“I slept and dreamt that life was joy.
I awoke and saw that life was service.
I acted and behold, service was joy.”
― Rabindranath Tagore
Rabindranath Tagore (7 May 1861 – 7 August 1941) was an Indian Bengali polymath. Tagore, fondly known as Rabi Thakur, was a philosopher, writer, poet and Asia’s first Nobel Prize winner. His poetry pioneered the usage of colloquial Bengali (1861-1941). He was presented the Nobel Prize for literature in 1913 for his poetry collection Gitanjali.
Although most renowned for his poetry, Tagore was an artistic genius who played an important role in the cultural renaissance of India, especially Bengal in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. His creative pursuits saw no bounds during this period and he tremendously flourished in the fields of literature, theatre, art, and music. He also played a great role as an education reformer.
Tagore was born at No. 6 Dwarkanath Tagore Lane, Jorasanko in the Jorasanko mansion in Kolkata. He was the youngest of thirteen surviving children of Debendranath Tagore (1817–1905) and Sarada Devi (1830–1875). His father, Debendranath, was one of the leaders of Brahmo Samaj, a religious sect which sprung in 19th century Bengal. Brahmo Samaj gradually brought resurgence of the ultimate monistic basis of Hinduism as mentioned in the Upanishads.
Although Debendranath belonged to an extremely affluent family, he was fundamentally spiritual in nature. All his children, including Rabindranath, like their father, placed religion and spirituality as the foremost priority in life. In his childhood, Tagore lost his mother and was raised by his elder siblings and servants in the family.
Education and Self-Learning
Being incredibly creative and spiritual, Tagore somehow just couldn’t relate himself to classroom schooling. He rather earned his education by roaming around mansions and idylls in Santiniketan, Bolpur and adjoining areas where he spent days at his father’s estate. At the tender age of twelve, Tagore set off on a tour along with his father and began exploring his nation as he could not understand any other means of acquiring knowledge and wisdom but through geographic expedition.
Simultaneously, Tagore nurtured an ardent love for reading at a very early age. He gained his home education in Upanishads, languages, history, astronomy, modern science, and Sanskrit. Being an instinctive poet, Tagore minutely examined the classical poetry of Kalidasa and to the surprise of all, he wrote his first poem at the age of six.
However, as a prospective barrister, Tagore enrolled at a public school in Brighton, East Sussex, England, in 1878 at the age of seventeen. He read law at University College London, but left school to explore music, poetries, languages and other creative genres of the western nations. During his stay in the foreign land he canvassed Shakespeare from Religio Medici, Coriolanus, to Antony and Cleopatra. He also learnt about other poets and dramatists of contemporary and earlier centuries. Haunted by creative pastures in life, Tagore, in 1880, unsurprisingly returned to India without completing his Law degree.
Tagore got married to Mrinalini Devi (1873–1902) on 9th December 1883. Mrinalini Devi belonged to Bhabatarini; she bore five children; unfortunately, two of them died in their childhood.
When Tagore grew up into a responsible young man, he completely engrossed himself in various literary activities. However, a life changing event occurred to him when he was given the management of his family estate at Shantiniketan. Through this project, he came closer to humanity and henceforth started getting involved in various social reforms. At Shantiniketan, he started off an experimental school to promote and impart Upanishadic ideals amongst the young students.
Tagore was an active participant of Indian nationalist movement. Yet, his approach towards the freedom movement was non-sentimental and impartial. He was also a devoted friend of Mahatma Gandhi, the political father of modern India.
Owing to his nobility, Tagore was awarded the Knighthood in 1915 by the ruling British Government. But, within a few years, he voluntarily resigned the honor as his protest against British policies in India, especially the Amritsar-massacre episode.
In 1901, Tagore left Shilaidaha – a country house made by Dwarkanath Tagore in Kumarkhali Upazila of Kushtia District in Bangladesh. Tagore then moved to Santiniketan where his heart and soul belonged. The Santiniketan estate – amidst groves of trees and gardens – gradually developed into a ‘Mandir’ (a marble-floored prayer hall), an experimental school and a resourceful library. Tagore was also emotionally attached to Santiniketan as there he lost his beloved wife, two sons and father.
In 1921, Tagore, along with the great agricultural economist Leonard Elmhirst, founded the Institute for Rural Reconstruction, later renamed Shriniketan, meaning ‘Abode of Peace’. He established the Institute at Surul, near the Santiniketan ashram.
