Poet, playwright, novelist, artist, essayist, short story writer, painter, educationist, spiritualist, lyricist, composer, and singer – Rabindranath Tagore was, in fact, a true polymath whose creative works and philosophies not only inspired the people of the 19th and the 20th century but which still influence billions of people globally. A Bengali literary giant and Nobel laureate, Tagore was born, grew up, worked, and died in Bengal.
I slept and dreamt that life was joy. I awoke and saw that life was service. I acted and behold, service was joy.” – Tagore
Rabindranath Tagore was born as Robindronath Thakur Colloquial Bengali By Mithun B. Nasrin, W.A.M Van Der Wurff on Tuesday, 7 May 1861 (age 80 years; at the time of death) in his ancestral home “Jorasanko mansion” (Jorasanko Thakur Bari), Calcutta, Bengal Presidency, British India (present-day Kolkata, West Bengal, India).
His forefathers had migrated from their native place to Govindpur (now Gobindapur), one of the three villages that later constituted the city of Calcutta (now Kolkata), where they went on to become an affluent family after acquiring several properties in the area through commercial and banking activities. Reportedly, the Tagore family was benefitted from the growing influence of the British East India Company. UNESCO Rabindranath grew up in Jorasanko Thakur Bari that was filled with musical, literary, and dramatic pursuits as most of his family members were poets, musicians, playwrights, and novelists.
By the time he was growing up, primary schools were set up by the colonial administration in India. Tagore was mostly home-tutored; it was a regular norm for affluent Bengali families to hire private tutors for their children in those times. OpenEdition He attended one of the Bengali-medium schools established by Iswar Chandra Vidyasagar (an Indian educator and social reformer of the 19th century), and later in his life, Tagore said that he owed his love of Bengali language and literature to this school. UNESCO Although he attended a number of English-speaking schools, he never liked their teaching method; moreover, he never wished to be taught in a foreign language. UNESCO By the age of 14, Tagore had gradually started withdrawing himself from formal schooling, and for the rest of his education, he preferred home-tutoring and his own personal efforts to learn various subjects. He also learned lessons in wrestling, music, and drawing from professionals. His father, Devendranath, gave him lessons in Sanskrit, astronomy, and the scriptures, which formed the basis of Tagor’s reformed religion. In 1878, after his matriculation, the 17-year-old Rabindranath Tagore was sent to London to qualify for the Indian Civil Service or as a lawyer, where he joined University College. Earlier, he had enrolled at a public school in Brighton, East Sussex, England, where he stayed at a house owned by the Tagore family near Brighton and Hove in Medina Villas. Hindustan Times While studying at University College, London, Tagore became exposed to British social life and Western music, and he enjoyed both.
However, he didn’t complete his education in London and returned home after eighteen months. Back at home, he continued brushing himself in creative writing and music. In 1940, he was awarded an honorary doctorate by Oxford University. The Economic Times
Parents & Siblings
His father, Debendranath Tagore, was a Bengali philosopher and religious savant who founded the Brahmo religion in 1848. His father died on 19 January 1905 at the age of 87.
His father was well versed in European philosophy, and he was considered an influential figure of the newly awakened phase of Bengali society. Although his father was deeply religious, he did not accept all aspects of Hinduism, a trait carried by Rabindranath in the coming years. His mother, Sarada Devi, was a homemaker who died in 1875.
Rabindranath Tagore’s paternal grandfather, Dwarkanath Tagore, is considered one of the first Indian industrialists and entrepreneurs who significantly contributed to the Bengal Renaissance.
In 1828, Dwarkanath Tagore joined the nineteenth-century social and religious reformer Raja Rammohan Roy in his religious reform movement called the Brahma Samaj Movement, a movement that was meant to reform Hindu society. Later, Debendranath Tagore (Rabindranath’s father) also joined the Brahma Samaj Movement, and in 1863, he established a meditation centre called ‘Santiniketan’ (the Abode of Peace) on some land about 100 miles from Calcutta. Rabindranath had 13 siblings. Reportedly, Rabindranath was the youngest and the fourteenth child of his parents. UNESCO His oldest brother, Dwijendranath (1840–1926), was a poet, music composer, and an accomplished scholar.
Dwijendranath is believed to have initiated shorthand and musical notations in Bengali, and he also translated Kalidasa’s Meghdoot into Bengali. Tagore’s second oldest brother, Satyendranath (1842–1923), was the first Indian to join the elite and formerly all-European Indian Civil Service.
His third oldest brother, Hemendranath (1844–1884), was a spiritual seer and Yogi who contributed substantially to the development of modern Brahmoism, which is now termed as “Adi Dharm” religion.
His fourth oldest brother was Birendranath (1845–1915). Tagore’s elder brother Jyotirindranath (1849–1925) was a scholar, music composer, artist, and theatre personality.
The names of his other brothers are Punyendranath, Budhendranath, and Somendranath. Tagore’s eldest sister, Soudamini, was a gifted writer and one of the first students of Bethune School. His elder sister Swarnakumari (1855–1932) was also a gifted writer, song-composer, editor, and social worker.
