Rabindranath Tagore, also known as Gurudev, was a Bengali polymath who made great contribution to Indian literature, music, as well as art. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1913. Let's take a look at his childhood, life history, works and achievements.
Date of Birth: May 7, 1861
Place of Birth: Calcutta, British India
Date of Death: August 7, 1941
Place of Death: Calcutta, British India
Profession: Writer, song composer, playwright, essayist, painter
Spouse: Mrinalini Devi
Children: Renuka Tagore, Shamindranath Tagore, Meera Tagore, Rathindranath Tagore and Madhurilata Tagore
Father: Debendranath Tagore
Mother: Sarada Devi
Award: Nobel Prize in Literature (1913)
Rabindranath Tagore, who composed the National Anthem of India and won the Nobel Prize for Literature, was a multitalented personality in every sense. He was a Bengali poet, Brahmo Samaj philosopher, visual artist, playwright, novelist, painter and a composer. He was also a cultural reformer who modified Bengali art by rebuffing the strictures that confined it within the sphere of classical Indian forms. Though he was a polymath, his literary works alone are enough to place him in the elite list of all-time greats. Even today, Rabindranath Tagore is often remembered for his poetic songs, which are both spiritual and mercurial. He was one of those great minds, ahead of his time, and that is exactly why his meeting with Albert Einstein is considered as a clash between science and spirituality. Tagore was keen in spreading his ideologies to the rest of the world and hence embarked on a world tour, lecturing in countries like Japan and the United States. Soon, his works were admired by people of various countries and he eventually became the first non-European to win a Nobel Prize. Apart from Jana Gana Mana (the National Anthem of India), his composition ‘Amar Shonar Bangla’ was adopted as the National Anthem of Bangladesh and the National Anthem of Sri Lanka was inspired by one of his works.
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Childhood and Early Life
Rabindranath Tagore was born on 7th May 1861 to Debendranath Tagore and Sarada Devi in the Jorasanko mansion (the ancestral home of the Tagore family) in Calcutta. He was the youngest son among thirteen children. Though the Tagore family had many members, he was mostly raised by servants and maids as he lost his mother while he was still very young and with his father being an extensive traveler. At a very young age, Rabindranath Tagore was part of the Bengal renaissance, which his family took active participation in. He was also a child prodigy as he started penning down poems at the age of 8. He also started composing art works at a tender age and by the age of sixteen he had started publishing poems under the pseudonym Bhanusimha. He also wrote the short story, ‘Bhikharini’ in 1877 and the poem collection, ‘Sandhya Sangit’ in 1882.
He drew inspiration by reading the classical poetry of Kalidasa and started coming up with classical poems of his own. Some of his other influences and inspirations came from his brothers and sisters. While Dwijendranath, his elder brother, was a poet and philosopher, Satyendranath, another brother of his, was in a highly respectable position. His sister Swarnakumari was a well-known novelist. Tagore was largely home-schooled and was trained by his siblings in the field of gymnastics, martial arts, art, anatomy, literature, history and mathematics among various other subjects. In 1873, he accompanied his father and toured the country for many months. During this journey, he accumulated knowledge on several subjects. His stay at Amritsar paved the way for him to learn about Sikhism, an experience which he would later on use to pen down as many as six poems and many articles on the religion.
Rabindranath Tagore’s traditional education began in Brighton, East Sussex, England, at a public school. He was sent to England in the year 1878 as his father wanted him to become a barrister. He was later joined by some of his relatives like his nephew, niece and sister-in-law in order to support him during his stay in England. Rabindranath had always despised formal education and thus showed no interest in learning from his school. He was later on enrolled at the University College in London, where he was asked to learn law. But he once again dropped out and learned several works of Shakespeare on his own. After learning the essence of English, Irish and Scottish literature and music, he returned to India and married Mrinalini Devi when she was just 10 years old.
