Marriage of Nuruddin: The Magical and the Mundane in the World of Abanindranath Tagore

Guest Author: Soumyadeep Roy

“Those who have a hunger for stories..of kings and queens, of Badshahs and Begums…(they) maybe seated on the floor or a torn mat; they may pay their bakshish with smiles and tears (I don’t want gold medals and certificates), them who will gaze with dreamy stares and sighs, as I narrate- it is they who I write for. I present them my aadaab, my salutations and urge them to listen to my stories carefully.

Abanindranath Tagore

Abanindranath begins his writing with these lines which seem so direct – as if he spoke to me and me alone. I’m sure this must be true for so many of his admirers. In fact, there is something personal about Abanindranath’s works that makes you see it in terms of your own work. Nandalal Bose in his interview with Panchanan Mandal, mentions that while talking about his teacher Abanindranath, Nandalal ends up talking about himself and his own practice more. Maybe that is the essence of Abanindranath.  His work is so engaging that it becomes personal and intimate and you cannot remain a passive spectator.

I became familiar with Abanindranath (like most Bengali children do) reading the fairy-tale stories of Khirer Putul and Rajkahini. In high school though, I started reading his theoretical works, like Bagishwari Shilpa Prabandhabali, which made me quite averse to him and his works. He seemed like a rigid pedagogue who was prescribing rules about what right Art is and what isn’t. It also coincided with my introduction to the world of Kishangarh miniatures and Abanindranath’s works seemed dim in comparison at that point. It was only much later that there was an exhibition of his Arabian Nights series of paintings at the Victoria Memorial Hall in Kolkata, which completely changed my perception of him. I stood in front of his Marriage of Nuruddin. There was something so sensorial about the work that I couldn’t think of anything else, even after I came back home at night. I dreamt of it and went back to look at it, again and again. The layers, the colours, the characters were all a world of their own.

Marriage of Nuruddin by Abanindranath Tagore, (circa 1930): 10 ½” x 9 ½”; Water colour
Courtesy: Victoria Memorial Hall via Google Arts and Culture.

I started looking at his works again. The paintings, in person, seemed to have a certain silent music. I became obsessed with his paintings to the point I started reading his writings again. This time, his paintings and writings seemed complimentary. And then I read his Khuddur Jaatra. Putting us millennials to shame, he seemed like what would be termed in modern parlance—a meme lord. Going back to his Krishna Leela series, one couldn’t help but admire the genius of his calligraphy. It would flow on to the text-image series he would do, where alphabets become beings of their own. The text and image are inseparable in all his works. But this had had a long tradition in India, and even more so in Bengal. The image has never been solitary and there has almost always been an inseparable element of performance or a narrative with it. In Patachitra, especially in Jadupat performances, the same image would be interpreted differently in terms of performances, depending on the audience it was being performed for. The various Daastans and Qissas by the Dastangos of the Mughal court and the Nawabi courts of Awadh would also invariably inspire artworks that would go hand-in-hand with each other. It was no wonder then, that Abanindranath would work in that tradition and would probably be one of the last Indian artists to do so. But was he also the first in certain ways?  Abanindranath being interpreted by various critics as the first modern Indian artist stands in irony with the fact that he (as pointed out by Tapati Guha-Thakurta) was awarded as a miniaturist in the Delhi Durbar (1902-1903). To be awarded by the very British imperialists whom he dreaded, with a mistaken identity of a miniaturist (which he liked to fashion himself as) was one of the many contradictions of the figure of Abanindranath. Much before Indian independence, he wrote that if one doesn’t make one’s internal aesthetics free of baggage, artificial freedom can only do so much. He sold off his European-style oil paintings as junk in Kolkata’s Barabazar at the peak of the Swadeshi movement, to do away with everything European, especially the styles of an artwork. And yet, when years later, a young Mohanlal Gangyopadhyay finds a cockatoo oil painting of his, Abanindranath looks at it with sympathy. Like with many great artists, it was as if Abanindranath was in contradiction with his different personalities. While he becomes a preachy pedagogue when writing theoretical texts on Art, in his casual writings (like Hanshuli ki Fanshuli) he ridicules the figure of the preachy pedagogue. While he boasts to Nandalal that neither Nandalal nor any of his students can ever achieve the finesse of his works, especially because of his Pirali Brahmin lineage, it is he himself again who continuously makes caricatures of the figure of the Brahmin. The irreverence for the Gods in his works and yet sensitive depictions of them also become one of those many paradoxes in his works. Several critics had remarked on the illustrative quality of his works. But when you see his Arabian Nights series of works, these distinctions blur out completely. In his Finding of the ninth Doll (1930), one is not able to tell who the central figure is (he is usually seen as the King). It could be a magician, the Maulvi in the story, or just another imaginary character, not present in the story itself, just like the eight wooden dolls from Bengal, which definitely aren’t there in the Arabian Nights story.

