BORN: 1861, Calcutta, India
DIED: 1941, Calcutta, India
GENRE: Poetry, drama, fiction, nonfiction
Morning Songs (1883)
The Golden Boat (1894)
The Home and the World (1916)
Rabindranath Tagore is India's most celebrated modern author. He received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1913, the first non-European to be awarded this prize. Astonishingly prolific in practically every literary genre, he achieved his greatest renown as a lyric poet. His poetry is imbued with a deeply spiritual and devotional quality, while in his novels, plays, short stories, and essays, his social and moral concerns predominate.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Born into Literary Family in Calcutta Tagore was born into an upper-caste Hindu family in Calcutta on May 7, 1861. His grandfather, Dwarkanath Tagore, was a key figure in what is known as the Bengal renaissance in the mid-nineteenth century. Tagore's father, Debendranath, was a writer, religious leader, and practical businessman. Tagore was the fourteenth of his father's fifteen children and his father's favorite. From an early age, he embraced his father's love of poetry, music, and mysticism, as well as his reformist outlook.
Tagore was a precocious child who showed unmistakable poetic talent. As early as eight, he was urged by his brothers and cousins to express himself in poetry. This encouragement, which continued throughout his formative years, caused his talent to flourish. When Tagore was twelve, his father took him on a four-month journey to the Punjab and the Himalayas. This was Tagore's first contact with rural Bengal, which he later celebrated in his songs.
Public Recognition of Poetry After publishing his first poems at the age of thirteen, Tagore's first public recitation of his poetry came when he was fourteen at a Bengali cultural and nationalistic festival organized by his brothers. His acclaimed poem was about the greatness of India's past and the sorrow he felt for its state under British rule. India had been controlled by Great Britain in one form or another for some years. While the British had helped India develop economically and politically and expanded local self-rule, an Indian nationalist movement was growing in the late nineteenth century. This trend continued into the first decades of the twentieth, as well.
Tagore left India at age seventeen to continue his studies in England. During this time, he read extensively in English and other European literature, forming the universalist outlook he maintained throughout his life that included: a profound desire for freedom, both personal and national; an idea of the greatness of India's contribution to the world of the spirit; and poetry expressing both of these. His stay in England was brief, and when he returned home, he published the first of nearly sixty volumes of verse. He also wrote and acted in verse dramas and began to compose devotional songs for the Brahmo Samaj, the Hindu reformist sect his father promoted. In 1883, he married Mrinalini Devi. He was twenty-two years old, and she was ten. The couple had five children.
“The Lord of His Life” Tagore produced his first notable book of lyrics, Evening Songs, in 1882, followed by Morning Songs (1883). The latter work reflects Tagore's new mood initiated by a mystical experience he had while looking at the sunrise one day. His devotion to Jivan devata (“The Lord of His Life”), a new conception of God as humanity's intimate friend, lover, and beloved,
played an important role in his subsequent work. Several poems in the volume Sharps and Flats (1886) boldly celebrate the human body, reflecting his sense of all-pervading joy in the universe.
Creative Virility In 1890, Tagore took charge of his family's far-flung estates, some of them in regions that are now part of Bangladesh. The daily contact with peasants and farmers aroused his empathy for the plight of India's poor. Coming in close touch with the people and geography of Bangladesh, Tagore was inspired to write his first major collection of verse, The Golden Boat (1894). The contemplative tone of his poetry gives his work the depth and serenity of his mature voice.
In the 1880s and 1890s, Tagore's creative output was tremendous, and his reputation steadily developed in his country as the author of poems, short stories, novels, plays, verse dramas, and essays. He moved through several phases at this time. If he began in the manner of the late Romantics, he soon became a writer of realistic fiction about everyday situations and people from all spheres of life. He frequently reinvented himself, creating new forms and introducing new genres and styles to Bengali literature—social realism, colloquial dialogue, light satire, and psychologically motivated plot development.
Music and Novels Tagore was also known for his musical creations. His compositions started a new genre in Bengali music, known as rabindrasangit (“Tagore song”), an important part of Bengali culture. His music mingled elements of the folk music of boatmen and wandering religious with those of semiclassical love songs. He wrote more than two thousand songs in his lifetime, setting his poems, stories, and plays to music.
Tagore reached the peak of his fiction-writing career in 1910, when he published the novel Gora. This sociopolitical novel of ideas projects the author's concept of liberal nationalism based on international brotherhood. In the West, his best-known novel is The Home and the World (1916), which frankly expresses his conflicted sentiments regarding nationalist agitation in India.
