Faces are a quintessential aspect of Rabindranath Tagore’s art; like the characters in his novels, they tell a story. Painted against a flat background, they engage the viewer in a psychic encounter, evoking a mood and emotions. These stylized, idealized portraits present a timeless quality. But using bold outlines and curvilinear or geometrically drawn lines, they also show Tagore’s engagement with modern art. Ovoid faces enclosed within a sari or curtain of hair, with large doe eyes, a long nose, full lips, and dark skin, typify the iconic Indian woman as envisioned by Tagore. Such faces directly engage the viewer with their piercing gaze, sometimes conveying amusement or sadness, the shyness of youth or the weariness of the world. This gaze is often attributed to Kadambari Devi, the artist’s dearly beloved sister-in-law, who committed suicide at the age of 25. Haunted by her death, Tagore reportedly told the artist Nandalal Bose:
The look of the eyes of [Kadambari Devi] have become so deeply imprinted on my mind that I can never forget about them and when I paint portraits, not unoften her glowing eyes present themselves before my sight. Probably that is why the eyes in my portraits take after her eyes.
The visual language of painting was Tagore’s favored form of creative expression in the last decade of his life, his way of reaching out to the world in a medium that he felt was more universally appealing than his writings and songs, which were especially beloved by the people of India. An open-ended dialogue between world cultures was at the core of his beliefs.
Rabindranath Tagore. Untitled, 1938.