A Pirali Brahmin from Kolkata and the youngest of 13 children born in the Jorasanko mansion to parents Debendranath Tagore (1817 – 1905) and Sarada Devi (1830 – 1875) was a Bengali poet, novelist, musician, painter and playwright who reshaped Bengali literature and music. As author ofGitanjali, he was the first non-European who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1913. He was perceived as prophet-like in the west due to his spiritual poetry.
His passion for writing commenced at the tender age of eight. At the age of sixteen, his first poetry was published under the pseudonym Bhanushingho (Sun Lion). Tagore notoriously denounced the British Raj and supported Indian independence. His efforts promoted his founding university Visva-Bharati University.
Tagore modernised Bengali art by spurning rigid classical forms. His novels, stories, songs, dance-dramas, and essays spoke to political and personal topics. Gitanjali (Song Offerings), Gora (Fair-Faced), and Ghare-Baire (The Home and the World) are his best-known works, and his verse, short stories, and novels were acclaimed for their lyricism, colloquialism, naturalism, and contemplation. Tagore was perhaps the only litterateur who penned anthems of two countries – Jana Gana Mana, the Indian national anthem and Amar Shonar Bangla the Bangladeshi national anthem.
Tagore family patriarchs were the Brahmo founding fathers of the Adi Dharm faith. He was mostly raised by servants, as his mother had died in his early childhood while his father travelled extensively. Tagore largely declined classroom schooling, preferring to roam the mansion or nearby idylls: Bolpur Panihati, and others. He was initiate at the age eleven and left Kolkata on 14 February 1873 to tour India with his father for several months. They visited his father’s estate and stopped in Amritsar before reaching the Himalayan hill station of Dalhousie.
There, young “Rabi” read biographies and was home-educated in history, astronomy, modern science, and Sanskrit. A prospective barrister, Tagore enrolled at a public school in Brighton, East Sussex, England in 1878. He first stayed for some months at a house that the Tagore family owned near Brighton and Hove, in Medina Villas; in 1877, his nephew and niece – Suren and Indira, the children of Tagore’s brother Satyendranath – were sent together with their mother (Tagore’s sister-in-law) to live with him. He read law at University College London, but left school to explore Shakespeare and more. He returned degreeless to Bengal in 1880. Nevertheless, this exposure to English culture and language would later percolate into his earlier acquaintance with Bengali musical tradition, allowing him to create new modes of music, poetry, and drama.
Tagore neither fully embraced English nor traditionally strict Hindu religious observances but instead incorporated the best from both realms of experience.
In 1890, Tagore began managing his family’s vast Bangladeshi estates. He was joined by his wife and children in 1898. In 1890, Tagore released his Manasi poems, among his best-known work. As “Zamindar Babu“, Tagore criss-crossed the holdings while living out of the family’s luxurious barge, the Padma, to collect (mostly token) rents and bless villagers, who held feasts in his honour.
In 1901, Tagore moved to Santiniketan where he founded an ashram which grew to include a marble-floored prayer hall (The Mandir). There, Tagore’s wife and two of his children died. His father died on 19 January 1905. He received monthly payments as part of his inheritance and additional income from the Maharaja of Tripura, sales of his family’s jewellery, his seaside bungalow in Puri, and mediocre royalties. By now, his work was becoming largely popular. Tagore learned that he had won the 1913 Nobel Prize in Literature, becoming the first Asian Nobel laureate. In 1915, Tagore was knighted by the British Crown. He later returned his knighthood in protest of the massacre of unarmed Indians in 1919 at Jallianwala Bagh.
In 1921, Tagore and agricultural economist Leonard Elmhirst set up the Institute for Rural Reconstruction, later renamed Shriniketan or “Abode of Welfare”, in Surul, a village near the ashram at Santiniketan. Through it, Tagore bypassed Gandhi’s symbolic Swaraj protests.
In the early 1930s, he targeted India’s “abnormal caste consciousness” and “untouchables”. Lecturing against these, he penned untouchable heroes for his poems and dramas and campaigned successfully to open Guruvayoor Temple to Dalits.
Twilight years (1932–1941)
Tagore’s international travels also sharpened his opinion that human divisions were shallow. During a May 1932 visit to a Bedouin encampment in the Iraqi desert, the tribal chief told him that “Our prophet has said that a true Muslim is he by whose words and deeds not the least of his brother-men may ever come to any harm …” Tagore noted in his diary: “I was startled into recognizing in his words the voice of essential humanity.” To the end, Tagore scrutinized orthodoxy. He upbraided Gandhi for declaring that a massive 15 January 1934 earthquake in Bihar, leaving thousands dead, was divine retribution brought on by the oppression of Dalits.