Gitanjali and Worldwide Fame Tagore's standing as the leading Bengali writer was confirmed in 1911, when he was given a public reception in Calcutta to celebrate his fiftieth birthday. As he was about to visit England for the third time, he fell ill, and his trip was delayed. Lacking energy to compose new writing, he began translating some of his recently published lyrics into free verse. He landed in England with a slender English manuscript of devotional poems from the volume Gitanjali (Song Offerings). In June 1912, Tagore read his translations to a select group of London literati, including W. B. Yeats and Ezra Pound. The response was overwhelming, and Tagore became a literary sensation. A limited edition of Gitanjali, with an introduction by Yeats, quickly sold out. A second edition became a best-seller.
Tagore sailed to the United States later in 1912. Pound, a tireless promoter of poetry, introduced Tagore to influential literary people in America. When Tagore returned to India in 1913, he left behind a distinguished group of European and American admirers. That year, he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature—the first such recognition of an Eastern writer. The prize gratified Tagore, but the sensation it created in Bengal also alarmed him. He would never again be out of the public eye.
Tagore as Public Figure Between 1916 and 1934, Tagore made five visits to America and traveled to nearly every country in Europe and Asia, lecturing, promoting his educational ideas, and urging international cooperation. Wherever he went, he was greeted as a living symbol of India's cultural heritage. He was knighted by the British crown in 1915, but resigned his knighthood four years later after British troops fired into a crowd in the Punjab, killing four hundred people. He denounced the European nationalism and imperialism that had brought about the First World War. While the war was fought primarily in Europe and Africa, the Indian army was compelled to support Great Britain and provide troops for the conflict. Thousands of Indian soldiers died and were wounded during their service. In India, the call for self-rule only continued to grow.
Now a major figure in the movement for national emancipation, Tagore became close to leaders like Mohandas K. Gandhi. His relationship with Gandhi was tumultuous. He rejected Gandhi's strategy of economic self-sufficiency and derided “the cult of the spinning wheel.” Instead, he favored education as the primary engine of national uplift. He founded the university called Visva-Bharati, at the site of his ashram (spiritual retreat) at Santiniketan. He also created an Institute for Rural Reconstruction, recruiting international assistance to create a model for popular education in poverty-stricken villages. Like Gandhi, Tagore fought against the Indian caste system and discrimination against the “untouchable” class.
In the second half of the 1930s, old age, failing health, and international turmoil put a stop to Tagore's travels. He suffered chronic pain and long bouts of illness in his final years. As he became conscious of his approaching death, Tagore wrote some of his finest poetry, continuing to experiment with technique and addressing issues of mortality. At his death on August 7, 1941, he had achieved what the contemporary Indian American writer Pico Iyer sees as a unique position: he had become “not just the world's leading symbol of India, but India's leading spokesman for the world.”
Works in Literary Context
In terms of his literary inspiration, Tagore acknowledged three main sources: the Vaishnava poets of medieval Bengal and the Bengali folk literature; the classical Indian cultural and philosophical heritage; and European literature of the nineteenth century, particularly the English Romantic poets. Woven through all these influences is an acutely modern sensibility, in touch with the social and political currents of his era. Throughout his life, he refused to belittle Western contributions to culture, always seeking a fusion of East and West.
Innovations in Fiction The sheer volume of Tagore's contributions to every field of literature can obscure the innovative qualities of much of his work. For example, his two hundred short stories were the first in the Bengali language and represented a new genre in Indian prose. His stories depict the everyday lives of ordinary people, whether in rural settings or in Calcutta or in remote parts of India. The social reformer is evident in stories that target issues such as child marriage, dowries, or the tyranny of landlords.
Abundance of Poetic Themes The Western world has viewed Tagore primarily as a poet devoted almost exclusively to spiritual themes. However, that view does not reflect the variety nor the depth of his poetic voice. Sometimes the images he used were the old religious ones of the love between man and woman as representative of the love between humanity and God. Sometimes they were the earthy images of the boatmen of the vast rivers or the country marketplace. Sometimes they were drawn from the complex life of Calcutta. They were always images that touched something deep in the hearts and memories of the Bengali people. He excelled in everything from stately love poetry to nonsense rhymes, from flights of fancy to realistic depictions of ordinary people and situations.
In his nearly sixty volumes of verse, Tagore also experimented with many poetic forms—lyrics, sonnets, odes, dramatic monologues, dialogue poems, long narrative works, and prose poems. Every volume of his poetry is distinctive, whether in form or content, and he kept developing until the end of his very long career.
LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES
Tagore's famous contemporaries include:
George Bernard Shaw (1856–1950): Shaw, an Irish playwright, socialist, and Nobel Prize winner, revolutionized the English stage, disposing of the Romantic conventions and devices and instituting a theater of ideas grounded in realism. His plays include Pygmalion (1912).
W. B. Yeats (1865–1939): Yeats, an Irish poet and dramatist, befriended Tagore and championed his work. Yeats's poetry included The Wanderings of Oisin (1889).
André Gide (1869–1951): Gide is a French author known for relentless self-exploration and credited with introducing modern experimental techniques to the French novel. His novels include The Immoralist (1902).
