Rabindranath Tagore: A life less ordinary

Aamir Butt

Rabindranath Tagore: A life less ordinary

Genius is a title often coffered on individuals rather freely,  yet no one can argue that Rabindranath Tagore was a genius in every sense of the word. A man who excelled at whatever he did, poetry, short stories, novels, music, painting, theatres etc. etc. and yet still found the time for humanitarian and social projects! A man who still had the energy and vision to establish a unique school and educational system. For besides his well known contributions to poetry and literature Tagore was an educationalist, administrator, critic, humanist, lifelong commentator on politics, friend of Gandhi and famous figures like Einstein, a man who lectured throughout the US and Europe and Japan, someone never afraid of being open but also critical of his and these other major cultures!


Having brought up in the background of North-West Indian culture and not knowing Bengali my exposure to Tagore has been limited. Yet I was fascinated by a man who in 1913 became the first non-European to be awarded the Nobel prize for literature, not for another 55 years was an Asian  awarded this honour! A man who’s poems have become the national anthem for two of the three countries that were born out of India (Bharat and Bangladesh),


Such towering personalities with their achievements leave us  in awe of their glittering success, however for me it is always interesting to try and find out about the person who is behind these achievements.  What was he like as a person? How was his childhood, his marriage,   did he have children, if yes how was he as a parent? etc. Finding answers to these questions is fascinating and in this process I am able to give some context to the work and legacy of an artist like Tagore.


Rabindranath was born on 7th May 1861 in Calcutta, Bengal. His grandfather, Dawarkanath Tagore was a rich and very successful merchant, in addition he was highly learned being proficient in English, Persian and Arabic besides his native Bengali. Rabindranath’s father, Debendranath, did what some who are born and brought up in wealth do, he rejected a lifestyle of abundance, did not take up his father’s business (or any other business) and became a spiritual leader  and mystic traveller.  No doubt his father’s spiritual rather than material lifestyle had a profound influence on Rabinradanath’s course in life but we should keep in mind that the wealth left behind by the grandfather, though much diminished with time, allowed Rabindranath to free himself, at least to some extent from the concerns of earning a living and spend his time in pursuit of poetry and literature. Rabindranath had a privileged yet lonely childhood. His father was mostly away in the Himalayas and his mother had little time for him while looking after a large extended family household, it seems that there were over a hundred people living in that house at the same time! . Little Rabindranath was brought up by servants  and later on described his experiences of the daily comings and goings of various characters like the maid returning from the market, the water bearer bringing water, the milkman delivering milk, the tailor bent over his sewing etc. The other day a colleague from Delhi was telling me about similar daily activities at his parent’s house that he misses in England,  I guess we all have such memories of what to me is the rhythm of our childhood home that stay with us and is a source of nostalgia for as long as we live.


Rabindranath was only 13 when his mother died. At that time he was too young to understand the full extent of the tragedy. The night she died he was sleeping soundly with other children and was awoken by the nurse who entered  the room crying:’ Oh my little ones, you have lost your all!’ Tagore later remembers this ‘Half awakened by her words, I felt my heart sink within me, but could not make out what had happened. When in the morning we were told of her death, I could not realize all that it meant for me. As we came out into the verandah we saw my mother laid on a bedstead in the courtyard. There was nothing in her appearance which showed death to be terrible. The aspect which death wore in the morning light was as lovely as a calm and peaceful sleep, and the gulf between life and its absence was not brought home to us.’


Many years later, aged 61, he wrote this poem about his mother:


I cannot remember my mother,


only sometime in the midst of my play


a tune seems to hover over my playthings,


the tune of some song she used to


hum while rocking my cradle.


I cannot remember my mother,


but when in the early autumn morning


the smell of the shiuli flowers float in


the air, the scent of the morning service in the


temple comes to me as the scent


of my mother


I cannot remember my mother,


only when from my bedroom window


I send my eyes into the blue of the


distant sky,


I feel that the stillness of my mother’s


gaze on my face has spread all over the sky.


Rabindranath had six brothers and five sisters. One of the brothers Jyotirindranath who was 12 years older played a leading role in the literary and emotional development of Rabindranath and in fact became more of a surrogate father. His wife, Kadambari, just two years older, became a close friend and filled the gap of not having a woman to care for him in his life. A lot of Rabindranath’s early literary creations, for he was writing from the age of 16, were influenced by the tastes of Jyoti and Kadambari.


