Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941)
He therefore advocated widespread use of the mother-tongue as a medium of education and described self-help and self-respect as the backbone of Swadeshism. On the other hand, he invoked India’s history and legends in the poems of ‘Katha O Kahini’ to inculcate patriotic and national sentiments. A totally different genre of lightly tripping lyrics of the idyllic kind is to be found in ‘Kshanika’ written about the same time.
The end of the century saw Rabindranath preoccupied more and more with the fundamentals of the Indian problem and his growing conviction that these were tied up with the prevailing faulty system of education. Instead of sending his own children to the existing schools he started his own home-school for them at Shilaidah.
That was when he conjured up his vision of a Tapovana school, where it might become possible to link up learning and living in an atmosphere of freedom, in the midst of nature, in a community where teachers would be gurus and pupils disciples in the traditional Upanishadic sense. He held up these ideals in the poems of ‘Naivedya’, and followed them up by founding a school in the Asrama built by his father at Santiniketan near Bolpur and bequeathed by him to a public trust. That was in 1901.
Earlier in the same year, he took over the editorial charge of the Bangadarshan, a periodical founded by Bankimchandra, in its new series and contributed to it his novel ‘Chokher Bali’ (‘Binodini’ in English), being the first psychological novel in any Indian language, in serial instalments.
A series of disasters, in the shape of family bereavements and chronic financial difficulties, followed close on the heels of the newly started school. His wife Mrinalini Devi died barely a year after (1902) and daughter Renuka the next year. Satischandra Roy, a young man of unusual talents and one of Rabindranath’s devoted followers who dedicated themselves to the work of the school, died of smallpox at Santiniketan in 1904. In early 1905, his revered father passed away, the Maharshi who was like a guru to him.
Notwithstanding these tragedies and the tremendous sacrifices involved in supporting his educational venture practically single-handed, Rabindranath persisted with his experiment. His literary work continued unabated and the first anthology of his poems was published at this time. Nor was he unresponsive to the country’s call when the situation or circumstances demanded his attention. He had occasion to reprimand Lord Curzon when in his Convocation Address, Curzon had castigated the Orientals as a class given to exaggeration.
When the same Viceroy proposed division of Bengal for administrative exigencies following the imperialist dictum of ‘divide and rule’, Rabindranath came out of his seclusion at Santiniketan to lend his powerful voice on behalf of the nation against this act of high-handedness. He preached Swadeshi, composed heart-stirring Swadeshi songs, wrote trenchant essays, addressed meetings and even headed protest demonstrations. But with it all, he advocated his own plan of constructive nationalism, with the village as the base of all nation-building activities.
In 1906, he sent his eldest son Rathindranath to the U. S. A. to study Agriculture. The same year he drew up the constitution for a National Council of Education. But when the anti-partition movement took an agitational turn, he withdraws himself to his work at Santiniketan. He was elected President of the first session of the Bangiya Sahitya Sammilani (Bengali Literary Conference) in 1907.
His youngest son Samindranath died of cholera the same year. That was also the year of the ripening of his acquaintance with Ramananda Chatterji, the well-known journalist who started publishing his novel ‘Gora’ serially in his monthly Prabasi. Rabindranath presided over the Bengal Provincial Conference in Pabna and delivered his address in Bengali. In 1909, he wrote the play ‘Prayaschitta’ and through the character of Dhananjoy Vairagi upheld the principles of what came to be known later as Satyagraha.
On return from the U. S. A. in 1910, Rathindranath, son of Tagore, was married to Pratima Devi, that being the first case of widow-marriage in the family. In 1911, Rabindranath’s fiftieth birth anniversary was celebrated by the inmates of Santiniketan with Ajit Kumar Chakravarti reading out a long article regarded as the first serious attempt made at appraising his poetry. His reminiscences were serialized in the Prabasi and the original Bengali poems of ‘Gitanjali’ and the play, ‘Dakghar’ (Post Office), were published the same year.
