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Life and works of Rabindranath Tagore

Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941)

Born on 7 May 1861, in Jorasanko house at 6 Dwarkanath Tagore Lane, Calcutta, Rabindranath was the fourteenth child of Devendranath Tagore (1817-1905) and Sarada Devi (1826/27-1875). The Tagore family settled in Calcutta from Jessore (now in Bangladesh) round about the time the East India Company had founded the city.

The Tagores prosperd by their activities and were recognized among the leading families of Calcutta’s new aristocracy by 1814, when Raja Rammohan Roy (1772-1833) initiated his activities to fight Hindu orthodoxy on the one hand and to bring about a synthesis of the culture of India with the liberal traditions of the West. Rabindranath’s grandfather, Dwarkanath (1794-1846), known by the title of ‘Prince’ because of his great wealth and benevolence became one of the active supporters of Raja Rammohan in all his public activities.

Likewise, Rabindranath’s father, known as ‘Maharshi’ for his piety and faith, became a redoubtable champion of Brahmoism which may well be regarded as Rammohan’s vindication of the monotheistic tradition of the Upanishads. The peculiar combination of tradition and progress, which characterized Rabindranath’s attitude of life, may best be explained by his immediate family background.

Notable among Ranbindranath’s brothers and sisters were the poet-philosopher Dwijendranath Tagore (1840-1926), Satyendranath Tagore (1842-1923), the first Indian to join the Indian Civil Service, Jyotirindranath (1848-1925), the well-known playwright and translator, and Swarnakumari Devi (1855-1932), the foremost woman-novelist of her days.

Rabindranath’s early childhood was spent under the supervision of family servants. He had to fall back upon his own resources to feed his appetite for the far-away. His other source of joy was when some of the maids and servants initiated him in the love of tales and fables, rhymes and songs. The twin muses of song and poetry came to him hand in hand fairly early in life. He started scribbling verses soon after he learnt his alphabet and he imbibed music from the atmosphere at home.

Rabindranath’s school career was brief (1868-74), uneventful and haphazard, as he had to change school four times at least. He did not react favourably to set lessons.

The generally unruly conduct of his class-mates and the discipline of the stick disgusted him. In 1874, when his name did not appear in the list of candidates promoted to the next higher class of St. Xavier’s School, he was withdrawn from school. But this only stimulated his appetite for self-education through his mother tongue in which he received encouraging support initially from his third brother, Hemendranath (1844-84), and later from Dwijendranath and Jyotirindranath.

Rabindranath was twelve when (1873) he was invested with the sacred thread and initiated with the Gayatri. Thereafter he accompanied his father on an extended tour which took him as far as Dalhousie via Bolpur and Amritsar. It was at Bolpur that he first really came into close contact with Devendranath, his saintly father, who exerted a lasting influence on his personality and character.

The family discovered Rabindranath’s gift for song and poetry quite early in his life. His first poem to appear in print was ‘Abhilaash’ in the Tattvabodhini Patrika in 1874 where it was described to be a twelve-year-old boy’s composition. The next year, when he was barely fourteen, he made his first public appearance as a poet reciting a patriotic poem of his own composition at the ninth session of the Hindu Mela – a cultural fair devoted to patriotism and social welfare organized by Nabagopal Mitra, Rajnarain Bose and others under the patronage and sponsorship of the Tagore family.

With the death of his mother in 1875, Rabindranath passed into the guardianship of Jyotirindranath and his wife Kadambari Devi (1858-84). Both of them, more than any other, helped his adolescent aspirations come into full flowering. This was the time when he was enrolled as the junior-most member of a short-lived secret society named Sanjivani Sabha, of which Rajnarain Bose was the President.

His first literary writings (verse, narrative poetry, criticism, fiction, essays, translation, etc.) appeared first in Dinankur O Prativimba (from 1876 onwards) and later in the family literary journal Bharati (from 1877 onwards). In 1877, he appeared for the first time on the family stage in the title role of a farce written by Jyotirindranath.

