Study Guide

Rabindranath Tagore

Rabindranath Tagore Essay - Tagore, Rabindranath

Tagore, Rabindranath

Introduction

Rabindranath Tagore 1861–-1941

(Name also transliterated as Ravindranatha Thakura) Indian short story writer, poet, playwright, essayist, novelist, painter, and songwriter.

Tagore is widely regarded as the inventor of the modern Bengali short story and is credited with introducing colloquial speech into Bengali literature. He has been compared to such masters of the short story form as Edgar Allan Poe, Anton Chekhov, and Guy de Maupassant. Tagore's short fiction is often set in rural Bengali villages and is peopled by characters from the underprivileged sectors of society, reflecting Tagore's commitment to social realism in prose and his ten years among such individuals. Many of Tagore's short stories also include elements of the supernatural and bizarre. The celebrated Indian film director Satyajit Ray has adapted several of Tagore's tales into movies.

Biographical Information

Tagore was born May 7, 1861, in Calcutta, Bengal, India, which was then under British rule. His father was a famous religious reformer, mystic, and scholar who was popularly referred to as Maharshi, Great Sage. From 1879 to 1880, Tagore attended University College in London, but returned to India before completing his studies. At twenty-two, Tagore married his ten-year-old child bride. He published several volumes of poetry during the 1880s, and throughout the 1890s Tagore managed his family estates in rural Bengal. There he encountered the villagers upon whom many of his characters are based, and many of his most renown short stories were written during this period. In 1901, Tagore founded an experimental school, combining Indian and Western thought and culture; this school became Visva-Bharati University in 1921. During the first decade of the new century, Tagore suffered extensive personal tragedy as he endured the deaths of his wife, his father, and three of his children. In 1913, he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature for his poetry collection Gitanjali (1910; Song Offerings); he spent the following years travelling throughout Europe, Asia, and the Americas to lecture and read from his works. Tagore was a supporter of the cause for Indian national independence from Britain, although he publicly criticized some of Gandhi's ideas. However, like Gandhi, Tagore was also active in combatting the Indian caste system. Throughout his life, Tagore was a prolific writer of novels, plays, popular songs, and numerous works of nonfiction. While in his seventies, Tagore began painting and made a significant contribution to modern Indian art. Tagore died on August 7, 1941.

Major Works of Short Fiction

Tagore's short stories are available to English-language readers in several major volumes, including The Hungry Stones (1916), Mashi (1918), and Broken Ties (1925). More recent translations include Collected Stories from Rabindranath Tagore (1970) and Collected Stories (1974). As a short fiction writer, Tagore was a practitioner of psychological and social realism. His stories depict poignant human relationships within a simple, relatively uneventful plots. In “Postmaster,” a young orphaned girl employed by the postmaster in a remote village regards him as a surrogate father; when he returns to his home and family in Calcutta she is devastated at being left behind. Failing to appreciate the depth of her longing for family, the postmaster laughs at her request to be taken home with him. The story “Kabuliwalla” concerns a man who appears brusque, crude, and violent—to the extent that he is in prison—but is so sentimental about his faraway daughter that he cherishes a crumpled piece of paper because it is smudged with her fingerprints. “The Return of Khokababu” is about a servant who while caring for the infant of a wealthy couple briefly looks away from the child during which time it drowns and is never found. The servant moves away, marries, and has a son of his own. When the son is grown, the servant brings him to the wealthy couple claiming that he had in fact kidnapped their infant son years ago and is now returning him. Tagore's short stories often focus on the struggles of women and girls in traditional Indian society. Many of these tales are concerned with marital relationships and the various forms of estrangement and conflict between husband and wife. “A Wife's Letter” is narrated by a woman writing to her husband describing the many injustices imposed upon married women. In the tale “Vision” a woman goes blind after which her husband begins to neglect her and falls in love with a young girl. “Number One” depicts a woman who commits suicide in order to escape the conflict she feels between her sense of duty to her husband and her love for another man. In “Punishment,” a man kills his wife in a fit of rage; his brother, wishing to save him from punishment, convinces his own wife to testify that she is the murderer. Several short stories by Tagore involve elements of the supernatural and contain qualities of the eerie or weird tale, thus inviting comparison to the fantastic tales of Edgar Allan Poe. “The Hungry Stones” is about a man staying in an old palace who becomes enchanted by invisible ghosts; in “Living or Dead,” a woman, thought to be dead, regains consciousness during her funeral only to be regarded by her family as a phantasm, and to prove that she is truly alive, she drowns herself; and “The Skeleton” portrays a man who engages in dialogue with the ghost of a skeleton used in classroom demonstrations.

