Writer, Poet, Drama
(1861 – 1941)
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.
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.
Rabindranath 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.
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.
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.
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.’’
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.