The next year (1878) he accompanied his brother Satyendranath to England where he studied English literature for some time under Henry Morley at the University College, London. His ‘Letters from a Sojourner in Europe’- being his outspoken, if somewhat indiscreet, comments on the life and times of London – alarmed some of his conservative elders and necessitated his recall from London early in 1880. The ‘Letters’ were published in book-form the next year (1881), however, it being not only his first book in prose but also the first in the spoken form of prose.

The year 1881 also saw him writing his first musical play, ‘Valmiki Pratibha’, and appearing himself in the title role, delivering his first written lecture on Music and Feeling before the Bethune Society, and foiling one more of the family’s plans to send him abroad, this time to qualify for the Bar. Returning from Madras en route to London, he took up residence with Jyotirindranath at Sudder Street where he experienced his poet’s vision, which he immortalized in a poem entitled ‘The Awakening of the Waterfall’; presaging the upsurge of a fine frenzy of creative writing. After spending some time with Satyendranath’s family in Karwar, he returned to Calcutta late in 1883 to be married to Mrinalini (b.1873). The next year (1884) saw the tragic death by suicide of Kadambari Devi, an event that left a lasting scar on his mind. The same year he was appointed Secretary of the Adi Brahmo Samaj and crossed swords with Bankim Chandra Chatterjee, the leading literary figure of Bengal of the day, on the ideals of Hinduism.

In 1885, he became associated with another family magazine, the Balak, and assisted its Editor, Jnanadanandini Devi (Satyendranath’s wife), in its management. Some of his earliest juvenile writings appeared in the Balak. That was also the year when the first collection of his songs came out with the title ‘Rabichchaya’, indicative of his popularity as a lyricist-composer.

His eldest child (a daughter), Bela or Madhurilata, was born in 1886. The same year he composed and himself sang the inaugural song at the second session of the Indian National Congress in Calcutta.

Rabindranath’s many-sided genius entered a new phase with the composing of the poems of ‘Manasi’, the musical play ‘Mayar Khela’ and the drama ‘Raja O Rani’, all of which were written during 1887-90. During this time, he first participated publicly in political controversy when he protested against the reactionary anti-Indian policy of Lord Cross, the then Secretary of State for India, and advocated the appointment of elected representatives of the people as members of the Viceroy’s Executive Council.

His eldest son, Rathindranath, was born in 1888. There was a brief break of about three months which he spent on a visit to England in the later part of 1890. The diary he maintained of the visit made scintillating reading when published in book-form.

Towards the end of 1890, on return from England, Rabindranath was entrusted by his father with the management of the extensive family estates in the Rajshahi district with headquarters at Shilaidah. His third child Renuka, was born early in 1891.

Rabindranath spent the next decade of his life (1890-1900) mainly in the countryside, in close contact with the children of the soil. In the first phase, his confrontation with the rural situation took the form of exquisitely sensitive vignettes of the life around, ‘The Postmaster’ was one of the crops of these short stories which were published, week by week, in the Hitavadi. Thereafter, when the monthly Sadhana was founded by him in 1891, with his nephew, Sudhindranath, as editor, it became almost the sole organ of his self-expression.

The Sadhana published some of his best writings such as ‘Sonar Tari’ and ‘Panchabhuter Diary’. In 1894 he assumed the editorship of the periodical itself and remained its editor until it ceased publication in 1895. His exquisite letters addressed to his niece, Indiradevi, later collected as ‘Chhinnapatra’, belonged to this period.

His youngest daughter, Mira, was born in 1893 and Samindra, his youngest son, the year after.

The Sadhana phase was also a phase of constructive nationalism for Rabindranath. His patriotism now became not only an abstract love of the people but also for the village folk-who constituted the country. In 1893, at a public meeting presided over by Bankimchandra Chatterjee, he read out a well-argued political essay on “Ingraj O Bharatbasi”.

