Tagore, Rabindranath
(1861–1941)
   poet and writer
   Rabindranath Tagore, one of the great literary fig-ures of the world and a fighter for social reform, was the first modern Indian writer to win a repu-tation around the world. He was the first Asian to win the Nobel Prize in literature.
   Tagore was born May 7, 1861, in the Jorasanko District in Calcutta (Kolkata) in the state of Ben-gal, to the celebrated Hindu reformer Debendra-nath Tagore and Sarada Devi. His father’s father had been a prominent, highly educated business-man and a supporter of the BRAHMO SAMAJ, the Hindu reform sect founded by RAMMOHUN ROY. His father had maintained this affiliation.
   Rabindranath was the youngest of 14 children, all of whom were well educated, including the girls, in keeping with the newly emerging Bengali progressive tradition. Most of the children were educated in both Bengali and English and used their knowledge to publish magazines, write plays, and sponsor the arts; young Rabindranath had rich surroundings to allow his talent to grow.
   In 1878, at the age of 17, Rabindranath went to England for a year to study in an elite public school in Brighton, and then at University Col-lege, London. He did not, however, complete his degree. In 1883, he married Mrinalini Devi, and the couple had two sons and three daughters. By this time he had begun to develop a literary repu-tation based on several Bengali works, including a long poem in the Maithili regional linguistic style originated by Vidyapati, the authorship of which he initially attempted to hide, and the poetry anthology, Sandhya Sangit (Twilight song), which he wrote in 1882. This work includes the famous poem Nirjharer Svapnabhanga (The Cry of the Waterfall).
   In 1890, Tagore began to manage the family estates at Shelaidaha, a riverine region in what is now Bangladesh. There he lived modestly on a houseboat on a tributary of the Padma River. Works of poetry from this period include Sonar Tari (1894), Chitra (1896), and Katha O Kahini (1900). He also began to be known for his essays, plays, and short stories, often set in the local vil-lage and river life.
   In 1901, Tagore moved to Shantiniketan, in west Bengal, where he started a pioneering edu-cational experiment championing the outdoor classroom run in the ancient Indian way with one teacher and a very few students. Today this school is run by the government of India under the name Vishva Bharati. There he wrote Naivedya (1901) and other works. Here, his wife died young and he lost a son and a daughter. His profound grief affected the tone of his work.
   Tagore had developed a large following among Bengali readers; some English translations of his work had been made, but they were not of high quality. At the urging of some of his English admir-ers he started translating some of his own poems in free verse. In 1912, he went to England to read some of these. It was his fortune to be heard at these readings by the celebrated Irish poet Wil-liam Butler Yeats. The English version of Gitanjali (Song Offerings) (1915) was later published by the India Society with an admiring preface by Yeats. In November 1913 Tagore was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature, based on the attention that this translation had drawn.
   His literary fame established at the age of 60, Tagore began to paint and exhibit his paintings in India and Europe. He painted in a wistful mod-ernist style that was as impressive as his literary work. Deeply beloved in his home of Bengal, Tagore is the only person in the world to have composed two national anthems, India’s and Bangladesh’s. His love for his country, India, was well known and he joined others of his generation in doing what he could to contribute to the great struggle for independence. He carried on a cor-Rabindranath Tagore (1861–1941), Bengali poet, educator, and Nobel Prize laureate respondence, too, with Mohandas Karamchand GANDHI and they were mutual admirers.
   As a result of his refined aesthetic sensibili-ties, his love of nature, and his extensive travels in Europe, America, the Middle East, and the Far East, Tagore developed a philosophy of universal brotherhood and cultural exchange. Above all he believed in the immanence of the divinity and the reflection of that divinity in human beings. As a result he is known and read as a philosopher as well as a literary figure. Perhaps because of his openness of spirit, Tagore’s literature and philoso-phy have found an audience in realms far away from the quiet beauty of the Bengal of his time of which he so passionately wrote.
   Further reading: Mohit Cakrabarti, The Philosophy of Education of Rabindranath Tagore: A Critical Evalua-tion (New Delhi: Atlantic and Distributors, 1988); Jose Chunkapura, The God of Rabindranath Tagore: A Study of the Evolution of His Understanding of God (Kolkata: Visva-Bharati, 2002); Vijay Dharwadkar and A. K. Ramanujan, eds., Oxford Anthology of Modern Indian Poetry (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994); Krishna Dutta and Mary Lago, eds., Selected Short Stories of Rabindranath Tagore (London: Macmillan, 1991); Kalyan Sen Gupta, The Philosophy of Rabindra-nath Tagore (Burlington, Vt.: Ashgate, 2005); Uma Das Gupta, Rabindranath Tagore: A Biography (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2004); Vishvanath Naravane, An Introduction to Rabindranath Tagore (Delhi: Macmil-lan Company of India, 1977); Rabindranath Tagore, Collected Poems and Plays of Rabindranath Tagore (New York: Macmillan, 1949); ———, Gitanjali (Song Offer-ings) (London: Macmillan, 1926); ———, The Religions of Man (London: Unwin Books, 1970).

Encyclopedia of Hinduism. . 2007.

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