Amateur Genius of Bengal; ART

Article excerpt

Byline: by Philip Hensher

Rabindranath Tagore occupied a place in his nation's life that is difficult for a European to comprehend. Born 150 years ago, he was a Bengali from a very distinguished and famous family. His father, Dwarkanath, visited Dickens, who never got over his extraordinary name.

Rabindranath was a poet, a nationalist figure, an educationalist who set up a university, a novelist, a songwriter, a playwright, a mystic, the author of both the Indian and the Bangladesh national anthems, and several other things beside.

Bengali is a rich culture, stretching across India and Bangladesh; it is also the sixth most widely spoken language in the world, and the culture adores its creative and political figures. There is a saying in India: one Bengali, a poet; two Bengalis, a film society; three Bengalis, a political party; four Bengalis, two political parties. They love to argue. But they all agree that Tagore is their great genius.

Late in life, Tagore took to painting, and threw himself into it. A collection of some of these works is now on loan to the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, and Rabindranath Tagore: Poet And Painter (until March 4) conveys a good deal of his curious spirit.

Sometimes, in his poetry as well as in his art, Tagore can seem a little careless about the execution, a little vague. His paintings are certainly not the most skilful you will see - some have the tang of the enthusiastic beginner. …