Gagendra Babu : Artist In Focus

Early Life

Gagendranath Tagore was born in 1867 in Kiolkata, in Jorasanko. The Tagore house at Jorasanko was synonymous with art and culture. He was born into a family whose creativity defined Bengal’s cultural life. The Tagore family were avant garde artists and artisans, literateurs and brought a new way of thinking about art. 

One must understand how deeply the family is steeped in history to understand the impact it had on Gaganendranath. The eldest son of Gunendranath Tagore,  grandson of Girindranath Tagore there was a weight on his shoulders to add to the artistic heritage. Being the great-grandson of Prince Dwarkanath Tagore was no mean feat!

Abanindranath, was a famous artist, who pioneered the Bengal School of Art.  Furthermore, he was a nephew of the poet laureate Rabindranath Tagore and the paternal great-grandfather of actor Sharmila Tagore. The two of them also shared a great artistic camaraderie. So one can see how different influences were on their way to add flavour to what he was going to do.


In order to understand the Bengal School of art, it would be helpful to understand the people who made it. They were the ‘Babus’, technically Babu is an endearment, but in the dawn of pre-independence it signified a group of people. 

The 1820s had seen the orthodoxy of the Bengali bhadralok, the gentleman. However, further into the 19th century one saw the growth of the Brown Sahib. Bhadralok was the popular nomenclature for the English-educated and cultured, mostly upper-caste, wealthy Hindu Bengalis. The Bhadralok was the precursor to the ‘Babu’. A bhadralok can be a Babu but not the other way round. Here’s why-

The Babu was a distinct class in Bengal, birthed from the subservience to the British Raj. Thus, the Bengali babu was admired for his fortune and mocked for his luxurious lifestyle. Dandies they were, obsessed with their opulence. Tagore, himself a member of the landed gentry of Bengal, often did use the babu as fodder for a scathing study through cartoons. He had distinctly positioned himself from the Brown-Babu culture. The Tagore family was invested in the revival and nurturing what was endemic to Bengal.

Owing to Lord William Bentinck’s Permanent Settlement Act of Bengal, property in land was vested in a certain number of landlords. They had to pay a feudal tax to the Company and to retain the bulk of the rent collected from the peasantry for themselves. This was creation of the first middle-class of India, the landed gentry, and Bhadra Lok in Bengal. These gentlemen were absentee landlords. Who derived their earnings from their vast estates in the country, but lived between the enormous palaces in the village and the big houses in Calcutta. They were also honoured with the titles of Raja, Nawab, Rai Bahadur, etc. Furthermore, they were jocularly known as the “Brown Barons”.


Early samples of Gagan babu’s paintings were in the form of postcards. He sent these to his daughter from Puri on a visit. These dated back to 1907. Comprised of seascapes, done with some quick brush strokes and thin washes of colour they are snapshots of the sea. The other possible early works are pencil portraits in the manner of Jyotirindranath.

It was a very difficult time for the family, incidentally. Dealing with the death of his elder son there was a great gloom over the family. In order to provide a congenial diversion kirtans and kathas were arranged. Gagan babu proceeded to sketch some of the pundits and kirtankars.

1906 and 1910, saw him study and hone the famous Japanese brush techniques, inspired by Far Eastern art. This he seamlessly incorporated this into his own work.

His illustration Jeevansmriti, for his famous nephew is a masterpeice. As well as several of his short stories, KabuliwalaPhalguni and some poems from Gitanjali.

1917 would see a definite shift in his style of work. Gangendranath Tagore abandoned the revivalism of the Bengal School and took up caricature. The Modern Review published many of his cartoons in 1917. From then onwards, his satirical lithographs appeared in a series of books, including Play of OppositesRealm of the Absurd and Reform Screams.

Gaganendranath also took a keen interest in theatre, and wrote a children’s book in the manner of Lewis Carroll, Bhodor Bahadur (‘Otter the Great’)


Unfortunately there are no detailed preserved accounts of all his achievements, unlike his brother Abanindranath’s work. Gaganendranath never indulged in introspective or confessional writings. It seems that Gangababu was a painter, who was supremely indifferent to the value of his own creative genius as was noted by Rathindranath.

One can find references of some series as per the stylistic evolution of the works

The first phase (till 1911)  were based on Japanese brushworks, he did small scenes and scapes.

The Second phase (1911-1915) was with black ink on gold paper. This finally evolved to the Cubist experiments in ink and colour.

The Tagore Family, between them boast of a history of over three hundred years. It is one of the leading families in India and is regarded as a key influence during the Bengal Renaissance.

The illustrious family has contributed substantially in the fields of business, social and religious reformation, literature, art and music.