Rabindranath Tagore: Indian English Writer

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      Rabindranath Tagore (Thakur) was the first Asian to win the Nobel Prize (1913). A hundred years later, his charisma goes much beyond the Nobel Prize. He is called Visva-Kavi (World-Poet) and is indeed among the world's greatest men. Rabindranath Tagore was born on 7 May 1861 ( Ponchishe Baishakh to Bengalis) at Jorasanko in Kolkata to Devendranath Tagore and his wife Sarada.

Rabindranath Tagore sketch portrait photography
Rabindranath Tagore


      The Tagore's were an established family. Dwarakanath Tagore, the father of Devendranath Tagore (and so the grandfather of Rabindranath Tagore), had done business with the British on a partnership basis. The Carr-Tagore Company is one of the early examples of Indo-British joint venture. Dwarakanath also bought several pieces of land under the zamindari system (some pieces now falling in present Bangladesh) and travelled, extensively and for long, in Europe. For his luxurious and generous ways, the British called him Prince Dwarakanath'. But he died rather early, leaving his son Devendranath Tagore a lot of landed property as well as a lot of business debts.

      Young Devendranath paid off every pie of his inherited debt and remained contented with the property that remained. He was of a spiritual cast of mind and a great enthusiast of the Brahmo Samaj movement pioneered by Raja Ram Mohun Roy (who contributed to the abolition of the Sati-dalha-pratha or Suttee'). Several of Devendranath Tagore's sons were illustrious personalities. His eldest son Dwijendranath Tagore was a well-known mathematician. Son Satyendranath Tagore was the first Indian I.C.S. Officer. And, as we all know, his youngest son Rabindranath Tagore went on to win the Nobel Prize. 'Robi' (Ravi) as he was called, was brought up in a sprawling mansion in Jorasanko (now the premises of Rabindra Bharati University), but austerely. He was sent to a reputed local school but he found school atmosphere stifling. There was a creative genius within him waiting to burst out like the spring-water. Right at the age of eleven, he began to write poetry. Jyotirindranath Tagore, an elder brother (himself very talented) gave him a lot of encouragement in writing songs and plays. At the age of fourteen, Robi lost his mother, but his sister-in-law Kadambari, Jyotirindranath's wife, took him under her wings. She was a great inspiration for him and he acknowledged her even at a ripe old age.

      Rabindranath sailed to England at the age of 17 and then again at the age of 21. By then he had blossomed into a poet and received praise from several important personages such as Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyaya, the novelist who gave India the song Vande Mataram'.

      In 1883 Rabindranath got married to Mrinalini Devi and entered domestic life. Soon after, his sister-in-law Kadambari Devi passed away, But in spite of domesticity and the loss of a source of inspiration, Rabindranath, with the poetry alive in his heart, kept on writing poems, short stories, novels, songs, plays and essays in an unending stream. In 1890, Devendranath sent him to look after their 'zamindari' property on the banks of the river Padma (now in Bangladesh). Rabindranath proved to be an efficient but concerned zamindar. Also, he now came into contact with disadvantaged people in rural and interior areas to whom he had no earlier exposure.

      This experience gave him ideas which he developed into creative literature: poems, short stories and novels. It also ignited an interest in rural development and economic issues. Rabindranath also took an interest in India's freedom movement and attended sessions of the Indian National Congress.

      In December 1901, Rabindranath, then 41, set up a school for children at Shantiniketan (Abode of Peace) in district Birbhum of West Bengal. It was so-called because Devendranath had found peace (santi) and quiet in this bit of land that he had in the Bengal-Bihar border region.

      Rabindranath had visited it in his childhood and found its openness a refreshing change from his cooped-up condition in Kolkata. It was an open-air school in the model of ashrams of ancient India and was, in fact, originally called Shantiniketan brahmacharya.

      Soon, within the span of a few years, Rabindranath lost his wife, his father and younger son. Personal losses, however, did not hamper his creativity. With the publication of Manasi and Sonar Tori in 1890 and 1894 respectively, as a poet he was a household name.

