A nineteenth and twentieth-century writer of poetry, plays, novels and songs whom won the Nobel Prize for Literature and was knighted by King George V. He wrote the national anthem of Bangladesh. Yes, we are talking about Rabindranath Tagore.
Rabindranath Tagore was the most versatile personality of Bangla literature. He was not only a great poet but also a prose writing, composer, painter, essayist, philosopher, educationist, and social reformer. He wrote in Bengali as well as in English.
The Tagore household: a mixed cultural atmosphere
Rabindranath Tagore was born on 7 May 1861 at Jorashanko in Kolkata. He went to different prestigious schools including Oriental seminary, Normal School, and St Xavier’s School.
However, young Rabindranath did not like the monotonous rules and regulations of school life and he left school when he was about fourteen. He learned his lessons at home. Different tutors taught him physics, math’s, history, geography, music, art, wrestling, gymnastics, the sciences, Sanskrit, literature, and English.
At the same time, Rabindranath’s family, best known as Tagore, organized literary gatherings. Bidvajjan Samagam, to which prominent writers, journalists, and thinkers of the time were invited.
The Tagore household has a mixed cultural atmosphere where ancient Indian Vedic literature and Sanskrit were studied alongside modern European literature. In general, Rabindranath was brought up in a very liberal and culturally minded family.
In addition, this family had made great contributions in the emergence of the ‘Bengal renaissance” which attempted to combine traditional Indian culture with Western ideas.
A nice description of Rabindranath’s home atmosphere and upbringing could be found in his autobiographical sketch, Amar Chelevela.
An early start of Rabindranath Tagore
Rabindranath Tagore wrote his first rhyme when he was seven years old. His first poem, Abhilaash (Desire), was published in 1874 in a magazine called Tattobodhini. Within a short period, he published a series of poems in different periodicals.
These included Bhanusingher Padavali, which he wrote under the pen name of Bahanusingha. Bhanu is a synonym of rabi which means the sun and Singha is a synonym of Nath which denotes somebody forms an aristocratic family.
Rabindranath’s first book of poems was published in 1878 when he was 17 years old. In the same year, he was sent to England to study law but he did not complete his studies there and returned home two years later.
When he returned home he had a knowledge of the new era of intellectual and scientific development in Europe to add to his deep understanding of the cultural heritage of India. He was set to start his great career in Bangla literature.
Between 1884 and 1890, Rabindranath published a series of books of poems: Chhabi O Gan (1884), Prakritir Pratishodh (1884), Kadi O Komal (1886), Mayar Khela (1888) and Manasi (1890). In the same period, he published essays, critical article articles, fiction, etc. About the same time, he published two novels, Bouthakoranir Hat (1883) and Rajarshi (1887)
Experiencing the real world
The most creative phase of Rabindranath’s life began when he returned from a second visit to England in 1890. On his return he was given charge of his father’s estates in different parts of Bengal, mostly Silaidah in Bangladesh.
During this time, Rabindranath had the opportunity to see the everyday life of ordinary people very closely. This made him concentrate less on producing work from his imagination and instead look more to the real world. At the same time, he began to appreciate the natural beauty of Bangladesh.
While traveling by boat on the Padma, he was able to view the river, its sandbanks, flora and fauna, sunrises and sunsets, the poverty and simplicity of the people who lived by the banks, and the passions that swayed them closely. All of these things found their way into his fiction and verse.
Two of his most important contributions to Bangla literature, ‘Golpaguchchha’ and ‘Sonar Tori’, were written about this time. While ‘Galpaguchchha’ was a collection of short stories, the ‘Sonar Tori’ was a collection of poems. His other publication of the 1890s included Chitra (1896), Kalpana (1900), Ksanika (1900), and Katha O Kahini (1900). In fact, by 1900, Rabindranath had written seven volumes of poems and forty-four short stories.
In 1901 Rabindranath Tagore left Silaidah and settled in Santiniketan in Birbhum of West Bengal. There he established Santiniketan, one of his outstanding achievements in the field of education. His aim was to provide a place for learning where the students would be at one with nature and learn in a practical as well as spiritual manner.
The idea was that the student would live a simple life close to the teachers as well as the surrounding natural world. Assisting Rabindranath in running Santiniketan was a Roman Catholic Vedantist priest named Brhamobandhav Upadhyay.
The priest first called the poet, Viswa Kavi (world-poet). In 1921, Santiniketan became an international university and came to be known as Viswa Bharati.
Sadness and honor
Rabindranath’s wife died in 1902. One of his daughters died a few months later. His father passed away in 1905 and his youngest son died in 1907. These terrible ears made the poet very sad and this sadness was reflected in his poetry. Gitanjali (Song Offerings), published in 1910.
Was a reflection of his mental state. He translates these verses into English for which he won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1913. He was the first Asian to receive such an honor.
He was knighted by King George of Great Britain in 1915, but denounced his knighthood in 1919, when a British general attached unarmed Indian demonstrators on 13 April 1919 at Jallianwala Bagh at Amritsar.
Rabindranath Tagore denounced the knighthood that was conferred on him because of the British behavior at Amritsar. If you were knighted and became ‘Sir’ and were famous, would you be prepared to give up this honor? If so, what might make you do it?
Productive until the end
Rabindranath Tagore kept writing till he breathed his last. In the last decade of his life, he wrote the books of verses, poems written in prose format, which included Punashcha, Shes Saptak, Patraput, Shyamali, and Priantik.
About this time, he also composed some wonderful dance dramas such as Chitrangada (1936), Shyama(1939), and Chandalika(1938). Images of nature are given musical form in Nataraj (1926), Navin(1931), and Shravangatha (1934). During this time, he also wrote three novels such as Dui Bon, Mlancha, and Char Adhyay.
Rabindranath was also an amateur painter. He started painting in 1929 at the age of 68. Many of his paintings could be found in museums in India and abroad. In 1940, the University of Oxford conferred him with Doctorate of Literature at a special ceremony in Santiniketan. He passed ays on 7 August 1941.
The events at Amritsar in 1919 are amongst the most shameful in the history of the British in India. Use the internet to research what General Dyer did which so angered Rabindranath.
Rabindranath has written over a thousand poems and over two thousand songs on various topics, ranging from patriotic to religion, love, and nature. He has composed the music of most of his songs.
He has written innumerable short stories and more than two dozen plays and playlets, eight novels and many books on philosophy, religion, education and social topics.
He is, perhaps, best known for writing Amar sonar bangle, ami tomay bhalobashi (My Bengal of gold, I Love you), the national anthem of Bangladesh:
Before Rabindranath, Bengali was written in the ancient form based on classical Sanskrit. He wrote in the common language of the people. He introduced new prose and verse forms and the use of colloquial language into Bengali literature.
At that time, this was something hard to accept among his critics and scholars. But in a very short period of time, his style was enthusiastically emulated by most of his contemporaries as well the generation of writers that followed.
Rabindranath Tagore is considered to be the most influential poet and writer of Bangla literature. But his self-less humanism, love of nature, timeless spirituality and concern for the prospect and predicament of the human civilization have made him one of the most respected personalities of the world.
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