Selected products from Rabindranath Tagore
Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941) is an Indian poet, playwright, novelist, composer, painter and a national icon of his country. His profuse literary production ranges from collections of poems such as Manasi (1890), Gitanjali (1910) and Patraput (1936) to drama such as Visarjan (1890), Raja (1910), Muktadhara (1922) and Chandalika (1938) and even numerous musical compositions and songs. In addition, Tagore’s publications include a number of novels and several volumes of short stories including his widely appreciated Gora (1910) along with Chaturanga (1916) and Ghare-Baire (1916). The latter is one of his many works that were adapted to cinema.
Born in Calcutta, India, to a well-off family, Rabindranath Tagore was raised and educated mainly by servants. His father Devendranath Tagore is a saint and a religious leader of the Adi Dham faith and the Brahmo sect founded by the family’s patriarchs. Young Rabindranath Tagore’s home was animated by discussions of literary publications, arts, theatrical performances and classical music where most of his 14 siblings were much interested in arts, poetry, music, philosophy and theatre, such as his older sister, Swarnakumari Devi, the renowned Indian novelist, poet and musician.
In addition to such a supportive environment for artistic appreciation and creativity, Tagore’s father made him discover language, literature, history and poetry, taking him for long journeys around the country. In 1873, they both left home for the hill station at Dalhousie. Named after the British Governor-General Lord Dalhousie who used to visit it during his summer holidays, the station is surrounded by captivating green hills and heaven-like vistas. During the months spent there, Tagore must have found in the station’s assortments of Hindu art and temples, along with the European architecture of its summer residences, a magnificent blending of East and West.
Readers of Tagore’s poetry, novels and short stories, such as “The Fruitseller from Kabul,” to name but a sample, can surely detect in their imagery and emotional outlets the influence of Dalhousie’s breath-taking sceneries and verdure. Tagore’s journey with his father was mainly meant to be a necessary stage towards intellectual and moral maturity and individuation. The lessons that the father transmitted to the son in such an inspirational spot were not only meant to be informational lessons but also spiritual ones. Indeed, being a very respected spiritual figure who wished to hand on the torch to younger disciples, Tagore’s father inculcated in him mystical yearnings for spiritual knowledge and existential meaning.
It is, however, noteworthy that despite his conspicuous lust for knowledge, Tagore hated the “yoke” of formal education and thought that classroom teaching could only muffle young people’s innate and instinctive thirst for discovery and adventure. The two long journeys that he had with his father only reinforced this attitude as they helped nourish his love for nature and the divine. Helped by his father, his brother Hemendranath and the house servants, Tagore studied language, literature, mathematics, geography and history and practiced different sports at home and in the family’s manor. When his father sent him to London to study law in 1878, he quickly left University College London and chose to study language, literature and music by himself. Two years later, he travelled back to India without getting the formal degree he was sent for.
Tagore expressed in many an occasion his belief that teaching should arouse curiosity rather than be informative and he strove to put his ideas into practice particularly by founding the Visva-Bharati school, which has now become the Visva-Bharati University, where he established the “brahmacharya” educational system. The main characteristic of Tagore’s educational conception was to have teachers incite their students to discover and learn through employing intellectual and spiritual motivational strategies.
As for his writings, Tagore was a genuine prodigy who started weaving his earliest verses by the age of eight in the family’s Calcutta residence. A few years later, he pseudonymously published his first collection of poems which was an astounding success to the point that local critics thought the compilation to belong to the 17th-century poet Bhanusimha. He soon shifted to writing short stories and plays to achieve considerable fame in the region. While all his writings were in his native Bengali language, he eventually decided to address Western readers by translating some of his own works into English.
The English versions of his poetic works such as Manasi (1890), Gitimalya (1914) and mainly what is today considered in the West as his magnum opus, Gitanjali (1910), quickly gained ground among Western literary circles. Such works were read, reviewed and prefaced by leading literary figures of the time like William Butler Yeats and Ezra Pound. Tagore soon became an oriental icon who stands for India’s literary, spiritual and cultural heritage. In 1913, the relatively small part of his works discovered by the West earned him the Nobel Prize in Literature. In 1915, he was also knighted by the British Crown for his literary achievements.
Once famous in the West, Tagore toured Britain and the United States and lectured in many other European and non-European countries to meet and interact with important celebrities around the world including the celebrated German-born physicist Albert Einstein, Thomas Mann, George Bernard Shaw and H.G. Wells, among many others.
Politically, while Tagore’s commitment manifested in his harsh criticism of nationalist extremism and in his avant-garde and reformatory positions at home, he denounced imperialism and advocated universalism and internationalism in the world. In India, he was known for his rejection of the culture of victimhood and for inciting his countrymen to have the courage of assuming the responsibilities of their misfortunes. He saw that salvation could only be realized through education and self-help. In addition to that, Tagore was also socially active in his homeland, supporting students and the poor. As for foreign affairs, Tagore denounced British colonialism and even renounced the honor previously granted by the British Crown in protest against the 1919 Jallianwala Bagh massacre.
Such political views were explicitly expressed in some of Tagore’s writings and musical compositions, two of which were chosen by India and Bangladesh as national anthems. His friend Mahatma Gandhi, the celebrated leader of the Indian nationalist movement, expressed his appreciation of these compositions and was said to favor the “Ekla Chalo Re” hymn.
Towards the twilight of his career, Tagore developed new interests, mainly in arts, paintings and sciences. This is mainly expressed in stories like Se (1937) and Tin Sangi (1940) as well as in his collection of essays entitled Visva-Parichay (1937) which represents a literary man’s exploration of the fields of astronomy, physics and biology. He even took up drawing and painting at a late age and organized exhibitions of his works in Paris and other cities.
Towards the end of the 1930s, old Rabindranath Tagore’s health started to deteriorate until he died on August 7th, 1941, leaving a gigantic oeuvre of numerous volumes of fine poetry, hundreds of texts, short stories, novels, plays, paintings, doodles, more than two thousand songs, two autobiographies and numerous travelogues, essays and lectures.
Tagore’s life experience had taught him that divisions between human beings are nothing but an unpleasant mirage. Generally, his oeuvre invites and incites its readers to the exploration of the Other, the exploration of the Self. The following extract from his masterpiece Gitanjali may serve as a perfect illustration of Tagore’s philosophical vision:
The time that my journey takes is long and the way of it long.
I came out on the chariot of the first gleam of light, and pursued my voyage through the wildernesses of worlds leaving my track on many a star and planet.
It is the most distant course that comes nearest to thyself, and that training is the most intricate which leads to the utter simplicity of a tune.
The traveller has to knock at every alien door to come to his own, and one has to wander through all the outer worlds to reach the innermost shrine at the end.
My eyes strayed far and wide before I shut them and said 'Here art thou!'
The question and the cry ‘Oh, where?’ melt into tears of a thousand streams and deluge the world with the flood of the assurance ‘I am!’ (Song XII)