Rabindranath Tagore Analysis

Other Literary Forms

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

A multifaceted genius, Rabindranath Tagore did not leave any literary genre unexplored. His worldwide fame rests chiefly on his achievements as a poet; the quality and quantity of his poetry have tended to overshadow his contributions in the areas of drama, fiction, and nonfiction. He published nearly sixty collections of poetry, consisting of short lyrics generally characterized by a unique metaphysical strain, a yearning spiritual quest set against the beauty of the natural landscape of Bengal, his home state. This elemental force also manifested itself in the production of about three thousand Rabindrasangit, poignantly evocative songs for which Tagore both wrote the lyrics and composed the music.

Tagore produced ten novels and close to one hundred short stories in a comparatively “realistic” mode, unflinchingly examining social problems of the day and depicting their impact on representative characters. He translated many of his Bengali works into English, albeit with varying degrees of artistic success; some are justifiably regarded as original compositions in English. Tagore also wrote essays and letters, travelogues and memoirs, and delivered lectures and sermons on a wide variety of subjects; these considerable prose writings illuminate his personality and provide important insights into Tagore’s intellectual life as well as into the lives and times of the many people with whom he came into contact. He was both a pragmatist and philosopher, writing simple and eminently practical manuals (for example, on methods of village reconstruction in Bengal) and significant treatises on social, political, and educational, as well as religious and literary, matters. Toward the end of his life, he began to take up painting seriously, creating several striking works that are included in two portfolio collections.


(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Poet, dramatist, novelist, composer, critic, translator, philosopher, educator, nationalist, reformer, painter, director, choreographer, actor—Rabindranath Tagore’s talents were manifold. Any account of his accomplishments runs the risk of being inadvertently incomplete. The range and variety of his work prompted one respected Bengali scholar to comment that “Rabindranath is the world’s most complete writer.” He straddles the world of Bengali literature like a colossus; his writing is the yardstick against which other writers are compared. In all modern Indian literatures—let alone Bengali—Tagore’s influence was pervasive, inspiring a contemporary cultural renaissance. He is perhaps the one person readily identifiable as the modern Indian writer. At the popular level, Indians to a large degree venerate him as a seer: Mahatma Gandhi is known as the Mahtm (“Great Soul”), Tagore as the Gurudeva (“Revered Guru”).

In Tagore’s hands, the Bengali language underwent a rapid progression toward flexibility and modernization. The advance of Bengali literature telescoped into Tagore’s career what normally might have taken three or four generations of writers to achieve. Tagore revolutionized Bengali poetry by pioneering the use of colloquial diction in place of the stiff, formal Bengali rhetoric based on Sanskrit, by experimenting with and inventing many new verse forms and meters, and by choosing his subjects from every aspect of life. As an author of fiction, Tagore introduced and perfected the art of the short story in Bengali, and he refined the existing trend of dealing with realistic material. In the area of music, he rebelled against orthodoxy by combining in his songs the conventions of classical rga with the popular modes of folk music. His work in the theater featured an insistence on nonrepresentational stagecraft and the importance of the imagination, and an antipathy toward spectacle and illusionistic devices.

A firm believer in education as a natural, pleasurable, and creative experience, Tagore set a precedent by establishing his own open-classroom school away from the city of Calcutta, which grew into an international university founded on his idealistic concept of universal humanity. Actively concerned with social and economic reform, he later conceived of a rural reconstruction center near the university, where he implemented his ideas on community development, the earliest such experiment in India. Even in matters of politics, he was a visionary: Years before Gandhi arrived in India, Tagore had laid down the theoretical tenets of the doctrine of nonviolent noncooperation. One of the earliest prophets of internationalism, in his travels, Tagore interpreted India to the rest of the world, and the East to the West, in an appeal for universal understanding and cooperation.

Tagore received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1913, becoming the first non-European to win this award. Knighthood was conferred on him in 1915, which he resigned four years later to protest the Jalianwalla Bagh massacre at Amritsar, where British troops fired into a crowd of unarmed Indians, causing two thousand casualties. Tagore’s songs “Jana-gana-mana adhinyaka jaya he” (hail, the leader of the minds of our people) and “mr sonr bngl” (my golden Bengal) were chosen respectively as the national anthems of India in 1947 and Bangladesh in 1971.