1912 was an eventful year. Early that year he was given the first important public reception of his career when the Bangiya Sahitya Parishad felicitated him in Calcutta on the completion of his fiftieth year. Two months after, he read at Overtoun Hall his famous essay, ‘My Interpretation of India’s History’, wherein he gave a prose paraphrase as it were of his ‘Jana Gana Mana’ song (now the National Song of India), earlier composed for the anniversary of the Brahmo Samaj, proclaiming that India stood for unity in the midst of diversity.
Ill health necessitated a change of climate at Shilaidah where he whiled away idle hours translating some of his recent poems (mainly from ‘Gitanjali’) into English. Later in May, he sailed for England where his translation of the ‘Gitanjali’ poems created a sensation in English literary circles headed by W. B. Yeats. While in England he came into contact with some of the leading intellectuals of the day including Masefield, Mez Sinclair, Evelyn Underhill, Fox Strangways, Ezra Pound, Nevinson, Wells, Bertrand Russell and others.
It was here that he first met C. F. Andrews destined to be his lifelong friend and follower. Here, he also completed negotiations for the purchase of Surul Kuthi which later became the headquarters of his rural reconstruction work founded in 1922. From London he proceeded to the U. S. A. and, while there, came to learn that a limited edition of the English ‘Gitanjali’ brought out by the India Society had been warmly received by the elite of England.
During October 1912 to April 1913, while in the States, he lectured at Urbana, Illinois, Chicago, Rochester and Harvard. On return to England he was successfully operated upon for his chronic ailment. Soon after his return home to India the news was received of the Swedish Academy selecting ‘Gitanjali’ for the Nobel Award in Literature for 1913.
While the arrival of C. F. Andrews to devote himself to the task of Santiniketan raised hopes of the Asrama providing a nucleus for such inter-cultural fellowship, the outbreak of War in the West posed a challenge. Ranbindranath tried to meet it by undertaking a tour of Japan and the U. S. A., as yet not embroiled in the conflict and by appealing to them to rise above the greed and selfishness of a narrow nationalism, in the larger interest of world peace. That was during 1916-17.
Over the next decade (1921-30), Ranbindranath’s main preoccupation was to establish the Visva-Bharati on a sound foundation and for this purpose he undertook a number of tours at home and abroad. Among the foreign countries covered were: China and Japan (1924), South America (1925), Italy, Switzerland, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Germany, France, the Balkan countries and Egypt (1926), South-east Asian counties (1927) and Canada (1929). In 1930, he delivered the Hibbert Lectures at Oxford, his subject being “Religion of Man”.
He took the occasion to exhibit his paintings (a new bobby acquired round about 1925-26) in all the countries he visited this time including France, England, Germany, Soviet Russia and the U. S. A. Prior to this, Rabindranath associated himself with a new literary movement started in Bengal by Pramatha Chaudhuri and contributed to its mouthpiece Sabuj Patra some of his writings, noted for the originality of their style. These included scintillating essays, lyrics of great sensitivity (‘Balaka’ poems in particular), and the two novels, ‘Chaturanga’ (Four Chapters) and ‘Ghare Baire’ (The Home and The World). In 1915, he was knighted by the King-Emperor.
On return from his foreign tour, Rabindranath agitated against the internment of Annie Besant, and canvassed support, on her release, for her election as the President of the Calcutta session of the Indian National Congress. He read his poem, “India Prayer”, at the plenary session. On the cultural front, he took an active part in organizing Vichitra and accommodated the institution in his part of the Tagore house at Jorasanko.