The Institute for Rural Reconstruction was Tagore’s answer to Gandhiji’s symbolic Swaraj protests. Tagore greatly despised self-satisfying protests and sought aid from donors worldwide to free India from the shackles of ignorance by vitalizing knowledge.
In the early 1930s, he initiated his fight against India’s weird caste consciousness and untouchability. He taught people to take stand against cultural and religious inequality. He penned the stories of untouchable heroes in his poems and plays. His campaign for this noble cause led to the opening of Guruvayoor Temple for Dalits.
Today, Tagore’s vision stands as a Central Indian University, named as Visva-Bharati University, which attracts thousands of students, scholars and erudite visitors each year. Though formally set up as a School and University, Tagore’s poems, music and literary classics echo from every nook and corner of this spiritual abode, even today.
Rabindranath Tagore was one of the foremost cultural figures of India. He was acclaimed for sharing his thoughts on India’s social and cultural reforms. Tagore, however, personally abstained from directly intervening in India’s politics. His relationship with Gandhiji was also quite complex in nature.
On one hand, Tagore fended for India’s independent movement and endlessly fought against casteism and untouchability. While on the other, Tagore didn’t always abide by the opinions and protest methods of Gandhiji. Tagore vehemently opposed Gandhiji’s Swaraj Movement and dubbed it as ‘cult of the chakra’. Despite his tumultuous relations with Gandhi, Tagore was keen on resolving a Gandhi-Ambedkar dispute involving separate electorates for untouchables. The two remained devoted friends for life. When Gandhiji went on ‘fast unto death’ over the long pending issue of Harijans, Tagore persuaded him to give up the fast for his and everyone’s sake.
Thus, Tagore was opposed to India’s foreign policy, whilst he fully supported Indian patriots in freedom struggle, till the end. His political stand was also criticized by many. As the consequence of this, in the year 1916, when he was at San Francisco, he narrowly escaped assassination, planned by some Indian expatriates.
Yet, Tagore wrote songs celebrating the Indian nationalist movement. Two of Tagore’s more politically charged symphonies, ‘Chitto Jetha Bhayshunyo’ (‘Where the Mind is Without Fear’) and ‘Ekla Chalo Re’ (‘If They Answer Not to Thy Call, Walk Alone’), gained mass appeal, with the latter favored by Gandhi.
Twilight years (1932–1941)
Till the end, Tagore maintained his stand against orthodoxy. He reproached Gandhi for announcing that a massive earthquake struck in Bihar on 15 January 1934—leaving thousands dead and many other homeless—was divine retribution induced by the subjugation of Dalits.
He grieved the endemic poverty of Kolkata and the accelerating socio economic decay of West Bengal and detailed this picture in an unrhymed hundred line poem. This approach and technique of portraying grief via creativity inspired the later years filmmakers like Satyajit Ray who captured the wretched social conditions of West Bengal with a silver lining in his famous ‘Apu Triology’ – ‘Pather Panchali’, ‘Aparajito’, and ‘Apur Sansar’
The last four years of his life were marked by chronic pain and two long periods of illness. At first he lost consciousness in late 1937 and remained comatose or near death for a prolonged time. A similar spell followed again after three years i.e. during late 1940, but unfortunately he never recovered this time. Tagore died on 7 August 1941 in his room at Jorasanko mansion, his ancestral palatial house where he was raised.
Tagore as a Writer and a Poet
Tagore had early success as a writer in his native Bengal. With his translations of some of his poems he became rapidly known in the West. In fact, his fame attained a luminous height, taking him across continents on lecture tours and tours of friendship. For the world he became the voice of India’s spiritual heritage; and for India, especially for Bengal, he became a great living institution.
Although Tagore wrote successfully in all literary genres, he was most renowned as a poet. He got the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1913.
Tagore was held in high regard by fellow Bengalis and Indians and in 1950 his song ‘Jana Gana Mana’ was adopted as India’s national anthem.
Among his fifty odd volumes of poetry, few are as follows –
- Manasi (The Ideal One) 1890
- Sonar Tari (The Golden Boat) 1894
- Gitanjali (Song Offerings) 1910
- Gitimalya (Wreath of Songs) 1914
- Balaka (The Flight of Cranes) 1916
- The Gardener (1913)
- Fruit-Gathering (1916)
- The Fugitive (1921)
- In spite of its title, Gitanjali: Song Offerings (1912), the most acclaimed of them, contains poems from other works besides its namesake.