In 1878 Rabindranath’s father decided that he should go to England and become a barrister and so he set sail overseas. Seventeen months later he returned having spent time in Brighton and London without any degree to his name. From a very early age Tagore disliked formalized education and collection of degrees and diplomas and this trip to England was the last attempt to get him educated in this way.  In 1883 at the tender age of 22 Rabindranath married Mrinalini. Tagore may not have been madly in love with his wife but there is little doubt that he cared about her and along with the children his family was the centre of his world. When he travelled to England in 1890 in one of his letters he writes to his wife ‘On Sunday night I felt my spirit leave my body and come and see you…I shall ask you when I return from my travels if you saw me too’ However it is also apparent that the close friendship he sought from Mirnalini he may  not have acquired as he writes in another letter  “If you and I could be comrades in all our work and in all our thoughts it would be splendid, but we cannot attain all that we desire.”


There is significant correspondence in which he shares with his wife his love, his dreams and concerns regarding their children. He was especially close to the eldest daughter Bela. Yet Tagore believed in marrying off daughters at a young age so that they can adjust in their new homes. After Bela got married she moved somewhere far from home. Her mother was obviously concerned and Tagore went to visit her and subsequently wrote to his wife to reassure her that Bela is happy in her new home. In his letter he writes: ‘We must forget our own joy and sorrow where our children are concerned. They come into the world not merely for our happiness. We must dedicate ourselves to their wellbeing and their future. Yesterday my mind went back to Bella’s childhood continuously. I brought her up with such loving care. I remember how she would play with the pillows in bed and leap upon the little boys that came her way. How greedy she was and yet so good natured. I remember how I used to bathe her in our Park Street house, wake her up and feed her with warm milk in the nights when we were in Darjeeling. Those days of having her so close kept hunting me. But she doesn’t know all this. It is better that she doesn’t, so that she can now fill her life painlessly with affection and adoration for her new family. Let us never forget that.’


This poem, that was part of a collection published later was most likely inspired by Bela’s childhood:


When I bring to you coloured toys, my child, I understand why there is such a play of colours on clouds, on water, and why flowers are painted in tints—when I give coloured toys to you, my child.


When I sing to make you dance, my child, I truly know why there is music in leaves, and why waves send their chorus of voices to the heart of the listening earth—when I sing to make you dance, my child.


When I bring sweet things to your greedy hands, my child,  I know why there is honey in the cup of the flowers and why fruits are secretly filled with sweet juice—when I bring sweet things to your greedy hands, my child.


When I kiss your face to make you smile, my darling, I surely understand what pleasure streams from the sky in the morning light, and what delight that is which the summer breeze brings to my body—when I kiss to make you smile, my darling.


One of things we learn about writers when we read about them rather than just their work  is the amount of personal tragedies they have to go through, and in this respect Tagore’s life was exceptionally full of tragedy.  Just four months after his marriage for reasons I can’t find Kadambari committed suicide. Besides the fact that he was very close to her the sudden and unexpected way she died had a profound influence on Tagore.  Yet the shock and despair he felt allowed him to develop his philosophy on death at a very early age as he writes:‘ That which I had held I was made to let go—this was the sense of loss which distressed me—but when at the same moment I viewed it from the standpoint of freedom gained, a great peace fell upon me.           The all-pervading pressure of worldly existence compensates itself by balancing life against death, and thus it does not crush us. The terrible weight of an unopposed life-force has not to be endured by man—this truth came upon me that day as a sudden, wonderful revelation. With the loosening of the attractions of the world, the beauty of nature took on for me a deeper meaning. Death had given me the correct perspective from which to perceive the world in the fullness of its beauty, and as I saw the picture of the Universe against the background of Death, I found it entrancing.’


This philosophy without doubt enabled Tagore to cope with what came latter for another man could well have gone mad with despair. In 1902 his wife died and just nine months later his second daughter Renuka who he called Rani died after a protracted illness. During this time Tagore was grieving the death of his wife while nursing his daughter as well as looking after the two youngest children aged 9 and 7 who had just lost their mother, yet it was during this time that he wrote his renowned collection of poems for children, Sisu (Child)!


