Rabindranath Tagore (May 7, 1861 – August 7, 1941) was an Indian writer, poet, composer, artist, and social activist. His work has shaped the literature and music of Bengal. He was the first non-European to be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature (1913). Translations of his poetry were seen as spiritual literature and together with his charisma created the image of Tagore the prophet in the West.
Tagore began writing poetry at the age of eight. At the age of sixteen he wrote his first short stories and dramas, and published his poetry auditions under the pseudonym Bhanu simha (Beng. Bhānusiṃha, Russian: Sunny Lion). Having received an upbringing imbued with humanism and love for the motherland, Tagore championed the independence of India. He founded the World Indian University and the Institute of Agricultural Reconstruction. Tagore”s poems are today the anthems of India (“Soul of the People”) and Bangladesh (“My Golden Bengal”).
Rabindranath Tagore”s works include lyrical works, essays and novels on political and social themes. His most famous works, Gitanjali (Sacrificial Chants), Gora and Home and Peace, are examples of lyricism, conversational style, naturalism and contemplation in literature.
Childhood and Youth (1861-1877)
Rabindranath Tagore, the youngest of the children of Debendranath Tagore (1817-1905) and Sharada Devi (1830-1875), was born in the Jorasanko Thakur Bari estate (north Calcutta). The Tagore family was very ancient and among its ancestors were the founders of the Adi Dharm religion. His father, being a Brahman, often made pilgrimages to the holy places of India. His mother, Sharoda Devi, died when Tagore was 14.
The Tagore family was very famous. The Tagores were important zamindars (landowners) and their house was frequented by many eminent writers, musicians and public figures. Rabindranath”s elder brother Dvijendranath was a mathematician, poet and musician, the middle brothers Dijendranath and Jyotirindranath, were famous philosophers, poets and playwrights. Rabindranath”s nephew Obonindranath was one of the founders of the school of modern Bengali painting.
At the age of five Rabindranath was sent to the Oriental Seminary and later transferred to the so-called Normal School, which was characterized by official discipline and shallow education. Tagore, therefore, was more fond of walks on the estate and in the countryside than of schoolwork. After completing the rite of upanaya at age 11, Tagore left Calcutta in early 1873 and traveled with his father for several months. They visited the family estate at Shantiniketan and stopped in Amritsar. Young Rabindranath received a good home education, studying history, arithmetic, geometry, languages (particularly English and Sanskrit) and other subjects, and became acquainted with the works of Kalidasa. In his Memoirs, Tagore noted:
First Publications and Familiarity with England (1877-1901)
Vishnuist poetry inspired the sixteen-year-old Rabindranath to compose a poem in the Maitthili style based on Vidyapati. It was published in Bharoti magazine under the pseudonym “Bhanu simha” (Bhānusiṃha, “Sunny Lion”) with the explanation that the fifteenth-century manuscript had been found in an old archive, and was favorably judged by experts. He wrote Bikharini (“The Beggar Woman,” published in the July 1877 issue of Bharoti, was the first story in Bengali), the poetry collections Evening Songs (1882), which included the poem Nirjhareer Swapnabhanga, and Morning Songs (1883).
A promising young barrister, Tagore entered a public school in Brighton, England, in 1878. At first he stayed for a few months in a house owned by his family not far from there. A year earlier he had been joined by his nephews, Suren and Indira, children of his brother Satyendranath, who had come with their mother. Rabindranath studied law at University College London, but soon left it to study literature: Shakespeare”s Coriolanus and Antony and Cleopatra, Thomas Brown”s Religio Medici and others. He returned to Bengal in 1880 without ever obtaining a degree. This familiarity with England, however, later manifested itself in his familiarity with the Bengali music tradition, allowing him to create new images in music, poetry, and drama. But Tagore, in his life and work, never fully embraced either the critique of Britain or the strict family traditions based on the experience of Hinduism, instead absorbing the best of both cultures.
On December 9, 1883, Rabindranath married Mrinalini Devi (née Bhabatarini, 1873-1902). Mrinalini, like Rabindranath, came from a family of brahman-pirali. They had five children: daughters Madhurilatha (1886-1918), Renuka (1890-1904), Meera (1892-?), and sons Rathindranath (1888-1961) and Samindranath (1894-1907). In 1890 Tagore was entrusted with the huge estates in Shilaidagh (now part of Bangladesh). His wife and children joined him in 1898.
