One of the finest writers of all time, Rabindranath Tagore (May 7, 1861- August 7, 1941) made his debut as a Bengali writer. The youngest son of Debendranath Tagore, he was educated at home. However, at the age of seventeen, he was sent to England for his formal schooling, but he didn’t complete his studies there.
A prolific poet and writer, Rabindranath Tagore wrote his first poem at the tender age of eight. Since he was a Bengali writer, he wasn’t widely known beyond the boundary of Bengal. It was when his famous collection of poems ‘Gitanjali’ were translated into English that he gained worldwide readership and fame.
This collection was further followed in quick succession by ‘The Gardener’, ‘The Crescent Moon’, ‘Fruit-Gathering’, ‘Stray Birds’, ‘Lover’s Gift and Crossing’ and ‘The Fugitive’.
He was the first Indian Nobel Prize winner in Literature in 1913 for his collection of poems entitled ‘Gitanjali.’ According to the Nobel committee, Tagore was recognized “because of his profoundly sensitive, fresh and beautiful verse, by which, with consummate skill, he has made his poetic thought, expressed in his own English words, a part of the literature of the West.”
Even though he belonged to an upper caste Bengali family, India being under the colonial rule affected everyone. Hence, his works portrayed his sentiments regarding the upheaval that surrounded India from the late nineteenth century onwards. Many of his writings dealt with nationalism and the idea of belonging, such as the novels: ‘Gora’ and ‘Ghare Baire.’
Some of his famous short stories were: ‘The Fruitseller from Kabul’, ‘We Crown thee King’, ‘Detective’, ‘Monihara’ and ‘Aparichitha.’
The only author to combine the terms ‘Brahmin’ and ‘Renaissance Man’, his poetry’s main theme was the joining of man and nature. An example of this is his poem, ‘Stray Birds,’ where the speaker is obsessed with connecting to nature. He asks,
“What language is thine, O Sea?”
His love of nature was profound. For him, freedom meant the broad skies and the spacious and tranquil countryside.
While his poems were visionary and mystic, his short stories were realistic. His stories also revealed the fact that he had great insight into a woman’s heart. Regarding this, Srinivasa Iyengar writes:
“The women in his stories, of course, are splendidly womanly, frail and fair, yet wise and strong; always–or almost always–more sinned against than sinning. Tagore plumbs the depths of the womanly heart, and behind the seeming wiles and the helpless gestures he sees reserves of devotion and sacrifice.”
Other than these, his stories also dealt with the problems of joint family system, passionate or placid love, extramarital ties and social criticism in a broader sense.
Tagore was a man of many talents. He was a philosopher, educationist and also a painter who modernized Bengali art. He was crowned with the Knight Title by the British in the year, 1915, but a nationalist to the core, he gave up his Knighthood to protest against the British policies in Colonial India after the Jallianwala Bagh massacre.
Tagore wrote the National Anthems of India and Bangladesh – ‘Jana Gana Mana’ and ‘Amar Sonar Bangla’ respectively. However, only a few know that the National Anthem of Sri Lanka was based on a Bengali song originally written by Tagore in 1938, which was later translated into Sinhalese and adopted as the National Anthem of Sri Lanka in 1951.
Remarkably, Tagore was also friends with Mahatma Gandhi and Albert Einstein. It was also Tagore who conferred the title of ‘Mahatma’ to Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi in 1915. However, although he was an admirer of Gandhi, Tagore did not agree with him on all issues. With Einstein, he shared the pursuit of truth and love of music.
In his book ‘Raga Mala’, the great musician, Ravi Shankar argues that had Rabindranath Tagore ‘been born in the West he would now be [as] revered as Shakespeare and Goethe.”
He has a lot of other achievements to his name. In 1930, his paintings were exhibited in Paris and London. He was also the co-founder of Dartington Hall School in Japan. The Government of West Bengal, India and many other private firms showed respect to Rabindranath Tagore by opening various Institutions, Health and Seva Centers in his name worldwide.