Born on 7 May 1861, in Jorasanko house at 6 Dwarkanath Tagore Lane, Calcutta, Rabindranath was the fourteenth child of Devendranath Tagore (1817-1905) and Sarada Devi (1826/27-1875). The Tagore family settled in Calcutta from Jessore (now in Bangladesh) round about the time the East India Company had founded the city.
The Tagores prosperd by their activities and were recognized among the leading families of Calcutta’s new aristocracy by 1814, when Raja Rammohan Roy (1772-1833) initiated his activities to fight Hindu orthodoxy on the one hand and to bring about a synthesis of the culture of India with the liberal traditions of the West. Rabindranath’s grandfather, Dwarkanath (1794-1846), known by the title of ‘Prince’ because of his great wealth and benevolence became one of the active supporters of Raja Rammohan in all his public activities.
Likewise, Rabindranath’s father, known as ‘Maharshi’ for his piety and faith, became a redoubtable champion of Brahmoism which may well be regarded as Rammohan’s vindication of the monotheistic tradition of the Upanishads. The peculiar combination of tradition and progress, which characterized Rabindranath’s attitude of life, may best be explained by his immediate family background.
Notable among Ranbindranath’s brothers and sisters were the poet-philosopher Dwijendranath Tagore (1840-1926), Satyendranath Tagore (1842-1923), the first Indian to join the Indian Civil Service, Jyotirindranath (1848-1925), the well-known playwright and translator, and Swarnakumari Devi (1855-1932), the foremost woman-novelist of her days.
Rabindranath’s early childhood was spent under the supervision of family servants. He had to fall back upon his own resources to feed his appetite for the far-away. His other source of joy was when some of the maids and servants initiated him in the love of tales and fables, rhymes and songs. The twin muses of song and poetry came to him hand in hand fairly early in life. He started scribbling verses soon after he learnt his alphabet and he imbibed music from the atmosphere at home.
Rabindranath’s school career was brief (1868-74), uneventful and haphazard, as he had to change school four times at least. He did not react favourably to set lessons.
The generally unruly conduct of his class-mates and the discipline of the stick disgusted him. In 1874, when his name did not appear in the list of candidates promoted to the next higher class of St. Xavier’s School, he was withdrawn from school. But this only stimulated his appetite for self-education through his mother tongue in which he received encouraging support initially from his third brother, Hemendranath (1844-84), and later from Dwijendranath and Jyotirindranath.
Rabindranath was twelve when (1873) he was invested with the sacred thread and initiated with the Gayatri. Thereafter he accompanied his father on an extended tour which took him as far as Dalhousie via Bolpur and Amritsar. It was at Bolpur that he first really came into close contact with Devendranath, his saintly father, who exerted a lasting influence on his personality and character.
The family discovered Rabindranath’s gift for song and poetry quite early in his life. His first poem to appear in print was ‘Abhilaash’ in the Tattvabodhini Patrika in 1874 where it was described to be a twelve-year-old boy’s composition. The next year, when he was barely fourteen, he made his first public appearance as a poet reciting a patriotic poem of his own composition at the ninth session of the Hindu Mela - a cultural fair devoted to patriotism and social welfare organized by Nabagopal Mitra, Rajnarain Bose and others under the patronage and sponsorship of the Tagore family.
With the death of his mother in 1875, Rabindranath passed into the guardianship of Jyotirindranath and his wife Kadambari Devi (1858-84). Both of them, more than any other, helped his adolescent aspirations come into full flowering. This was the time when he was enrolled as the junior-most member of a short-lived secret society named Sanjivani Sabha, of which Rajnarain Bose was the President.
His first literary writings (verse, narrative poetry, criticism, fiction, essays, translation, etc.) appeared first in Dinankur O Prativimba (from 1876 onwards) and later in the family literary journal Bharati (from 1877 onwards). In 1877, he appeared for the first time on the family stage in the title role of a farce written by Jyotirindranath.