In 1890 Tagore published one of his most famous works, a collection of poems, The Image of the Beloved. As a “zamindar baba,” Tagore toured the family estates on the luxurious barge “Padma,” collecting fees and interacting with the villagers who held festivals in his honor. The years 1891-1895, Tagore”s sadhana period, were very fruitful. During this time he composed more than half of the eighty-four stories included in the three-volume Galpaguchkha. With irony and seriousness they depicted many aspects of life in Bengal, focusing mainly on rural images. The end of the nineteenth century is marked by the writing of collections of songs and poetry, The Golden Boat (1894) and The Moment (1900).
Chantiniketan and the Nobel Prize (1901-1932)
In 1901 Tagore returned to Shilaydah and moved to Shantiniketan (Abode of Peace) where he founded an ashram. It included an experimental school, a prayer room with a marble floor (mandir), gardens, groves and a library. After his wife”s death in 1902, Tagore published a collection of lyrical poems called Memory (Sharan), imbued with a pang of loss. In 1903, one of his daughters died of tuberculosis, and in 1907 the youngest son died of cholera. In 1905, Rabindranath”s father died. During these years Tagore received monthly payments as part of his inheritance, additional income from the Maharaja of Tripura, sales of family jewels and royalties.
Public life was not unaffected by the writer. After the arrest by the colonial authorities of the famous Indian revolutionary Tilak, Tagore came to his defense and organized a fund-raiser to help the prisoner. The 1905 Kerzon Act of partition of Bengal sparked a wave of protest that manifested itself in the Swadeshi movement, of which Tagore was one of the leaders. At this time he wrote the patriotic songs “Golden Bengal” and “Land of Bengal. On the day the act came into force, Tagore organized the Rakhi Bandhon, an exchange of armbands symbolizing the unity of Bengal in which Hindus and Muslims participated. When the Swadeshi movement began to take the form of a revolutionary struggle, however, Tagore withdrew from it. He believed that social change should come through educating the people, establishing voluntary organizations, and expanding domestic production.
In 1910 one of the most famous collections of Tagore”s poems, Gitanjali (Sacrificial Songs), was published. In 1912 Tagore began to travel, visiting Europe, the United States, Russia, Japan and China. While in London, he showed several poems from Gitanjali, independently translated into English, to his friend, the British artist William Rotenstein, who was greatly impressed. With the help of Rothenstein, Ezra Pound, William Yates and others, the India Society of London published 103 of Tagore”s translated poems in 1913, and four Russian-language editions appeared a year later.
On November 14, 1913, Tagore learned that he had won the Nobel Prize for Literature
for his deeply felt, original and beautiful poems, which expressed with exceptional skill his poetic thinking, which became, in his own words, part of the literature of the West.
Tagore was the first recipient from Asia. The Swedish Academy praised the idealistic, and accessible to Western readers, small part of the translated material, which included part of Gitanjali. In his speech, Harald Järne of the Academy noted that the members of the Nobel Committee were most impressed by The Sacrificial Songs. Yerne also mentioned English translations of other works, both poetic and prose, by Tagore, most of which were published in 1913. The monetary prize of the Nobel Committee was donated by Tagore to his school in Shantiniketan, which later became the first university with free tuition. In 1915 he was granted the title of Knight, which he gave up in 1919, after the shooting of civilians in Amritsar.
In 1921 Tagore, together with his friend, the English agronomist and economist Leonard Elmhurst, founded in Surul (near Shantiniketan) the Institute of Agricultural Reconstruction, later renamed Sriniketan (Abode of Welfare). By this Rabindranath Tagore circumvented Mahatma Gandhi”s symbolic swaraj, which he disapproved of. Tagore had to seek the help of sponsors, officials and scholars around the world to “liberate the village from the shackles of helplessness and ignorance” through education.
According to Michele Moramarco, Tagore was awarded an honorary prize by the Scottish Rite High Council in 1924. According to him, Tagore had the opportunity to become a Freemason in his youth, presumably by undergoing initiation in one of the lodges while in England
In the early 1930s Tagore turned his attention to the caste system and the problems of untouchables. By giving public lectures and describing “untouchable heroes” in his writings, he was able to obtain permission for them to visit the Krishna Temple in Guruvayur.