On the seashores of endless worlds children meet. The infinite sky is motionless overhead and the restless water is boisterous. On the seashores of endless worlds the children meet with shouts and dance.


The know not how to swim, they know not how to cast nets. Pearl fishers dive for pearls, merchants sail in their shops, while children gather pebbles and scatter them again. They seek not for hidden treasures, they know not how to cast nets.


And another poem goes:


The sleep that flits on baby’s eyes–does anybody know from where it comes? Yes, there is a rumour that it has its dwelling there, in the fairy village among shadows of the forest dimly lit with glow-worms, there hang two timid buds of enchantment. From there it comes to kiss baby’s eyes.


The smile that flickers on baby’s lips when he sleeps-does anybody know where it was born? Yes, there is a rumour that a young pale beam of a crescent moon touched the edge of a vanishing autumn cloud, and there the smile was first born in the dream of a dew-washed morning-the smile that flickers on baby’s lips when he sleeps.      


The sweet,  soft freshness that blooms on baby’s limbs-does anybody know where it was hidden so long? Yes, when the mother was a young girl it lay pervading her heart in tender and silent mystery of love-the sweet, soft freshness that has bloomed on baby’s limbs.    


Sorrow had not yet hat its fill of Tagore’s life, in 1907 his youngest son died at the age of 11 and in 1918 his beloved daughter Bela succumbed to TB.  In a letter to his close friend painter William Rothenstien he writes; ‘Something has happened to me lately which I find difficult to mention. I very seldom speak about it to anybody. It is the death of my eldest daughter Bela. She was exceptionally beautiful in body and mind, and I cannot think that all things that are real in the world cannot afford to lose the intense reality of life and yet remain the same. We can only see one side of the truth from the point where we live and miss the meaning of death, but there must be another side where it is in harmony with life, like the setting sun whose meaning is not in its disappearance but in the new morning outside our ken.’


Only two of his children outlived Tagore and one of them, the youngest daughter Mira whom he married off at a young age divorced soon afterwards for which he always blamed himself and in 1932, Mira’s son, Tagore’s only grandson, died at the age of 24.  Yet Tagore suffered all these tragedies silently  and kept working tirelessly year after year. As he writes to Mira:


Sukham va Yadi va dukham_


Priyam va Yadi va ‘priyam


Praptam praptam upasita hrdayenaparajitah


(Be it happiness or sorrow,


Be it agreeable or disagreeable


Do receive it with undaunted spirit)


In 1912 a collection of Tagore’s poems was published as a book titled Gitanjali (Song Offerings). These consisted of English translations from his selected poems. Painter William Rothenstien was instrumental in introducing him to W.B. Yeats (Nobel Prize for Literature 1926) who helped with the translation and wrote the introduction to the book. Yeats writes ‘I have carried the manuscript of these translations about me for four days, reading it in railway trains, or on the top of omnibuses and in restaurants, and I have often had to close it least some stranger would see how much it moved me.‘  In 1913 the book won him the Nobel Prize for literature, the citation from the award committee read; “because of his profoundly sensitive, fresh and beautiful verse, by which, with consummate skill, he has made his poetic thought, expressed in his own English words, a part of the literature of the West”


His acceptance of the prize was via telegram that was read  at the ceremony and read ‘ I beg to convey to the Swedish Academy my grateful appreciation of the breadth of understanding which has brought the distant near, and has made a stranger a brother.’


The enduring theme of Tagore’s thoughts is the need for harmony and fusion between various faiths as well as between East and West. Jana Gana Mana a hymn he wrote in 1911 had its first stanza adopted to become the national anthem of post-partition India, yet the second stanza has a message which was close to Tagore’s heart:


Your call is announced continuously,
We heed Your gracious call
The Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs, Jains, Parsees,
Muslims, and Christians,
The East and the West come together,
To the side of Your throne
And weave the garland of love.
Oh! You who bring in the unity of the people!
Victory be to You, dispenser of the destiny of India!
Victory, victory, victory to You!