Thomas Mann (1875–1955): This German novelist and essayist addressed aesthetic, philosophical, and social concerns in his writing, while combining elements of literary realism and symbolism. His novels included The Magic Mountain (1924).
Mohandas K. Gandhi (1869–1948): Tagore called Gandhi “Mahatma,” or “Great Soul.” This Indian political and spiritual leader is known for his nonviolent protests and passive resistance to British rule.
Albert Einstein (1879–1955): This German-born physicist and humanitarian was the most famous scientist of the twentieth century. His theory of relativity reconfigured notions of time, space, and matter that had been formulated by Isaac Newton.
One of the aspects of Tagore's genius is his use of the Bengali language, for his musician's ear caught natural rhythms and his free mind paid little attention to classical rules of poetry. The forms he created were new. Even in the poetry that he intended to be read rather than sung, rhythms, internal rhyme and alliteration, and a peculiar sonorousness almost make the poems sing themselves. These are things that cannot even be suggested in translation. The translations of Tagore's poetry available in English are hardly representative of his total work. Gitanjali, on which his reputation in the West is largely based, shows nothing of the humor, for example, or intellectual rigor of which he was capable. Tagore's published work is largely, though not completely, contained in twenty-six substantial volumes.
Influence Tagore almost single-handedly transformed Bengali literature and enriched its culture. Bengalis continue to find in him an endless source of inspiration. His poems, plays, songs, and stories have become part of the lives of the people of the Indian subcontinent. He is not only the author of the Bangladeshi national anthem but the Indian one as well. Many leading literary figures in South America, such as Nobel Prize winners Gabriela Mistral, Pablo Neruda, and Octavio Paz, also acknowledge him as a major influence on their work.
Works in Critical Context
While some critics feel that Tagore's prodigious output is uneven in its artistic value, his very prolificacy is often considered a measure of his creative achievement. Critics of Tagore's work are nearly unanimous in designating him as one of the preeminent lyric poets of the twentieth century. While Tagore's novels are mostly conventional in style and plotting, dealing frequently with crossed romances and improbable coincidences of fate, they are considered effective in dramatizing the moral conflicts between tradition and modernity in colonial India.
Even among more sensitive critics, Tagore's cadences and stylistic choices appeared increasingly old-fashioned in the interwar period. Although Tagore was the first modern Indian writer to introduce psychological realism in his fiction, his novels appeared out of step with the bold innovations in the novel represented by artists such as James Joyce and Marcel Proust. The Nobel Prize made Tagore and his books instantly popular in the rest of the world. However, the Tagore craze was brief in England and the United States. On the European continent, his reputation held on somewhat longer. Both political and literary factors explain the decline in his standing. His rejection of his knighthood and criticism of British rule in India had rankled many in Britain.
However, as Tagore's critical reputation began to decline in the English-speaking West, he was welcomed with great enthusiasm in the Middle East, the Far East, and South America. With the passing of time, more of Tagore's writing has reached English-language readers, allowing a more complete picture of his achievements to emerge. Present-day critics worldwide are nearly unanimous in designating Tagore one of the preeminent twentieth-century authors, as well as an indispensable figure in the modern history of the Indian subcontinent.
Gitanjali Outside his homeland, Tagore's reputation stemmed from his presentation of the Gitanjali translation in 1912. Artistically, Gitanjali came to be seen as Tagore's most characteristic work. Yeats, who publicly proclaimed his admiration for the poems, and Ezra Pound, who compared Tagore with Dante, set the tone for Tagore's reception in the West. In his, introduction to the 1912 London edition, Yeats explained, “I have carried the manuscript of these translations about me for days, reading it in railway trains, or on the tops of omnibuses and in restaurants…. These lyrics display in their thought a world I have dreamed of all my life long.”
A Times Literary Supplement reviewer agreed with Yeats, commenting, “These poems are prophetic of the poetry that might be written in England if our poets could attain the same harmony of emotion and idea.” Another critic noted of the poems in the collection, “Gitanjali has some of the finest descriptions of nature that Tagore has written.”
COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE
Tagore's Gitanjali revived the tradition of mystical poetry. The following collections also explore Eastern and Western approaches to spiritual verse.
The Complete Works of Chuang Tzu (1968), nonfiction by Chuang Tzu, translated by Burton Watson. The writings attributed to the ancient Taoist hermit are among the world's funniest, and most renowned, works of scripture.
The Essential Rumi (1995), poetry by Rumi, translated by Coleman Barks. The ecstatic outbursts of the most well-known Sufi poet were written over seven hundred years ago but still resonate in today's society.
The Gift (1999), poetry by Hafiz, translated by Daniel Ledinsky. This contemporary translation of the fourteenth-century Persian poet captures his passionate celebration of life.
Songs of Innocence and Experience (1789, 1794), poetry by William Blake. A pair of magnificent illuminated manuscripts by the visionary British poet and painter that describe “the two contrary states of the human soul.”