He therefore advocated widespread use of the mother-tongue as a medium of education and described self-help and self-respect as the backbone of Swadeshism. On the other hand, he invoked India’s history and legends in the poems of ‘Katha O Kahini’ to inculcate patriotic and national sentiments. A totally different genre of lightly tripping lyrics of the idyllic kind is to be found in ‘Kshanika’ written about the same time.

The end of the century saw Rabindranath preoccupied more and more with the fundamentals of the Indian problem and his growing conviction that these were tied up with the prevailing faulty system of education. Instead of sending his own children to the existing schools he started his own home-school for them at Shilaidah.

That was when he conjured up his vision of a Tapovana school, where it might become possible to link up learning and living in an atmosphere of freedom, in the midst of nature, in a community where teachers would be gurus and pupils disciples in the traditional Upanishadic sense. He held up these ideals in the poems of ‘Naivedya’, and followed them up by founding a school in the Asrama built by his father at Santiniketan near Bolpur and bequeathed by him to a public trust. That was in 1901.

Earlier in the same year, he took over the editorial charge of the Bangadarshan, a periodical founded by Bankimchandra, in its new series and contributed to it his novel ‘Chokher Bali’ (‘Binodini’ in English), being the first psychological novel in any Indian language, in serial instalments.

A series of disasters, in the shape of family bereavements and chronic financial difficulties, followed close on the heels of the newly started school. His wife Mrinalini Devi died barely a year after (1902) and daughter Renuka the next year. Satischandra Roy, a young man of unusual talents and one of Rabindranath’s devoted followers who dedicated themselves to the work of the school, died of smallpox at Santiniketan in 1904. In early 1905, his revered father passed away, the Maharshi who was like a guru to him.

Notwithstanding these tragedies and the tremendous sacrifices involved in supporting his educational venture practically single-handed, Rabindranath persisted with his experiment. His literary work continued unabated and the first anthology of his poems was published at this time. Nor was he unresponsive to the country’s call when the situation or circumstances demanded his attention. He had occasion to reprimand Lord Curzon when in his Convocation Address, Curzon had castigated the Orientals as a class given to exaggeration.

When the same Viceroy proposed division of Bengal for administrative exigencies following the imperialist dictum of ‘divide and rule’, Rabindranath came out of his seclusion at Santiniketan to lend his powerful voice on behalf of the nation against this act of high-handedness. He preached Swadeshi, composed heart-stirring Swadeshi songs, wrote trenchant essays, addressed meetings and even headed protest demonstrations. But with it all, he advocated his own plan of constructive nationalism, with the village as the base of all nation-building activities.

In 1906, he sent his eldest son Rathindranath to the U. S. A. to study Agriculture. The same year he drew up the constitution for a National Council of Education. But when the anti-partition movement took an agitational turn, he withdraws himself to his work at Santiniketan. He was elected President of the first session of the Bangiya Sahitya Sammilani (Bengali Literary Conference) in 1907.

His youngest son Samindranath died of cholera the same year. That was also the year of the ripening of his acquaintance with Ramananda Chatterji, the well-known journalist who started publishing his novel ‘Gora’ serially in his monthly Prabasi. Rabindranath presided over the Bengal Provincial Conference in Pabna and delivered his address in Bengali. In 1909, he wrote the play ‘Prayaschitta’ and through the character of Dhananjoy Vairagi upheld the principles of what came to be known later as Satyagraha.

On return from the U. S. A. in 1910, Rathindranath, son of Tagore, was married to Pratima Devi, that being the first case of widow-marriage in the family. In 1911, Rabindranath’s fiftieth birth anniversary was celebrated by the inmates of Santiniketan with Ajit Kumar Chakravarti reading out a long article regarded as the first serious attempt made at appraising his poetry. His reminiscences were serialized in the Prabasi and the original Bengali poems of ‘Gitanjali’ and the play, ‘Dakghar’ (Post Office), were published the same year.