The names of his other elder sisters are Sukumari and Saratkumari. All his sisters were known for their beauty and education.
Wife & Children
On 9 December 1883, the 22-year-old Tagore got married to an 11-year-old Mrinalini Devi (born Bhabatarini). Feminism In India Mrinalini Devi was born in 1873 and died in 1902. Mrinalini died within a span of 19 years of their marriage, and since then, Tagore never married in his life. In a letter that Tagore had once written to his wife, he expressed his feelings for Mrinalini, he wrote –
If you and I could be comrades in all our work and in all our thoughts it would be splendid, but we cannot attain all that we desire.” The Economic Times
The couple had five children – two sons, Rathindranath Tagore and Shamindranath Tagore, and three daughters, Renuka Tagore, Madhurilata Tagore, and Meera Tagore.
His son Rathindranath Tagore (1888-1961) was an Indian educationist and agronomist who was also the first vice-chancellor of Visva-Bharati University, founded by Rabindranath Tagore in 1921.
Tagore’s daughter Madhurilata (1886-1918) was also called “Bela.” Bela was the first child of Rabindranath and Mrinalini Devi.
Reportedly, Bela was very beautiful, and she was the most dearly loved daughter to Rabindranath. Once, Tagore said about her –
My eldest daughter Bela… was exceptionally beautiful in body and mind.” The Scottish Centre of Tagore Studies
Tagore’s daughter Renuka Tagore (1890-1904) died when she was only thirteen years old. Tagore was very close to Renuka, and when Renuka was suffering from tuberculosis, he took her to the Himalayas in May 1903, so that she could get a fresh climate. It was a long and difficult journey to the Himalayas, and during this journey, Tagore wrote many poems for children and published them as Sisu (The Child, 1903); the book later became popular with the title ‘The Crescent Moon.’ The Scottish Centre of Tagore Studies Tagore’s third and the youngest daughter’s name was Mira (1892-1962), who was also called Atasi. Mira had a broken marriage as her husband turned out to have temperamental and drug addiction issues. Once, Tagore lamented over the wrong choice of husband for his daughter Mira, he wrote –
How can I be so cruel to Mira when it was I who had dealt the first blow in her life by marrying her off without thinking carefully enough about it? … There is a barbarity about Nagen which Mira has come to dread. … Her life is already destroyed, now it is for me to protect her and make her as happy as possible. I must bear as much pain for it as I can because I am responsible for her misery.” The Scottish Centre of Tagore Studies
Tagore’s youngest child was his son Shamindranath Tagore who was born in 1896 and died in 1907. Bollywood actress Sharmila Tagore‘s maternal grandmother, Latika Tagore, was the granddaughter of Rabindranath Tagore’s brother Dwijendranath. In an interview, while talking about her surname, the actress said,
I don’t have that much authority on Tagore but yes I have a wonderful surname. It’s my heritage and it has opened many doors for me. It’s a privilege to be born in such a household. He unfortunately died three years before I was born so I could not have any direct interaction with him. But I have heard great stories from my mother.” The Indian Express
The Untold Love Story
Reportedly, his sister-in-law Kadambari Devi (wife of Tagore’s elder brother Jyotirindranath) was his muse. Kadambari was two years younger than Tagore. Even today, their love story still remains enigmatic. In his masterpiece autobiography “Chelebela” (My Boyhood Days), Tagore depicts his first glimpse of Kadamabari. He writes,
A new bride came to the house, slender gold bracelets on her delicate brown hands…I circled around her at a safe distance, but I did not dare to go near. She was enthroned at the centre of affection and I was only a neglected, insignificant child …” Feminism In India
Although Kadambari was not an educated woman, it is said that she understood poetry better than the poet himself. It is believed that Kadambari played a significant part in Tagore’s life. It was Kadambari who inspired Tagore in composing many of his poems, and she also used to give her creative feedback and comments to Tagore. Tagore even nicknamed her after Hecate, the Greek goddess of night, moon, and magic. When Tagore was 19 years old, he dedicated his famous lyrics to Kadambari –
Tomarei koriachhi jibaner dhrubo tara (Thou art the guiding beacon of my life)” Feminism In India
Kadambari committed suicide on 21 April 1884 in mysterious circumstances. Kadambari’s death left Tagore completely broken. After her death, Tagore wrote a letter to his close associate C. F. Andrews in which he expressed his grief for Kadambari, he wrote –
But where is the sweetheart of mine who was almost the only companion of my boyhood and with whom I spent my idle days of youth exploring the mysteries of dreamland? She, my Queen, has died and my world has shut against the door of its inner apartment of beauty which gives on the real taste of freedom.” Feminism In India
Tagore went on to write many poems and songs in her memory. In one such lyrics, which is also a popular Rabindra Sangeet, Tagore wrote –
Tobu Mone Rekho (Pray, love, remember)”
In another song that he composed in Kadambari’s memory, he wrote –
Amaar praner pore chole gelo ke (The one who went out of my life)” Feminism In India
A Complicated Relationship
Rabindranath Tagore had a brief romantic encounter with an Argentine writer and intellectual, Victoria Ocampo (born on 7 April 1890; died on 27 January 1979). The Week
Victoria was a great admirer of Tagore’s literary works. In November 1924, while Tagore was on his way to Peru to attend the centenary celebrations of independence, he had to stop in Buenos Aires for medical rest on 6 November 1924. When Victoria came to know about Tagore’s arrival in Buenos Aires, she offered to take care of him, and she took care of Tagore during his 58-day stay in the city. Reportedly, it was during this time that Tagore developed a romantic relationship with Ocampo.