Other literary forms

(World Poets and Poetry)

Besides more than fifty collections of poetry, Rabindranath Tagore (tuh-GOHR) wrote thirteen novels, ten collections of short stories, more than sixty plays, and numerous volumes of literary criticism, letters, translations, reminiscences, lectures, sermons, travel sketches, philosophy, religion, and politics. In addition, he translated a considerable amount of his own work from its original Bengali into English.

Tagore’s drama, which generally tends to be more lyric than dramatic, is best represented by Visarjan (pb. 1890; Sacrifice, 1917), Chitrngad (pb. 1892; Chitra, 1913), Prayaschitta (pr. 1909; atonement), Rj (pb. 1910; The King of the Dark Chamber, 1914), Dkghar (pb. 1912; Post Office, 1914), and Raktakarabi (pb. 1924; Red Oleanders, 1925). Examples of later plays—Muktadhr (pb. 1922; English translation, 1950), Natir Puj (pb. 1926; Worship of the Dancing Girl, 1950), and Chandlik (pr., pb. 1933; English translation, 1938)—were translated by Marjorie Sykes in Three Plays (pb. 1950).

Tagore’s fiction, which also reflects his lyric bent, sometimes seems to prefigure the “open form.” Including some of his best work, his short stories have been compared to those of Guy de Maupassant. Some of his short stories have been translated in The Hungry Stones, and Other Stories (1916), Mashi, and Other Stories (1918), and The Runaway, and Other Stories (1959). Gora (1910; English translation, 1924) is usually considered his best novel, but others of interest are Chokher bli (1902; Binodini, 1959), Ghare bire (1916; Home and the World, 1919), Chaturanga (1916; English translation, 1963), Jogajog (1929; cross currents), Shesher kabita (1929; Farewell My Friend, 1946), and Dui bon (1933; Two Sisters, 1945).

Tagore’s nonfictional prose, some of which was originally written as lectures in English, is represented by Jivansmriti (1912; My Reminiscences, 1917), Personality (1917), Nationalism (1919), Creative Unity (1922), The Religion of Man (1931), and Towards Universal Man (1961).


(World Poets and Poetry)

Few writers have achieved such fame as came to Rabindranath Tagore when he was awarded the 1913 Nobel Prize in Literature. The first Asian to receive the award, he was viewed in the West as the embodiment of Eastern mystical wisdom. Indian critics at the time, however, often attacked his work, usually for political reasons, even though he did more than any other writer to establish Bengali as a flexible literary language (he was experimenting with it to the end of his life). Perhaps needing money for the school he had established at Santiniketan, Tagore took advantage of his fame to churn out English translations. Although he admitted his limited skill in English, he was shrewd enough to satisfy the sentimental streak in his English-speaking audiences. The combination of modest skill and banality was devastating for his poetry. His so-called prose poems—usually paraphrases, though they occasionally break into Whitmanesque free verse—are noteworthy examples of what is lost in the translation of poetry. Eventually, these translations caught up with his reputation, which began sinking in the West about the time that graduates of Santiniketan began producing books on their Gurudev. One of these former students, Aurobindo Bose, has produced the best English translations of Tagore’s poetry now available.

As Jane Addams (of Hull House) noted, Tagore was “at once a poet, a philosopher, a humanitarian, an educator,” and as Hermann Hesse said, Tagore’s reputation was built in part on “the rich heritage of ancient Indian philosophy.” Similarly, Tagore’s work reflects certain native literary traditions, such as Indian drama and the Baul folk songs, which are alien to the West. Finally, where his poetry is concerned, it should be borne in mind that Tagore was a songwriter (he composed about two thousand songs), that he set some of his poems to music, and that in Bengali his poetry has rich musical qualities—rhythm, rhyme, alliteration, assonance—that accompany the words, images, and ideas. All these factors must be carefully weighed in evaluating Tagore’s overall achievement.