The next year (1878) he accompanied his brother Satyendranath to England where he studied English literature for some time under Henry Morley at the University College, London. His ‘Letters from a Sojourner in Europe’- being his outspoken, if somewhat indiscreet, comments on the life and times of London - alarmed some of his conservative elders and necessitated his recall from London early in 1880. The ‘Letters’ were published in book-form the next year (1881), however, it being not only his first book in prose but also the first in the spoken form of prose.
The year 1881 also saw him writing his first musical play, ‘Valmiki Pratibha’, and appearing himself in the title role, delivering his first written lecture on Music and Feeling before the Bethune Society, and foiling one more of the family’s plans to send him abroad, this time to qualify for the Bar. Returning from Madras en route to London, he took up residence with Jyotirindranath at Sudder Street where he experienced his poet’s vision, which he immortalized in a poem entitled ‘The Awakening of the Waterfall’; presaging the upsurge of a fine frenzy of creative writing. After spending some time with Satyendranath’s family in Karwar, he returned to Calcutta late in 1883 to be married to Mrinalini (b.1873). The next year (1884) saw the tragic death by suicide of Kadambari Devi, an event that left a lasting scar on his mind. The same year he was appointed Secretary of the Adi Brahmo Samaj and crossed swords with Bankim Chandra Chatterjee, the leading literary figure of Bengal of the day, on the ideals of Hinduism.
In 1885, he became associated with another family magazine, the Balak, and assisted its Editor, Jnanadanandini Devi (Satyendranath’s wife), in its management. Some of his earliest juvenile writings appeared in the Balak. That was also the year when the first collection of his songs came out with the title ‘Rabichchaya’, indicative of his popularity as a lyricist-composer.
His eldest child (a daughter), Bela or Madhurilata, was born in 1886. The same year he composed and himself sang the inaugural song at the second session of the Indian National Congress in Calcutta.
Rabindranath’s many-sided genius entered a new phase with the composing of the poems of ‘Manasi’, the musical play ‘Mayar Khela’ and the drama ‘Raja O Rani’, all of which were written during 1887-90. During this time, he first participated publicly in political controversy when he protested against the reactionary anti-Indian policy of Lord Cross, the then Secretary of State for India, and advocated the appointment of elected representatives of the people as members of the Viceroy’s Executive Council.
His eldest son, Rathindranath, was born in 1888. There was a brief break of about three months which he spent on a visit to England in the later part of 1890. The diary he maintained of the visit made scintillating reading when published in book-form.
Towards the end of 1890, on return from England, Rabindranath was entrusted by his father with the management of the extensive family estates in the Rajshahi district with headquarters at Shilaidah. His third child Renuka, was born early in 1891.
Rabindranath spent the next decade of his life (1890-1900) mainly in the countryside, in close contact with the children of the soil. In the first phase, his confrontation with the rural situation took the form of exquisitely sensitive vignettes of the life around, ‘The Postmaster’ was one of the crops of these short stories which were published, week by week, in the Hitavadi. Thereafter, when the monthly Sadhana was founded by him in 1891, with his nephew, Sudhindranath, as editor, it became almost the sole organ of his self-expression.
The Sadhana published some of his best writings such as ‘Sonar Tari’ and ‘Panchabhuter Diary’. In 1894 he assumed the editorship of the periodical itself and remained its editor until it ceased publication in 1895. His exquisite letters addressed to his niece, Indiradevi, later collected as ‘Chhinnapatra’, belonged to this period.
His youngest daughter, Mira, was born in 1893 and Samindra, his youngest son, the year after.
The Sadhana phase was also a phase of constructive nationalism for Rabindranath. His patriotism now became not only an abstract love of the people but also for the village folk-who constituted the country. In 1893, at a public meeting presided over by Bankimchandra Chatterjee, he read out a well-argued political essay on “Ingraj O Bharatbasi”.