Born: 7 May 1861, Kolkata, India
Died: 7 August 1941, Kolkata, India
Tagore was a polymath, poet, musician, and artist. He is credited with reshaping Bengali literature and Indian art with Contextual Modernism in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In 1913 he was the first non-European to win the Nobel Prize in Literature. A Brahmo Hindu with ancestry in Burdwan and Jessore, he began writing poet at eight years old. At sixteen, Tagore released his first substantial poems under the pen-name of Bhānusiṃha. He had graduated to short stories and dramas using his real name by 1877. Tagore was a humanist, universalist, internationalist, and an anti-nationalist, denouncing the British raj and advocating Indian independence from Britain.
The origin of the surname Tagore is Kushari, and they were Rarhi Brahmins and originally came from a village named Kush in the district of Burdwan, West Bengal. The youngest of thirteen children was born in the Jorasanko mansion in Calcutta. His mother died in his early childhood and his father travelled widely leaving Tagore to be raised mainly by servants. The Tagore family was at the forefront of the Bengal renaissance and hosted the publication of literary magazines, theatre, and recitals of Bengali and Western classical music.
Largely avoiding classroom schooling Tagore was tutored in drawing, anatomy, history, literature, geography, Sanskrit, mathematics and English by his brother. Tagore loathed formal education, his study at a local college spanned a single day. After his upanayana at age eleven, Tagore left Calcutta with his father in 1873 to tour India. He visited his father’s estate in Santiniketan and Amritsar before reaching Dalhousie the Himalayan hill station. It was here he studied history astronomy, science, and Sanskrit. During his stay at Amritsar Tagore was greatly influenced by the gurbani and nanak bani being sung at the Golden Temple.
Debendranath wanted his son to become a barrister, so enrolled Tagore at a public schooli in Brighton, East Sussex, England in 1878. He stayed for several months at house the Tagore family owned in Medina Villas, near Brighton and Hove. Tagore briefly read law at University College London, but left, opting to study Shakespeare’s plays Coriolanus an Anthony and Cleopatra, and Religio Medici of Thomas Browne. In 1880 he returned to Bengal without a degree resolving to reconcile European novelty with Brahmo traditions. He regularly published poems, novels, and stories and married in 1883.
Tagore began managing his ancestral estates, located in Shelaidaha, in 1890, his wife and children joined him in 1898. He released his best known work, his Manasi poems, in 1890. As Zamindar Babu, Tagore criss-crossed the Padma River in the luxurious family barge, the Padma. Blessing villagers and collecting token rents he was often honoured with banquets. It was during the period of 1891 – 1895 that Tagore was most productive, writing more than half the stories of the three volume Galpaguchchha, a collection of ironic and grave stories of an idealized rural Bengal.
Tagore moved to Santiniketan to found the Mandir, an ashram with a marble-floored prayer hall, am experimental school, gardens, and a library. Whilst there his wife and two of his children died and his father died in 1905. As part of his inheritance he received monthly payments from his father’s estate and from the Maharaja of Tripura, his royalties from his books were a derisive 2000 rupees. As he gained a Bengali and foreign readership he published Naivedya in 1901 and Kheya in 1906.
Tagore learned he had won the 1913 Nobel Prize in Literature and in 1915 he was awarded a knighthood by King George V’s Birthday Honours. Tagore renounced it after the 1919 Jallianwala Bagh massacre. In 1919, Tagore was invited to visit Sylhet for the first time by Syed Abdul Majid, chairman of Anjuman-e-Islamia. The event attracted over 5000 people.
Tagore and the agricultural economist Leonard Elmhirst set up the Institute for Rural Reconstruction, later renamed Shriniketon in a village near the ashram in 1921. Tagore intended to moderate Gandhi’s Swaraj protests with it, as he blames the protests for British India’s mental and colonial decline. He sought support and aid from sources worldwide to free the villages from the shackles of both helplessness and ignorance. This phase of Tagore’s life is referred to one of a peripatetic litterateur, affirming Tagore’s belief that human divisions were shallow. To the end he scrutinised orthodoxy – and in 1934 an earthquake hit Bihar killing thousands. Gandhi hailed it as a seismic karma or divine retribution, Tagore rebuked him for his seemingly ignominious implications. He mourned the perennial poverty of Calcutta and the socioeconomic decline of Bengal in an unrhymed hundred-line poem.
In his last years Tagore’s remit expanded to science, as hinted in his 1937 collection of essays, Visva-Parichay. His respect for science, scientific laws, and his exploration of biology, physics, and astronomy influenced his poetry, exhibiting extensive naturalism and credibility. His last five years were blotted by chronic pain and two elongated periods of illness, commencing in 1937 when Tagore lost consciousness and was near death for a time. In late 1940 he suffered a similar spell of illness from which he never recovered. A prolonged period of agony ended in the poet’s death in 1941.
Day by day I float my paper boats one by one down the running
In big black letters I write my name on them and the name of
the village where I live.
I hope that someone in some strange land will find them and
know who I am.
I load my little boats with shiuli flower from our garden, and
hope that these blooms of the dawn will be carried safely to land
in the night.
I launch my paper boats and look up into the sky and see the
little clouds setting thee white bulging sails.
I know not what playmate of mine in the sky sends them down
the air to race with my boats!
When night comes I bury my face in my arms and dream that my
paper boats float on and on under the midnight stars.
The fairies of sleep are sailing in them, and the lading ins
their baskets full of dreams