Otherwise, each individual work must be considered separately. Tagore wrote too much, so there is repetition and wide variation in quality, especially in his poetry. (Apparently he needed a critical audience off which to bounce his poems, but he found it neither in his Indian milieu nor in the adulatory West.) For example, the same period that produced Gitanjali Song Offerings and A Flight of Swans also produced the soppy poems in The Crescent Moon. Besides Gitanjali Song Offerings and A Flight of Swans, perhaps his finest works are the short stories translated in The Hungry Stones, and Other Stories. Readers of English would also do well to rediscover his lectures, wherein Tagore speaks for peace, internationalism, and understanding—themes prominent in his literary work.

Discussion Topics

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

How are Rabindranath Tagore’s religious beliefs reflected in his works?

How is Tagore’s love of nature reflected in his works?

The Irish poet William Butler Yeats often quoted Gitanjali Song Offerings. Which poem from that work most impressed you and why?

What evidence is there in Tagore’s fiction that despite his own aristocratic background, he understood and empathized with the Bengali peasants?

How does Tagore view women? What does he see as their proper place in society?

What is the thematic significance of the English title of Tagore’s novel The Home and the World?


(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Chakraverty, Bishweshwar. Tagore, the Dramatist: A Critical Study. 4 vols. Delhi: B. R. Publishing, 2000. A scholarly study of Tagore’s drama, organized by genre type. Bibliography and index.

Chatterjee, Bhabatosh. Rabindranath Tagore and Modern Sensibility. Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1996. A collection of the author’s original essays about Tagore’s writings, reanalyzed for this book.

Dutta, Krishna, and Andrew Robinson. Rabindranath Tagore: The Myriad-Minded Man. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1996. A complete biography of Tagore, with references to his works.

Ivbulis, Viktors. Tagore: East and West Cultural Unity. Calcutta: Rabindra Bharati University, 1999. The author looks at the influence of both the West and the East in Tagore’s work. Bibliography.

Kripalani, Krishna. Tagore: A Life. New Delhi: Malancha, 1961. Biography and works are closely interwoven in this text. The drawings and photographs of and by Tagore, his family, and his friends are extremely interesting.

Lago, Mary. Rabindranath Tagore. Boston: Twayne, 1976. The book includes an outline biography and an analysis of each of the major genres in which Tagore wrote.

Mitra, Indrani. “I Will Make Bimala One with My Country: Gender and Nationalism in Tagore’s The Home and the World.” Modern Fiction Studies 41 (1995): 243-64. Outlines the historical context of Tagore’s novel and analyzes its treatment of political action and women’s oppression.

Morash, Chris, ed. Creativity and Its Contexts. Dublin: Lilliput Press, 1995. A collection of essays about regionalism and creativity for several writers. Indian novelist Anita Desai wrote the essay on Tagore.

Mukherjee, Kedar Nath. Political Philosophy of Rabindranath Tagore. New Delhi: S. Chand, 1982. In this volume, Mukherjee presents an analysis of Tagore’s political philosophy—in order to fill what he perceives as a gap in the literature on Tagore—and emphasizes the value of Tagore’s philosophy in contemporary political situations, both in India and the world.

Nandi, Sudhirakumara. Art and Aesthetics of Rabindra Nath Tagore. Calcutta, India: Asiatic Society, 1999. Nandi analyzes the Tagore’s aesthetics as expressed in his writings. Bibliography and index.

Nandy, Ashis. The Illegitimacy of Nationalism: Rabindranath Tagore and the Politics of Self. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994. This study focuses on the political and social views of Tagore as demonstrated by his life and writings. Bibliography and index.

Nandy, Ashish. Return from Exile. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998. An analysis of Tagore’s political writing which puts him in the context of India’s move in the 1920’s toward nationalism. This, in turn, illuminates some of the philosophy and themes in his other writing.

Roy, R. N. Rabindranath Tagore, the Dramatist. Calcutta, India: A. Mukherjee, 1992. A study of Tagore that focuses on his dramatic works.

Sen Gupta, Kalyan. The Philosophy of Rabindranath Tagore. Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2005. A comprehensive introduction to Tagore’s poetry and essays and the way they relate to his philosophy, politics and religion.