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||Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941)|
Greatest writer in modern Indian literature, Bengali poet, novelist, educator, and an early advocate of Independence for India. Tagaore won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1913. Two years later he was awarded the knighthood, but he surrendered it in 1919 as a protest against the Massacre of Amritsar, where British troops killed some 400 Indian demonstrators. Tagore's influence over Gandhi and the founders of modern India was enormous, but his reputation in the West as a mystic has perhaps mislead his Western readers to ignore his role as a reformer and critic of colonialism.
"When one knows thee, then alien there is none, then no door is shut. Oh, grant me my prayer that I may never lose touch of the one in the play of the many." (from Gitanjali)
Rabindranath Tagore was born in Calcutta into a wealthy and prominent family. His father was Maharishi Debendranath Tagore, a religious reformer and scholar. His mother, Sarada Devi, died when Tagore was very young – he realized that she will never come back was when her body was carried through a gate to a place where it was burned. Tagore's grandfather had established a huge financial empire for himself. He helped a number of public projects, such as Calcutta Medical College.
The Tagores tried to combine traditional Indian culture with Western ideas; all the children contributed significantly to Bengali literature and culture. However, in My Reminiscences Tagore mentions that it was not until the age of ten when he started to use socks and shoes. And servants beat the children regularly. Tagore, the youngest, started to compose poems at the age of eight. Tagore's first book, a collection of poems, came out when he was 17; it was published by Tagore's friend who wanted to surprise him.
Tagore received his early education first from tutors and then at a variety of schools. Among them were Bengal Academy where he studied history and culture. At the University College, London, he studied law and attended lectures on English literature but left after a year – he did not like the weather. Once he gave a beggar a cold coin – it was more than the beggar had expected and he returned it. In England Tagore started to compose the poem 'Bhagna Hridaj' (a broken heart).
In 1883 Tagore married Mrinalini Devi Raichaudhuri, with whom he had two sons and three daughters. In 1890 Tagore moved to East Bengal (now Bangladesh), where he collected local legends and folklore. Between 1893 and 1900 he wrote seven volumes of poetry, including Sonar Tari (1894, The Golden Boat), and Kanika (1899, Short Poems). This was highly productive period in Tagore's life, and earned him the rather misleading epitaph 'The Bengali Shelley.' More important was that Tagore wrote in the common language of the people. This also was something that was hard to accept among his critics and scholars.
Tagore was the first Indian to bring an element of psychological realism to his novels. Among his early major prose works are Chokher Bali (1903, Eyesore) and Nastanirh (1901, The Broken Nest), published first serially. Between 1891 and 1895 he published forty-four short stories in Bengali periodical, most of them in the monthly journal Sadhana.
Especially Tagore's short stories influenced deeply Indian Literature. 'Punishment', a much anthologized work, was set in a rural village. It describes the oppression of women through the tragedy of the low-caste Rui family. Chandara is a proud, beautiful woman, "buxom, well-rounded, compact and sturdy," her husband, Chidam, is a farm-laborer, who works in the fields with his brother Dukhiram. One day when they return home after whole day of toil and humiliation, Dukhiram kills in anger his sloppy and slovenly wife because his food was not ready. To help his brother, Chidam's tells to police that his wife struck her sister-in-law with the farm-knife. Chandara takes the blame on to herself. 'In her thoughts, Chandara was saying to her husband, "I shall give my youth to the gallows instead of you. My final ties in this life will be with them."' Afterwards both Chidam and Dukhiram try to confess that they were quilty but Chandara is convicted. Just before the hanging, the doctor says that her husband wants to see her. "To hell with him," says Chandara.
In 1901 Tagore founded a school outside Calcutta, Visva-Bharati, which was dedicated to emerging Western and Indian philosophy and education. It become a university in 1921. He produced poems, novels, stories, a history of India, textbooks, and treatises on pedagogy. Tagore's wife died in 1902, one of his daughters died the next year, and in 1907 Tagore lost his younger son.
Tagore's reputation as a writer was established in the United States and in England after the publication of Gitanjali (Song Offerings), about divine and human love. The poems were translated into English by the author himself. In the introduction from 1912 William Butler Yates wrote: "These lyrics – which are in the original, my Indians tell me, full of subtlety of rhythm, of untranslatable delicacies of colour, of metrical invention – display in their thought a world I have dreamed of all my life long." Tagore's poems were also praised by Ezra Pound, and drew the attention of the Nobel Prize committee. "There is in him the stillness of nature. The poems do not seem to have been produced by storm or by ignition, but seem to show the normal habit of his mind. He is at one with nature, and finds no contradictions. And this is in sharp contrast with the Western mode, where man must be shown attempting to master nature if we are to have "great drama." (Ezra Pound in Fortnightly Review, 1 March 1913) However, Tagore also experimented with poetic forms and these works have lost much in translations into other languages.