Mountains and Rivers without End (1996), a poem by Gary Snyder. This epic work by the ecological Buddhist of the Beat generation was forty years in the making.
Responses to Literature
- Research Bengali literature and culture before the era of Tagore for a paper. How can you characterize Tagore's specific artistic influence on Bengali society?
- Tagore said that his plays summon up “the play of feeling, not of action.” What does this mean? Cite one or two of his plays to explain your answer in the form of an essay.
- Based on The Home and the World and other works, summarize Tagore's attitudes toward Indian anticolonial activism. Create a presentation with your findings.
- Read several poems from Tagore's youth, and some from his final years. In a small group, discuss some of the common elements. What do the poems tell you about the arc of his life?
- Write an essay about the religious and spiritual perspectives expressed in Tagore's poetry.
Agarwala, R. S. Aesthetic Consciousness of Tagore. Calcutta: Abhishek Agarwal, 1996.
Atkinson, David W. Gandhi and Tagore: Visionaries of Modern India. Hong Kong: Asian Research Service, 1989.
Bhattacharya, Vivek Ranjan. Tagore's Vision of a Global Family. New Delhi: Enkay, 1987.
Chakrabarti, Mohit. Rabindranath Tagore: A Quest. New Delhi: Gyan, 1995.
Das Gupta, Uma. Rabindranath Tagore: A Biography. Delhi and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.
Dutta, Krishna, and Andrew Robinson. Rabindranath Tagore: The Myriad-Minded Man. Calcutta: Rupa, 2000.
Hay, Stephen N. Asian Ideas of East and West: Tagore and His Critics in Japan, China, and India. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1970.
Khanolakara, Gangadhara Devarava. The Lute and the Plough: A Life of Rabindranath Tagore. Bombay: Book Centre, 1963.
Mukherjee, Sujit. Passage to America: The Reception of Rabindranath Tagore in the United States, 1912–1941. Calcutta: Bookland, 1964.
Naravane, Vishwanath S. Introduction to Rabindranath Tagore. Delhi: Macmillan, 1970.
Pabby, D. K., and Alpana Neogy, eds. Rabindranath Tagore's “The Home and the World”: New Dimensions. New Delhi: Asia Book Club, 2001.
Radhakrishnan, Sarvepalli. The Philosophy of Rabindranath Tagore. London: Macmillan, 1918.
Rhys, Ernest. Rabindranath Tagore: A Biographical Study. London: Macmillan, 1915.
Thompson, Edward J. Rabindranath Tagore: Poet and Dramatist. London: Oxford University Press, 1948.
TAGORE, RABINDRANATH (1861–1941), renowned Bengali poet Author, activist, artist, choreographer, dramatist, educator, musician, and philosopher, Rabindranath Tagore was primarily a poet. He was called a "universal man," which he certainly was. His roots, both cultural and creative, were set deeply in his beloved Bengal. His talents blossomed from the dusty and wet plains of Bengal in over a thousand poems, two and a half thousand songs, a sizable number of short stories, novels, and discursive essays on education, history, literature, rural reconstruction, politics, philosophy, and science. He became a painter rather late in his life, when he turned seventy. In ten years, he produced some three thousand paintings.
Tagore was born in the Jorasanko district of Kolkata (Calcutta) on 7 May 1861. He was the youngest child of Debendranath Tagore (1817–1905) and Sarada Devi (1826–1875). Originally from Jessore, now in Bangladesh, the Tagore (Thakur in Bengali) family belonged to a Brahman subcaste known as Pirali. Orthodox Brahmans refused to have any social contact with the Tagores and other Piralis due to their closeness to Muslim rulers. The family moved to Kolkata around the time the city was founded, in the 1690s. The Tagores prospered working for the East India Company. Rabindranath's grandfather, Dwarkanath Tagore (1794–1846), known as "the Prince," built the family fortune with his great industrial enterprises, which included banking, insurance, agency houses, mining, shipping, and real estate. A contemporary of Ram Mohan Roy (1772–1833) and a close associate in the reform movement, Dwarkanath was arguably India's first modern and global entrepreneur. His industrial enterprises collapsed soon after he passed away, but the extensive landed estates he had built up in East Bengal continued to comfortably support the extended family in the next generation.
Debendranath Tagore's large family lived in a commodious mansion in Jorasanko. All of his children distinguished themselves in some way or another. Dwijendranath Tagore (1840–1926) was a poet and philosopher, Satyendranath Tagore (1842–1923) was the first Indian to join the Indian Civil Service, Jyotirindranath Tagore (1849–1925) was a playwright and translator, and Swarnakumari Devi (1855–1925) was India's first woman novelist.
