Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941), Nobel prize-winning Bengali poet, author, songwriter, philosopher, artist, and educator wrote “Gitanjali” (1912);
Pluck this little flower and take it, delay not! I fear lest it droop and drop into the dust.
I may not find a place in thy garland, but honour it with a touch
of pain from thy hand and pluck it. I fear lest the day end
before I am aware, and the time of offering go by.
Though its colour be not deep and its smell be faint, use this
flower in thy service and pluck it while there is time.
First published in 1910, Tagore’s collection Gitanjali [Song Offerings] of mystical and devotional songs was translated to English in 1912. It would be the first of many volumes that earned him much acclaim in the East and West. It includes an Introduction by fellow Nobel prize-winning poet William Butler Yeats; These lyrics...which are in the original, my Indians tell me, full of subtlety of rhythm, of untranslatable delicacies of colour, of metrical invention—display in their thought a world I have dreamed of all my live long. Some written in colloquial language and many with themes of naturalism, mysticism and philosophical insight, only a fraction of Tagore’s works have been translated to other languages. There are varying interpretations from one to the next by different translators although Tagore himself translated many.
A humanitarian and social and religious reformer, Tagore came to dislike the British Raj ruling over his people although he was caught between their culture and that of his own peoples’. As a patriot, he composed the music and lyrics for India’s national anthem “Jana-Gana-Mana” [Thou Art the Ruler of All Minds] and when Bangladesh became independent in 1971 they chose Tagore’s song “Amar Sonar Bangla” [My Golden Bengal] as its national anthem. With his flowing white beard, robes and riveting brown eyes, the famous polymath is fondly remembered and esteemed for his hundreds of poems and songs popularly known as Rabindrasangeet; his vast collection of paintings and drawings; and the various dramas, novels, essays, operas, short stories, travel diaries, correspondence, and autobiographies that he wrote. Tagore’s life and works have made him a cultural icon, studied the world over even into the 21st Century.
Rabindranath Tagore was born on 7 May 1861 in Jorasanko (Tagore House), Calcutta, India. He was the fourteenth child born to Debendranath Tagore (1817-1905) and Sarada Devi (d.1875). Tagore’s grandfather Dwarkanath Tagore (1794-1846) was a social reformer and wealthy landowner. The Tagores were a progressive family, their home a hub of social activity and culture; they often hosted theatrical and musical performances in their mansion. Many of the Tagore children became respected authors, poets, musicians, and Civil Servants. Devendranath traveled widely during his career and was a proponent of the Brahma Samaj faith, a social and religious movement also known as the Bengal Renaissance; Rabindranath too would embrace its philosophy.
Although there were times spent swimming in the Ganges River and hiking, Tagore’s childhood days were mostly confined to the family estate under the watchful eye of, sometimes abusive, servants. He rarely saw his father and his mother died when he was thirteen. After failing to flourish in the conventional school system, Rabindranath obtained his early education with tutors at home where he studied a wide array of subjects including; art, history, science, mathematics, Bengali, Sanskrit, and English, Hindu Scriptures Upanishads, Romantic poetry like that of Percy Bysshe Shelley and classical poetry, notably that of Kālidāsa (c.1st century BCE-5th Century CE).
At a very early age Tagore was writing his own poetry. Some poems were published anonymously or under his pen name “Bhanusingha” [Sun Lion], but he was soon a regular contributor to various magazines including Balaka and Bharati. His first collection Kabi Kahini [Tale of a Poet] was published in 1878. He also started writing short stories including his first: “Bhikharini”(1877) [The Beggar Woman]. Tagore would travel and lecture extensively to parts of Asia, Europe, North and South America during his lifetime—his first trip at the age of thirteen was with his father to various parts of India. Then, with the intent to become a barrister, he was off to England to attend the University College in London from 1878-1880, although he did not finish his degree. He wrote one of his most famous poems during these years: “Nirjharer Swapnabhanga” (1882) [The Fountain Awakened from its Dream];
I shall rush from peak to peak,
I shall sweep from mount to mount,
With peals of laughter and songs of murmur
I shall clap to tune and rhythm.
