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Rabindranath Tagore: A Great Indian Poet and Writer

(The following is a post by Nuzhat Khatoon, South Asia Specialist, Asian Division.)

My Recollections of Rabindranath Tagore’s Works

Rabindranath Tagore, three-quarter-length portrait, seated, facing right, c. 1917. Prints and Photographs Division.

Rabindranath Tagore, three-quarter-length portrait, seated, facing right, c. 1917. Prints and Photographs Division.

My main recollection of Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941) lies not in his poetry, music, dramas, novels, or paintings, but rather with his “Jana Gana Mana” (Thou Art the Ruler of the Minds of All People), India’s national anthem. When I was a free-spirited little girl, probably in third grade, I remember school started everyday with everyone singing this song. I also remember singing it in chorus on other occasions like Indian Republic Day, which honors the adoption of the country’s constitution on January 26, 1950. Sixty-eight years later, Tagore’s national anthem has not lost its charm and popularity. It still warms the hearts of millions and millions of Indians both in India and abroad.

Another one of my recollections is watching Tagore’s plays staged in my school’s auditorium. His dance dramas, such as “Chitrangada” and “Chandalika,” showcased his interest in different types of stories. For example, Tagore’s 1892 work “Chitrangada” is inspired by a story in the Hindu epic “Mahabharata.” The title character is the daughter of the king of Manipura and the wife of the great warrior Arjuna. Chitrangada and Arjuna meet during the latter’s expedition to Manipura. Arjuna asks the king for her hand in marriage, and the king agrees on the condition that Arjuna will stay with his wife in Manipura and that their children will be the heirs to the kingdom. Arjuna agrees to wed the princess, and eventually, their son Babruvahana is born to them.

In 1938, Tagore wrote “Chandalika,” a story that touches on the sensitive subject of the caste system in Hindu society. This work’s message is that all human beings are equal regardless of  their social status, and it comes through the tale of a young girl, Prakriti, who is born to an “untouchable” caste, the Chandalis. Because of her caste, Prakriti suffers terrible discrimination and injustice. Even the vendors in her village shun her. One day, she happens to meet a Buddhist monk named Ananda, who approaches her and asks for water. At first, she refuses because she believes that water from a low-caste person’s hands is polluted, and that by offering it she would be committing a religious offense. But Ananda teaches her that all human beings are equal and that the difference between upper and lower castes is the product of an unjust society. Convinced by the monk’s kind words, Prakriti ultimately serves him water, an action that gives her joy and self-confidence.

Rabindranath Tagore was the youngest son of Debendranath Tagore, one of the founders of the 19th-century Hindu religious reform movement, the Brahmo Samaj. Although he had the opportunity for formal schooling in England, the young Rabindranath had little interest in formal education and returned to India before finishing his education abroad. At home, his father arranged for private tutoring, the flexible pace of which appealed much more to him than the school’s rigid curriculum. During this time, his intellectual horizon expanded and he developed a wide range of interests, especially in the arts.

In addition, Rabindranath grew up in a very musical environment. His elder brother Jyotirindranath used to experiment with different musical traditions, which exposed Rabindranath to classical, folk, devotional, and other genres of music. In his more than 2,000 compositions, he expresses all manner and category of human emotion. It is this range that makes his music appealing to everyone – old and young, rich and poor.

Another important dimension of Rabindranath Tagore’s legacy is his involvement with Shantiniketan, a town in Birbhum District in what is today the state of West Bengal in eastern India. After his father purchased the land in 1862, it was used for an ashram, a spiritual center for meditation, but Tagore eventually developed it into Vishva Bharati University, which – as its name indicates – integrated knowledge from all over the world (vishva) with the unique wisdom and spirit of India (bharati). The university also embodied its founder’s philosophy of education and social harmony. With his burgeoning interest in social reform in his later years, Tagore reached out to the poor and preached the principles of freedom and cooperation among all people regardless of caste and creed. In this respect, he was greatly influenced by Mahatma Gandhi’s teachings. Both had great respect for one another, and Gandhi visited Shantiniketan on four separate occasions – twice with his wife Kasturba and twice alone.

Tagore’s life also included its share of grief. In 1902, his wife Mrinalini Devi passed away. Then, in succession, he lost his younger daughter, son and loving father. He was disconsolate for a long time. In his works, one can see the combination of personal sorrow and commentary on social and political upheavals in colonial Bengal in the early twentieth century:

I saw the suicidal madness of the modern age
And saw in its body
The ironical distortion of ugliness

(“Rabindranath Tagore: a 125th birth anniversary volume,” Calcutta : Govt. of West Bengal, Dept. of Information & Cultural Affairs, 1988.)