1912 was an eventful year. Early that year he was given the first important public reception of his career when the Bangiya Sahitya Parishad felicitated him in Calcutta on the completion of his fiftieth year. Two months after, he read at Overtoun Hall his famous essay, ‘My Interpretation of India’s History’, wherein he gave a prose paraphrase as it were of his ‘Jana Gana Mana’ song (now the National Song of India), earlier composed for the anniversary of the Brahmo Samaj, proclaiming that India stood for unity in the midst of diversity.

Ill health necessitated a change of climate at Shilaidah where he whiled away idle hours translating some of his recent poems (mainly from ‘Gitanjali’) into English. Later in May, he sailed for England where his translation of the ‘Gitanjali’ poems created a sensation in English literary circles headed by W. B. Yeats. While in England he came into contact with some of the leading intellectuals of the day including Masefield, Mez Sinclair, Evelyn Underhill, Fox Strangways, Ezra Pound, Nevinson, Wells, Bertrand Russell and others.

It was here that he first met C. F. Andrews destined to be his lifelong friend and follower. Here, he also completed negotiations for the purchase of Surul Kuthi which later became the headquarters of his rural reconstruction work founded in 1922. From London he proceeded to the U. S. A. and, while there, came to learn that a limited edition of the English ‘Gitanjali’ brought out by the India Society had been warmly received by the elite of England.

During October 1912 to April 1913, while in the States, he lectured at Urbana, Illinois, Chicago, Rochester and Harvard. On return to England he was successfully operated upon for his chronic ailment. Soon after his return home to India the news was received of the Swedish Academy selecting ‘Gitanjali’ for the Nobel Award in Literature for 1913.

While the arrival of C. F. Andrews to devote himself to the task of Santiniketan raised hopes of the Asrama providing a nucleus for such inter-cultural fellowship, the outbreak of War in the West posed a challenge. Ranbindranath tried to meet it by undertaking a tour of Japan and the U. S. A., as yet not embroiled in the conflict and by appealing to them to rise above the greed and selfishness of a narrow nationalism, in the larger interest of world peace. That was during 1916-17.

Over the next decade (1921-30), Ranbindranath’s main preoccupation was to establish the Visva-Bharati on a sound foundation and for this purpose he undertook a number of tours at home and abroad. Among the foreign countries covered were: China and Japan (1924), South America (1925), Italy, Switzerland, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Germany, France, the Balkan countries and Egypt (1926), South-east Asian counties (1927) and Canada (1929). In 1930, he delivered the Hibbert Lectures at Oxford, his subject being “Religion of Man”.

He took the occasion to exhibit his paintings (a new bobby acquired round about 1925-26) in all the countries he visited this time including France, England, Germany, Soviet Russia and the U. S. A. Prior to this, Rabindranath associated himself with a new literary movement started in Bengal by Pramatha Chaudhuri and contributed to its mouthpiece Sabuj Patra some of his writings, noted for the originality of their style. These included scintillating essays, lyrics of great sensitivity (‘Balaka’ poems in particular), and the two novels, ‘Chaturanga’ (Four Chapters) and ‘Ghare Baire’ (The Home and The World). In 1915, he was knighted by the King-Emperor.

On return from his foreign tour, Rabindranath agitated against the internment of Annie Besant, and canvassed support, on her release, for her election as the President of the Calcutta session of the Indian National Congress. He read his poem, “India Prayer”, at the plenary session. On the cultural front, he took an active part in organizing Vichitra and accommodated the institution in his part of the Tagore house at Jorasanko.