At the age of twenty-two, on 9 December 1883, Tagore married Bhabatarini (later known as Mrinalini) Devi (1873-1902), with whom he would have five children; daughters Madhurilata (1886-1918), Rathindra (b.1888), Renuka (1890-1904), Mira (b.1892), and son Samindranath (1894-1907). In 1890 Tagore moved to the vast family estate in Shilaidaha, a region now part of Bangladesh. His wife and children joined him in 1898. He traveled by barge throughout the rural region among the Padma River’s sandy estuaries, collecting rents from the tenants and learning the villagers ways, charmed by their pastoral life working the rice fields, watching the fishermen with their nets, visiting school children, and attending feasts in his honour. He gained much inspiration from the people and the landscape and it became a prolific period of writing for him, works including Chitra: A Play in One Act (1896), Manasi (poetry, 1890) [The Ideal One], and Sonar Tari (poetry, 1894) [The Golden Boat].
The next period of Tagore’s life involved his founding of the school Shantiniketan (now known as Visva-Bharati University) in 1901, on part of the family estate lands near Bolpur, West Bengal. An experimental school, Tagore based it on the ashrama model with pioneering emphasis on learning in a harmonious and natural setting. He felt that a well-rounded education using all the five senses and not relying on memorising by rote was the better way to teach children. It is now a prestigious open air University, a universal meeting place for East and West. It claims many notable figures among its alumni including Indira Gandhi. Mahatma Gandhi adopted many of it ways of teaching. When Tagore’s wife died just one year after its founding he wrote the poems in Smaran [In Memoriam]. Other works written or published during this period were; Katha O Kahini (1900) [Tales and Stories], Naivedya (poetry, 1901), Kheya (poetry, 1906), Raja (play, 1910) [The King of the Dark Chamber], Dak-ghar (1912) [The Post Office], The Crescent Moon (1913), Gitimalya (1914) [Wreath of Songs], Songs of Kabîr (1915), Stray Birds (1916), Sadhana: The Realisation of Life (1916), and Balaka (1916) [The Flight of Cranes], and the poems “Fruit-Gathering” (1916), “The Fugitive” (1921) and “The Gardener” (1915);
One morning in the flower garden a blind girl came to offer me a
flower chain in the cover of a lotus leaf.
I put it round my neck, and tears came to my eyes.
I kissed her and said, “You are blind even as the flowers are.
You yourself know not how beautiful is your gift.”
Tagore’s novel Ghare-Baire (1915) [The Home and the World], Mother, today there comes back to mind….those wonderful eyes of yours…They came at the start of my life’s journey….giving me golden provision to carry me on my way…. inspired an adaptation to the screen in 1984. Glimpses of Bengal: Selected from the Letters of Sir Rabindranath Tagore (1885-1895) was published in 1920.
Now with a loyal following in his own country, Tagore traveled to the United States and England to speak of his work at Santiniketan. He also brought some English translations into prose of his songs in Gitanjali, which was soon read by many fellow authors including Ezra Pound, Ernest Rhys and Yeats. After it earned him the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1913 because of his profoundly sensitive, fresh and beautiful verse….he has made his poetic thought….a part of the literature of the West…. he was invited to numerous North American and European cities, thereby embarking on a lengthy tour to give readings and lectures on various topics. He met many other illustrious figures of the day including Albert Einstein, Robert Frost, Thomas Mann, H.G. Wells, and Mahatma Gandhi. In 1915 he was bestowed a knighthood by the British Crown, though he renounced it in 1919 due to the Jallianwala Bagh Massacre in which hundreds of innocent men, women, and children were killed by soldiers of the British Indian Army. It was one of many political statements Tagore made during his lifetime.
In 1921 Tagore and agricultural economist Leonard Elmhirst founded the Institute for Rural Reconstruction, “Shriniketan” [Abode of Peace], near Santiniketan. Much of his time was taken with its organisation, but he also continued to travel extensively and maintain his prodigious output of writings. In 1937 he was stricken by a lengthy illness, becoming comatose at times, and never fully recovered. However he did manage to keep writing during these last five years of his life, during which he suffered much; many have said he produced his finest work then. Rabindranath Tagore died on 7 August 1941 at the family estate Jorasanko, where he had been born.
All the great utterances of man have to be judged not by the letter but by the spirit—the spirit which unfolds itself with the growth of life in history. Sadhana: The Realisation of Life (1916)
Biography written by C.D. Merriman for Jalic Inc. Copyright Jalic Inc. 2006. All Rights Reserved.
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