Tagore, the Poet

Tagore wrote his first verse when he was only eight years old. Like a poet born to compose, verses subsequently poured naturally from his pen. With the publications of “Sandhya Sangit” (Evening Songs) in 1882 and “Prabhat Sangit” (Morning Songs) in 1883 Rabindranath secured his place among the most distinguished poets of his era. His interest in the observation of ordinary people’s lives in ordinary situations found expression in poems published under the title “Chhabi O Gan” (Pictures and Songs).

Sweet is this world, I wish ne’er to depart,
I yearn for a dwelling-place in humanity’s heart.

(“Rabindranath Tagore, the singer and his song,” Reba Som, New Delhi: Penguin, Viking, c2009.)

In 1881 at the age of twenty, Tagore wrote his first dramatic piece “Valmiki Pratibha” (The Genius of Valmiki), which was shown at Tagore’s mansion in Calcutta. His dramas are so popular today that they are still staged in theaters in India and Bangladesh.

Detail of a page in The New York Times (November 19, 1916) [//www.loc.gov/resource/sn78004456/1916-11-19/ed-1/?sp=6&loclr=blogint] reports: “Sir Rabindranath Tagore, Bengali Poet and Nobel Prize Winner, Feeding the Pigeons at the San Diego Exposition Just Before Leaving for New York.”

Detail of a page in The New York Times (November 19, 1916) reports: “Sir Rabindranath Tagore, Bengali Poet and Nobel Prize Winner, Feeding the Pigeons at the San Diego Exposition Just Before Leaving for New York.”

In 1913, he received the Nobel Prize for Literature for his great English composition “Geetanjali” (Song Offerings). He was the first Indian and first Asian to receive this award. The Nobel Prize enhanced his reputation not only in India but worldwide. In 1971, newly independent Bangladesh chose one of Tagore’s songs “Amar Sonar Bangla” (My Golden Bengal) as its national anthem. Perhaps Tagore is the only poet whose songs have been adopted as national anthems by two different countries, Bangladesh and India.

Every Journey Is a Pilgrimage

Tagore enjoyed traveling and made many friends abroad. He traveled all over Europe and Asia, including England, France, Italy, Russia, China, and Japan. He celebrated his sixtieth birthday in Germany. In Stockholm, the Swedish Academy paid him rich tribute. At the personal invitation of the king Reza Shah Pahlavi, Tagore visited Persia, in April and May of 1932, and paid homage in the city of Shiraz to two great masters of Persian poetry, Hafiz (1320-1389) and Saadi (1184-1283).

Tagore’s last pilgrimage ended on August 7, 1941. He was 80 years old. His poem “A Farewell” speaks poignantly to the themes of death and departure:

Look out once more with tired eyes, and see
How, where the sun has set, the sea and sky
Merge in the darkness, then will you see the trace
Of shining light left by my parting gaze.

(“Rabindranath Tagore : selected poems,” New Delhi : Oxford University Press, 2004.)

Even though Tagore embarked upon his last voyage, his music, poetry, and national anthem will keep his memory alive for generations to come. Indeed, Rabindranath is not only one of the preeminent literary geniuses of Bengal and India but also all of South Asia.

Rabindranath Tagore after his arrival in Japan in May 1916. Prints of Photographs Division. [//www.loc.gov/resource/ggbain.22224/?loclr=blogint]

Rabindranath Tagore after his arrival in Japan in May 1916. Prints of Photographs Division.

Tagore’s Works in the Asian Division

The Asian Division’s South Asian collection holds many works by Rabindranath Tagore in Bengali, as well as a number of contemporary scholarly publications on his life and legacy. Here are a few titles for further reading:

Rabindranathera Galpaguccha” (1970, first published in 1900)

Ghare Baire” (The Home and the World, 1950, first published in 1916)

Gora” (Fair-Skinned, 1951, first published in 1910)

Sudhakar Chattopadhyay’s “Rabindranatha o bharatiya sahitya” (Rabindranath and Indian Literature, 1967)

Syed Abul Maksud’s “Rabindranathera dharmatattva o darshana” (Rabindranath’s Theology and Philosophy, 2013)

Samit Kar’s “Samya, samajatattva, o Rabindranatha: Rabindra racanara samajatattvika anveshana” (Equality, Sociology, and Rabindranatha: A Sociological Exploration of Rabindranath Tagore’s Compositions, 2013)

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