Critical Reception

“The modern short story is Rabindranath Tagore's gift to Indian culture,” observed Vishwanath S. Naravane in 1977. Of Tagore's two hundred short stories, Naravane asserted, “about twenty are pearls of the purist variety.” Many of Tagore's short stories became available in English after he had gained international acclaim as the Nobel Prize-winning poet of Gitanjali. Early reviewers in English received Tagore's stories with mixed appraisal; while some applauded his short fiction, others found them of negligible quality. Later critics have commented that these early reviewers were ignorant of the context of Indian culture in which the stories are set. Commentators have praised Tagore for his blending of poetic lyricism with social realism, as well as the way in which his unearthly tales maintain psychological realism within an atmosphere of supernatural occurrences. Scholars frequently praise Tagore's short stories for the deeply human quality of the characters and relationships. Mohinder Kaur commented of Tagore, “With an infinite sympathy and rare psychological insight, he works out the emotional possibilities of different human relations.” For example, B. C. Chakravorty says of “The Postmaster,” counted among Tagore's finest short stories, “The story by itself is hopelessly uninteresting. But it acquires immense interest on account of the passages of lyrical grandeur which give a poetic expression to the feelings of the orphan girl and those of the postmaster.”

Principal Works

Glimpses of Bengal Life 1913

The Hungry Stones and Other Stories 1916

Mashi and Other Stories 1918

Totakahini [The Parrot's Training] 1918

The Trial of the Horse 1919

Broken Ties and Other Stories 1925

The Runaway and Other Stories 1958

Galpa Guccha [Story Collection] 1959

Collected Stories from Rabindranath Tagore 1970

Collected Stories 1974

Chokher Bali [Eyesore or Binodini] (novel) 1901

Gora (novel) 1907–10

Gitanjali [Song Offerings] (poetry) 1910

Dak-Ghar [The Post Office] (play) 1912

The Crescent Moon (poetry) 1913

The Gardener (poetry) 1913

Fruit-Gathering (poetry) 1916

Ghare-Baire [The Home and the World] (novel) 1916

Lover's Gift and Crossing (poetry) 1918

The Fugitive and Other Poems (poetry) 1919

Criticism

Reginald R. Buckley (review date 1916)

SOURCE: A review of Hungry Stones, in Bookman, Vol. 50, December, 1916, pp. 6–7.

[In the following excerpt, Buckley offers a favorable assessment of Hungry Stones.]

To turn from the poems of Tagore to his stories is to descend from the mountain, with its shadow of Infinity and its peak of solitude, to the valleys and habitations of men.

Hungry Stones, which gives its name to the volume, has its touch of horror—a hint of the quality of De Quincey when he gave his mind to make our flesh creep. But there is something far finer in “The Victory,” which is translated by the author himself. The subject is the old tournament of song,...

(The entire section is 706 words.)

North American Review (review date 1917)

North American Review (review date 1917)

SOURCE: A review of Hungry Stones, in North American Review, Vol. 205, 1917, pp. 149–50.

[In the following review, the commentator criticizes Tagore's skills as a short story writer.]

There can be little doubt that as a poet Tagore appeals to the poetically minded in this country very nearly if not quite as strongly as he does to lovers of poetry in India. The question whether or not he really appeals to Americans as a story-teller is more difficult to answer; yet this is a question that the reader of Tagore's recently published volume of short stories, The Hungry Stones, is fairly...

(The entire section is 670 words.)

Times Literary Supplement (review date 1918)

Times Literary Supplement (review date 1918)

SOURCE: “Indian Tales,” in Times Literary Supplement, April 18, 1918, p. 183.

[The following review offers a negative assessment of Tagore's Mashi and Other Stories.]

The publication of this book [Mashi and Other Stories] proves that Sir Rabindranath Tagore is now a popular author. “Translated from the original Bengali by various writers,” the little stories that it contains have, as none will need to be assured, their charm; but, were it not for “Gitanjali,” for Chitra, and for “Sadhana,” they would scarcely have won paper and cloth and the labour of the press in...