Finding of the ninth Doll by Abanindranath Tagore, 1930: 11” x 10”; Water colour;
Courtesy: Victoria Memorial Hall via Google Arts and Culture.

 In fact, none of the paintings remain as illustrations—they become independent works of their own. One needs to look at the European illustrations of the Arabian Nights to get an idea of his departure.

Morgiana and the thieves from Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves by Godefroy Durand, 19th century;
Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons.

Even the references to miniatures which he is accused of being too influenced by, become questionable.  Going back to Marriage of Nuruddin, it is true, that at a glance it compositionally resembles the paintings The Wedding procession of Prince Dara-Shukoh (1635) and Mughal Emperor Shahjahan in the Marriage Procession his Eldest Son Dara Shikoh (1740), but one needs to look closely to realise how far apart these works are, and how Abanindranath carries forward a thread, passed down by the miniaturists, over centuries, to make his own contemporary work, bereft of baggage.

The Wedding procession of Prince Dara-Shukoh by Murar, 1635.
33.8 x 24.2 cm; Painting in opaque watercolour including metallic paints
Courtesy: Royal Collection Trust

To begin with, The Wedding procession of Prince Dara-Shukoh (1635) was painted by Murar. Painted at the height of the Mughal era, Murar worked during the reign of Shah Jahan, from around 1628. The painting itself is an iconic event, the first grand celebration after a year of mourning the death of Mumtaz Mahal. Several legends talk of the large unthinkable sum spent and the extravagance of the event, which the painting only gives a glimpse of. The painting (even though completed much after the event) captures a particular time, a particular moment, in a form that belongs (with all its details) only to that period itself. It captures grandness, with elegant subtlety, which might even be termed as minimal and muted, considering how centrally Dara Shikoh’s portrait is positioned and how it is isolated with a lot of blank space around. It is clear that the painting is about him. Everyone in the painting is doing their work. The bhisti is anxiously wetting the ground, the attendants are lighting up the oil lamps, the state sword is being held by a bearer. Everything is as it should be.

Mughal Emperor Shahjahan in the Marriage Procession his Eldest Son Dara Shikoh by Haji Madani, 1740-50.
320 mm x 430 mm; Painting in opaque watercolour including metallic paints
Courtesy: National Museum, New Delhi, via Wikimedia Commons.

Mughal Emperor Shahjahan in the Marriage Procession his Eldest Son Dara Shikoh (1740) was painted more than a hundred years after the event it depicts. Painted in mid-18th century Awadh by Haji Madani, the work is almost like a collage of the works of the master artists of the previous century from the Mughal atelier, almost as a watered-down version of Murar’s work. In fact, several painters named themselves after the great artists from the previous century, (like Kalyan Das/Chitarman II, the iconic painter from Muhammad Shah Rangiley’s court, who named himself Chitarman after the great artist from Shah Jahan’s time). Certain parts, like the equestrian portrait of Shah Jahan (including the halo), are a direct copy of Payag’s masterpiece Shah Jahan on Horseback (1630).

Madani’s work weds the selective naturalism of classical Mughal miniatures with the aesthetics of contemporary 18th-century Indian miniature art. A Tilly Kettle and a Johann Zoffanny are yet to visit Awadh, and the points of reference are still very Indian/Mughal. Yet, the characters of the painting look like cutouts set together on a plane. Unlike a Chitarman II (from almost around the same time), Haji Madani doesn’t visualise the characters as originals, even though they remain individual and distinct. Haji Madani’s work becomes a collage, as if, of previous masterpieces by Chitarman (I), Payag, Murar, and Manohar.

Abanindranth’s Marriage of Nuruddin, painted around 1930, almost three centuries after Murar’s masterpiece (1635) and two centuries after Haji Madani’s work (1740)— can be seen as a continuing thread (and yet a break) in the light of these two works. The characters are not cutouts from a previous art style, yet a collage of sorts. They are definitely not like the stiff Art Nouveau illustrations of his European contemporaries. The characters stand organically, as originals. In fact, the world of the Arabian Nights series of Abanindranath is a world of its own and all the characters reside as real characters. There is a sense of irreverence to the stories. The drunk, wasted British soldier with an annoying nose plays the dhaak with his bottles, while still in uniform. The cook and the bhisti are probably having their own chat, which might have little to do with Nuruddin. The bhisti, unlike in Murar’s painting, isn’t doing his job. The jesters, with their playful masks, aren’t exactly dancing around. The torchbearer, at the end of the procession (on the edge of the right side of the painting), seems miffed, and not particularly interested in torch-bearing. A group that sits inside the mosquito net, wondering, is also essentially jobless. Except for the two women at the right bottom corner of the painting, and the minstrels at the top, everyone else seems to be not doing much.

