Article abstract: Nobel laureate Tagore, known for his lyric poetry, synthesized Eastern and Western spirituality in his numerous literary and philosophical works. He described a “religion of man,” which emphasized the divinity of humanity and the humanity of God.
Rabindranath Tagore was born on May 7, 1861, into a prosperous Bengali family in Calcutta, India. The fourteenth child and eighth son of Debendranath Tagore and Sarada Devi, he grew up surrounded by the artistic and intellectual pursuits of his elders. Agricultural landholdings in East Bengal supported the family’s leisurely lifestyle, and their Calcutta mansion was a center for Bengalis who, like the Tagores, sought to integrate Western influences in literature, philosophy, arts, and sciences into their own culture. Young Tagore was a sensitive and interested child who, like his siblings, lived in awe of his father, a pillar of the Hindu reform group Brahmo Samaj. Cared for mainly by servants because of his mother’s ill health, he lived a relatively confined existence, watching the life of crowded Calcutta from the windows and courtyards of his protected home.
From an early age, Tagore’s literary talents were encouraged. Like the other Tagore children, he was thoroughly schooled in Bengali language and literature as a foundation for integrating culturally diverse influences, and, throughout his long career, Tagore composed most of his work in Bengali. In 1868, he was enrolled in the Oriental Seminary, where he quickly rebelled against formal education. Unhappy, transferring to different schools, Tagore nevertheless became appreciated as a budding poet during this time both in school and at home. In 1873, he was withdrawn from school to accompany his father on a tour of northern India and the Himalayas. This journey served as a rite of passage for the boy, who was deeply influenced by his father’s presence and by the grandeur of nature. It also provided his first opportunity to roam in the open countryside.
Returning to Calcutta, Tagore boycotted school and, from 1873 on, was educated at home by tutors and his brothers. In 1874, he began to recite publicly his poetry, and his first long poem was published in the monthly journal Bhārati. For the next four years, he gave recitations and published stories, essays, and experiments in drama. In 1878, Tagore went to England to prepare for a career in law at University College, London, but he withdrew in 1880 and returned to India. Tagore’s stay in England was not a happy one, but during those fourteen months, his intellectual horizons broadened as he read English literature with Henry Morley and became acquainted with European music and drama.
Returning to India, Tagore resumed his writing amid the intellectual family life in Calcutta, especially influenced by his talented elder brothers, Jyotirindranath (writer, translator, playwright, and musician) and the scholarly Satyendranath. Tagore’s view of life at this time was melancholy; yet, with the metrical liberty of his poems in Sandhya Sangit (1882; evening songs), it became clear that he was already establishing new artistic and literary standards. Tagore then had a transcendental experience that abruptly changed his work. His gloomy introspection expanded in bliss and insight into the outer world, and Tagore once again perceived the innocent communion with nature that he had known as a child. This vision was reflected in Prabhat Sangit (1883; morning songs), and his new style was immediately popular. By his mid-twenties, Tagore had published devotional songs, poetry, drama, and literary criticism and was established as a lyric poet, primarily influenced by the early Vaishnava lyricists of Bengal and by the English Romantics. In 1883, he married Mrinalini Devi and continued to reflect his optimism in a burst of creativity that lasted for the next twenty years. During this period, he began to write nonsymbolic drama, and his verse Kari O Komal (1887; sharps and flats) is considered a high point in his early lyrical achievement.
In 1890, Tagore’s father sent him to Shelaidaha, the family home in eastern Bengal, to oversee the family estates, and thus began the most productive period of Tagore’s prolific career. His sympathetic observation of the daily activity of the Bengali peasant, as well as an intimacy with the seasons and moods of the rural countryside, sharpened Tagore’s literary sensitivity and provided him with subject matter for his poems and essays during the 1890’s. Tagore also wrote short stories—developing the genre in Bengali literature—and in 1891 started the monthly journal Sadhana, in which he published some of his work. In addition to literary output, Tagore began to lecture and write on his educational theories and the politics of Bengal, and he came more and more into public life. In 1898, he took his family to live in Shelaidaha, planning to spare his children the schooling against which he rebelled by educating them himself. The family soon moved to Santiniketan at Bolpur, where Tagore founded his experimental school, which became a lifelong commitment. He continued to write ceaselessly during this time: stories, poems, essays, textbooks, and a history of India. In 1901, he became editor of The Bengal Review and also launched into a period as a novelist, reflecting the political situation of the time in his work. Tagore’s Gora (1910; English translation, 1924) is considered by many to be the greatest Bengali novel.
The year 1902 saw the school in serious financial condition and also brought the death of Tagore’s wife. Others close to him passed away—his daughter in 1903, his favorite pupil in 1904, and his father in 1905—and Tagore experienced a time of withdrawal. In 1905, he was pulled back into public life by the division of Bengal. Tagore served as a highly visible leader in the antipartition nationalist movement and composed patriotic prose and songs popular with the people....
(The entire section is 2492 words.)