibition of paintings by Rabindranath Tagore, arrived in Delhi on 19 November. As part of Tagore’s 150th birth anniversary celebrations, the exhibition has works on paper from Rabindra Bhavan, Kala Bhavan, Visva-Bharati, Santiniketan, and the National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA), where the exhibition is being held.
“The four-set book ‘Rabindra Chitravali’ includes the artworks of this exhibition,” says Rajeev Lochan, director, NGMA.
The exhibition has been curated into what are considered the four important facets of Tagore’s oeuvre, which includes over 2,000 paintings created in 13 years. The first consists of his earliest paintings, identified with either geometrical or arabesque patterns. The second focuses on nature (flowers and landscapes). According to exhibition curator R. Siva Kumar, this section is more meditative. The third is inspired from Tagore’s fascination with dramatic gestures of the human form, which is not surprising, for Tagore was a playwright too. The final facet, the curator notes, consists of Tagore’s representations of the human face, in which he reads traces of social and personal life.
‘The Last Harvest’ is on till 13 January at the NGMA, Delhi. 10am-5pm (closed on Mondays and national holidays). The exhibition will later travel to the the NGMAs in Bangalore and Mumbai, the Salar Jung Museum in Hyderabad, Victoria Memorial in Kolkata, and Bharat Bhawan in Bhopal. The dates are still to be decided.
Images reproduced with the permission of Priyabrata Deb, Pratikshan, from Rabindra Chitravali: Paintings of Rabindranath Tagore.