At the time of Tagore’s visit, Ocampo was going through a state of transition after the break up with her husband and having a love affair with her cousin. Amid this mental turmoil, Ocampo looked up to Tagore as a Guru from the East who might enlighten her soul and pave a new path for her; however, the 63–year-old widower poet mistook the 34-year-old Ocampo’s devotion as inviting signals. For Tagore, it was a kind of love that he had been waiting for a long time to vanish his intellectual loneliness; Tagore expressed this feeling in his poem Shesh Basanth (the last spring) that he wrote on 21 November 1924 during his stay as the guest of Ocampo. Tagore wrote,
While walking on my solitary way
I met you at the dusk of nightfall
I was about to ask you take my hand
When I gazed at your face and was afraid
For I saw there the glow of the fire that lay asleep
In the deep of your heart’s dark silence”
In her autobiography, Ocampo described Tagore’s advances. She wrote,
One afternoon, as I came into his room while he was writing, I leaned towards the page which was on the table. Without lifting his head towards me he stretched his arm, and in the same way as one gets hold of a fruit on a branch, he placed his hand on one of my breasts. I felt a kind of shudder of withdrawal like a horse whom his master strokes when he is not expecting it. The animal cried at once within me. Another person who lives inside me warned the animal, ‘ be calm… fool’ It is just a gesture of pagan tenderness. The hand left the branch after that almost incorporeal caress. But he never did it again. Every day he kissed me on the forehead or the cheek and took one of my arms, saying “such cool arms.”
Victoria Ocampo gifted Tagore an armchair to take to India from Buenos Aires. Tagore used to sit on the chair for about two months during November-December in 1924 during his stay in Buenos Aires as Ocampo’s guest; the chair is still preserved in Shantiniketan. Reportedly, in his last years, Tagore used to relax in that chair, and he even wrote a poem about it in April 1941. He wrote,
Yet again, if I can, will l look for that seat
On the top of which rests, a caress from overseas
I knew not her language
Yet her eyes told me all
Keeping alive forever
A message of pathos”
On Tagore’s demise, Ocampo sent a telegram to Tagore’s son that read ‘Thinking of him’ (pensando en el); this inspired the title of the 2018 Argentine film ‘Thinking of Film’ that explores the relationship between Rabindranath Tagore and Victoria Ocampo.
Although Rabindranath Tagore adhered to Brahmoism, a philosophy of Brahmo Samaj founded by Raja Rammohan Roy, he never believed in any religious institutions or practices, whether they constituted Hinduism, Islam, or Christianity. Tagore’s religion was, in fact, based on the ‘divinization of man’ and the ‘humanization of God.’ While explaining the meaning of the ‘humanization of God,’ Tagore said,
Humanization of God does not merely mean that God is God of humanity but also it mean that it is the God in every human being.”
Tagore’s conception of God, unity, and equality found spontaneous expression in several of his addresses, poems, and novels. Tagore was born when India was transitioning from medieval to modern times. He grew up in an atmosphere of religious fervor. While growing up, among Tagore’s greatest influences was the liberalism of the Brahmo Samaj, founded by Raja Rammohan Roy on the basis of a synthesis of all religions. He was also greatly impressed by the Baul singers of Bengal; Baul singers are wandering saints who do not belong to any religious establishment nor do they go to any place of worship. In the article ‘An Indian Folk Religion’ in his book Creative Unity, Tagore formally interprets the humanistic philosophy of Baul singers. Tagore was also influenced by the philosophy of Kabir, and he translated almost one hundred couplets of Kabir into English; in Kabir, he found religious philosophy of love, a unbiased view of religion, and a spiritualist faith in man. Tagore quoted Kabir’s philosophy in Gitanjali. He wrote,
He is there where the tiller is tilling the hard ground and where the path-maker is breaking stones.”
A major influence on Tagore’s approach to religion was the Upanishads and the Bhagavadgita. In the preface of his book Sadhana, a book on spirituality, Tagore wrote,
To me, the verses of the Upanishads and the teachings of Buddha have ever been things of the spirit and therefore endowed with boundless vital growth, and I have used them, both in my own life and in my preaching as being instinct with special meaning for me.”
