Chai Khana

Revisiting Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore’s life and work

Rabindranath Tagore FRAS also known by his pen name Bhanu Singha Thakur (Bhonita), and also known by his sobriquets Gurudev, Kabiguru, and Biswakabi, was a polymath, poet, musician, artist and ayurveda-researcher from the Indian subcontinent.

The youngest of thirteen surviving children, Tagore was born as Robindronath Thakur, on 7 May 1861 in the Jorasanko mansion in Calcutta to Debendranath Tagore and Sarada Devi

The original surname of the Tagores were Kushari. They were Rarhi Brahmins and originally belonged to a village named Kush in the district named Burdwan in West Bengal.

Tagore was raised mostly by servants; his mother had died in his early childhood and his father travelled widely.

The Tagore family was at the forefront of the Bengal renaissance. They hosted the publication of literary magazines; theatre and recitals of Bengali and Western classical music featured there regularly. Tagore’s father invited several professional Dhrupad musicians to stay in the house and teach Indian classical music to the children.

Tagore’s oldest brother Dwijendranath was a philosopher and poet. Another brother, Satyendranath, was the first Indian appointed to the elite and formerly all-European Indian Civil Service. Yet another brother, Jyotirindranath, was a musician, composer, and playwright. His sister Swarnakumari became a novelist. Jyotirindranath’s wife Kadambari Devi, slightly older than Tagore, was a dear friend and powerful influence. Her abrupt suicide in 1884, soon after he married, left him profoundly distraught for years.

Tagore largely avoided classroom schooling and preferred to roam the manor or nearby Bolpur and Panihati, which the family visited.

His brother Hemendranath tutored and physically conditioned him—by having him swim the Ganges or trek through hills, by gymnastics, and by practising judo and wrestling. He learned drawing, anatomy, geography and history, literature, mathematics, Sanskrit, and English—his least favourite subject. Tagore loathed formal education—his scholarly travails at the local Presidency College spanned a single day. Years later he held that proper teaching does not explain things; proper teaching stokes curiosity.

After his upanayan (coming-of-age rite) at age eleven, Tagore and his father left Calcutta in February 1873 to tour India for several months, visiting his father’s Santiniketan estate and Amritsar before reaching the Himalayan hill station of Dalhousie. There Tagore read biographies, studied history, astronomy, modern science, and Sanskrit, and examined the classical poetry of Kālidāsa.

During his 1-month stay at Amritsar in 1873 he was greatly influenced by melodious gurbani and nanak bani being sung at Golden Temple for which both father and son were regular visitors. He wrote 6 poems relating to Sikhism and a number of articles in Bengali child magazine about Sikhism

Tagore returned to Jorosanko and completed a set of major works by 1877, one of them a long poem in the Maithili style of Vidyapati.

As a joke, he claimed that these were the lost works of newly discovered 17th-century Vaiṣṇava poet Bhānusiṃha. Regional experts accepted them as the lost works of the fictitious poet.

He debuted in the short-story genre in Bengali with “Bhikharini” (“The Beggar Woman”). Published in the same year, Sandhya Sangit (1882) includes the poem “Nirjharer Swapnabhanga” (“The Rousing of the Waterfall”).

Because Debendranath wanted his son to become a barrister, Tagore enrolled at a public school in Brighton, East Sussex, England in 1878.

He stayed for several 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 Devi, the children of Tagore’s brother Satyendranath—were sent together with their mother, Tagore’s sister-in-law, to live with him.

He briefly read law at University College London, but again left school, opting instead for independent study of Shakespeare’s plays Coriolanus, and Antony and Cleopatra and the Religio Medici of Thomas Browne. Lively English, Irish, and Scottish folk tunes impressed Tagore, whose own tradition of Nidhubabu-authored kirtans and tappas and Brahmo hymnody was subdued.

In 1880 he returned to Bengal degree-less, resolving to reconcile European novelty with Brahmo traditions, taking the best from each.

After returning to Bengal, Tagore regularly published poems, stories, and novels. These had a profound impact within Bengal itself but received little national attention.

In 1883 he married 10-year-old Mrinalini Devi, born Bhabatarini, 1873–1902 (this was a common practice at the time). They had five children, two of whom died in childhood.

In 1890 Tagore began managing his vast ancestral estates in Shelaidaha (today a region of Bangladesh); he was joined there by his wife and children in 1898.

Tagore released his Manasi poems (1890), among his best-known work.