At the End of the Years (1932-1941)
Tagore”s numerous international travels only strengthened his conviction that any division of people is very superficial. In May 1932, while visiting a Bedouin camp in the Iraqi desert, he was addressed by a leader with the words: “Our Prophet said that a true Muslim is one from whose words or actions no man is harmed. Tagore would later note in his diary, “I began to recognize in his words the voice of inner humanity. He carefully studied orthodox religions and reproached Gandhi for saying that the January 15, 1934 earthquake in Bihar, which caused thousands of deaths, was a punishment from above for the oppression of the scheduled caste. He lamented the epidemic of poverty in Calcutta and the accelerating socio-economic decline in Bengal, which he detailed in an unrhymed poem of a thousand lines, whose devastating double vision technique foreshadowed Satyajit Ray”s Apur Sansar (Apu World). Tagore wrote many other works, amounting to fifteen volumes. These included such prose poems as Again (Punashcha, 1932), The Last Octave (Shes Saptak, 1935) and Leaves (Patraput, 1936). He continued to experiment with style, creating songs in prose and dance plays such as Chitrangada (1914), Shyama (1939), and Chandalika (1938). Tagore wrote the novels Dui Bon (1933), Malancha (1934) and Char Adhyay (1934). In the last years of his life he became interested in science. He wrote a collection of essays, Our Universe (Visva-Parichay, 1937). His explorations of biology, physics, and astronomy were reflected in his poetry, which often contained a broad naturalism that emphasized his respect for the laws of science. Tagore participated in the scientific process by creating stories about scientists, included in some chapters of Se (1937), Tin Sangi (1940), and Galpasalpa (1941).
The last four years of Tagore”s life were marred by chronic pain and two long periods of illness. They began when Tagore lost consciousness in 1937 and remained in a coma on the brink of life and death for a long time. The same thing happened again in late 1940, after which he never recovered. Tagore”s poetry written during these years is exemplary of his mastery and was marked by a particular preoccupation with death. After a long illness Rabindranath Tagore died on August 7, 1941 at the age of 80 in the Jorasanko estate. The entire Bengali-speaking world mourned the poet”s passing. The last person who saw Tagore alive was Amia Kumar Sen, who was writing down his last poem by dictation. Later its draft was given to the Calcutta Museum. In the memoirs of the Indian mathematician, Professor P. C. Mahalanobis, it was noted that Tagore was very anxious about the war between Nazi Germany and the USSR, often taking interest in reports from the front, and on the last day of his life he expressed his firm belief in the victory over Nazism.
Between 1878 and 1932 Tagore visited more than thirty countries on five continents. Many of these trips were very important in introducing his work and political views to non-Indian audiences. In 1912 he showed some of his handwritten English translations of his poems to acquaintances in Britain. They greatly impressed Gandhi”s close comrade Charles Andrews, the Irish poet William Yates, Ezra Pound, Robert Bridge, Thomas Moore and others. Yates wrote the preface to the English edition of Gitanjali, and Andrews later visited Tagore in Shantiniketan. On November 10, 1912, Tagore visited the United States and Great Britain, staying in Butterton, Staffordshire, with clergy friends of Andrews. From May 3, 1916 to April 1917, Tagore lectured in Japan and the United States denouncing nationalism. His essay “Nationalism in India” received both scornful and laudatory reviews from pacifists, including Romain Rolland.
Soon after returning to India, the 63-year-old Tagore accepted an invitation from the Peruvian government. Then he visited Mexico. The governments of both countries gave a $100,000 loan to Tagore”s school in Shantiniketan in honor of his visit. A week after his arrival in Buenos Aires, Argentina, on November 6, 1924, a sick Tagore took up residence at Villa Miralrio at the invitation of Victoria Ocampo. He returned to India in January 1925. On May 30 of the following year Tagore visited Naples, Italy, and on April 1 he communicated with Benito Mussolini in Rome. Their initially cordial relationship ended with criticism from Tagore on July 20, 1926.