He mourned the endemic poverty of Kolkata and the accelerating socio-economic decline of Bengal. Fifteen new volumes of Tagore writings appeared, among them the prose-poems works Punashcha(1932), Shes Saptak (1935), and Patraput (1936). Experimentation continued as he developed prose-songs and dance-dramas, including Chitrangada (1914), Shyama (1939), and Chandalika (1938), and wrote the novels Dui Bon (1933), Malancha (1934), and Char Adhyay (1934).
Tagore took an interest in science in his last years, writing Visva-Parichay (a collection of essays) in 1937. His exploration of biology, physics, and astronomy impacted his poetry, which often contained extensive naturalism that underscored his respect for scientific laws.
Between 1878 and 1932, Tagore visited more than 30 countries on five continents; many of these trips were crucial in familiarising non-Indian audiences with his works and spreading his political ideas. In 1912, he took a sheaf of his translated works to England, where they impressed missionary and Gandhi protégé Charles F. Andrews,Irish poet William Butler Yeats, Ezra Pound, Robert Bridges, Ernest Rhys, Thomas Sturge Moore, and others. Indeed, Yeats wrote the preface to the English translation of Gitanjali, while Andrews joined Tagore at Santiniketan.
Shortly after returning to India, the 63-year-old Tagore accepted the Peruvian government’s invitation to visit. He then travelled to Mexico. Each government pledged US$100,000 to the school at Shantiniketan (Visva-Bharati) in commemoration of his visits.
Though known mostly for his poetry, Tagore also wrote novels, essays, short stories, travelogues, dramas, and thousands of songs. Of Tagore’s prose, his short stories are perhaps most highly regarded; indeed, he is credited with originating the Bengali-language version of the genre. His works are frequently noted for their rhythmic, optimistic, and lyrical nature. Such stories mostly borrow from deceptively simple subject matter: common people.
Tagore wrote many non-fiction books, writing on topics ranging from Indian history to linguistics to spirituality. Aside from autobiographical works, his travelogues, essays, and lectures were compiled into several volumes, including Europe Jatrir Patro (Letters from Europe) and Manusher Dhormo (The Religion of Man) a brief conversation between him and Albert Einstein.
Tagore’s poetry has been set to music by various composers, among them classical composer Arthur Shepherd’s triptych for soprano and string quartet, Alexander Zemlinsky’s famous Lyric Symphony, Josef Bohuslav Foerster’s cycle of love songs, Leoš Janáček’s famous chorus “Potulný šílenec” (“The Wandering Madman”) for soprano, tenor, baritone and male chorus, JW 4/43, inspired by Tagore’s 1922 lecture in Czechoslovakia which Janáček attended, and Garry Schyman’s “Praan“, an adaptation of Tagore’s poem “Stream of Life” from Gitanjali. The latter was composed and recorded with vocals by Palbasha Siddique to accompany Internet celebrity Matt Harding’s 2008 viral video.
In 1917 his words were translated adeptly and set to music by Richard Hageman (an Anglo-Dutch composer) to produce what is regarded as one of the finest art songs in the English language: Do not go my love (Ed. Schirmer NY 1917). The second movement of Jonathan Harvey’s “One Evening” (1994) sets an excerpt beginning “As I was watching the sunrise…” from a letter of Tagore’s, this composer having previously chosen a text by the poet for his piece “Song Offerings” (1985).
Music and art
Tagore composed roughly 2,230 songs. His songs comprise Rabindra Sangeet, an integral part of Bengali culture. Tagore’s music is inseparable from his literature, most of which—poems or parts of novels, stories, or plays alike—became lyrics for his songs. Influenced by the thumri style of Hindustani music, they ran the entire gamut of human emotion, ranging from his early dirge-like Brahmo devotional hymns to quasi-erotic compositions. They emulated the tonal colour of classical ragas to varying extents. Though at times his songs mimicked a given raga’s melody and rhythm faithfully, he also blended elements of different ragas to create innovative works.
They are immensely popular and form a foundation for the Bengali ethos that is comparable to, perhaps even greater than, that which Shakespeare has on the English-speaking world. It is said that his songs are the outcome of 500 years of literary churning that the Bengali community has gone through. Dhan Gopal Mukerji has said that these songs transcend the mundane to the aesthetic and express all ranges and categories of human emotion. The poet had given a voice to all—big or small, rich or poor.
The anthem Amar Shonar Bangla which became the national anthem of Bangladesh in the year 1971 and India’s national anthem Jana Gana Mana written in the year 1911were both penned by Tagore.
Tagore dabbled in primitivism: a pastel-coloured rendition of a Malagan mask from northern New Ireland. At age sixty, Tagore took up drawing and painting; successful exhibitions of his many works—which made a debut appearance in Paris upon encouragement by artists he met in the south of France—were held throughout Europe. He most likely exhibited protanopia (“colour blindness”), or partial lack of (red-green, in Tagore’s case) colour discernment—painted in a style characterised by peculiarities in aesthetics and colouring schemes.