As Zamindar Babu, Tagore criss-crossed the Padma River in command of the Padma, the luxurious family barge (also known as “budgerow”).

He collected mostly token rents and blessed villagers who in turn honoured him with banquets—occasionally of dried rice and sour milk.

He met Gagan Harkara, through whom he became familiar with Baul Lalon Shah, whose folk songs greatly influenced Tagore. Tagore worked to popularise Lalon’s songs.

The period 1891–1895, Tagore’s Sadhana period, named after one of his magazines, was his most productive; in these years he wrote more than half the stories of the three-volume, 84-story Galpaguchchha. Its ironic and grave tales examined the voluptuous poverty of an idealised rural Bengal

In 1901 Tagore moved to Santiniketan to found an ashram with a marble-floored prayer hall—The Mandir—an experimental school, groves of trees, gardens, a library. There his wife and two of his children died. His father died in 1905.

He received monthly payments as part of his inheritance and income from the Maharaja of Tripura, sales of his family’s jewellery, his seaside bungalow in Puri, and a derisory 2,000 rupees in book royalties.

He gained Bengali and foreign readers alike; he published Naivedya (1901) and Kheya (1906) and translated poems into free verse.

In November 1913, Tagore learned he had won that year’s Nobel Prize in Literature: the Swedish Academy appreciated the idealistic—and for Westerners—accessible nature of a small body of his translated material focused on the 1912 Gitanjali: Song Offerings.

He was awarded a knighthood by King George V in the 1915 Birthday Honours, but Tagore renounced it after the 1919 Jallianwala Bagh massacre.

Renouncing the knighthood, Tagore wrote in a letter addressed to Lord Chelmsford, the then British Viceroy of India, “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 1919, he was invited by the president and chairman of Anjuman-e-Islamia, Syed Abdul Majid to visit Sylhet for the first time. The event attracted over 5000 people

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.

With it, Tagore sought to moderate Gandhi’s Swaraj protests, which he occasionally blamed for British India’s perceived mental – and thus ultimately colonial – decline. He sought aid from donors, officials, and scholars worldwide to “free village[s] from the shackles of helplessness and ignorance” by “vitalis[ing] knowledge”.

In the early 1930s he targeted ambient “abnormal caste consciousness” and untouchability. He lectured against these, he penned Dalit heroes for his poems and his dramas, and he campaigned—successfully—to open Guruvayoor Temple to Dalits

Dutta and Robinson describe 1932–1941 phase of Tagore’s life as being one of a “peripatetic litterateur”. It affirmed his opinion that human divisions were shallow.

To the end Tagore scrutinised orthodoxy—and in 1934, he struck. That year, an earthquake hit Bihar and killed thousands. Gandhi hailed it as seismic karma, as divine retribution avenging the oppression of Dalits. Tagore rebuked him for his seemingly ignominious implications.

He mourned the perennial poverty of Calcutta and the socioeconomic decline of Bengal, and detailed these newly plebeian aesthetics in an unrhymed hundred-line poem whose technique of searing double-vision foreshadowed Satyajit Ray’s film Apur Sansar.

Fifteen new volumes appeared, among them prose-poem works Punashcha (1932), Shes Saptak (1935), and Patraput (1936). Experimentation continued in his prose-songs and dance-dramas— Chitra (1914), Shyama (1939), and Chandalika (1938)— and in his novels— Dui Bon (1933), Malancha (1934), and Char Adhyay (1934).

Tagore’s remit expanded to science in his last years, as hinted in Visva-Parichay, a 1937 collection of essays.

His respect for scientific laws and his exploration of biology, physics, and astronomy informed his poetry, which exhibited extensive naturalism and verisimilitude.

He wove the process of science, the narratives of scientists, into stories in Se (1937), Tin Sangi (1940), and Galpasalpa (1941).

His last five 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 a time. This was followed in late 1940 by a similar spell, from which he never recovered. Poetry from these valetudinary years is among his finest.

A period of prolonged agony ended with Tagore’s death on 7 August 1941, aged eighty; he was in an upstairs room of the Jorasanko mansion he was raised in.

A. K. Sen, brother of the first chief election commissioner, received dictation from Tagore on 30 July 1941, a day prior to a scheduled operation: 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.”

