On 7th August 1941, India’s Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore passed away in Kolkata, West Bengal. He was the first non-European to win the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1913.
Tagore was known not just as a writer, but also as a poet, philosopher, painter, educator and social reformer who has been credited with changing the landscape of literature and music of the region. He was also the composer of two National Anthems; Jana Gana Mana for India and Amar Shonar Bangla for Bangladesh. Rabindranath Tagore, also known as Gurudev was born in a Bengali Brahmin family to Debendranath Tagore and his wife Sarada Devi on 7th May 1861 in Kolkata.
The Tagore family rose to fame during the Bengali Renaissance in the 15th and 16th century and was also responsible for the founding of the Brahmo Samaj and the Adi Dharam faith. Tagore eventually took over the leadership of the Adi Brahmo Samaj and began reviving the movement. As a previous rule, only Brahmins were allowed to the pulpit. Tagore eased that norm and people from other castes were allowed as well.
As a child Tagore was not fond of classroom education and was hence educated at home. At the age of seventeen, Tagore’s father, who wanted him to be a barrister sent him to England for further education. He lived in the Tagore family home and studied briefly at the University College London, but left shortly after, without completing his degree. Instead of law, Tagore was drawn to and studied Shakespeare, Religio, Medici and Antony and Cleopatra.
Rabindranath Tagore shared a very special relationship with his sister-in-law, Kadambari Devi, who was his elder brother’s wife. Kadambari Devi was a maternal figure and close friend in Tagore’s life, who influenced him in many ways. Her sudden suicide a little after Tagore’s marriage left him shaken and disturbed. Tagore’s pain at the death of Kadambari Devi can be seen in his work, where he expresses his pain on her passing.
In 1880, Tagore returned back to India with an aim to merge European novelty with Brahmo tradition - imbibing the best from both. Tagore married Mrinalini Devi in 1883 and together they had five children, two of whom died in childhood. By 1890 Tagore began managing his large ancestral estate in Shelaidaha (present day Bangladesh), where he was joined by his wife and children. In 1890, Tagore published his first collection of poems titled “Manasi”, which is counted among his finest works. While managing his estate, Tagore came in touch with common people from whom he collected minimal rent and who in return respected and honoured Tagore. It was this interaction with these simple, common people through which Tagore developed an interest in social reform.
Tagore was greatly disturbed by the wide gap between rural and urban India. By this gap, Tagore was not only referring to the material aspects of living that were lacking in rural areas, but also challenges like poverty, indebtedness, ill health and lack of basic infrastructure like education, healthcare and other opportunities to succeed.
In 1901 Tagore moved to Santiniketan (previously known as Bhubandanga) to found an ashram which would serve as a school, complete with gardens and a library. Today Santiniketan (in keeping with Tagore’s vision) is a popular university town. Santiniketan also attracts many tourists and admirers of Tagore’s work, since he wrote many of his literary masterpieces while here.
Primarily known for his poetry, Tagore also wrote novels, essays, short stories and songs. Tagore is particularly known for his short stories, which are considered gems of Bengali literature. Most of Tagore’s short stories dealt with the trials of and the challenges faced by common people. Apart from this Tagore also composed over 2,000 songs, which are known as Rabindra Sangeet and which form an important part of Bengali culture and heritage till today. Tagore was also a prolific painter and his work was presented in Paris where he received praise and encouragement from French artists.
Tagore also shared a special relationship with Mahatma Gandhi, as they were both prominent thinkers of the 20th century. Even though Tagore was great admirer of Gandhi, he disagreed with a few things Gandhi propagated. Both men had lengthy discussions on topics like truth, freedom, democracy, courage, education and the future of humanity as India struggled to gain independence from colonial rule.
As a novelist, Tagore contributed greatly to the landscape of Bengali fiction and some of Tagore’s most prominent novels are; Ghare Baire (The Home and the World), Gora (The Fair One), Chokher Bali (Sand in the Eye) and Shesher Kabita (The Last Poem), among others.
Tagore won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1913 for his collection of poems titled Gitanjali (An Offering of Songs) and was the first non-European to win this honour. In 1915 the British Government granted Tagore a knighthood, which he surrendered in 1919 after the Jallianwala Bagh massacre.
Even though Tagore was well travelled (he had travelled to more than thirty countries in a span of fifty years) he was proud to be an Indian and of the rich cultural heritage associated with the country. He often spoke about the culture and traditions of India in his lectures abroad. Once while delivering a lecture at the Oxford University, he spoke of the importance of India’s religious ideals, while quoting from ancient texts and popular poetry, both.
Tagore was a broad minded individual and while he welcomed Western thinking and attitudes, he was not ashamed of Indian culture and did not think it needed protection from Western influences. Apart from this, Tagore also encouraged healthy debates on all topics and was suspicious of conclusions based on mechanical formula. On the contrary, what he advocated was asking oneself the question, whether we have a reason to want what is being proposed. Tagore’s focus always remained on reasoning and discarding backward thinking.
Rabindranath Tagore passed away on 7th August 1941. He was 80 at that time. Most of Tagore’s work has been translated into English and other foreign languages and is enjoyed across India and the world. Tagore will always be remembered, not only in India but across the world as a man who penned mesmerizing poetry and was someone who introduced India to the West, while also acquainting India with Western thinking and ideals.
Also on This Day:
1871: Abanindranath Tagore was born
1905: Indian National Congress declares boycott of British goods.
1985: Geet Sethi became the third Indian to become the World’s Armature Billiard’s Champion.