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Four Centuries of Paintings and Manuscripts from the Indian Subcontinent

Cat. No. 86

Queen Tissarakshita by Abanindranath Tagore Calcutta, c.1911

Painting in watercolour and opaque watercolour including gold and silver metallic pigments over graphite pencil on paper | 25.9 × 19.5 cm | RCIN 452415

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Abanindranath Tagore (1871–1951) pioneered the Bengal School, the first nationalist art movement in India. His works draw upon South Asian history and employ earlier South Asian as well as Japanese painting traditions using the ‘low-status’ medium of watercolour in direct resistance to the Western style of art practice represented by the work of Ravi Varma and taught at Government Art Schools.

Tagore began his career as a writer and illustrator. Growing up in Calcutta during the Raj, he was surrounded by the imagery of Victorian Britain and did not encounter Indian painting until in his mid-twenties.[284] This discovery, at a time of widespread questioning of power relations in intellectual and cultural spheres, had enormous impact on Tagore’s work.[285] He is widely credited with the construction of a new ('Indian') cultural identity during the independence movement.

In this painting, Tagore depicts Queen Tissarakshita, the young consort of Ashoka, the ancient Buddhist Emperor of India. He paints her face in profile with the distinctive arched eyebrow of Rajput painting. Perspective is minimal, and large areas of flat colour are enlivened by very subtle shading. What Tagore recognised as the bhava ('feeling') of earlier South Asian painting became the essence of his own practice. He captures Tissarakshita's conflicting feelings of triumph and regret as she stares at the wilting sacred Bodhi tree. Having heard her husband praise and send jewels to the Bodhi, she presumed the tree was another woman and out of jealousy gave orders for her rival to be poisoned.

It is appropriate in many ways that this painting, portraying the consort of one of the earliest Indian Emperors, was presented to Queen Mary, India’s penultimate Queen-Empress. An admirer of Art Nouveau, it is possible that Mary identified a similar aesthetic of spirituality and nostalgia in the art of the Bengal School painters. Tagore’s Queen has been described as a quintessential fin-de-siècle femme fatale and, like many Modernist painters from South Asia, he has received both admiration and reproach for an apparent appeasement to Western aesthetic sensibilities and Orientalist fantasies of the East.[286]

  • [283] A note on the back reads ‘29 December 1911’, and in Queen Mary’s copy of the January 1916 Journal of Indian Art and Industry, in which the painting was published, she wrote ‘This picture  was given me at Calcutta by Lady Hardinge in 1911 and I placed it in the Library at Windsor Castle.’

    [284] Mitter 1994, p. 272.

    [285] See Guha-Thakurta 2002, p. 8.

    [286] Arrowsmith 2010, p. 234.

  • Given to Queen Mary by Lady Hardinge (wife of the then Viceroy of India) in Calcutta, January 1912 [283]

  • Bibliographic reference(s)

    Arrowsmith 2010, pp. 228–35; Mitter 1994, pp. 314–15; Guha-Thakurta 1992, p. 262