Establishment of Santiniketan
Rabindranath’s father had bought a huge stretch of land in Santiniketan. With an idea of establishing an experimental school in his father’s property, he shifted base to Santiniketan in 1901 and founded an ashram there. It was a prayer hall with marble flooring and was named ‘The Mandir.’ The classes there were held under trees and followed the traditional Guru-Shishya method of teaching. Rabindranath Tagore hoped that the revival of this ancient method of teaching would prove beneficial when compared to the modernized method. Unfortunately, his wife and two of his children died during their stay in Santiniketan and this left Rabindranath distraught. In the meantime, his works started growing more and more popular amongst the Bengali as well as the foreign readers. This eventually gained him recognition all over the world and in 1913 Rabindranath Tagore was awarded the prestigious Nobel Prize in Literature, becoming Asia's first Nobel laureate.
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The World Tour
Since Rabindranath Tagore believed in the concept of one world, he set out on a world tour, in an attempt to spread his ideologies. He also took along with him, his translated works, which caught the attention of many legendary poets. He also lectured in countries like the United States and Japan. Soon after, Tagore found himself visiting places like Mexico, Singapore and Rome, where he met national leaders and important personalities including the likes of Einstein and Mussolini. In 1927, he embarked on a Southeast Asian tour and inspired many with his wisdom and literary works. Tagore also used this opportunity to discuss with many world leaders, the issues between Indians and the English. Though his initial aim was to put an end to nationalism, Rabindranath over a period of time realized that nationalism was mightier than his ideology, and hence developed further hatred towards it. By the end of it all, he had visited as many as thirty countries spread over five continents.
During his lifetime, Rabindranath Tagore wrote several poems, novels and short stories. Though he started writing at a very young age, his desire to produce more number of literary works only enhanced post the death of his wife and children. Some of his literary works are mentioned below:
- Short stories – Tagore began to write short stories when he was only a teen. He started his writing career with ‘Bhikharini’. During the initial stage of his career, his stories reflected the surroundings in which he grew. He also made sure to incorporate social issues and problems of the poor man in his stories. He also wrote about the downside of Hindu marriages and several other customs that were part of the country’s tradition back then. Some of his famous short stories include ‘Kabuliwala’, ‘Kshudita Pashan’, ‘Atottju’, ‘Haimanti’ and ‘Musalmanir Golpo’ among many other stories.
- Novels – It is said that among his works, his novels are mostly under-appreciated. One of the reasons for this could be his unique style of narrating a story, which is still difficult to comprehend by contemporary readers, let alone the readers of his time. His works spoke about the impending dangers of nationalism among other relevant social evils. His novel ‘Shesher Kobita’ narrated its story through poems and rhythmic passages of the main protagonist. He also gave a satirical element to it by making his characters take jibes at an outdated poet named Rabindranath Tagore! Other famous novels of his include ‘Noukadubi’, ‘Gora’, ‘Chaturanga’, ‘Ghare Baire’ and ‘Jogajog’.
- Poems – Rabindranath drew inspiration from ancient poets like Kabir and Ramprasad Sen and thus his poetry is often compared to the 15th and 16th Century works of classical poets. By infusing his own style of writing, he made people to take note of not only his works but also the works of ancient Indian poets. Interestingly, he penned down a poem in 1893 and addressed a future poet through his work. He urged the yet to be born poet to remember Tagore and his works while reading the poem. Some of his best works include ‘Balaka’, ‘Purobi’, ‘Sonar Tori’ and ‘Gitanjali’.
Tagore’s Stint as an Actor
Tagore wrote many dramas, based on Indian mythology and contemporary social issues. He began his drama works along with his brother when he was only a teen. When he was 20 years old, he not only did pen the drama ‘Valmiki Pratibha’, but also played the titular character. The drama was based on the legendary dacoit Valmiki, who later reforms and pens down one of the two Indian epics – Ramayana.
Tagore the Artist
Rabindranath Tagore took up drawing and painting when he was around sixty years old. His paintings were displayed at exhibitions organized throughout Europe. The style of Tagore had certain peculiarities in aesthetics and coloring schemes, which distinguished it from those of other artists. He was also influenced by the craftwork of the Malanggan people, belonging to the northern New Ireland. He was also influenced by Haida carvings from the west coast of Canada and woodcuts by Max Pechstein. The National Gallery of Modern Art in New Delhi houses as many as 102 art works of Tagore.