Tagore opposed imperialism and supported Indian nationalists, and these views were first revealed in Manast, which was mostly composed in his twenties. Tagore wrote songs lionising the Indian independence movement

Two of Tagore’s more politically charged compositions, “Chitto Jetha Bhayshunyo” (“Where the Mind is Without Fear”) and “Ekla Chalo Re” (“If They Answer Not to Thy Call, Walk Alone”), gained mass appeal, with the latter favoured by Gandhi.

Though somewhat critical of Gandhian activism, Tagore was key in resolving a Gandhi–Ambedkar dispute involving separate electorates for untouchables, thereby mooting at least one of Gandhi’s fasts “unto death”

He escaped assassination—and only narrowly—by Indian expatriates during his stay in a San Francisco hotel in late 1916; the plot failed when his would-be assassins fell into argument

Between 1878 and 1932, Tagore set foot in more than thirty countries on five continents

Tagore, visiting Santa Barbara in 1917, conceived a new type of university: he sought to “make Santiniketan the connecting thread between India and the world [and] a world center for the study of humanity somewhere beyond the limits of nation and geography.”

The school, which he named Visva-Bharati, had its foundation stone laid on 24 December 1918 and was inaugurated precisely three years later. Tagore employed a brahmacharya system: gurus gave pupils personal guidance—emotional, intellectual, and spiritual. Teaching was often done under trees. He staffed the school, he contributed his Nobel Prize monies, and his duties as steward-mentor at Santiniketan kept him busy: mornings he taught classes; afternoons and evenings he wrote the students’ textbooks. He fundraised widely for the school in Europe and the United States between 1919 and 1921

On 25 March 2004, Tagore’s Nobel Prize was stolen from the safety vault of the Visva-Bharati University, along with several other of his belongings.

On 7 December 2004, the Swedish Academy decided to present two replicas of Tagore’s Nobel Prize, one made of gold and the other made of bronze, to the Visva-Bharati University. It inspired the fictional film Nobel Chor.

In 2016, a baul singer named Pradip Bauri accused of sheltering the thieves was arrested and the prize was returned.

Kabipranam, his birth anniversary, is celebrated by groups scattered across the globe; the annual Tagore Festival held in Urbana, Illinois (USA); Rabindra Path Parikrama walking pilgrimages from Kolkata to Santiniketan; and recitals of his poetry, which are held on important anniversaries.

Tagore’s Bengali originals—the 1939 Rabīndra Rachanāvalī—is canonised as one of his nation’s greatest cultural treasures, and he was roped into a reasonably humble role: “the greatest poet India has produced”

Tagore was renowned throughout much of Europe, North America, and East Asia. He co-founded Dartington Hall School, a progressive coeducational institution; in Japan, he influenced such figures as Nobel laureate Yasunari Kawabata. In colonial Vietnam Tagore was a guide for the restless spirit of the radical writer and publicist Nguyen An Ninh

Tagore’s works were widely translated into English, Dutch, German, Spanish, and other European languages by Czech Indologist Vincenc Lesný, French Nobel laureate André Gide, Russian poet Anna Akhmatova, former Turkish Prime Minister Bülent Ecevit, and others.

By way of translations, Tagore influenced Chileans Pablo Neruda and Gabriela Mistral; Mexican writer Octavio Paz; and Spaniards José Ortega y Gasset, Zenobia Camprubí, and Juan Ramón Jiménez. In the period 1914–1922, the Jiménez-Camprubí pair produced twenty-two Spanish translations of Tagore’s English corpus; they heavily revised The Crescent Moon and other key titles.

Tagore’s works circulated in free editions around 1920—alongside those of Plato, Dante, Cervantes, Goethe, and Tolstoy.

There are eight Tagore museums.

  • Rabindra Bharati Museum, at Jorasanko Thakur Bari, Kolkata, India
  • Tagore Memorial Museum, at Shilaidaha Kuthibadi, Shilaidaha, Bangladesh
  • Rabindra Memorial Museum at Shahzadpur Kachharibari, Shahzadpur, Bangladesh
  • Rabindra Bhavan Museum, in Santiniketan, India
  • Rabindra Museum, in Mungpoo, near Kalimpong, India
  • Patisar Rabindra Kacharibari, Patisar, Atrai, Naogaon, Bangladesh
  • Pithavoge Rabindra Memorial Complex, Pithavoge, Rupsha, Khulna, Bangladesh
  • Rabindra Complex, Dakkhindihi village, Phultala Upazila, Khulna, Bangladesh