Despite the fact that Tagore was heavily influenced by Upanishad thinkers, the humanistic teachings of Lord Buddha and the Bauls, and the mystic teachings of saints, his philosophy of religion is the product of his own thought process. International Journal of English Language, Literature in Humanities – Volume 6, Issue 1
According to Prabhat Kumar Mukhopadhyaya, one of the biographers of Rabindranath Tagore, the Tagores were Rarhi Brahmins who belonged to a village named Kush in the Burdwan district of West Bengal, and their original surname was Kushari. Prabhat Kumar Mukhopadhyaya wrote in the first volume of his book Rabindrajibani O Rabindra Sahitya-prabeshak that,
The Kusharis were the descendants of Deen Kushari, the son of Bhatta Narayana; Deen was granted a village named Kush (in Burdwan zilla) by Maharaja Kshitisura, he became its chief and came to be known as Kushari. Rabindrajibani O Rabindra Sahitya-prabeshak by Prabhat Kumar Mukhopadhyaya
Some sources claim that Rabindranath Tagore belonged to the inferior caste of Pirali Brahmans, which was considered to be polluted because of their social interactions with Muslims. Sahapedia
Initial Literary Works
The highly cultural and literary environment in the Tagore family inspired Rabindranath to start writing poetry at a very early age. Initially, he published many poems; some anonymously and some under his pen name “Bahanusingha.” Soon, Tagore started contributing to various Bengali magazines, including “Balak” and “Bharati.” Rabindranath Tagore debuted in the world of literature by writing a short story, “Bhikharini” (The Beggar Woman), in 1877. When the 16-year-old Tagore wrote Bhikharini,” it became the first short story in Bengali-language.
In 1882, he published a volume of Bengali verse, Sandhya Sangeet, and it included his famous poem Nirjharer Swapna Bhanga (The awakening of the fountain).
Between 1884 and 1890, Tagore wrote many poems, prose articles, criticism, plays, and novels.
Shelaidaha (1878–1901) – The period of his Sadhana
In 1990, Tagore visited the United Kingdom for the second time; however, he came back just after a month to look after the family estate, Kuthibari, a three-storied pyramid-shaped terraced bungalow in eleven acres of land, in Shelaidaha (now a region of Bangladesh), where he intimately experienced the wretched life led by the poor Bengali peasants.
Tagore’s wife and children joined him at Shelaidaha in 1898. During his stay in Shelaidaha, he was overwhelmed by the social, political, and economic misery in which the peasants lived. In an article, Tagore described the peasants’ misery, he wrote,
Our so-called responsible classes live in comfort because the common man has not yet understood his situation. That is why the landlord beats him. The money-lender holds him in his clutches; the foreman abuses him; the policeman fleeces him; the priest exploits him; and the magistrate picks his pocket.”
While managing his family’s ancestral estate in Shelaidaha as a young landlord, Rabindranath Tagore realized that rural life can be transformed by introducing education and co-operation. While speaking on ‘The Vicissitudes of Education,’ he strongly campaigned for the use of the mother-tongue. Reportedly, it was this time that his experiments in teaching came for the first time. Soon, Tagore started his own school in Seliadah, where he sent his own children to study under the tutelage of many skilled teachers including an Englishman who taught them the English language. Tagore’s School and Methodology by Thomas B. KANE, Edinburgh Napier University Apart from starting a school, he also organized co-operatives and hospitals in the villages of his family estate and tried to introduce new and improved farming methods. While pursuing these rural reforms, he continued his creative writing. The greenery, the rivers, and the simplicity of rural Bengal inspired Tagore to write many of his famous essays, short stories, and poems including Sonar Tori, Kotha o Kahini, Chitra, and Chaitali. In 1890, he published Manasi, a collection of poems, which is considered one of his best-known literary works.
In 1900, he came out with another masterpiece Galpaguchchha, a three-volume composition of 84 stories.
During this time, he wrote many letters to his niece, which were subsequently published as Chhinnapatra (Torn letters) and Chhinnapatravali (A collection of torn letters). Most of the poems of Kheya and Naibedya, and many songs, which formed part of Gitanjali and Geetimalya, were also written during his stay in Shelaidaha. It was here in Shelaidaha that he started translating Gitanjali into English in 1912. National Herald These literary works are considered to be landmarks in the writing of Bengali prose and in describing the countryside of Bengal. According to Tagore, the period 1891–1895 was the period of his Sadhana; this period is considered to be his most productive. During his stay in Shelaidaha, Tagore used the family boat (bajra or budgerow), Padma, to criss-cross the Padma River to visit villages to collect token rents. During these visits, he would talk to villagers and listen to their problems; this experience paved the pave for Tagore’s later educational experiments.
Santiniketan (1901–1932) – Middle years of Rabindranath Tagore
In 1901, Tagore left Shelaidaha and moved to Santiniketan, where he started a boarding school, Brahamacharyashram (or Ashram) School, which was inaugurated on 22 December 1901 with only a few pupils, his son being one of them. The theme of the school was to encourage a close bonding between teachers and pupils as they lived together, willingly accepting an austere standard of living. Tagore didn’t accept fees from students and bear all expenses by himself. Later, this Ashram School expanded, growing the poet’s reputation.