As a child, Rabindranath had trouble studying in school. He disliked the set currriculum, the strict discipline, and the restrictive atmosphere of the four schools he attended until he was thirteen. He was withdrawn from the St. Xavier's School in 1874. Thereafter he received home schooling from his brother Jyotirindranath and his wife Kadambari Devi. Both of them exercised great influence on Rabindranath's literary pursuits in his adolescence and early adult life.
Tagore started to publish verse, narrative poetry, short fiction, and translations from 1876 onward in the family's literary journal Bharati. He also started to act on the family stage. He appeared, for example, in the title role of Molière's Le Bourgeois Gentihomme, adapted to a Bengali farce by his brother Jyotirindranath. The following year, he traveled to London with his brother Satyendranath. He enrolled at the University College, London, to read English literature. His frankly explicit "letters" sent from London alarmed his elders, concerned about his youthful waywardness. He received urgent summons to return home. Upon reaching Kolkata, he began to publish in earnest. His opera Valmiki Pratibha(The genius of Valmiki), modeled after the European operas he saw in London, impressed Kolkata's literary elites, especially those engaged in experimenting with Western literary genres and music. Tagore scored the music for the opera and cast himself in the title role. He recorded his first major poetic inspiration in a passionate work that he titled "The Awakening of the Waterfall." A plethora of new works followed, including a series of devotional songs in the tradition of the medieval Mithila Vaishnava poet Vidyapati. He composed these songs in the company of Kadambari Devi, his talented sister-in-law.
Tagore had an arranged marriage in 1883 with Mrinalini Devi. The next year, Kadambari Devi committed suicide, apparently due to her unrequited love for Rabindranath. The tragedy shattered Tagore and arguably created the emotional impetus for his novella Nashtanir (The broken nest), which Satyajit Ray adapted for his film Charulata (1964). By 1890, when Tagore revisited England, he was considered a top literary talent in Bengal by no less than Bankim Chandra Chatterji.
Tagore spent the next decade (1890–1900) supervising the family's extensive landed estates in what is now Bangladesh. The experience brought him in close and intimate contact with Bengal's countryside and its people. He wrote scores of short stories showing the dark side of Bengal's village life while celebrating in exquisite verse the beauty and bounty of the land. The first decade of the twentieth century saw the emergence of two diametrically opposed profiles of Tagore: the first was that of a dedicated patriot and political activist, and the second that of a deeply mystical poet searching for unity and oneness in the complexity and diversity of the universe.
Tagore's political involvement began in 1886, when he composed and sang at the inauguration of the Indian National Congress. The next year, he participated in the public protest against the blatantly discriminatory policies of Lord Cross, the secretary of state for India. One sees Tagore's fully formed political personality and activism in the wake of Lord Curzon's decision in 1905 to partition the province of Bengal in two halves, roughly corresponding to the Hindu and Muslim populations. The swadeshi (self-rule) movement (1905–1911) was the first major "militant" agitation against colonial rule. During the first phase, Tagore led the protestors in the streets of Kolkata, singing patriotic songs he had composed for the movement. He gave music to Bankim Chatterji's famous hymn to the motherland, Band Mataram. The hymn soon became the battle cry of the antipartition patriots as well as the name of a fiery journal edited by Aurobindo Ghose (later Sri Aurobindo). Terror and violence marked the extremist challenge against the Raj in Bengal. Unable to accept the narrow nationalism and its destructive divisiveness, Tagore withdrew himself from the movement. He was quickly condemned and criticized; some called him a "lackey" of the British. A decade later, in 1915, Tagore published Ghare Baire (The home and the world), a major novel (also later adapted to film by Satyajit Ray) in which he articulated his theses on nationalism.
This period of intense public activism was followed by private withdrawal, which coincided with great personal tragedies in Tagore's life. His wife Mrinalini passed away in 1902, his daughter Renuka died in 1903, his father Debendranath died in 1905, and in 1907 his youngest son Samindranath died of cholera. It appears that Tagore attempted to negotiate the crises in a series of profoundly moving poems, also songs, uniting humanity to nature and nature to humanity. His own elegant yet simple prose translation of Gitanjali took the English literary circles by storm in 1912. Among Tagore's admirers in England were Mez Sinclair, Evelyn Under-hill, Ezra Pound, Bertrand Russell, and most importantly, W. B. Yeats, the Irish poet. "These prose translations from Rabindranath Tagore have stirred my blood as nothing has for years," Yeats wrote in his introduction to Gitanjali (p. ix). In 1912 and 1913 Tagore was in the United States, lecturing at the University of Chicago, University of Illinois at Urbana, and Harvard University. Soon after his return to India, Tagore received the news that he had been awarded the Nobel Prize for literature.
Yeats lamented that even though the poetry of Tagore stirred sublime emotions in him, he knew nothing about "his life, and of the movements of thought that have made them possible." At once unique to Bengal and universal, Tagore's work was the product of the Anglo-Bengali, East-West encounters of the nineteenth century. The colonial world that Tagore inhabited, and the asymmetrical power relations among the colonizers and the colonized, prompted him to seek new and novel pathways to express his autonomy and creativity.