On July 14, 1927 Tagore and two companions began a four-month tour of South Asia, visiting Bali, Java, Kuala Lumpur, Malacca, Penang, Siam, and Singapore. Tagore”s accounts of these journeys were later collected in Jatri. In the early 1930s he returned to Bengal in preparation for a year-long tour of Europe and the United States. His drawings were exhibited in London and Paris. Once, when he returned to Britain, he stayed at a Quaker settlement in Birmingham. There he wrote his Oxford Lectures and spoke at Quaker meetings. Tagore spoke of the “deep fissure of alienation” talking about the relationship between British and Hindus, a topic he worked through over the next few years. He visited Aga Khan III living at Darlington Hall and traveled to Denmark, Switzerland and Germany, being on the road from June to mid-September 1930, then visiting the Soviet Union. In April 1932 Tagore, having become acquainted with the writings of the Persian mystic Hafiz and the legends of him, stayed with Reza Pahlavi in Iran. Such a busy travel schedule allowed Tagore to interact with many famous contemporaries, such as Henri Bergson, Albert Einstein, Robert Frost, Thomas Mann, Bernard Shaw, Herbert Wells and Romain Rolland}} Tagore”s last trips abroad included visits to Persia and Iraq (in 1932) and Sri Lanka (in 1933), which only strengthened the writer in his positions on human division and nationalism.
Best known as a poet, Tagore also drew and composed music, and was the author of novels, essays, short stories, dramas, and many songs. Of his prose, he is best known for his short stories, and he is considered the founder of the Bengali-speaking version of the genre. Tagore”s works are often noted for their rhythmic, optimistic, and lyrical nature. Such his works are mostly borrowed from deceptively simple stories from the lives of ordinary people. Tagore wrote not only the text of the verse “Janaganaman,” which became the National Anthem of India, but also the music to which it is sung. Tagore”s drawings in watercolor, pen and ink have been exhibited in many countries of Europe.
Tagore”s poetry, rich in its stylistic variety from classical formalism to comic, dreamy and enthusiastic, has its roots in the works of the Vaishnava poets of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Tagore was in awe of the mysticism of rishis such as Vyasa, who wrote the Upanishads, Kabir and Ramprasad Sena. His poetic works became fresher and more mature after his introduction to the folk music of Bengali, which included ballads by the mystic singers of the bauls. Tagore rediscovered and made widely known the hymns of Kartābhajā, which focused on inner divinity and rebellion against religious and social orthodoxy. During his years in Shilaydah, Tagore”s poems took on a lyrical quality. In them he sought a connection with the divine through an appeal to nature and a touching empathy with human drama. Tagore used a similar device in his poems on the relationship between Radha and Krishna, which he published under the pseudonym Bhānusiŋha (The Sunny Lion). He returned to this subject more than once.
Tagore”s involvement in the earliest attempts at modernism and realism in Bengal is evident in his literary experiments of the 1930s, examples of which are Africa or Kamalia, some of his best known later poems. Tagore sometimes wrote poems using the shadhu bhasha dialect formed by the influence of Sanskrit on Bengali, later beginning to use the more common cholti bhasha. His other significant works include The Image of the Beloved (1890), The Golden Boat (1894), The Cranes (Beng. Balaka, 1916, a metaphor for migrating souls), and Evening Melodies (1925). “The Golden Rook” is one of his best known poems about the ephemerality of life and achievement.
The poetry collection Gitanjali (Bengue গীতাঞ্জলি, English Gitanjali, “Sacrificial Chants”) was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1913.
Tagore”s poetry has been set to music by many composers, including the triptych for soprano and string quartet by Arthur Shepherd, Alexander Zemlinsky”s Lyric Symphony, Josef Förster”s cycle of love songs, Leoš Janacek”s The Wandering Madman (Potulný šílenec), inspired by Tagore”s performance in Czechoslovakia in 1922, and Prana to the verse “Flow of Life” from Harry Schumann”s Gitanjali. In 1917, Richard Hagman (English) (Russian) translated and arranged his poems to music, creating one of his most famous songs, “Do not go my love.” Jonathan Harvey created One Evening (1994) and Song Offerings (1985) based on Tagore”s poetry.