Much of Tagore's ideology come from the teaching of the Upahishads
and from his own beliefs that God can be found through personal purity
and service to others. Hewarned of the dangers of nationalistic thought and
stressed the need for new world order based on transnational values and
ideas, the "unity consciousness." "The soil, in return for her service,
keeps the tree tied to her; the sky asks nothing and leaves it free." Politically
active in India, Tagore was a supporter of Gandhi, but disagreed with
Gandhi's philosophy of noncooperation. Following the Bihar earthquake
of 1936, which killed thousands of people, Gandhi declared that the
natural disaster was punishment for the sin of untouchability. Tagore
protested, calling the claim irrational.
Unable to gain ideological support to his views, Tagore retired into relative solitude. Between the years 1916 and 1934 he travelled widely. From his journey to Japan in 1916 he produced articles and books. Even before he was invited to Japan, he had formed a friendship with Kakuzo Okakura (1862-1913), the author of The Book of Tea (1906), and the president of the National University of Art. In 1927 Tagore toured in Southeast Asia. Letters from Java (Java Jatrir Patra), which first was serialized in Vichitra, was issued as a book, Jatri, in 1929. He fully acknowledged the Soviet economic development in Russiar Chithi (1931, Letters from Russia), but criticized the lack of freedom in Communist system. Tagore's view that British policy in India compared unfavorably with Russian policies concerning education, led to the banning of his book by the British Raj. On the orders from Stalin, Izvestia shelved Tagore's interview in 1930; it did not appear until 1988. Among others, he said that "for the sake of humanity I hope that you may never create a vicious force of violence which will go on weaving an interminable chain of violence and cruelty." (Rabindranath Tagore: An Anthology, edited by Krishna Dutta and Andrew Robinson, 1997, p. 125)
All his life, he was deeply interested in the
goings-on in the Western world. In the United States he traveled
in 1912-13, 1916-17, 1920-21, 1929 and 1930. His Majesty, Riza Shah
Pahlavi, invited Tagore to Iran in 1932. On his journeys and lecture
tours Tagore attempted to spread the ideal of uniting East and West.
While in Japan he wrote: "The Japanese do not waste their energy in
useless screaming and quarreling, and because there is no waste of
energy it is not found wanting when required. This calmness and
fortitude of body and mind is part of their national self-realization."
Tagore met Albert Einstein for the first time in 1930. In a
conversation at Einstein's residence in Caputh Tagore argued that Truth
is not independent of Man. Einstein's reply was that "if there a reality
independent of man there is also a truth relative to this reality . .
." When progressive writers attacked Tagore and defined him as a
bourgeois poet and too feudal for his admiration for Upanishads, Ralph
Fox, a British Communist, objected and said it would be a distortion of
Marxist theory to describe Tagore as a bourgeois poet.
Tagore wrote his most important works in Bengali, but he often
translated his poems into English. At the age of 70 Tagore took up
painting. He was also a composer, settings hundreds of poems to music.
Many of his poems are actually songs, and inseparable from their music.
Tagore's 'Our Golden Bengal' became the national anthem of Bangladesh.
Only hours before he died on August 7, in 1941, Tagore dictated his
last poem. His written production, still not completely collected,
fills nearly 30 substantial volumes. Tagore remained a well-known
author in the West until the end of the 1920s. Though his
popularity has waned, his many writings continue to be read and
translated. A Chinese translation of Stray Birds
(1916), made by Feng Tang, was withdrawn in 2015 by the publisher,
because it took great liberties with the original text, containing
lines such as "The world unzipped his pants in front of his lover".
For further reading: Rabindranath Tagore by Krishna Kripalani (1962); Rabindranath Tagore by H. Banerjee (1971); Rabindranath Tagore by B.C. Chakravorty (1971); An Introduction to Rabindranath Tagore by V.S. Naravene (1977); The Humanism of Rabindranath Tagore by M.R. Anand (1979); Rabindranath Tagore by S. Ghose (1986); The Unversal Man by S. Chattopadhyay (1987); Sir Rabindranath Tagore by K.S. Ramaswami Sastri (1988); Gandhi and Tagore by D.W. Atkinson (1989); Rabindranath Tagore by K. Basak (1991); Rabindranath Tagore by E.J. Thompson (1991); Social Thought of Rabindranath Tagore: A Historical Analysis by Tapati Dasgupta (1993); Science and the Indian Tradition: When Einstein Met Tagore by David L. Gosling (2007); Tagore, Nationalism and Cosmopolitanism: Perceptions, Contestations and Contemporary Relevance, edited by Mohammad A. Quayum (2020); The Cambridge Companion to Rabindranath Tagore, edited by Sukanta Chaudhuri (2020)