From 1913 to 1941, one can locate this dialectical process in three areas of Tagore's life. The first was the project of building a utopian community in Santiniketan, 100 miles (160 km) outside Kolkata in the saffron-colored soil of southern Bengal. In 1863 his father Debendranath had bought the land, built a guest house, and named it Santiniketan (Abode of Peace). A prayer hall was built in 1891. In 1901 Rabindranath established an academic institution to provide an "overall development of the students amidst close contact with nature . . . classes were to be held in open air under the shades of the trees." In 1918 Tagore transformed the institution into Visva Bharati (World University). Although the atmosphere and environment reminded one of the intentional communities of the Upanishadic age of the pre-Christian era, Visva Bharati was purportedly a twentieth-century academy. Tagore invited scholars and students from the East and the West to occupy an academic and creative space that was, by design and intent, outside the baneful influences of colonialism, industrialism, and nationalism. To raise funds for Visva Bharati and to speak about its mission, he traveled the globe: to China and Japan (1924), South America (1925), Europe and Egypt (1926), Southeast Asia (1927), and Canada (1929). He delivered the Hibbert Lectures at Oxford in 1930, which were published as Religion of Man.
Tagore attempted to provide a practical and material foundation to his vision of the World University. At the adjacent Sriniketan, he established the Center for Rural Reconstruction in 1922. Its first director was Leonard K. Elmhirt, an English agricultural expert. Experimental research activities accompanied agronomy and rural development. Chemical fertilizers and modern medical facilities were introduced. The focus at Sriniketan was, and still is, on vocational education: leather craft, wood craft, clay craft, lacquer work, embroidery, bookbinding, carpet weaving, and block carving and printing. Along with the Art School (Kala Bhavan) and the Music School (Sangit Bhavana), the Santiniketan-Sriniketan complex combined the practice of the traditional arts with contemporary and modern elements.
The second project that preoccupied Tagore during this period concerned his scrupulous spurning of forms of colonial knowledge, and his staunch anti-imperialist and antinationalist positions. He rejected, for example, "academic histories" that are narrowly focused on political and public policies of the state. In numerous poems, plays, and novels, he attempted to capture what Ranajit Guha has called the "historicality" of everyday life.
Tagore surrendered his knighthood in an angry protest against the Amritsar Massacre of 1919. Although he disagreed with Mahatma Gandhi about some aspects of the nationalist movement, his harshest critique was directed to the West, sundered as it was by the Holocaust and World War II. In his last address and testament to the world before he passed on in 1941, he stated, "Perhaps the new dawn will come from this horizon, from the East where the sun rises."
The third area of Tagore's involvement was his continued creative effort. He remained magnificently innovative and profusely productive to his last day. He started experimenting with verse libre in 1933; he invented a new play form combining music, mime, and dance. He took up painting at seventy, and the three thousand paintings he completed are considered among the best of modern Indian art.
William Radice, arguably the best translator of Tagore in English, divides Tagore's life and work in a series of paired oppositions borrowed from Isha Upanishad: he moves, he moves not; he is far, he is near; he is within all, and he is outside all. Tagore moved away from the orthodox Brahmo church founded by his father; he also moved away from the Hindu revivalism and nationalism. Tagore was quite a radical in more ways than one, but he remained tradition-bound in some key areas. For example, he married a ten-year-old semiliterate from his own caste; he followed the family custom by giving his two daughters in marriage when they were only twelve and fourteen. He can seem utterly foreign to non-Bengali readers. Although there are some good translations, most of Tagore's poetry is inadequate if not inaccessible in translation. Tagore's songs are equally inaccessible to non-Bengalis. There are over two and a half thousand of them, sung and listened to every day by Bengalis everywhere. As a composer of songs, Satyajit Ray says, Tagore has no equal, even in the West (quoted in Dutta and Robinson, p. 385). Most non-Bengalis, however, are denied the pleasure of enjoying Tagore's songs. Yet Tagore proves—in his fervent idealism, in his spiritual reality, in his romanticism—close to all of humankind. Tagore's modernity as a poet, thinker, and activist is accessible to most, as are his antimaterialist, feminist, and educational ideals. Most important is the agency or autonomy of Tagore the artist and poet, and its expression in his creative work. His personality and life are present in his poetry, plays, stories, and novels. He is within all. Yet he is outside all—human creativity is, in his own words, "amoral, arbitrary, fanciful, whimsical, unreal," and the natural artist in him "is naughty, good for nothing, separate from the man of a hundred good intentions" (quoted in Radice, pp. 36–37).