Though Tagore denounced nationalism, he also vouched for the Indian independence through some of his politically charged songs. He also supported Indian nationalists and publicly criticized European imperialism. He also criticized the education system that was forced upon India by the English. In 1915, he received knighthood from the British Crown, which he later renounced citing the massacre held at Jallianwala Bagh. He said that the knighthood meant nothing to him when the British failed to even consider his fellow Indians as humans.
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Adaptations of Tagore’s Works
Many of his novels and short stories were made into films by the renowned filmmaker Satyajit Ray. Other filmmakers too, over the years, have drawn inspiration from his works and have incorporated his stories into their movies. As many as 39 stories of his were made into films by various directors and a few other stories were made into TV series. Some of the recent movie adaptations include ‘Detective’, ‘Postmaster’, ‘Jogajog’, ‘Shesher Kabita’ and ‘Tasher Desh.’
Last Days & Death
Rabindranath Tagore spent the last four years of his life in constant pain and was bogged down by two long bouts of illness. In 1937, he went into a comatose condition, which relapsed after a period of three years. After an extended period of suffering, Tagore died on August 7, 1941 in the same Jorasanko mansion in which he was brought up.
Since Rabindranath Tagore changed the way Bengali literature was viewed, he left an everlasting impression on many. Apart from many of his busts and statues that have been erected in many countries, many yearly events pay tribute to the legendary writer. Many ofhis works were made international, thanks to a host of translations by many famous international writers. There are five museums dedicated to Tagore. While three of them are situated in India, the remaining two are in Bangladesh. The museums house his famous works, and are visited by millions every year.
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The four main principles of Tagore’s educational philosophy are:
(b) Creative self-expression
(c) Active communication with nature and man
To Tagore, freedom means the child’s own experience and activities. For children, he wanted freedom of the kite as it soars in the vast sky. So he was in favour of giving maximum freedom to children to display their emotional outbursts, feelings impulses and instincts.
He wanted education to be natural in content and quality and the function of education is to bring the child’s mind in contact with nature, so that he may learn freely and spontaneously from the book of nature. He advocated that “Education has its only meaning and object in freedom- freedom from ignorance about the laws of universe and freedom from passion and prejudice in our communication with the human world.”
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Tagore was the ardent exponent of freedom for children. He makes it explicit in the following words:
Children have their active sub-conscious mind which, like the tree, has the power to gather its food from the surrounding atmosphere. For them the atmosphere is a great deal more important than rules, and methods, building, appliances, class-teaching and text-book.
I tried to create an atmosphere in my institution, giving it the principle place in our programme of teaching. For atmosphere there must be, for developing the sensitiveness of soul and for affording mind its true freedom of sympathy. Apathy and ignorance are the worst forms of bondage for man; they are the invisible wall of confinement that we carry around us when we are in their grip.
In educational organization our reasoning faculties have to be nourished in order to allow our mind its freedom in the worth of truth, our imagination for world which belongs to art, and our sympathy for the world of human relationship. This last is even more important than learning the geography or foreign lands.
As for the role of the teacher, he stressed higher mental equipment for the teachers:
A most important truth, which we apt to forget, is that a teacher can never truely teach unless he is still learning himself. A lamp can never light another lamp unless it continues to hum its own flame. The teacher who has come to the end of his subject, who has no living traffic with its knowledge, but merely repeat his lesson to his students, can only load their minds, he cannot quicken them. Truth not only must inform but inspire.
Most teachers do not know that in order to teach boys they have to be boys. Unfortunately schoolmasters are obsessed with the consciousness of their dignity as grown up persons and as learned men and therefore, they always try to burden the children with their grown up manners and their learned manners, and the hurts the mind of the students unnecessarily.
I have noticed this fact, that those teachers who pride themselves on being disciplinarians are really born tyrants, as so many men are one of these to give outlet to their inherent lust for their tyranny, they make use of these helpless children and impose on them own code of behaviour.
An immense amount of sympathy and understanding and imagination are needed to bring up human children. They are not produced and trained for some purpose clear of display; they are not dancing bears or monkeys.