- Valmiki Pratibha (The Genius of Valmiki) 1881
- Visarjan (The Sacrifice) 1890
- Raja (The King of the Dark Chamber) 1910
- Dakghar (The Post Office) 1912
- Achalayatan (The Immovable) 1912
- Muktadhara (The Waterfall) 1922
- Raktakaravi (Red Oleanders) 1926
Short stories and novels
- Nastanirh (The Broken Nest) 1901
- Jivansmriti (My Reminiscences) 1912
- Ghare-Baire (The Home and the World) 1916
- Yogayog (Crosscurrents) 1929
- Chhelebela (My Boyhood Days) 1940
- Thought Relics 1921
- Chitra 1914
- Creative Unity 1922
- The Crescent Moon 1913
- Fireflies 1928
- Fruit Gathering 1916
- The Fugitive 1921
- The Gardener 1913
- Gitanjali: Song Offerings 1912
- Glimpses of Bengal 1991
- The Home and the World 1985
- The Hungry Stones and other stories 1916
- I Won’t Let you Go: Selected Poems 1991
- The Lover of God 2003
- My Boyhood Days 1943
- My Reminiscences 1991
- Nationalism 1991
- The Post Office 1914
- Sadhana: The Realization of Life 1913
- Selected Letters 1997
- Selected Poems 1994
- Selected Short Stories 1991
Rabindra Sangeet (Tagore’s Songs)
Rabindra Sangeet – The songs of Rabindranath Tagore are better known as Rabindra Sangeet amongst his enthusiasts. There are approximately 2500 Bengali songs connecting and expressing every gamut of human emotion and insight in the best possible manner. Tagore’s unparalleled philosophical depth is expressed in this collection of Bengali songs of all time.
Rabindra Sangeet has cut across international barriers and today we have many national and international scholars conducting research on Tagore works.
Honestly, the English version of any Rabindra Sangeet can best explain the gist of the song but, its musical co-ordination and its authentic poetry and intimacy will be unfortunately missing out in such a translation. To do away with this inconvenience many International scholars have opted learning Bengali in the first place alongside their research on Tagore works.
Hence for the non-Bengalis interested in exploring the songs, it is best advised to listen to the Bengali (original) version of the Rabindra Sangeet along with the subtitles to feel the dexterity associated with them.
Best Patriotic and Spiritual Rabindra Sangeet
- Amar Shonar Bangla
- Chitto Jetha Bhayshunyo
- Ekla Chalo Re
- Jana Gana Mana
- Amol Dhabol
- Sarba Kharba
- Nishi Din Bhorsha
- Aguner Parasmoni
- Oder Badhon
- Diner Shese
- Nai Nai
- Amar Desher
- Sarthak Janam
Best Romantic Rabindra Sangeet
- Kharo bayu boi bege
- Ami chini go chini
- Je raatey mor duaarguli
- Bhalobashi bhalobashi
- Akash bhora shurjo tara
- Ei kathati money rekho
- Purano shei diner katha
- Pagla hawa badal diney
- Tomar holo shuru / Chhoonkar mere manko
- Amaro Purano Jaha Chai
- Tobu Mone Rekho
Besides these, he wrote musical dramas, dance dramas, essays of all types, travel diaries, and two autobiographies, one in his middle years and the other shortly before his death in 1941.
Tagore also left numerous drawings and paintings, and songs for which he wrote the music himself.
Internationally, Gitanjali (গীতাঞ্জলি) is Tagore’s best-known collection, winning him his Nobel Prize. Song VII (গীতাঞ্জলি 127) of Gitanjali:
Klanti amar khôma kôro, probhu
Pôthe jodi pichhie poŗi kobhu
Ei je hia thôro thôro kãpe aji êmontôro,
Ei bedona khôma kôro, khôma kôro probhu.
Ei dinota khôma kôro, probhu,
Pichhon-pane takai Jodi kobhu.
Diner tape roudrojalae shukae mala pujar thalae,
Shei mlanota khôma kôro, khôma kôro, probhu.
The danger inherent in all force grows stronger when it is likely to gain success, for then it becomes temptation.
Our fight is a spiritual fight, it is for Man.
I say again and again that I am a poet, that I am not a fighter by nature. I would give everything to be one with my surroundings. I love my fellow beings and I prize their love.
Creation is an endless activity of God’s freedom; it is an end in itself.
Freedom is true when it is a revelation of truth.
India has ever declared that Unity is Truth, and separateness is maya.
I believe in the true meeting of the East and the West.