Tagore wrote eight novels and many short stories, including Chaturanga, The Farewell Song (also translated as The Last Song, Shesher Kobita), Four Parts (Char Adhay), and Noukadubi (Noukadubi). Tagore”s short stories, which mainly describe the life of the Bengali peasantry, first appeared in English in 1913 in Hungry Stones and Other Stories. One of his best-known novels, Home and Peace (Ghare Baire), presents Indian society through the vision of the Zamindar idealist Nikhil, exposing Indian nationalism, terrorism and religious fervor in the Swadeshi movement. The novel ends with a confrontation between Hindus and Muslims and Nikhil”s deep heart wounds. The novel “Bright Face” (“Gora”) raises controversial questions about the identity of India. As in “Ghare Baire,” questions of self-identity (jāti), personal and religious freedom are explored in the context of the story of the family and the love triangle.
Mutual Relationships (also translated as Connections, Jogajog) tells of the rivalry between the two families of the Chattirji (Biprodis), now impoverished aristocrats, and the Gosals (Madhusudan), representing a new arrogant generation of capitalists. Kumudini, Biprodas”s sister, finds herself between two fires by marrying Madhusudan, having been brought up in a secure environment, respectful of religion and ritual. The heroine, bound by the ideals of Shiva-Sati in the example of Dakshayani, is torn between pity for the fate of her progressive, compassionate brother and his opposite, her profligate exploiter husband. This novel deals with the plight of Bengali women caught between duty, family honor, and pregnancy; it also shows the declining influence of Bengal”s land oligarchy.
Tagore also wrote more optimistic works. “The Last Poem (also translated as The Farewell Song, Shesher Kobita) is one of his most lyrical novels, with the poems written out and the rhythmic passages of the poet protagonist. The work also contains elements of satire and postmodernism; it attacks the old, outmoded, and obsolete poet who identifies with Rabindranath Tagore himself. Although his novels remain the least appreciated, they have received considerable attention from filmmakers such as Satyajit Ray and others, such as the films based on Tagore”s works of the same name, Chokher Bali (Chokher Bali) and Home and World (Ghare Baire). In the first, Tagore describes early twentieth-century Bengali society. The central character is a young widow who wishes to live her own life, which comes into conflict with a tradition that does not allow remarriage and condemns her to a secluded, solitary existence. This longing, mingled with deception and grief, arises out of dissatisfaction and sadness. Tagore said of the novel, “I always regretted its end.” The soundtracks from the film are often characterized as rabindrasangits, musical forms developed by Tagore from Bengali music. The second film illustrates Tagore”s struggle with himself: between the ideals of Western culture and the revolution against it. These two ideas are expressed through the two main characters, Nikhil, who represents rationality and opposes violence, and Sandeep, who stops at nothing to achieve his goals. Such opposites are very important for understanding Bengali history and its problems. There is debate as to whether Tagore tried to express Gandhi as Sandeep and arguments against this version, since Tagore had great respect for Mahatma, who was against all violence.
Tagore wrote many documentary books, covering topics ranging from Indian history to linguistics to spirituality. In addition to autobiographical works, his travel diaries, essays and lectures have been collected in several volumes, including Lectures from Europe Jatrir Patro and The Religion of Man (Manusher Dhormo). A brief correspondence between Tagore and Einstein, “Notes on the Nature of Reality,” was included as a supplement.
Tagore composed some 2,230 songs. His songs, often written in the style of rabindra sangit (Beng. রবীন্দ্র সংগীত – “Tagore song”), are a significant part of Bengali culture. Tagore”s music is inseparable from his literary works, many of which – poems or chapters of novels, stories – were taken as the basis for songs. They were heavily influenced by the Thumri (Dev. ठुमरी, one of the styles of Hindustani music). They often play around with the tonality of classical ragas in different variations, sometimes completely imitating the melody and rhythm of a given raga, or mixing different ragas to create new works.
Tagore produced some 2,500 drawings that have been exhibited in India, Europe and Asia. His debut exhibition took place in Paris, at the invitation of artists with whom Tagore had communicated in France. At the Arsenal Exhibition, during its exhibition in Chicago in 1913, Tagore studied contemporary art from the Impressionists to Marcel Duchamp. He was impressed by Stella Krammrich”s London lectures (1920) and invited her to give talks on world art from Gothic to Dadaism at Chantiniketan. Tagore”s style was influenced by a visit to Japan in 1912. In some of his landscapes and self-portraits there is a clear fascination with Impressionism. Tagore imitated numerous styles, including the crafts of northern New Ireland, the carvings of the Haida people from the west coast of Canada (British Columbia), and the woodcuts of Max Pechstein.