1918 saw the death of his eldest child Madhurilata. The same year the foundation was laid at Santiniketan of the Institution which came to be known as the Visva-Bharati, World University. During the next two years, 1919-20, Rabindranath travelled all over India inviting support for the Visva-Bharati. In 1919, he relinquished his knighthood as a protest against the British atrocities at Jallianwalla Bagh in the Punjab. 1920-21 saw him in the West, visiting England, France, Germany, Holland, Belgium, Switzerland, Austria, Czechoslovakia, the Scandinavian countries and the U.S.A, campaigning support of the intellectuals for the Visva-Bharati. On his return to Santiniketan, he made over the institution of Visva-Bharati to a public trust at a formal meeting presided over by Dr. Brojendra Nath Seal, in the distinguished presence of Dr. Sylvain Levi who joined the Institution as its first Visiting Professor.
In 1931, his seventieth birthday anniversary was celebrated at a Jayanti function in Calcutta. Leading intellectuals of India and abroad joined in paying him homage. And the tributes were collected in a volume entitled ‘Golden Book of Tagore’. In 1932, he toured Persia and Iraq on an invitation from Reza Shah Pahlavi, King of Iran. The same year he was appointed Ramtanu Lahiri Professor of Bengali at the University of Calcutta. In 1933, he presided over the centennial of Raja Rammohun Roy. From about this time his poetry took a new turn and he started experimenting with verse in ‘Punascha’. 1936 saw him busy perfecting a new type of play combining music, miming and dance. These came to be known later as dance-drama. In 1937, he created history by delivering his Convocation Address at the University of Calcutta in Bengali.
The same year he was stricken with Erysipelas and his condition caused grave anxiety. Although he recovered, the condition of his health was not the same again. But his mind remained as alert as ever and he continued to take a lively interest in the affairs of his country and of the world in general. In 1938, when Czechoslovakia was overrun by Hitler’s hordes, he sent a message to his friend, Lesny, in Prague condemning the betrayal of small nations by big powers. He also exchanged letters with the Japanese poet, Noguchi, decrying Japan’s aggression in China. In 1939, at the request of Subhas Chandra Bose, he laid the foundation of the Mahajati Sadan in Calcutta.
The next year (1940) saw him deeply concerned with the turn taken by World War II. The same year Gandhiji visited him (for the last time) at Santiniketan, and in a parting message the Poet requested the Mahatama to accept the Visva-Bharati and give it his protection as it was like a vessel which carried the cargo of his life’s best treasures. Andrews, who had brought the two together initially, died at a nursing home in Calcutta. On 7 August 1940, on behalf of Oxford University, Sir Maurice Gwyer conferred its doctorate on Rabindranath at a special convocation arranged at Santiniketan. Although his literary work continued till the end, by the beginning of 1941 his chronic kidney trouble started causing continuous trouble. His physical condition notwithstanding, he made a scathing reply to certain baseless accusations against India made by a British Member of Parliament, Miss Rathbone.
On 14 April, when his 80th birthday was celebrated at Santiniketan on the Bengali New Year’s Day, he questioned the British intention towards India’s struggle for independence in a trenchant address entitled “Crisis in Civilisation”. He concluded his address by expressing the hope: “Perhaps the new dawn will come from this horizon, from the East where the Sun rises, and the, unvanquished Man will retrace his path of conquest, despite all barriers, to win back his lost heritage.”
On 7August 1941, he passed away in Calcutta after a surgical operation. “In considering Tagore’s life work,” wrote Humayun Kabir in his Introduction to a centennial collection of Tagore’s selected essays entitled ‘Towards Universal Man’, “one is again and again struck by the amazing versatility of his genius. He was essentially a poet but his interests were not confined to poetry. In sheer quantity of work few writers can equal him. His writings include more than a thousand poems and over two thousands songs in addition to a large number of short stories, novels, dramatic works and essays on the most diverse topics. In quality too he has reached heights which have been trodden and that too rarely by only the noblest among men…. He was also a musician of the highest order. He took to painting when he was almost seventy and yet produced within ten years about three thousand pictures, some of them of exceptional quality. In addition, he made notable contributions to religious and educational thought, to politics and social reform, to rural regeneration and economic reconstruction. His achievements in all these fields are so great that they mark him out as one of the greatest sons of India and indeed one who has a message for the entire mankind.”

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