“The work of a supreme culture, they yet appear as much the growth of the common soil as the grass and the rushes. A tradition, where poetry and religion are the same thing, has passed through the centuries, gathering from learned and unlearned metaphor and emotion, and carried back again to the multitude the thought of the scholar and of the noble.” – W.B. Yeats in the preface of Rabindranath Tagore’s Nobel Prize winning work Gitanjali.
Internationally known as the 'Bard of Bengal,' Rabindranath Tagore’s genius is seldom understood completely by the common man. A poet, novelist, musician, painter, educationist, and a social reformer, Tagore has worn multiple hats in eighty years of his life. He is considered as a cultural symbol for not only his home-state, but also nationally. Tagore is in fact best known for being the first person from Asia to have ever won the Nobel Prize. He was also knighted by the then British monarchy, which he returned after the Jallianwala Bagh massacre.
Born on the 7th of May 1861, Rabindranath was the youngest among fourteen children. His father, Debendranath Tagore was a well known proponent of the Brahmo Samaj. He is also considered to have revived and spread the fundamental principles of the Brahmo Dharma all over India. Rabindranath, therefore, did not see his father much in his early years. His mother, Sarada Devi’s early demise made young Rabi a loner, even though there were many servants and caretakers to take care of him.
The highlights of his days were staring up at the sky and watching clouds appear. Rabindranath also spent a lot of time in the garden. He explained, “I had such an exceeding love for nature, I cannot tell how to describe it to you; but nature was a kind of a loving companion always with me, and always revealing to me some fresh beauty.” He did start describing his experiences with ‘Nature’ from a very early age. He took to writing at age eight, where he described his Nature sightings poetically.
During childhood, going to school was young Rabi’s least favourite activity. He found the teaching method, which included punishment if the lesson wasn’t learned, very painful. Later in life, Rabindranath started a school in Shantiniketan, which was experimental in a way that it inspired children to study in a natural environment and not within the four walls of a classroom, with liberal teachers.
At the age of eleven, Rabindranath’s father took him along on an all-India tour. This gave the young child, a holistic exposure to the country. He was also exposed to a wide number of books of different genres like Astronomy, Science, and even Biographies. While in Dalhousie, he studied under tutors at home.
Rabindranath also went to London to pursue a Law degree. But, during the 18 months that he spent there, he read more of literary works than law manuals. He delved into works of writers like Shakespeare, Dickens, and Walter Scott. Rabindranath had a good musical ear as well. He also brought home with him knowledge of folk tunes from England, Scotland and Ireland. With such knowledge and inspirations, Rabindranath returned home with enough to compose his works, although he never achieved an academic ‘degree’.
Rabindranath’s literary works include a large array of forms, from poems and ballads, to short stories and novels, and even essays, plays and songs. His writing career spans over seventy years. Starting at a tender age of eight, Rabindranath’s writing ideas came mainly from the things he saw, books he read, events he experienced, and emotions he felt in his life.
His initial writings were mainly poems, about his love for nature and his feelings of loneliness. After travelling around India and reading works of several Indian authors, Rabindranath’s writing expanded and he also ventured into short stories. During his brief stay in London, he gathered a wide range of knowledge not just about novels, plays, short stories and poems, but also music. His travels around the world expanded his literary horizons even further. This is when he penned travelogues. Rabindranath’s middle age was emotionally tumultuous and that reflected in his stories and poems. He also centered his characters dealing with prevailing social injustices, like child marriage, Sati ritual, etc. With the beginning of the National Movement in India, Rabindranath’s mode of protest was his essays and other forms of write-ups.
Among his most famous literary works, Rabindranath is remembered for his Nobel Prize winning collection of poems, named Gitanjali. This however, depicts just a tiny amount of his entire ‘bank’ of work.
Here are points providing an idea of the literary legacy he has left behind:
The story named, Bhikharini (The Beggar Woman), 1877, is considered to be the very first Bengali short story written by Rabindranath, when he was 16 years old.
As a teenager, Rabindranath also dabbled in play writing. He is believed to have acted in the plays as well. His best known plays are Visarjan (Immersion), and Chandalika, which is based on an ancient mythological story. Some of his plays were later translated into English, like The Post Office, Chitra, and The King of the Dark Chamber.
In 1882, he published a collection of poems called Sandhya Sangeet, among which was one of the most renowned works, Nirjharer Swapnabhanga, which on translation means “The Rousing of the Waterfall”.
Among his numerous short stories, the anthology of 85 stories named Golpoguchchho (Bunch of Stories) is highly acclaimed. These stories have remained inspirations for the reader. Atithi, Kshidita Pashan, Kabuliwala, Nastanirh, and Post Master are some of the stories in the collection.
Rabindranath’s novels include Ghare Baire, Shesher Kobita, and Noukadubi.
A number of his novels and short stories have been the basis of successful movies, including Kabuliwala by Bimal Roy (1961), Charulata by Satyajit Ray (1964), Lekin by Gulzar (1991), and Chokher Bali by Rituparno Ghosh (2003).
A movie named Natir Puja is believed to have been directed by Rabindranath Tagore himself (1932).
Rabindranath’s love for the Bengali language is well evident by the monumental amount of his published works. Then again, he has also written in other languages including a poem in Maithili. Writing in English did not begin until later and most were translations of his Bengali works. Very few, like The Child (1931) and King and Rebel (1977), were written in English itself.
Rabindranath’s Music and Art
Just mentioning the literary works of Rabindranath Tagore cannot justify his life’s work. The 25,000 songs (approximate), doodles on his writing manuscripts, and paintings also form a major chunk of his creations. His songs are considered as a separate musical genre, that is taught along with classical and modern music. His songs are famously known as Rabindra Sangeet.
The genius of Tagore lies in even the mistakes he made while writing. Rather than scratching them, he connected each of the patches and gave them interesting forms, like trees, birds, and even ancient symbols. These doodles are awe-inspiring and worth being included among his art works. Other art works include paintings that have been showcased in galleries all around the world, including Paris, Berlin, Rome, Ontario, New Delhi, and London.
Also on this day:
1912 – Pannalal Patel, Indian author, was born.
1924 – Alluri Sita Rama Raju, Indian activist, died.
Rabindranath Tagore: A Biographical Study by Ernest Rhys.
Tribute to Gurudev: a compilation of Rabindranath Tagore’s life and works.