A Brief Introduction to Rabindranath Tagore

Kanad Mallik

 

Rabindranath Thakur (better known as Tagore) was born in Calcutta on the 8th May, 1861 and died in Calcutta on the 7th August, 1941. He is a towering figure in the millennium-old literature of Bengal. Anyone who becomes familiar with this large and flourishing tradition will be impressed by the power of Tagore’s presence in India and in Bangladesh. The national anthems of both these countries were composed by him. Tagore was a prolific writer and composed about seven thousand poems, songs, short stories, novels, dramas, musicals letters and essays in all. These are very widely read, and the songs he composed reverberate around the eastern part of India and throughout Bangladesh. In his late years, Tagore started painting also and initiated a new style of the art.

Tagore won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1913 for the English version of his collection of Bengali poems, Geetanjali (an offering in songs). His citation read that he was being awarded the prize “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”. The University of Oxford held a special convocation in Calcutta in 1940 to honour him with the Doctor of Letters, honoris causa degree.

Tagore received honours and recognitions from all over the world and is remembered for expressing and analyzing through his extensive literature all possible tenets of human characters and emotions. This is why his work is and will continue to remain relevant to us for times to come. Tagore’s philosophy and writings were extremely important elements in the renaissance of Bengal and India at large in the early twentieth century and shaped the Bengali literature and culture in a modern, progressive mould. He founded a new school in Santiniketan (abode of peace), in West Bengal in 1901 to implement his idea of imparting education in a holistic way. The school flourished into a University called, Visva-Bharati (confluence of the world and India) in 1921. In Tagore’s own words, “Visva-Bharati represents India where she has her wealth of mind which is for all. Visva-Bharati acknowledges India’s obligation to offer to others the hospitality of her best culture and India’s right to accept from others their best.”

 

Most of Tagore’s work was written at Santiniketan the small town that grew around the school he founded, and he not only conceived there an imaginative and innovative system of education, but through his writings and his influence on students and teachers, he was able to use the school as a base from which he could take a major part in India's social, political, and cultural movements. The profoundly original writer, whose elegant prose and magical poetry Bengali readers know well, is not the sermonizing spiritual guru. Tagore was not only an immensely versatile philosopher-poet; he was also a great short story writer, novelist, playwright, essayist, and composer of songs, as well as a talented painter whose pictures, with their mixture of representation and abstraction, are only now beginning to receive the acclaim that they have long deserved. His essays, moreover, ranged over literature, politics, culture, social change, religious beliefs, philosophical analysis, international relations and above all, humanism.

 

Further Reading

1.       Selected Letters of Rabindranath Tagore, edited by Krishna Dutta and Andrew Robinson (Cambridge University Press, 1997). For important background material on Rabindranath Tagore and his reception in the West, please see also the editors' Rabindranath Tagore: The Myriad-Minded Man (St. Martin's Press, 1995), and Rabindranath Tagore: An Anthology (Picador, 1997).

  1. Oxford Tagore Translations (Volumes 1-3): Selected Poems; Selected Writings for Children; Selected Writings on Literature and Language, edited by Sukanta Chaudhuri and Sankha Ghosh, (Oxford University Press, 2004).