On 9 December 1883 he married Mrinalini Devi (born Bhabatarini, 1873–1902); they had five children, two of whom died before reaching adulthood.
Tagore’s political thought was complex. He opposed imperialism and supported Indian nationalists. His views have their first poetic release in Manast, mostly composed in his twenties. Evidence produced during the Hindu-German Conspiracy trial and later accounts affirm his awareness of the Ghadarite Conspiracy and stated that he sought the support of Japanese Prime Minister Terauchi Masatake and former Premier Ōkuma Shigenobu.
Yet he lampooned the Swadeshi movement, denouncing it in “The Cult of the Charka“, an acrid 1925 essay. He emphasized self-help and intellectual uplift of the masses as an alternative, stating that British imperialism was a “political symptom of our social disease”, urging Indians to accept that “there can be no question of blind revolution, but of steady and purposeful education”.
Such views enraged many. He narrowly escaped assassination by Indian expatriates during his stay in a San Francisco hotel in late 1916. The plot failed only because the would-be assassins fell into argument. Tagore implemented a brahmacharya pedagogical structure employing gurus to provide individualised guidance for pupils. Tagore worked hard to fundraise for and staff the school, even contributing all of his Nobel Prize money. Tagore’s duties as steward and mentor at Santiniketan kept him busy; he taught classes in the morning and wrote the students’ textbooks in the afternoon and evening.
Later years and death
Tagore’s last four years were marked by chronic pain and two long periods of illness. These began when Tagore lost consciousness in late 1937; he remained comatose and near death for an extended period. This was followed three years later, in late 1940, by a similar spell, from which he never recovered. The poetry Tagore wrote in these years is among his finest, and is distinctive for its preoccupation with death. After extended suffering, Tagore died on 7 August 1941 in an upstairs room of the Jorasanko mansion in which he was raised. His death anniversary is mourned across the Bengali-speaking world. The last person to see Tagore alive was Amiya Kumar Sen (brother of Sukumar Sen, the first chief election commissioner); Tagore dictated his last poem to Sen, who wrote it down. Sen later donated the resulting draft to a museum in Kolkata.
Tagore’s relevance can be gauged by festivals honouring him: Kabipranam, Tagore’s birth anniversary; the annual Tagore Festival held in Urbana, Illinois, in the United States; Rabindra Path Parikrama walking pilgrimages from Calcutta to Shantiniketan; ceremonial recitals of Tagore’s poetry held on important anniversaries; and others.
The danger inherent in all force grows stronger when it is likely to gain success, for then it becomes temptation.
Our fight is a spiritual fight, it is for Man.
- I say again and again that I am a poet, that I am not a fighter by nature. I would give everything to be one with my surroundings. I love my fellow beings and I prize their love.
- Creation is an endless activity of God’s freedom; it is an end in itself.
- Freedom is true when it is a revelation of truth.
- India has ever declared that Unity is Truth, and separateness is maya.
- I believe in the true meeting of the East and the West.
- It hurts me deeply when the cry of rejection rings loud against the West in my country with the clamour that the Western education can only injure us.
- That which fails to illuminate the intellect, and only keeps it in the obsession of some delusion, is its greatest obstacle.
- After sixty years of self-experience, I have found that out and out hypocrisy is an almost impossible achievement.
- Our country is the land of rites and ceremonials, so that we have more faith in worshiping the feet of the priest than the Divinity whom he serves.
- The religion of economics is where we should above all try to bring about this union of ours … If this field ceases to be one of warfare, if there we can prove, that not competition but cooperation is the real truth, then indeed we can reclaim from the hands of the Evil One an immense territory for the reign of peace and goodwill.
- I have no zeal for life. You know the only thing that concerns me? That I have laboured so hard to build Viswa-bharati, wouldn’t it have no value after my exit? … I think I have one reservation regarding death, and that is Viswa-bharati, nothing else.
- It’s difficult to know a person until he turns twenty-five – difficult to say what would happen to him … but it is easy to recognise a twenty seven-year old – it can be said he’s become what he’s supposed to be, and from now on this is how his life would be guided, [if] there’s anything left in his life to get astonished.
- To enjoy something, it’s essential to guard it with the fence of leisure.
- I do not put my faith in institutions, but in individuals all over the world, who think clearly, feel nobly and act rightly. They are the channels of moral truth.
- Clouds come floating into my life, no longer to carry rain or usher storm, but to add colour to my sunset sky.
- Death is not extinguishing the light; it is putting out the lamp because the dawn has come.