Is it possible to overcome the translational problems to appreciate Tagore, the poet? Anna Akhmatova, who translated Tagore into Russian, offers an insight: "He is a great poet, I can see that now. It's not only a matter of individual lines which have real genius, or individual poems . . . but that mighty flow of poetry which takes its strength from Hinduism as from the Ganges, and is called Rabindranath Tagore" (quoted in Dutta and Robinson, p. 1).
Dilip K. Basu
Dutta, Krishna, and Andrew Robinson. Rabindranath Tagore:An Anthology. New York: St. Martin's, 1999.
Kripalini, Krishna. Tagore: A Biography. London: Oxford University Press, 1982.
Radice, William. Rabindranath Tagore: Selected Poems. London: Penguin Books, 1993.
Tagore, Rabindranath. Gitanjali. 1912. Reprint, New York: Dover, 2000.
——. Crisis in Civilization. Kolkata: Visva Bharati Press, 1942.
TAGORE, RABINDRANATH (1861–1941), poet, novelist, playwright, composer, and spiritual leader, is best known as the winner of the 1913 Nobel Prize for Literature and one of India's greatest modern poets. Yet he was also a complex figure who embodied many of the deepest religious and political tensions of late colonial India. As his friend E. J. Thompson described him, Tagore had a kind of dual soul, torn between his love of solitude, contemplation, and art and his commitment to social action (Thompson, 1921).
Born in Kolkata to a wealthy Bengali Brāhmaṇ family, Tagore was the son of Debendranath Tagore, a leader in the influential Hindu reform movement known as the Brāhmo Samāj and a key figure in the "Bengal Renaissance" of the nineteenth century. Although he later became critical of the movement, the universalistic and humanistic ideals of the Brāhmo Samāj had a lasting impact on Rabindranath Tagore's thought.
Tagore was a poet from an early age, composing his first piece at age eight. He was not, however, a spirit to be restrained by conventional educational institutions, and he left school at fourteen to study at home. Though a lover of the great Sanskrit poets like Kalidasa and the devotional lyrics of the Bengal Vaiṣṇavas, Tagore was also deeply influenced by nineteenth-century English poets, perhaps above all by the English romantics like John Keats and Percy Bysshe Shelley, whose reverence for nature and ideal of the creative artist can be seen throughout Tagore's work.
In 1890 Tagore took charge of the family estates in Shelidah (modern Bangladesh), where he came to admire the simple daily life, natural beauty, and folk culture of rural Bengal. Here he also first came into contact with the Baūls, a group of wandering spiritual "madmen" who reject the outward trappings of institutional religion and instead seek the indwelling "man of the heart," the elusive presence of the divine that dwells within every human body. The Baūls' iconoclastic "religion of man" (manusher dharma ) had a lasting influence on Tagore's spiritual ideals. Called by some the "greatest of the Baūls," Tagore was a key figure in the popularization of Baūl music and spirituality as an icon of Bengali folk culture.
Tagore described his own spiritual vision as a "religion of the artist." Rejecting the rigidity and superficiality of institutional religions, including that of the Brāhmo Samāj, he based his "poet's religion" on a vision of the creative unity among God, humanity, and nature. Just as the One Divine Creator manifests himself in the infinite forms and beauty of nature, so too the individual artist reflects that diversity and returns it to divine unity through poetry, music, and art.
Tagore's literary output is astonishing in its breadth and diversity. In addition to poetry in various genres, he wrote novels, short stories, essays, political articles, and songs while also composing music and painting. He began translating his works into English, and his first attempt, Gitanjali (Song offerings; 1913), won the Noble Prize for Literature in 1913. Praised by W. B. Yeats as lyrics "expressing in thought a world I have dreamt of all my life," these songs helped give Tagore an international reputation and introduced Bengali literature to the world (Yeats 1913: xiii).
Unfortunately Tagore has so often been subject to hagiography and aesthetic idealization that it is often forgotten that he was, in his early life, also deeply involved in nationalist politics. As an active participant in the Swadeshi (Our Country) movement, he played an important role in the struggle for independence from British rule in the years up to 1907. He, however, grew disillusioned with the elitism and increasing violence of the movement and so gradually retreated from the political sphere into the inner domain of poetry, art, and spirituality.
This profound disillusionment with the violence of the nationalist movement and the retreat into an inner realm of spirituality is poignantly expressed in his novel The Home and the World (Ghare-bāire; 1919). One of Tagore's darkest works, it centers on the terrorist violence of 1907 and the ultimate failure of violent revolt as a means to independence. At the same time it also expresses Tagore's own ambivalent status, torn between home and world, between the inner realm of art and spirituality and the outward realm of public action.
Even after his withdrawal from political action Tagore continued to speak on social and political issues, if only in a sort of "antipolitical" way. In 1917, shocked by the horrors of World War I, Tagore also delivered a series of lectures in Japan and the United States that leveled a scathing attack on the "madness of nationalism" (Kopf 1979: 301). A monstrous and dehumanizing force spreading through the globe, nationalism had in Tagore's eyes only succeeded in stripping human beings of their individuality and ended in violent self-destruction.