Tagore, presumably color blind (partial indistinguishability of red and green), created works with particular compositions and color schemes. He was fascinated by geometric figures and often used angular, upward-looking lines and narrow, elongated forms in his portraits, reflecting mental feelings. Tagore”s later works are characterized by grotesqueness and drama, although it remains unclear whether this reflects Tagore”s pain for his family or for the fate of all humanity.
In a letter to Rani Mahalanobis, wife of the famous Indian mathematician and friend Prasanta Mahalanobis, Tagore wrote:
First there is a hint of a line, then the line becomes a form. A more pronounced form becomes a representation of my concept… The only training I received in my youth was the training in rhythm, in thought, rhythm in sound. I came to understand that rhythm creates a reality in which the haphazard is insignificant.
For Tagore, this rhythm was a reflection of the Creator”s play. He reinterpreted the experience of the modernists, masterfully maintaining a balance between individuality and diversity in his work.
Drama and Prose
Although Tagore is better known in the West as a poet, he was also the author of numerous plays: “Sacrifice” (“Post”) (“Red Oleanders” (“Rakta-Karabi”, 1925) – a drama of social and political protest. R. Tagore”s novel “Gora” has been repeatedly reprinted in Russian translation in Russia he USSR.
Tagore”s literary secretary Ami Chakravarti noted that the poet”s poems were so popular with ordinary Bengalis that they were often perceived as folk poems. But the lack of high-quality translations in the West prevented the popularization of the work, and some did not convey all the original meaning and beauty of the lines. Many early works remained untranslated and thus were available only to Bengali-speaking readers.
A member of the Shantiniketan School and Tagore”s assistant, Krishna Kripalani, wrote:
…the main significance of Tagore is the impetus he gave to the whole current of Indian cultural and spiritual development… He gave Indians faith in their language and in their cultural and intellectual heritage.
Numerous festivals and celebrations are organized in memory of Rabindranath Tagore: Kabirpranam on the anniversary of his birth, the annual Tagore Festival in Illinois, processions from Calcutta to Shantiniketan, readings of Tagore”s poetry at significant events and others. This tradition is felt in every aspect of Bengali culture from its language and art to its history and politics. Nobel laureate Amartya Sen has described Tagore as a key figure, a keenly sensitive and versatile contemporary thinker. His Rabīndra Rachanāvalī has been recognized as the greatest cultural treasure of Bengal, and Tagore himself has been recognized as the greatest poet of India.
Tagore”s fame stretched from Europe to East Asia and North America. He co-founded the Darlington Hall School, an advanced co-educational institution. He influenced the Nobel laureate from Japan, the writer Yasunari Kawabata. Today, Tagore”s work has been translated into English, German, Spanish, Russian, and other European languages. Among the translators were the famous Czech Indologist Vincenz Lesny, Nobel laureate from France André Gide, poetess Anna Akhmatova, Prime Minister of Turkey Bulent Edgewit and others. In the United States, Tagore”s 1916-1917 lectures were widely known and much welcomed. However, some of the debates in which he was involved were responsible for his declining popularity in Japan and America after the 1920s, to the point of near obscurity outside of Bengal. This was mainly the result of his relationship with the Indian nationalists Subhas Bos, as well as his attitude toward the communist ideology that won in the USSR. His initial friendship with Mussolini also drew chastisement from friends.
Familiarity with translations of Tagore”s works influenced Spanish-speaking literature, such as Pablo Neruda, José Ortega y Gasset, Juan Jiménez and his wife Zenobia Camproubi, Gabriela Mistral, and the Mexican writer Octavio Paz. Between 1914 and 1922 the Jiménez-Campruby couple translated 22 of Tagore”s books into Spanish. At the same time Jiménez developed a style of “naked poetry” (poesia desnuda in Spanish).
Tagore believed that some Western readers overestimated him. Indeed, not many in the West read him, and Graham Greene in 1937 said
As for Rabindranath Tagore, I cannot believe that anyone but Mr. Yates can take his poems seriously.
A crater on Mercury is named after Rabindranath Tagore.
There are references to Tagore in Soviet and Russian cinematography and songs to his verses are used: