Gaganendranath Tagore’s century-old work, now part of an exhibition, resonates as a commentary on contemporary cow politics.

In his 1917 creation Purification By Cow Dung, a Hindu priest with sandalwood paste markings on his body is seen gently applying cow dung on flowers and leaves, an act of cleansing even that which is naturally available in the world. A master of satire, Tagore emphasizes the priest’s adherence to bovine divinity by also drawing a cow in the background—in this case, a human-looking creature, smirking in disbelief, it seems, of the extraordinary powers of her own dung.

In Purification By Muddy Water, yet another priest, his neck lost within slabs of flesh, is sprinkling muddy holy water on three women even as he holds a sack of money in his right hand. The sack is mischievously titled Tonka Debi (currency goddess). It is anybody’s guess whether Tagore was mocking the “muddy" state of the holy water (which in Kolkata usually means the water from the Ganga’s biggest tributary, the Hooghly river), the greed of the Brahminical hierarchy, or the easy vulnerability of believers. What is certain, though, is that the zeitgeist of the early 20th century, when Tagore worked on these drawings, continues to fester in 21st century India.

“A hundred years since these drawings by Gaganendranath Tagore, we are exactly where we were," says Supriya Banerjee, owner of Galerie 88 in Kolkata. Banerjee came across the catalogue of 16 lithographs created by Tagore when a Kolkata poet approached her, wanting to sell them. Impressed by their historicity, the high quality of Tagore’s art and the timelessness of their theme, Banerjee opted to exhibit them.

Titled Graphic Prints, the exhibition also features works of other Santiniketan stalwarts such as Ramkinkar Baij, Mukul Dey and Rani Chanda, but it is the lithographs of Tagore which command the maximum space and attention. Nephew of Rabindranath, brother of Abanindranath, and one of the pillars of the pioneering and revivalist Bengal School of Art, Tagore, considered one of the early moderns in Indian art, etched his own niche. He assimilated European as well as Japanese art influences, remaining “a free painter, with no fetish of any kind, oriental or occidental", wrote Pran Nath Mago in his Contemporary Art In India: A Perspective (2001).

Between 1915 and 1921, Tagore produced three series of caricatures—Adbhut Loke: Realm Of The Absurd, Virup Vajra and Reform Screams—where he not only cast a critical eye on Hindu orthodoxy, along with the contradictions and conceits inherent in its practice, but also did a brutally burlesque takedown of the Bengali babu and his struggle to ape the Europeans in British Kolkata. A distinct class in Bengal, born out of subservience to the British Raj, the Bengali babu was admired for his fortune and mocked for his debauched lifestyle. Dandies they were, by the reckoning of most. Tagore, himself a member of the landed gentry of Bengal, used the babu as fodder for a scathing study through cartoons.

In Sumathi Ramaswamy’s book Husain’s Raj: Visions Of Empire And Nation, based on the artist Maqbool Fida Husain’s unsympathetic and disarmingly irreverent commentary on colonial life in India, with an emphasis on the life of the Bengali babu, the author draws on two examples of Tagore’s cartoons, both of which also feature in the Galerie 88 exhibition. By The Sweat Of My Brow is the lament of a profusely perspiring babu, in European suit-boot-topi attire, at being addressed as a babu and not as the shaheb he hoped his costume and carriage would dictate. Metamorphosis: Don’t Disturb Me Now, I’m About To Become A Saab has a babu changing into Western attire, his left leg still clad in the traditional dhoti, when a railway attendant enters his coupe.

Nuisance Of A Wife is a reflection on the irritation felt by a cheroot-smoking, traditionally dressed, walking-stick-carrying Bengali babu, who is trailed by his wife, carrying a cantankerous child along with a bedroll, bag and lamp, among other essentials. The cultural miscegenation is underlined by the family’s other children, one even dressed in a dhoti and shirt, with a belt and socks for good measure. “Without a doubt, Husain would have been all too familiar with this tradition of ridiculing the babu," contends Ramaswamy, drawing a parallel between Husain’s Raj series focused on Kolkata and Tagore’s caricature work, which in turn could be juxtaposed against the lampooning tradition in Kalighat scroll paintings.

“He took on both religious orthodoxy and the hypocrisy of the brown sahibs and made fun of both groups. He would often take up a feminist position. To him as much as the British, the Indian nationalist class wasn’t above fault," says art historian R. Siva Kumar of Visva-Bharati university. “He was aware of art traditions from across the world and unlike the balancing act of a regular newspaper cartoonist, Tagore was looking at the neo-possibilities of the cartooning language. He could lay claim to artistic merit, unlike others," says Siva Kumar.

Graphic Prints is on view till 30 June at Kolkata’s Galerie 88.

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