In fact, it is always the jobless that Abanindranath favours. Abanindranath, in the last days of Jorasanko, talks of the new househelp who is keen to do his work. Upon finding the furniture perfectly polished, Abanindranath is almost shocked (and a little saddened). He marks this with a sigh as the end of an era – gone are the days of the lazy househelp. To Abanindranath, this is a moral decline. He recalls with fondness the times when none of the househelps would do their work and how one of them would steal his favourite dress and would wear it to the theatre, while skipping his housework. The figure of the aesthete who might neglect his job and do nothing is appealing to Abanindranath.

It is no wonder that the theme of the jobless aesthete (the figure of the artist-flaneur as referred to by R.Sivakumar) appeals to Abanindranath. The story of Nuruddin, however, almost becomes irrelevant to him. The mention of the event of Nuruddin’s marriage is in passing and is barely mentioned in the story. Abanindranath makes up this visual entirely of his own imagination. It is no more an illustration. This story too becomes personal. It is now Abanindranth’s story and his own world. The elements in the painting— the two fish at the bottom of the painting, the drunk guard/soldier, the cook, remain references that make you wonder if they are even references to the story or not.

The lady carrying the pot on her head stares at the man standing next to him. Is this another hint at the theme of transgression in the story? Of forbidden (yet destined) love?

The hunchback riding a donkey (yet another departure from the story’s narrative timeline) becomes a further motif. Unlike Murar’s Dara Shikoh (and despite the characteristic resemblance between the two), the character of Nuruddin is not central. He is placed centrally, but not isolated like in Murar’s or Haji Madani’s paintings. There are much more interesting characters painted with more care than he is. The hunchback riding the donkey appears more appealing (even though he doesn’t appear in the story at all until much after this wedding). Nuruddin and the hunchback on the donkey become doppelgangers in the painting. Nuruddin’s figure is neither independent nor central. In fact, Nuruddin is one of the least interesting characters in the painting. Unlike the miniatures, everything is not as it should be. If two of the flower pots are arranged perfectly, the third is upturned and broken by the donkey. The camels in the background outside the tent might make it seem like the painting remains loyal to the story set in Basrah (Iraq), but then the scenes below are too local to Calcutta and become independent images. Just like in the other paintings of the series, they seem like snippets of daily life in Chitpur, with little to do with the Arabian Nights. The cook might as well be a chop-seller of North Calcutta. The minstrels/ shehnai players or the two women carrying pots at the bottom of the painting could be compositions of their own. And yet, they capture the essence of the magic of Arabian nights. In Abanindranath’s world, the real and the fantastical are indistinguishable.

The hunch- back of fish-bone by Abanindranath Tagore, 1930.
10 ½” x 9 ½”; Water colour; Courtesy: Victoria Memorial Hall via Google Arts and Culture.
In works like these, the mundane world of contemporary Chitpur and the magical stories of Arabian Nights blur.

Just like the city of cosmopolitan Calcutta, in the world of Abanindranath, several worlds exist parallelly like a collage (the ‘eclecticism and hybridity’ of his works, as Debashish Banerji calls it). Maybe this work itself is also a collage, but unlike Haji Madani’s work, it is a collage of different worlds merging. The play between the interior and exterior spaces in the composition is almost a direct reflection of his writings about the inner and outer quarters of Jorasanko, where the Tagores lived. Along with the classical and sophisticated Mughal miniature framework, he merges the playful arrangement of the more folk and local Jhulan dolls of rural Bengal, where the major and the minor, the relevant and the irrelevant exist side by side in illogical proportions. The composition effortlessly puts these two worlds together. If there is classical Mughal miniature here, there is also the world of patachitra. The cosmopolitan influences of Japanese and European Art don’t entirely escape it either. The entire painting exists as an organic whole of these different paintings (rather different worlds) flowing onto each other. The magical and the mundane mix, and one can sit on torn mats and still wander off in their minds to the world of the Arabian Nights—with a sigh and a teardrop.

Soumyadeep Roy is a nonbinary visual artist and a student of literature,
film, and Indian classical music. Soumyadeep loves narratives and sees
himself as a storyteller, like the local pat painters from Bengal. These narratives also affect his writing, and his ways of seeing.

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