Institutes/buildings named after him

  1. Rabindra Bharati University, Kolkata, India.
  2. Rabindra University, Sahjadpur, Shirajganj, Bangladesh.
  3. Rabindranath Tagore University, Hojai, Assam, India
  4. Rabindra Maitree University, Courtpara, Kustia, Bangladesh.
  5. Bishwakabi Rabindranath Tagore Hall, Jahangirnagar University, Bangladesh
  6. Rabindra Nazrul Art Building, Arts Faculty, Islamic University, Bangladesh
  7. Rabindra Library (Central), Assam University, India
  8. Rabindra Srijonkala University, Keraniganj, Dhaka, Bangladesh

The SNLTR hosts the 1415 BE edition of Tagore’s complete Bengali works. Tagore Web also hosts an edition of Tagore’s works, including annotated songs. Translations are found at Project Gutenberg and Wikisource.

India’s National Gallery of Modern Art lists 102 works by Tagore in its collections

Known mostly for his poetry, Tagore wrote novels, essays, short stories, travelogues, autobiographies, dramas, and thousands of songs.

His travelogues, essays, and lectures were compiled into several volumes, including Europe Jatrir Patro (Letters from Europe) and Manusher Dhormo (The Religion of Man).

His brief chat with Einstein, “Note on the Nature of Reality”, is included as an appendix to the latter.

In 2011, Harvard University Press collaborated with Visva-Bharati University to publish The Essential Tagore, the largest anthology of Tagore’s works available in English; it was edited by Fakrul Alam and Radha Chakravarthy and marked the 150th anniversary of Tagore’s birth

Tagore began his career in short stories in 1877—when he was only sixteen—with “Bhikharini” (“The Beggar Woman”). With this, Tagore effectively invented the Bengali-language short story genre.

The four years from 1891 to 1895 are known as Tagore’s “Sadhana” period (named for one of Tagore’s magazines). This period was among Tagore’s most fecund, yielding more than half the stories contained in the three-volume Galpaguchchha, which itself is a collection of eighty-four stories. In particular, such stories as “Kabuliwala” (“The Fruitseller from Kabul”, published in 1892), “Kshudita Pashan” (“The Hungry Stones”) (August 1895), and “Atithi” (“The Runaway”, 1895) typified his analytic focus on the downtrodden. Many of the other Galpaguchchha stories were written in Tagore’s Sabuj Patra period from 1914 to 1917, also named after one of the magazines that Tagore edited and heavily contributed to.

Tagore wrote eight novels and four novellas, among them Chaturanga, Shesher Kobita, Char Odhay, and Noukadubi.

Tagore’s experiences with drama began when he was sixteen, with his brother Jyotirindranath. He wrote his first original dramatic piece when he was twenty — Valmiki Pratibha which was shown at the Tagore’s mansion.

In 1890 he wrote Visarjan (an adaptation of his novella Rajarshi), which has been regarded as his finest drama.

Chitrangada, Chandalika, and Shyama are other key plays that have dance-drama adaptations, which together are known as Rabindra Nritya Natya.

Tagore also had an artist’s eye for his own handwriting, embellishing the cross-outs and word layouts in his manuscripts with simple artistic leitmotifs.

At 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 was likely red-green colour blind, resulting in works that exhibited strange colour schemes and off-beat aesthetics

Tagore was a prolific composer with around 2,230 songs to his credit.

His songs are known as rabindrasangit (“Tagore Song”), which merges fluidly into his literature, most of which—poems or parts of novels, stories, or plays alike—were lyricised.

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.

In 1971, Amar Shonar Bangla became the national anthem of Bangladesh. It was written – ironically – to protest the 1905 Partition of Bengal along communal lines: cutting off the Muslim-majority East Bengal from Hindu-dominated West Bengal was to avert a regional bloodbath.

Jana Gana Mana was written in shadhu-bhasha, a Sanskritised form of Bengali, and is the first of five stanzas of the Brahmo hymn Bharot Bhagyo Bidhata that Tagore composed. It was first sung in 1911 at a Calcutta session of the Indian National Congress and was adopted in 1950 by the Constituent Assembly of the Republic of India as its national anthem.

The Sri Lanka’s National Anthem was inspired by his work

Internationally, Gitanjali is Tagore’s best-known collection of poetry, for which he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1913.

Tagore was the first non-European to receive a Nobel Prize in Literature and second non-European to receive a Nobel Prize after Theodore Roosevelt.

Besides Gitanjali, other notable works include Manasi, Sonar Tori (“Golden Boat”), Balaka (“Wild Geese”)

 

 

 

 

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