Rabindranath Tagore (1861–1941)
Rabindranath Tagore was a man of parts. Lyrical poet, novelist, dramatist, and essayist (not to mention a musician and artist), Tagore was a prominent representative of a new Indian humanism. He fought for social reform and was probably the first modern Indian writer to earn a worldwide reputation, in part because he was the first Asian to win the Nobel Prize for literature.
Beyond that, Tagore was fresh air. He was a liberated thinker and one well outside the box of traditional Hindu categories. In fact, he preached of a harmony of the cultures of the Orient and the Occident, and tried to awaken in men a kind of spirituality beyond the strictures of precise beliefs. The spirituality he stressed was based on an understanding among peoples and a longing for human equality.
Tagore was born on May 7, 1861, in Calcutta. His father's father had been a prominent, highly educated businessman and a supporter of the Brahmo Samaj, the reform sect founded by Raja Rammohun Roy.
Rabindranath was the youngest of fourteen children, all of whom were well educated, including the girls, in keeping with the newly emerging Bengali tradition. In fact, the children were educated in Bengali and English and used their knowledge to publish magazines, write plays, and sponsor the arts. Rabrindranath's own talents grew in the fertile soil of rich surroundings.
He married at age twenty-two and the couple had five children. By then, he had begun something of a literary reputation, based on a long poem. In 1890, he began managing the family estates at Shelaidaha, what is now Bangladesh. He lived modestly on a houseboat, writing essays, plays, and short stories.
By 1901, he set out on a pioneering educational experiment in west Bengal, championing the outdoor class, run in the ancient Indian way with one teacher and very few students. Today, this school is run by the government of India under the name Vishva Bharati. That year, at the age of forty, Rabindranath wrote Naivedya and other works. That same year his wife died as well as a son and a daughter.
The grief he felt affected the tone of his writing. Still, he developed a large following among Bengali writers and in 1912, while reading his poetry in England, he was heard by William 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 the English translation of Gitanjali (Song Offerings) had drawn. The work was a collection of 103 poems, mostly metaphysical in nature.
His literary fame firmly established by the time he was sixty, Tagore began to paint and exhibit his paintings in India and Europe. He would become the only person to compose two national anthems, India's and Bangladesh's. His love for India was well known, and he did what others of his generation did to contribute to the mother country's struggle for independence. He carried on a correspondence with Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, a mutual admirer.
Because of Tagore's literary and national interests, refined aesthetic sensibilities, and extensive travels, he developed a philosophy of universal brotherhood and cultural exchange. He believed that the divinity was immanent and the reflection of that divinity was in human beings. His reputation is one of philosopher and literary figure.