Tagore, Rabindranath

Encyclopedia of the Literature of Empire - Mary Ellen Snodgrass 2010

Tagore, Rabindranath

Tagore, Rabindranath (1861-1941)

Indian poet, novelist, and short story writer The Bengali dramatist, lecturer, composer, and peace poet Rabindranath “Rabi” Tagore of Calcutta, India, hoped his writing would become the epitaph of world imperialism. He was born to an artistic and intellectual family shortly after the Indian Mutiny of 1857, a revolt of Indian soldiers that presaged the end of southeast Asian domination by the British. A child prodigy, he devoured WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE'S plays and other British works of fiction, but he abandoned fighting the Anglo-Bengali political problem in favor of human rights for all. He stigmatized the English for ruling over India but living separately from its people. He also observed the intransigence of narrow Indian sectarianism in a time that demanded national unity. In an era of Westernized progress that brought the railroad and telegraph to India, he became a social and cultural modernist by writing verses, essays, narratives, some 2,000 songs, and SATIRES in popular Bengali vernacular. He later mocked rote religious schools in “The Parrot's Training” (1918), a beast FABLE about a bird killed after being force-fed pages of scripture. The story expressed his impatience with narrow-minded fundamentalists.

After law studies in London, Tagore returned home at age 19 without a degree. On December 9, 1883, he married Mrinalini Devi, with whom he had five children. While superintending his family's estate in Shilaidaha, he resided in a houseboat on the Ganges River along the present boundary between India and Bangladesh and observed the hardships of his family's rural tenants. Influenced by the spiritualism of the Hindu Upanishads and by the religious verses of the Sikh poet Kabir of Benares (1440), Tagore pressed for the merger of Hinduism and Islam. In the poem “Now Turn Me Back” (1893), he sought a pragmatic end to the imperial quagmire in India and to the plight of dispossessed and starving Indians who gained nothing from orthodox extremism or from mechanization of transportation and industry. He determined that the rescuer of India had to be an artist rather than a politician or military leader. In the tone of the American poet Emma Lazarus's ode “The New Colossus” (1883) inscribed on the Statue of Liberty, he demanded of himself, “Rise O poet, and give voice to these dumb, haggard and stupefied faces, bring hope to these tired, emptied and broken hearts” (quoted in Majumdar 1993, 101).

Viewing Empires

Tagore traveled the world to observe cultures. His collection Gitanjali (Song Offerings, 1912) recommended freedom of thought in “Where the Mind Is without Fear” and “Walk Alone,” two of his most popular didactic poems, on a par in idealistic tone and intensity with RUDYARD KIPLING'S “If” (1895). A refrain from “Silent Steps”—“He comes, comes, ever comes” (Tagore 1996, 26)—bears the poet's hope for a messiah, a rescuer to set Indians free. During Tagore's stay in the United States in 1912, he delivered eight lectures in English at Harvard University containing lessons of the Upanishads on soul consciousness, the self, and love and beauty in action; the lectures were published as Sadhana: The Realisation of Life (1913). He intended the texts to shake complacent Americans free from their materialism and lack of interest in the world's poor. In 1914, the year after Tagore received the first Nobel Prize awarded to a writer from India, World War I brought him to despair. He mourned in verse that “All the sorrows of the earth, all its sins and crimes, its heartbreaks and its lust for violence have swelled like a tidal wave overlapping the banks, blaspheming the skies” (112).

From 1912 to 1932, Tagore traveled widely, lecturing throughout Europe and the Americas and visiting China, Malaysia, Iran, and Egypt. Like the Jewish humanist Albert Einstein, Tagore saw apathy as a threat to survival of the human family. He was particularly sensitive to the plight of women and girls in patriarchal societies, where females lived circumscribed lives controlled by self- indulgent males. A compassionate short story, “The Fruitseller from Kabul” (1892), pities the outsider Ramun, an Afghan grape seller in Calcutta who yearns for his family. Benevolence at last neutralizes a life of bitterness as Ramun, enriched by a gift of cash after years in jail, is able to return home to the daughter he left behind.