Tagore gives a clear picture of an educational institution:
The educational institution, therefore, which I have founded, has primarily for its object the constant pursuit of truth, from which the imparting of truth naturally follows. It must not be a dead cage in which living minds are fed with food artificially prepared. It should be open house, in which students and teachers are at one. They must live their complete life together, dominated by a common aspiration for truth and a need of sharing all the delights of culture.
(b) Creative Self-expression:
Tagore felt that mere intellectual development was not the only function of education because a large part of man cannot find expression in the mere language of words. For the education of whole man, his emotions and senses must also develop along with intellect. Many other languages of lines and colours as well as sounds and movements are essential for the satisfaction of his aesthetic urge and creative self-expression.
This is the only reason why Tagore has given arts, craft, music, drawing and dramatics etc. a prominent place in his scheme of education. He said, “Hand work and arts are the spontaneous overflow of our deeper nature and spiritual significance.” In Shantiniketan, along with academic subjects, he gave an important place to fine arts, crafts, drawing, painting, music, dancing, leather-work etc.
Like Gandhiji, Tagore laid stress on manual work:
“In my opinion we should so far as possible make every pupil in the Ashrama proficient some form or other of manual work. The chief object of this would not be manual training itself; its real value is that through the exercise of physical skill, the mind also is filled with life and energy. They are boys whom we think stupid – in many cases, their slumbering minds waiting for the couch of this golden wand of practical bodily skill.”
(c) Active Communication with Nature and Man:
Tagore insisted that education should be imparted in an atmosphere of nature with all its beauty, colours, sounds, forms and such other manifestations. In his opinion, education, in natural surroundings, develops intimacy with the world and the power of communication with nature. Nature, according to him, was manuscript of God.
So he emphasised that education must enable a person to realise his immediate relationship with nature. It should take the child nearer nature and, therefore, in close proximity of God. It should help him to learn freely and spontaneously from the book of Nature. Since Nature never betrays the heart that loves her, she will provide the child with spontaneous development and natural growth.
Again contact with nature means contact with space outside which leads to being spacious within. Nature leads to expansion of soul. The soul in his limited boundary cannot enter the divine realms. God too wants Royal Receptions. He is the Divine Detective. Hence expansion of the self through communion with nature is essential for spiritual uplift and revelation of divinity.
In his own words, “Whenever the landscape is immense, the sky unlimited, clouds intensely dense, feeling unfathomable, that is the day where infinity is manifest, its companion is one solitary person.” In such an atmosphere will the body and mind of the child pulsate with rhythmic beat of the universe? Nature provided him with play of life, satisfaction of mind and the peace of soul. So Tagore categorically said,
“No, I will never shut the doors of my senses. The delight of sight and hearing and touch will bear Thy Tight.”
Along with this communion with Nature, Tagore advocates the communion of man with man. He believes that man is a social animal and that he has to live in social groups. So he must imbibe social etiquette and practice social virtues like sympathy fellow-feeling and cooperation. He declares. “We should have the gift to be natural with Nature and human with human society.” But Tagore’s humanism goes far beyond the limits of one’s nation and one’s country.
He advocates cordial international relationships through mutual understanding and broad humanism. He preaches the ideal of universalism which teaches man love and respect of mankind, irrespective of different communities, nationalities and religions. He insists on the unity of mankind and internationalism, with a view to bring about a fusion between the western progressive outlook and our ancient ideals under traditions.
Tagore had deep faith in the unity of man. He loved this faith by giving expression to it through Vishwabharti, the international university. Here he expressed his faith in the inter- communication of minds and hearts as the basis for world harmony. According to him, “Vishwabharti acknowledge India’s obligation to offer to others the hospitality of her best culture and India’s right to accept from others their best.” Here East and West could meet in unity, peace and understanding.
Tagore was true cosmopolitan. He believed in unity, in the diversity of races and nations. Each race had something to contribute to the humanity. He found cooperation and cross-fertilisation as necessary for harmonious development of the human race. He dreamt of a world community knit together through diverse educational and cultural forces.
And this was actually in accordance with the Indian ideals. India stands for the brotherhood of mankind. Even the Britishers are our brothers. Had they not come? India would have been deprived of the touch with West. Ours is the goal of building greater India ‘in which Hindu and Muslim and Christian, the dark-skinned and the white-skinned will all find their place.’