While living at Santiniketan, Tagore wrote about India’s past and present, and stories of noble self-sacrifice. During this time, he published some of his most popular realistic novels including Choker Bali (1901), Naukadubi (1903), and Gora (1910).
The well-known English painter Sir William Rothenstein and the poet W. B. Yeats became highly impressed by some of Tagore’s poems and writings, which had already been translated into English. In 1912, during his third visit to the United Kingdom, Tagore was accepted as a great poet and intellectual. In November 1913, Rabindranath Tagore was awarded that year’s Nobel Prize in Literature for Gitanjali, Tagore’s best-known collection of poetry, making him the first Asian and first non-European to receive a Nobel Prize in Literature. The Swedish Academy, in its statement, said,
The Nobel Prize in Literature 1913 was awarded to Rabindranath Tagore “because of his profoundly sensitive, fresh and beautiful verse, by which, with consummate skill, he has made his poetic thought, expressed in his own English words, a part of the literature of the West.”
In the 1915 Birthday Honours, Rabindranath Tagore was awarded a knighthood by King George V; however, after the Jallianwala Bagh massacre in 1919, Tagore renounced the knighthood by writing a letter to the then British Viceroy of India, Lord Chelmsford. In the letter, Tagore wrote,
The disproportionate severity of the punishments inflicted upon the unfortunate people and the methods of carrying them out, we are convinced, are without parallel in the history of civilised governments…The time has come when badges of honour make our shame glaring in their incongruous context of humiliation, and I for my part wish to stand, shorn of all special distinctions, by the side of my country men.”
In 1916, Tagore visited Japan and the United States of America, where he delivered lectures, which were later published in two volumes as Nationalism (1917b) and Personality (1917c). Between 1878 and 1932, Tagore travelled more than thirty countries on five continents. This international experience inspired him to establish an institution that emphasized the unity of the world’s cultures and streams of knowledge. On 24 December 1918, he laid the foundation of Visva Bharati in Shantiniketan, West Bengal; Visva Bharati went on to become an international centre of culture and humanistic studies.
Sri Niketan – Abode of Welfare
From 1901 to 1921, Santiniketan developed continuously; however, Tagore wanted some new form of schooling for the village children in India based on life in the countryside. In 1921, Tagore, along with agricultural economist Leonard Elmhirst, started a new school called Shikshasastra in Surul at Sri Niketan to provide an all-round education for village children; the main emphasis of this new school was on agricultural research. At Sri Niketan, handicraft became an essential thing, and it was compulsory for all students to learn a trade.
Tagore and Mahatma Gandhi
Rabindranath Tagore and Mahatma Gandhi, the two great representatives of Modern India, shared a great rapport with each other, in fact, the two giants of Modern India are best known by the monikers “Mahatma” (given to Gandhi by Tagore) and “Gurudev” (given to Tagore by Gandhi). Reportedly, Tagore was the first to refer to Gandhi as “Mahatma,” and in respect, Gandhi called him “Gurudev.” It was an Englishman, Charles Freer Andrews, who acted as the link between these two. On Mahatma Gandhi’s return to India, Andrews suggested Tagore invite the members of Mahatma Gandhi’s “Phoenix family” at Santiniketan. In March 1915, Mahatma Gandhi and Rabindranath Tagore met for the first time at Santiniketan.
After their first meeting, they went on to meet many times. Apart from politics and philosophy, they used to discuss other things like food and diet. Once, Mahatma Gandhi, who was a strict fruitarian, told Tagore,
To fry bread in ghee or oil to make puris is to turn good grain into poison. It must be a slow poison.”
To this, Tagore replied,
I have been eating puris all my life and it has not done me any harm so far.” mkgandhi.org
Although they had developed a good rapport, both had their ideological differences and had different views on science, social and economic development, nationalism, and patriotism. The Economic Times Tagore was sceptical about Mahatma Gandhi’s Non-cooperation Movement and didn’t agree with Gandhi’s philosophy towards “Charkha.” Tagore also criticized Gandhi for linking the Bihar earthquake to the sin of untouchability. Gandhi always took Tagore’s criticisms positively, and they never let their mutual respect for each other to diminish. On his differences with Tagore, Mahatma Gandhi once said,
I started with a disposition to detect a conflict between Gurudev and myself, but ended with a glorious discovery that there was none.” mkgandhi.org
In 1940, when Mahatma Gandhi visited Santiniketan along with his wife, Kasturba, it proved to be his last meeting with Tagore. During their meeting, when Tagore requested Gandhi to take Santiniketan under his protection, Gandhi replied,
Who am I to take this institution under my protection?… It carries God’s protection because it is the creation of an earnest soul.” mkgandhi.org
In 1945, Mahatma Gandhi visited Santiniketan for the last time in his life; however, Tagore was not there to host him that time as he had died back in 1941. In his address to the Santiniketan community, Mahatma Gandhi said,
It is my conviction arrived at after a long and laborious struggle that Gurudev as a person was much bigger than his works; bigger even than this institution.” mkgandhi.org
Literary and Artistic Works
Although Tagore is mostly known for his poetry, his dramas, short stories, essays, novels, travelogues, and songs are equally popular. In most of his literary works, the reflection of the lives of common people is very prominent.
