Skip to main content

Life Sketch of Rabindranath Tagore

Life sketches of poets and other writers afford readers a glimpse into the writing process, backgrounding the creativity of each artist.

Early Life and Education

Rabindranath Tagore, (his name rendered in Bengali, Rabīndranāth Ṭhākur), was born May 7, 1861, Calcutta (now called "Kolkata"), India, to religious reformer Debendranath Tagore (1817–1905) and Sarada Devi (1830–1875), who gave birth to fifteen child with Debendranath Tagore.

The youngest of the children, Rabindranath was raised primarily by his eldest sister and servants. His mother became ill after the birth of her last child, and she died when Rabindranath was fourteen.

Tagore came to despise formal education. He was first enrolled in public education at the Oriental Seminary School in Calcutta. At age seven, he dropped out of school after attending for one month. Students at the school were punished by being beaten with sticks.

Again, enrolling in the school of Saint Xavier in 1876, he managed to attend for six months, but then again left the institution. He did retain some pleasant memories of his attendance at Saint Xavier and in 1927, bestowed on the school a state of Jesus Christ.

Tagore was primarily homeschooled by his many accomplished siblings. His brother, Hemendranath, trained his younger brother in physical culture, having "Rabi" swim in the Ganges and hike through the surrounding hills; he also practiced gymnastics, wresting, and judo.

From other siblings, Tagore learned geography, history, drawing, anatomy, mathematics. He also studied literature in Sanskrit and English. His contempt for formal schooling was on display when he enrolled in Presidency College but then spent only one day at the school. His philosophy of teaching held that appropriate teaching included stoking curiosity not merely explaining situations.

Ironically, Tagore’s later interest in education led him to founding his own school in 1901 at Santiniketan ("Peaceful Abode"), in the bucolic countryside in West Bengal. His school was established as an experimental educational institution, which would blend the best features of Eastern and Western traditions in education.

Tagore relocated to reside permanently at his school. In 1921, it became officially known a Visva-Bharati University, an important learning institution still flourishing today:

Visva-Bharati reflects the Tagorean ethos of making a complete human being. It is a place of learning cradled in a serene environment where Rabindranath founded a school for children at Santiniketan and it was around this nucleus that the structure of an unconventional University developed through careful planning and meticulous execution of those ideas and ideals.

Tagore’s keen perception and deep awareness of the ways in which formal education had gone wrong led him to found a school where his vision of holistic learning could grow and flourish.

Nobel Prize for Literature

William Rothenstein, the English painter and art critic, was greatly interested in the writings of Rabindranath Tagore. The painter especially was drawn to Gitanjali, Bengali for "song offerings." The subtle beauty and charm of these poems prompted Rothenstein to urge Tagore to translate them into English so more people in the West could experience them.

Taking Rothenstein’s advice, Tagore translated his song offerings in Gitanjali into English prose renderings. In 1913, primarily for this volume, Rabindranath Tagore was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature. In that same year, Macmillan published the hardcover copy of Tagore's prose translations of Gitanjali. The great Irish poet, W. B. Yeats, also a Nobel Laureate (1923), provided an introduction to Gitanjali.

Yeats writes that this volume "stirred my blood as nothing has for years." About the Indian culture, Yeats comments, "The work of a supreme culture, they yet appear as much the growth of the common soil as the grass and the rushes."

Yeats’ interest and study of Eastern philosophy became intense, and he was especially attracted to Tagore's spiritual writing. Yeats explains that Tagore's was

[a] tradition, where poetry and religion are the same thing and that it has passed through the centuries, gathering from learned and unlearned metaphor and emotion, and carried back again to the multitude the thought of the scholar and of the noble.

Yeats later wrote many poems based on Eastern concepts, although their subtleties at times evaded him. Nevertheless, Yeats should be credited with advancing the West's interest and attraction to the spiritual nature of those concepts. Also in the introduction, Yeats asserts,

If our life was not a continual warfare, we would not have taste, we would not know what is good, we would not find hearers and readers. Four-fifths of our energy is spent in this quarrel with bad taste, whether in our own minds or in the minds of others.

This somewhat harsh assessment, no doubt, points out the mood of his era: Yeats' birth and death dates (1861-1939) sandwiches the Irish poet's life between two bloody Western wars, the American Civil War (1861–1965) and World War II (1939–1945).

Yeats also correctly measures Tagore's achievement when he reports that Tagore's songs "are not only respected and admired by scholars, but also they are sung in the fields by peasants." Yeats would have been astonished if his own poetry had been accepted by such a wide spectrum of the populace.

In Yeats’ poem, "The Fisherman," his speaker is asserting the need for such an organic, bucolic style of poetry:

The speaker in William Butler Yeats' poem is calling for a poetry that will be meaningful to the common folk. He reveals his contempt for charlatans, while encouraging an ideal that he feels must steer culture and art. Yeats promoted the arts that he felt most closely played to the culture of the Irish.

Thus, the Irish poet well understood the beauty and simplicity inherent in the concept of poetry for the common folk.

Sample Rendering from Gitanjali

The following prose-poem rendering #7 is representative of the Gitanjali's form and content:

My song has put off her adornments. She has no pride of dress and decoration. Ornaments would mar our union. They would come between thee and me. Their jingling would drown thy whispers.

My poet's vanity dies in shame before thy sight. O Master Poet, I have sat down at thy feet. Only let me make my life simple and straight like a flute of reed for thee to fill with music.

This poem demonstrates a humble charm: it is a prayer to open the poet's heart to the Divine Beloved Master Poet, without unneeded words and gestures. A vain poet produces ego-centered poetry, but this poet/devotee wants to be open to the simple humility of truth that only the Divine Beloved can offer his soul.

As the Irish poet W. B. Yeats has said, these songs grow out of a culture in which art and religion are the same, so it is not surprising that we find our offerer of songs speaking to God in song after song, as is the case in #7.

And the last line in song #7 is a subtle allusion to Bhagavan Krishna. According the great yogi/poet, Paramahansa Yogananda,

Krishna is shown in Hindu art with a flute; on it he plays the enrapturing song that recalls to their true home the human souls wandering in delusion.

Rabindranath Tagore, in addition to being an accomplished poet, essayist, playwright, and novelist, is also remembered as an educator, who founded Visva-Bharati University in Santiniketan, West Bengal, India. Tagore exemplifies a Renaissance man, skilled in many fields of endeavor, including, of course, spiritual poetry.

Despite being a world traveler, Tagore lived most of his life in the house in which he was born. On August 7, 1941, he died in that same house, three months after his 80th birthday.

Sources

Famous Documentary by Satyajit Ray on Rabindranath Tagore

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2022 Linda Sue Grimes