      On the Partition of Bengal in 1905 by Lord Curzon, he protested in a unique way by walking along Kolkata streets singing his song 'Banglar Mati Banglar Jal' (now the national anthem of Bangladesh) and tying 'rakhis' to one and all. In 1910 in the novel Gora (Fair). He brought religious, political and gender issues into a framework of love, friendship and maternal feelings.

      In 1911 Tagore composed the song 'Jana-gana-mana-adhinayaka' which was sung at the Calcutta Session of the Indian National Congress, 1911 and which is now the national anthem of India. In 1912 he went abroad and translations (many of them done by himself) of his poems caught the attention of the Western world. It recognised his genius in 1913 with the Nobel Prize for his Gitanjali (Song-offering), a collection of short poems with spiritual messages.

      Tagore used the prize money entirely on developing his educational project at Shantiniketan. In 1918, it was made an university named Visva Bharati, with the ideal of international peace and harmony. The years 1914-1917 saw many short stories (later brought together in Galpaguchha, A Bunch of Stories) which were then a relatively new form in Bengali literature.

      In 1915, the British government conferred a Knighthood upon Tagore. He could now be called 'Sir Rabindranath'. In 1916 Tagore wrote the novel Gharebaire (Within and Without the Home) where he wrote against the mindless boycott of British goods as a tool for displaying nationalism. But in 1918 came the Jalian Wala Bhag massacre. Tagore's spirited protest was by way of returning the Knighthood.

      From a distance, Tagore had developed an association with Gandhi'ji. It was Tagore who had given him the epithet of Mahatma'. The Tagore song Ekla chalo (Go it alone) was one of Gandhi'ji's favourites. With Jawaharlal Nehru too Rabindranath had a fond association. For a short while, Indira Gandhi (then Nehru) too stayed and studied at Shantiniketan. Tagore grew old but he continued to be prolific in almost every form of creative writing. He had his critics and sometimes felthurtat their criticism. But the accolades that he got were overwhelming. He stood head and shoulders above any other contemporary writer, including Sharatchandra Chattopadhyaya who was himself an admirer of Tagore. The songs written (and sometimes tuned) by him became a new genre known as Rabindra-sangeet. They are usually based on Indian ragas but some are in the Baul tradition and some are even set to Western tunes.

      Till the end, Tagore remained completely dedicated to the development of Visva Bharati and the adjoining areas. It became a centre which attracted many artists and intellectuals, Indian and international. For funding, he went on world tours with a troupe of Santiniketan students. He took up painting and developed a most original style which won the appreciation of the Western critics. Tagore was a multi-faceted genius. Poet, playwright, story-writer, novelist, essayist, artist, educationist, patriot... he had many dimensions. He wrote for adults as well as children. Young and old, men and women, all admired his work. People began to refer to him as Kavi-guru (Master of Poets) and Guru-deva (God among Preceptors).

      He had always been handsome and now, with long silver hair and beard, slightly bent, dressed in loose, dark robes, he had a saintly appearance. Tagore was an affectionate father and uncle, although he lost several of his children, nephews and nieces. Above all superstition, he had wedded his only surviving son to a child-widow and was very attached to his daughter-in-law. Although he had no direct grandchild, he was most loving to his adoptive grandchildren and grand-nieces and nephews.

      In 1941, reluctantly, he came from Shantiniketan to Kolkata to be treated for kidney problems. But he never recovered from the surgery and passed away on 7 August 1941 (Baishey Shravan). People poured into the streets of Kolkata to join the procession to his cremation. To date, Tagore-lovers observe 'Baishe Shravan' with songs and prayers.

      Many of Tagore's works have been made into films by acclaimed film-directors like Nitin Bose, Satyajit Ray, Tapan Sinha and Rituparno Ghosh. Translations have made Tagore popular than ever in the global era. In fact, Tagore was an emissary of 'globalization' more than a century before it occurred in the world. Visva Bharati (now a central university with UGC affiliation) has as its motto: Yatra Vishwa Bharathi (Where the world becomes a single nest).

Rabindranath Tagore will be ever-relevant, ever-revered.

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