The best-known work in poetry by Tagore is Gitanjali that made him the first Asian to win a Nobel Prize in Literature in 1913. Besides Gitanjali, Tagore delivered many more masterpieces including Manasi, Sonar Tori (Golden Boat), and Balaka (Wild Geese). Tagore’s poetic style has a variety of ranges from classical formalism to the comic, visionary, and ecstatic. Tagore’s poetic style is influenced by the works of Vyasa, Kabir, and Ramprasad Sen. The mystic Baul ballads like those of the bard Lalon also influenced Tagore’s poetic style.
Rabindranath Tagore published eight novels, Nastanirh (The Broken Nest) in 1901, Chokher Bali in 1903, Noukadubi in 1906, Gora (Fair-Faced) in 1910, Ghare Baire (The Home and the World) in 1916, Chaturanga in 1916, Shesher Kabita in 1928, and Jogajog or Yogayog (Crosscurrents) in 1929. Through these novels, Tagore explained Indian nationalism, Indian identity, self-identity, personal freedom, loneliness, etc.
When Tagore was just sixteen, he began his experiences with drama with his brother Jyotirindranath. At the age of twenty, Tagore wrote his first original dramatic piece, Valmiki Pratibha. Tagore’s 1890 drama Visarjan is considered to be his finest drama. Most of his dramas used more philosophical and allegorical themes. Some of his popular dramas are Dak Ghar (1912), Raktakarabi (1926), and Chandalika (1933). His dance-drama adaptations Chitrangada, Chandalika, and Shyama together are known as Rabindra Nritya Natya.
In 1877, when 16-year-old Tagore wrote Bhikharini, it began his short story writing spree. Tagore is credited to invent the Bengali-language short story genre. Most of his short stories reflect the lives of India’s poor and common people. Some of his most popular short stories are Kabuliwala (published in 1892), Kshudita Pashan (published in 1895), and Atithi (published in 1895).
Songs – Rabindra Sangeet
Tagore was an accomplished song-writer and composer. With around 2,230 songs to his credit, he gave a new category to songs known as Rabindra Sangeet. Most of his songs are influenced by the thumri style of Hindustani music. Tagore’s songs are known to express the entire gamut of human emotion. It is said that –
In Bengal no cultured home where Rabindranath’s songs are not sung or at least attempted to be sung… Even illiterate villagers sing his songs.”
Painting and Drawing
Apart from his literary works, Tagore is also known for his artworks including drawing and painting that he took up at the age of sixty. He made debut appearances in many art galleries in Paris and throughout Europe.
- Tagore is heavily criticized for marrying his three daughters when they were still in their childhood. This is surprising as Tagore had started speaking against child marriages as early as 1887. Bizarrely, Tagore, in his Bengali novella Nashtanirh (The Broken Nest) that he wrote at the same time when he was arranging his daughters’ marriages, describes the agony of child marriages. The Scottish Centre of Tagore Studies
- He was allegedly implicated to overthrow the British Raj from India through German funds, these allegations were based on his dealings with Indian nationalists Subhas Chandra Bose and Rash Behari Bose, and papers confiscated from Indian nationalists in New York. CNN
- Tagore’s aggressive lectures on nationalism attracted severe criticism by the press, and in 1916, when he visited the USA, a group of radical Indians even conspired to assassinate him; however, he escaped assassination narrowly as his would-be assassins fell into an argument. The Statesman
Waning Years (1932-1941)
During his waning years, Tagore developed more respect for scientific laws, and he used various concepts of biology, physics, and astronomy in his poetry. His stories Se (1937), Tin Sangi (1940), and Galpasalpa (1941) also incorporated scientific intellect in them. Although the last five years of Tagore’s life were marked by chronic pain and illness, the poetry that he wrote during this period is considered among his finest including his politically charged compositions “Chitto Jetha Bhayshunyo” and “Ekla Chalo Re.”
In late 1940, Tagore became unconscious and remained comatose for a long time, and after a prolonged agony, the 80-year-old Tagore died on 7 August 1941 in an upstairs room of the Jorasanko mansion, where he was raised in.
Earlier, he had experienced a similar spell of comatose in late 1937 and also underwent a kidney operation.
On 30 July 1941, almost a week before his death, Tagore dictated a few lines to A. K. Sen (brother of Sukumar Sen who was the first chief election commissioner of India), which probably became his last poem –
I’m lost in the middle of my birthday. I want my friends, their touch, with the earth’s last love. I will take life’s final offering, I will take the human’s last blessing. Today my sack is empty. I have given completely whatever I had to give. In return if I receive anything—some love, some forgiveness—then I will take it with me when I step on the boat that crosses to the festival of the wordless end.”
After his demise in 1941, Tagore left behind a legacy of literary intellect, and there are many festivals, awards, buildings, places, and institutions named after him.
There are many festivals named after Tagore that are held every year across the globe including Rabindra Jayanti, an annual cultural festival, prevalent among people who love Tagore and his works; the festival is celebrated in early May, on the 25th day of the Bengali month of Boishakh. Tagore International Literature and Arts Festival is another such annual festival that is celebrated across the globe. On important anniversaries, a procession called Rabindra Path Parikrama takes place during which followers of Tagore walk from Kolkata to Santiniketan reciting his poetry and verses.
Awards & Prizes
There are many awards and honours named after this great polymath including Rabindranath Tagore Literary Prize that founded in 2018 by US-based independent and non-profit publishing house Maitreya Publishing Foundation (MPF). In 2011, the Government of India established the Tagore Award that carries an amount of Rupees One Crore, a Citation in a Scroll, a Plaque as well as an exquisite traditional handicraft/handloom item. The Rabindra Puraskar or the Rabindra Smriti Puraskar is the highest honorary literary award in West Bengal administered by the Government of West Bengal. In 2011, Sangeet Natak Akademi sponsored Tagore Ratna and Tagore Puraskar; these awards were conferred on the occasion to commemorate 150 birthday of Rabindranath Tagore.
In May 2020, Israel named a street, Rehov Tagore, in Tel Aviv after Rabindranath Tagore on the occasion of the poet’s 159th birthday.
In July 2017, an area in Prague, the capital of the Czech Republic, was named after Rabindranath Tagore; the area is named Thakurova and has a bust of the Nobel laureate.
The Tagore Garden Metro Station, located on the Blue Line of the Delhi Metro, is named after Tagore, and it was opened on 31 December 2005.
Rabindranath Tagore Nagar or simply R. T. Nagar is an area in Bangalore, India, that was developed by Bangalore Development Authority (BDA) in the 1970s.
Rabindra Sarobar (previously known as Dhakuria Lake) is an artificial lake in South Kolkata, which was named after Rabindranath Tagore by the Calcutta Improvement Trust (CIT) in 1958.
Tagore Town, a neighborhood in Allahabad, India, is named after Rabindranath Tagore; it was built in 1909.
Many universities and institutes have been named after Rabindranath Tagore in various cities across the globe including Rabindra Bharati University in Kolkata, India, Rabindranath Tagore Medical College in Udaipur, Rajasthan, Rabindranath Tagore University in Hojai, Assam, India, Rabindra Srijonkala University in Keraniganj, Dhaka, Bangladesh, and Rabindranath Tagore Secondary School in Mauritius.
There are many buildings in various cities across the globe that are named after Rabindranath Tagore including Rabindra Sadan, a cultural centre and theatre in Kolkata, Rabindra Library (Central) in Assam University, India, Rabindra Nazrul Art Building, Arts Faculty, in Islamic University, Bangladesh, Rabindra Parishad, a multi-purpose cultural centre in Patna, Bihar, India, Tagore Theatre in Chandigarh, India, and Rabindranath Tagore Memorial Auditorium, in Sri Lanka.
Some of the popular museums named after Rabindranath Tagore are Rabindra Bharati Museum, at Jorasanko Thakur Bari in Kolkata, India, Tagore Memorial Museum, at Shilaidaha Kuthibadi in Shilaidaha, Bangladesh, Rabindra Memorial Museum at Shahzadpur Kachharibari in Shahzadpur, Bangladesh, and Rabindra Bhavan Museum, in Santiniketan, India.
The popular Howrah Bridge over the Hooghly River in West Bengal was renamed Rabindra Setu after Rabindranath Tagore on 14 June 1965.
B. tagorei. Barapasaurus, the only species of a genus of basal sauropod dinosaur from Early Jurassic rocks of India, is named after Rabindranath Tagore.
- His paternal grandfather, Dwarkanath Tagore, was the first Indian to travel to Europe, defying the Hindu religious ban of those times that had imposed a ban on travel to Europe. UNESCO
- During his second visit to London, the manuscript of Gitanjali went missing in the London Tube. This thrilling adventure happened when he was on a visit to London to show the English translation of his book Gitanjali to the English painter and art critic William Rothenstein, anticipating he could lobby William Butler Yeats to write an introduction. Tagore took the Tube to Rothenstein’s Hampstead residence and mid-way, he lost the briefcase in which he carried the manuscript. Later, when his son, Rathindranath, inquired with the London Tube authorities, the briefcase was recovered, and thus, the book that brought India its first Nobel saw the light of day. The Hindu
- On 25 March 2004, Tagore’s Nobel Prize was stolen from the safety vault of the Visva-Bharati University. Later, the Swedish Academy issued two replicas of Tagore’s Nobel Prize. In 2016, the stolen Nobel Prize was recovered after a baul singer named Pradip Bauri accused of sheltering the thieves was arrested. The Hindu
- The 2012 Bengali language film Nobel Chor is inspired by the theft of Tagore’s Nobel Prize.
- The 1932 Bengali film Natir Puja is the only film directed by Rabindranath Tagore. The Statesman
- During India’s struggle for independence, when Mahatma Gandhi and B. R. Ambedkar had a dispute involving separate electorates for untouchables, it was Tagore who intervened and resolved the dispute.
- Interestingly, English was his least favourite subject. Rabindranath Tagore: The Myriad-Minded Man by Krishna Dutta, Andrew Robinson To him, English was something he could slip around him like a blanket. Tagore once wrote a letter to his niece Indira about a telegram that he had just received stating “Missing gown lying post office.” He wondered:
Was the gown lying in the post office or was it really missing, with the post office lying about its disappearance?” Selected Letters of Rabindranath Tagore
- Even after religiously following Islamic and Hindu traditions, Tagore’s family played a significant role to introduce Western education in India. They opened many schools and colleges for the study of science and medicine. This amalgamation of tradition and science significantly characterized Tagor’s attitude towards life. UNESCO
- At the age of eleven, Tagore had his upanayana (coming-of-age rite). After this ritual, he toured India for several months along with his father in 1873. They toured various cities in India, including Dalhousie and Amritsar. Tagore stayed in Amritsar for almost one month where he was greatly influenced by the Gurbani and Nanak Bani at the Golden Temple. In his My Reminiscences (1912), Tagore mentioned his experience at the Golden Temple, he wrote –
The golden temple of Amritsar comes back to me like a dream. Many a morning have I accompanied my father to this Gurudarbar of the Sikhs in the middle of the lake. There the sacred chanting resounds continually. My father, seated amidst the throng of worshippers, would sometimes add his voice to the hymn of praise, and finding a stranger joining in their devotions they would wax enthusiastically cordial, and we would return loaded with the sanctified offerings of sugar crystals and other sweets.” Mainstream Weekly
- Tagore was so inspired by Sikhism that he went on to write six poems on Sikh heroism and martyrdom. He also wrote numerous articles about Sikhism in a Bengali child magazine. Mainstream Weekly
- The first time when Tagor was in close proximity to nature was when his father took him to Dalhousie, where they stayed in the Himalayan foothills. At that time, Tagore was in his teenage.
- Tagore’s son, Rathindranath wrote in his memoir, On the Edges of Time (1958), that throughout his life, his father “felt lonely.” Rathindranath termed his father’s condition as “intellectual loneliness.” The Statesman
- Tagore’s house Kuthibari in Shelaidaha, Bangladesh has been converted into a museum called Tagore Memorial and Museum, where personal objects that he used such as his bed, wardrobe, iron chest, palki lawnmower, number of framed photographs, and other paraphernalia are on display.
- Tagore’s famous house-boat “Padma,” that he used during his stay in Shelaidaha (1878-1901), is moored near the banks of the pond of Shelaidaha Kuthibari, Kushtia in Bangladesh.
- After the death of his father in 1905, the Maharaja of Tripura issued him monthly payments as part of his inheritance and income. Besides, he was also benefitted from sales of his family’s jewellery, his seaside bungalow in Puri, and a derisory Rs. 2,000 in book royalties. Rabindranath Tagore: The Myriad-Minded Man by Krishna Dutta, Andrew Robinson
- Rabindranath Tagore’s second experiment with the education that he initiated with the inception of Sri Niketan was so future-oriented that the entire programme followed at Sri Niketan for rural development was adopted by India’s five-year plans. UNESCO
- During his international travels between 1878 and 1932, Tagore interacted with many renowned intellectuals including Mussolini (in May 1926), Henri Bergson, Albert Einstein (in April 1930), Robert Frost, Thomas Mann, George Bernard Shaw, H.G. Wells, and Romain Rolland. On 14 April 1930, Tagore was interviewed by Einstein during which Tagore said,
Our passions and desires are unruly, but our character subdues these elements into a harmonious whole. Does something similar to this happen in the physical world? Are the elements rebellious, dynamic with individual impulse? And is there a principle in the physical world which dominates them and puts them into an orderly organization?”
- On 5 May 1930, Tagore sent a message to America in which he quoted that the shrinking of the distance between countries should be used to promote spiritual values, not just commerce.
- In 2011, on the 150th anniversary of Tagore’s birth, Harvard University Press collaborated with Visva-Bharati University to publish The Essential Tagore; it was edited by Fakrul Alam and Radha Chakravarthy, and it is considered the largest anthology of Tagore’s works available in English. Harvard University Press
- Tagore had a partial colour vision deficiency, and he was likely red-green colour blind. Natsy by Design
- Rabindranath Tagore is the only person in the world whose songs have been adapted as the national anthem in three countries – Jana Gana Mana (India’s national anthem; adopted in 1950), Sri Lanka Matha (Sri Lanka’s national anthem; adopted in 1951), and Amar Shonar Bangla (Bangladesh’s national anthem; adopted in 1971).