Rabindranath Tagore was born on 7 May 1861 to Debendranath Tagore and his wife Sarada Devi in Calcutta. He was the youngest child of the couple’s thirteen children. Debendranath Tagore along with his friend Ram Mohan Roy put together the Brahmo Society.
His mother died when he was a young boy and as his father used to travel extensively, he was brought up mostly by the servants of the house. He was tutored by his brother Hemendranth as Tagore disliked going to school and was taught swimming, wrestling, judo and gymnastics. His other siblings also had a great effect on his upbringing. His sister Swarnakumari was a novelist. Brother Satyendranath was the first Indian Civil Service officer. Another brother Jyotirindranath was a playwright, musician and his wife Kadambari was Tagore’s cherished friend. Oldest brother Dwijendranath was a poet and a philosopher.
Along with his father, Tagore at the age of eleven left for a months-long exploration in 1873. The father-son duo visited the family estate, Santiniketan and travelled up to Dalhousie. His father taught him Sanskrit, astronomy and history. He read the works of Kalidasa, Edward Gibbons, and other biographies on their journey. They settled in Bakrota Hill for many months and Tagore was captivated by the beauty of the nature surrounding him. He maintained a strict routine of study and discipline.
Upon his return to Jorosanko in 1877, Tagore wrote many of his major works. In 1878, he was enrolled in Brighton, East Sussesx, as his father wanted him to become a barrister. Tagore soon lost interest in studying law and preferred to study the works of Shakespeare. The folk music of the Irish, English and the Scots made an impression on him. Although he returned in 1880 without a degree of law, Tagore carried with him the knowledge to blend the traditions of the East and the West.
He was married to Mrinalini Devi in 1883 and five children were born to them: Rathindranath, Shamindranath, Madhurilata, Renuka, and Meera.
In 1898 Tagore’s family joined him at Shelaidaha (present day Bangladesh) where he was taking care of the family estates. Here he was acquainted with the local postmaster, Gagan Harkara. Through Harkara, Tagore became aware of the folk songs of Baul Lalon Shah. This folk music influenced the future works of Tagore from 1891-1895, during which he penned down most of the Galpaguchchha.
Tagore relocated to Santiniketan in 1901 which was the home of his ashram. The ashram housed a library, a marble-floored prayer hall “The Mandir”, gardens. In Santiniketan, his wife and two of his children passed away: Renuka in 1903 and Shamindranath in 1907. With his father’s death in 1905, Tagore received a monthly sum of 1500 rupees.
It was here at Santiniketan, he published his works Naivedya in 1901 and Kheya in 1906 gaining admiration and a lot of followers. In 1912, Tagore carried his translated versions of his works with him to England. There in England, his works were praised by many including Thomas Sturge Moore, W.B Yeats, Charles F. Andrews, and many more. In November later that year, Tagore toured the United States. 14 November 1913, Tagore received the Nobel Prize for Literature for his work Gitanjali: Song of Offerings. Yeats wrote the preface to Gitanjali. In 1915, he was knighted by the British Crown (which renounced after the Jalianwala Bagh tragedy in 1919).
On 3 May 1916, along with W.W. Pearson, Mukul Dey and Charles F. Andrews, Tagore traveled to Japan on a lecturing tour through boat, where he stayed for four months. In Japan, he wrote “On the Way to Japan” and “In Japan” which later featured in the book Japanyatri. His essay on Nationalism in India faced not only criticism but also immense admiration. He again traveled to the United States residing in San Francisco before moving to Los Angeles where he meditated in the orange groves. It was here he envisioned the concept of Visva Bharati, a university which would act as a bridge between the West and India, a world center of Humanity irrespective of the boundaries of nationality. On 22 December 1921, after three years of work, the Visva Bharati University was inaugurated. Tagore taught at the university inspiring many young minds and also wrote textbook for them.
Tagore was a wanderer and travelled extensively. On 6 November 1924, he arrived at Buenos Aires and met with Mussolini on his May 1926 trip to Italy. He toured Southeast Asia and visited places- Singapore, Malacca, Siam, Bali, Penang, Java, and Kuala Lumpur. This resulted in composition of Jatri, a travelogue in 1929. In 1930 he visited the United States and Europe again visiting Germany, Switzerland and Denmark before leaving for the Soviet Union. On his numerous travels, Tagore came across many influencing personalities like Albert Einstein, George Bernard Shaw, Henri Bergson, H.G. Wells, Thomas Mann, Romain Rolland and Robert Frost.
Art, Literature, Theatre and Music
Rabindranath Tagore wrote many poems, dramas, essays, songs, short stories, novels and travelogues in both Bengali and in English. His lectures and letters were compiled into numerous volumes of books and published. Famous for his poems and short stories, his main travelogues- Europe Jatrir Patro (Letters from Europe) and Manusher Dhormo (The Religion of Man) are well known. Rabindra sangeet is the name given to Tagore’s collection of songs, and was a unique school of music. His songs influenced many musicians, sitarists Ustad Amjad Ali Khan and Vilayat Khan.
Tagore wrote in Bengali and English. At a time when Sanskrit was used popularly, he chose to express in Bengali which reached out to the locals and English internationally; thus achieving world-wide admiration and respect. He kept his language simples in ordered to be enjoyed by all classes of people.
Through his writings, Tagore expressed his views on nationalism, untouchability, poverty, caste discrimination, nature, grandeur, elegance, beauty, patriotism, politics, music, art, and various thoughts. They were the voice of both the rich and poor alike. Music gave life to these thoughts and through music they were carried forward to spread awareness. He revolutionized the way of thinking and protest. With his enticing persona and charming works of literature, Rabindranath Tagore had a cult following him.
Two of his songs became the national anthems of two countries: India and Bangladesh. Jana Gana Mana was adopted as our national anthem in 1950 by the Indian Constitution. And in 1971, his Amar Shonar Banla was adopted as the national anthem of Bangladesh.
Many of his dance-dramas have been staged, the most famous being The Post Office (Dak Ghar), which in July 1942 was staged by the orphans held captive during the Nazi rule. His other dance-dramas are- Visarjan (1890), Dui Bon (1933), Chandalika (1938), Chitra (1914), Char Adhyay (1934), Shyama (1939) and many more. Ghare Baire, Char Odhay, Shesher Kobita, and Noukadubi are some of his novels.
Tagore’s collection of poems Gitanjali, consisting of 157 poems won him his Nobel Prize making him the first non-European to receive it.
He used the Bengali initials “Ro-Tho” inscribed in wood as his seal. At the age of 60, Tagore started painting and drawing. Rabindranath Tagore supported self-rule, opposing the British imperialism. Compositions like Ekla Chalo Re and Chito Jetha Bhayshunyo politically charged Indians to actively participate in the freedom struggle. He played a pivotal role in reforming the socio-economic as well as the political facets of the country. Contributing not only to literature and music, Tagore was instrumental in bringing together people under the religion of humankind.
Tagore’s health started to deteriorate during his last five years. In 1940, he lost consciousness and became fatally ill. On 7 August 1941, he passed away at his home in Jorasanko after battling for a long time.