In addition to his importance as a poet, artist, and political figure, Tagore was also deeply concerned with education. He founded Shantiniketan (the "abode of peace"), one of India's most original examples of alternative pedagogy. Dismayed by the stifling structures of traditional education in British India, Tagore turned instead to the model of the tapovanas or forest hermitages. Classes at Shantiniketan were held outdoors, in the shade of trees, emphasized the arts, and fostered the ideal of creative unity central to Tagore's own philosophy.
Tagore's influence remains evident in contemporary India not only in his homeland, where he is a cultural icon, but throughout the country and beyond. The composer of the national anthems of both India and Bangladesh, he is also one of the most widely published authors of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. However, perhaps his most lasting relevance lies in his encounters with religious violence and terrorism in colonial India. His reflections on the "madness of nationalism" are no less relevant for the twenty-first century, as religious violence has by no means ended but arguably only grown more intense and destructive. It is more than a little ironic that the same country that sings his lyrics in its national anthem should remain torn by the very religious nationalism that Tagore so deplored.
Tagore's works exist in many editions and translations, among them the Oxford Tagore translations (Oxford, U.K., 2002–2004) and the Rabindranath Tagore Omnibus (New Delhi, 2003). A thorough biography of Tagore in English is Krishna Dutta and Andrew Robinson, Rabindranath Tagore: The Myriad-Minded Man (New York, 1995). Older works include Edward John Thompson, Rabindranath Tagore: His Life and Work (Calcutta, India, 1921); and Krishna Kripalani, Rabindranath Tagore: A Biography (Calcutta, India, 1980). Useful discussions of Tagore's role in modern Indian religion and politics include David Kopf, The Brahmo Samaj and the Shaping of the Modern Indian Mind (Princeton, N.J., 1979); Stephen N. Hay, Asian Ideas of East and West: Tagore and His Critics in Japan, China, and India (Cambridge, U.K., 1970); and Hugh B. Urban, Tantra: Sex, Secrecy, Politics, and Power in the Study of Religion (Berkeley, Calif., 2003), chap. 3.
Hugh B. Urban (2005)
Bengali poet; b. Calcutta, India, May 7, 1861; d. there, Aug. 7, 1941. He was the 13th child of Maharshi Debēndranāth and grandson of Prince Dwārkanāth Tagore. He was educated at the Bengali Academy and St. Xavier's College, Calcutta, where he early responded to the influence of Sanskrit literature, Vaishnava religious love poetry, and English romantic poetry. He visited England (1878), and attended lectures at London University. On returning to India (1880), he engaged in ceaseless literary work in Bengali. He married Mrinalini (1883); her death in 1902, coupled with other bereavements, led him to God and ushered in the great creative period of his life. During a visit to England (1912), he arranged for the publication of Gitanjali, a version of some of his Bengali songs (mainly of a devotional character); its great success and the award of the Nobel prize for Literature in 1913 facilitated the English publication of other volumes of poetry (e.g., The Gardener, The Crescent Moon, and Fruit-Gathering ), plays (e.g., Chitra, The Post Office, and The King of the Dark Chamber ), and novels (The Home and the World and Gora ). After World War I, he traveled widely and lectured frequently; and founded the Visvabharati (University) at Shantiniketan as a center where an international community could live a life of creative harmony. Under the inspiration of Mahatma gan dhi, he wrote the play Mukta-Dhāra (1922) affirming the primacy of spiritual values in a world of advancing technology; and after witnessing the passion play at Oberammergau and prophetically seeing in Gandhi a possible martyr, he composed The Child (1931). He painted and continued writing almost to the very end of his life.
Tagore, a master of both verse and prose, was the greatest of modern Bengali writers, and one of the great literary figures of his time. He was preeminently the poet of love; nature, man, and God blended in his vision. He was no systematic thinker, but all he wrote or said carries the stamp of courage and integrity, as may be seen in a selection of his most significant work, Towards Universal Man (1961). To his admirers he was verily the "Gurudev," the great teacher.
Bibliography: Collected Poems and Plays (New York 1956); The Religion of Man (London 1931, Boston 1961); Wings of Death, tr. a. bose (London 1960); A Tagore Reader, ed. a. chakravarty (New York 1961). k. r. kripalani, Rabindranath Tagore: A Biography (New York 1962). d. w. atkinson, "Rabindranath Tagore: the Poet and the Absolute," Studies in Religion/Sciences religieuses 13 no. 2 (1984) 193–205. d. r. tuck, "Rabindranath Tagore: Religion as a Constant Struggle for Balance in the Religion of Man," in Religion in modern India (New Delhi 1981) 247–276. j. h. watson, "Religious beliefs of Rabindranath Tagore" Expository Times 84 (1973) 373–377.
[k. r. srinivasa iyengar]