(The entire section is 827 words.)

St. Nihal Singh (review date 1918)

SOURCE: A review of Mashi and Other Stories, in Bookman, Vol. 55, No. 325, October, 1918, pp. 20–1.

[In the following excerpt, Singh is critical of Tagore's stories in Mashi, asserting that they offer a harmful representation of Indians to Western readers.]

In strange contrast with the note of joy and inspiration in Lover's Gift and Crossing, a note of pessimism runs through the pages of Rabindranath's Mashi and Other Stories. The only explanation for this that occurs to me is that most of his tales deal with one phase or another of the transition through which India is passing, and that transition is inspiring anxiety in the minds of men...

(The entire section is 588 words.)

Mary M. Lago (essay date 1967)

SOURCE: “Modes of Questioning in Tagore's Short Stories,” in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 5, No. 1, Fall, 1967, pp. 24–36.

[In the following essay, Lago explores the themes of ethical dilemma and moral choice in Tagore's stories “Punishment” and “A Lapse of Judgement” in the context of Indian culture, politics, and history.]

With a unanimity rare among literary critics, four contemporary Bengali scholars agree that with the work of Rabindranath Tagore the short story “came of age” in Bengali literature. Srikumar Banerjee, a teacher of Bengali literature, says that “it was he among Bengali writers who first discovered the form of the short...

(The entire section is 5030 words.)

Mary M. Lago (essay date 1976)

SOURCE: “Tagore's Short Fiction,” in Rabindranath Tagore, Twayne, 1976, pp. 80–114.

[In the following essay, Lago discusses Tagore's short fiction as the first “modern” short stories in Bengali literature and also some major themes in Tagore's stories.]

Bengali literary historians generally agree that in their literature the modern short story began with Tagore's stories of the 1890's. No leading writer of Bengali short fiction (as distinct from the tale or short narrative) pre-dates him. Buddhadeva Bose says that Rabindranath “brought us the short story when it was hardly known in England.”1 Sukumar Sen says: “Tagore is the first writer of...

(The entire section is 14114 words.)

Sankar Basu (essay date 1985)

SOURCE: “Tagore: Ideas and Themes,” in Chekhov and Tagore: A Comparative Study of Their Short Stories, Sterling Publishers, 1985, pp. 56–89.

[In the following essay, Basu compares the short stories of Tagore to those of Anton Chekhov in terms of literary realism.]

There were certain important episodes, in the personal life of Tagore, which found expression in his works of the ninetes of the nineteenth century. As advised by his father, during the nineties Tagore had to take up responsibility of running the family estate. He had to leave Calcutta and stay in the village. From 1891 onwards Tagore had to travel a lot in these estates in central and nothern parts of...

(The entire section is 12268 words.)

France Bhattacharya (essay date 1989)

SOURCE: “The Supernatural in Tagore's Short Stories,” in Rabindranath Tagore: Perspectives in Time, edited by Mary Lago and Ronald Warwick, MacMillan, 1989, pp. 67–82.

[In the following essay, Bhattacharya discusses elements of the supernatural in ten of Tagore's short stories from the volume Story Collection (1959).]

Tagore's short fiction presents abundant evidence of his genius as a story-teller, which his fame as a poet slightly overshadows. He was virtually the first writer in Bengali to take up the cultivation of this modern literary genre. Between 1884 and 1925 he wrote more than eighty short stories, all very different one from the other. Omitting...

(The entire section is 6742 words.)

Lansing Evans Smith (essay date 1997)

SOURCE: “Myths of Poesis, Hermeneusis, and Psychogenesis: Hoffmann, Tagore, and Gilman,” in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 34, No. 2, Spring, 1997, p. 227.

[In the following essay, Smith discusses the archetypal, mythical elements of the maze, the goddess, and descent into the underworld in Tagore's “The Hungry Stones,” as well as in stories by E. T. A. Hoffmann and Charlotte Perkins Gilman.]

The myths of the maze, the goddess, and the descent to the underworld play a key role in the “Mines of Falun” by E. T. A. Hoffmann, “The Hungry Stones” by Rabindranath Tagore, and “The Yellow Wallpaper,” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. All three works present...

(The entire section is 4197 words.)