1918 saw the death of his eldest child Madhurilata. The same year the foundation was laid at Santiniketan of the Institution which came to be known as the Visva-Bharati, World University. During the next two years, 1919-20, Rabindranath travelled all over India inviting support for the Visva-Bharati. In 1919, he relinquished his knighthood as a protest against the British atrocities at Jallianwalla Bagh in the Punjab. 1920-21 saw him in the West, visiting England, France, Germany, Holland, Belgium, Switzerland, Austria, Czechoslovakia, the Scandinavian countries and the         U.S.A, campaigning support of the intellectuals for the Visva-Bharati. On his return to Santiniketan, he made over the institution of Visva-Bharati to a public trust at a formal meeting presided over by Dr. Brojendra Nath Seal, in the distinguished presence of Dr. Sylvain Levi who joined the Institution as its first Visiting Professor.

In 1931, his seventieth birthday anniversary was celebrated at a Jayanti function in Calcutta. Leading intellectuals of India and abroad joined in paying him homage. And the tributes were collected in a volume entitled ‘Golden Book of Tagore’. In 1932, he toured Persia and Iraq on an invitation from Reza Shah Pahlavi, King of Iran. The same year he was appointed Ramtanu Lahiri Professor of Bengali at the University of Calcutta. In 1933, he presided over the centennial of Raja Rammohun Roy. From about this time his poetry took a new turn and he started experimenting with verse in ‘Punascha’. 1936 saw him busy perfecting a new type of play combining music, miming and dance. These came to be known later as dance-drama. In 1937, he created history by delivering his Convocation Address at the University of Calcutta in Bengali.

The same year he was stricken with Erysipelas and his condition caused grave anxiety. Although he recovered, the condition of his health was not the same again. But his mind remained as alert as ever and he continued to take a lively interest in the affairs of his country and of the world in general. In 1938, when Czechoslovakia was overrun by Hitler’s hordes, he sent a message to his friend, Lesny, in Prague condemning the betrayal of small nations by big powers. He also exchanged letters with the Japanese poet, Noguchi, decrying Japan’s aggression in China. In 1939, at the request of Subhas Chandra Bose, he laid the foundation of the Mahajati Sadan in Calcutta.

The next year (1940) saw him deeply concerned with the turn taken by World War II. The same year Gandhiji visited him (for the last time) at Santiniketan, and in a parting message the Poet requested the Mahatama to accept the Visva-Bharati and give it his protection as it was like a vessel which carried the cargo of his life’s best treasures. Andrews, who had brought the two together initially, died at a nursing home in Calcutta. On 7 August 1940, on behalf of Oxford University, Sir Maurice Gwyer conferred its doctorate on Rabindranath at a special convocation arranged at Santiniketan. Although his literary work continued till the end, by the beginning of 1941 his chronic kidney trouble started causing continuous trouble. His physical condition notwithstanding, he made a scathing reply to certain baseless accusations against India made by a British Member of Parliament, Miss Rathbone.

On 14 April, when his 80th birthday was celebrated at Santiniketan on the Bengali New Year’s Day, he questioned the British intention towards India’s struggle for independence in a trenchant address entitled “Crisis in Civilisation”. He concluded his address by expressing the hope: “Perhaps the new dawn will come from this horizon, from the East where the Sun rises, and the, unvanquished Man will retrace his path of conquest, despite all barriers, to win back his lost heritage.”

On 7August 1941, he passed away in Calcutta after a surgical operation. “In considering Tagore’s life work,” wrote Humayun Kabir in his Introduction to a centennial collection of Tagore’s selected essays entitled ‘Towards Universal Man’, “one is again and again struck by the amazing versatility of his genius. He was essentially a poet but his interests were not confined to poetry. In sheer quantity of work few writers can equal him. His writings include more than a thousand poems and over two thousands songs in addition to a large number of short stories, novels, dramatic works and essays on the most diverse topics.

In quality too he has reached heights which have been trodden and that too rarely by only the noblest among men…. He was also a musician of the highest order. He took to painting when he was almost seventy and yet produced within ten years about three thousand pictures, some of them of exceptional quality. In addition, he made notable contributions to religious and educational thought, to politics and social reform, to rural regeneration and economic reconstruction. His achievements in all these fields are so great that they mark him out as one of the greatest sons of India and indeed one who has a message for the entire mankind.”