Tagore's feminist novel The Home and the World (1916), the subject of a 1984 screenplay, pits the easygoing Sandip against the radical thinker Nikhil in competition for Nikhil's wife Bimala, who becomes mature enough to make her own choice. A more intense study of Hindu misogyny, the story “Haimanti” (1916) contains the motifs of dowry and of the suttee, the title figure's obligatory selfimmolation on her mate's funeral pyre.

Contributing to Tagore's sensitivity to human need was a lengthy term as a widower who had lost two children. In the lyric “Shah-Jahan” (1916), he pictures the demise of the great Indian ruler, the grieving widower who built the Taj Mahal to honor his wife Mumtaz: “You are gone, now, Emperor— / Your empire has dissolved like a dream / Your throne is shattered, / Your armies, whose marching / Shook the earth, / Today have no more weight than the windblown dust on the Delhi road” (Tagore Selected Poems 2005, 79).

The Citizen as Individual

In 1915, Tagore received a knighthood, but he renounced the honor four years later after the Amritsar massacre of April 13, 1919. Because of the British Indian Army's attack on 1,800 unarmed men, women, and children with 10 minutes of gunfire, killing 379 (and possibly more), Tagore devoted his life and art to the underclass, whose dignity and values he ranked above political concerns. In 1923, he wrote the story “The Editor,” a touching salute to a widower who gives up journalistic sniping to rescue his daughter from a fever. In 1928, Tagore wrote a letter to a Methodist missionary on the waste of Indian lives and talents under imperial rule. He declared, “The best way of keeping a people permanently under foreign subjection is to kill their humanity” (Tagore 1997, 362). He dedicated his remaining 13 years to writing to alleviate the plight of the underclass.

Tagore cultivated serenity in his Collected Poems (1937). His verses acknowledge the control of the almighty over earthly strife: “Away from the sight of Thy face/My heart knows no rest or respite” (quoted in Roberts and Amidon 1991, 312). In physical decline in his late 70s, he feared the rise of Adolf Hitler's Nazi empire in 1939. In the poem “Those Who Struck Him Once,” he compared Fascists to those who killed Christ: “In their roaring mingles the music of their hymns, while the Son of Man in his agony prays, ’O God, fling, fling far away this cup filled with the bitterest of poisons'” (quoted in Majumdar 1993, 123). In 1940, Tagore supported Mohandas Gandhi in seeking an end to the British Raj and demanding relief for India's poor. In a final speech delivered a few months before the formation of the Quit India Movement, he looked to World War II as the dawn of a global power shuffle: “The time has arrived to prove that the power, vanity, and conceit of the very powerful also are not secure” (98). Tagore's writings influenced the screenplays for Kabuliwala (1956, 1961), The Lonely Wife (1964), and Sand in the Eye (2003); his life was the source of the documentary Rabindranath Tagore (1961). Tagore's belief in selfdetermination influenced HAN YONG-UN, a Korean independence fighter, and ANNA AKHMATOVA, a poet of the Russian Empire.


Majumdar, A. K. Basu. Rabindranath Tagore, the Poet of India. New Delhi: Indus, 1993.

Roberts, Elizabeth, and Elias Amidon, eds. Earth Prayers from Around the World. San Francisco: HarperSan- Francisco, 1991.

Tagore, Rabindranath. Gitanjali. Introduced by William Butler Yeats. London: Branden, 1996.

----- . Sadhana: The Realization of Life. New York: Three Leaves Press, 2004.

----- . Selected Letters of Rabindranath Tagore. Edited by Krishna Dutta and Andrew Robinson. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997.

----- . Selected Poems. Translated by William Radice. London: Penguin Classics, 2005.

----- . Selected Short Stories. Translated by William Radice. London: Penguin Classics, 2005.