While his poems display the deep religiosity he retained throughout his life,  he was a conventionally religious, a Hindu, only for a very short time. Very early in his life he rejected systemized and institutionalized religions in favour of a universal mystic religion that was free of dogma and ritual, that was meant to bring people together rather than to divide them into groups.


Leave this chanting and singing and telling of beads! Whom dost thou worship in this lonely dark corner of a temple with doors all shut? Open thine eyes and see thy God is not before thee!


He is there where the tiller is tilling the hard ground and where the pathmaker is breaking stones. He is with them in the sun and in shower, and his garment is covered with dust. Put of thy holy mantle and even like him come down on the dusty soil!


Deliverance? Where is this deliverance to be found? Our master himself has joyfully taken upon him the bonds of creation; he is bound with us all forever.


Come out of thy meditations and leave aside thy flowers and incense! What harm is there if thy clothes become tattered and stained? Meet Him and stand by Him in toil and in sweet of thy brow.


From 1889 onwards Tagore spent a lot of time on his family estates in East Bengal, these areas are now part of Bangladesh. Much like Tolstoy Tagore became very close and intimate with the poor peasants who toiled these lands. The helplessness and innocence of these peasants had a profound effect on him. His works from here on often speak about the poor peasants and  the need to improve their lot and to make them stand for their rights. As he writes:


‘They do not revile  their fate nor curse their God,                                                                                       they blame no man, they know no pride,                                                                                                      they only seek to live their dreary life                                                                                                                by picking crumbs of food.                                                                                                                            When these crumbs are snatched away,                                                                                                            they know not where to seek redress.                                                                                                                     One long sigh rises towards the poor man’s God                                                                                                     and then they die in silence.                                                                                                                                          We must bring speech to these dumb denuded lips                                                                                          We must light with hope those weary empty hearts


Besides acting as the catalyst for Tagore’s social and humanistic endeavours this experience crystallized his religious beliefs and practices.


This is my prayer to thee, my lord–strike, strike at the root of penury in my heart.                                                 Give me the strength lightly to bear my joys and sorrows.                                                                        Give me the strength to make my love fruitful in service.                                                                                 Give me the strength to never disown the poor or bend my knees before insolent might.                                Give me the strength to raise my mind high above daily trifles                                                                      And give me the strength to surrender my strength to thy will with love.


Tagore’s poetry is laden with mysticism and metaphor. The religion is universal and if one reads English translations of Ibn Arabi (Arabic), Rumi (Persian), Bullay Shah (Punjabi) and Tagore (Bengali) it sometimes is not possible to tell the difference because of the similarity of the underlying message!


Temples and mosques obstruct thy path                                                                                                           and I fail to hear thy call or to move                                                                                                            when teachers and priests angrily crowd around me.                                                                                  Love is the magic stone, that transmits by its touch                                                                                                   greed into sacrifice.                                                                                                                                                 For the sake of this love heaven longs to become earth                                                                                 and gods to become man.


And the love is first for your fellow humans, regardless of their faith, cast, wealth and thoughts and the final and ultimate love is for God who in mystical poetry is often portrayed as the lost beloved and the purpose of life is the ultimate union with Him.


That I want thee, only thee–let my heart repeat without end. All desires that distract me, day and night, are false and empty to the core.


As the night keeps hidden in its gloom the petition for light, even thus in the depth of my unconsciousness rings the cry-‘I want thee, only thee’


As the storm still seeks its end in peace when it strikes against peace with all its might, even thus my rebellion strikes against they love and still its cry is–‘I want thee, only thee’


Tagore had deep love for his native land, for Bengal and India. However he also advised against total rejection of Western ideas. For him the best course was to take the good things from East and West and use this to improve the destiny of his people. As he prayed;


Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high


Where knowledge is free


Where the world has not been broken up into fragments by narrow domestic walls


Where words come out from the depth of truth


Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection


Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way into the dreary desert sand of dead habit


Where the mind is led forward by thee into ever-widening thought and action—–


Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake


Though he had great admiration for Gandhi  he did not approve of his politics. Tagore did not believe that getting self rule will solve the problems of India as he writes;


Those of us in India who have come under the delusion that mere political freedom will make us free have accepted their lessons from the West as the gospel  truth and lost their faith in humanity. We must remember that whatever weakness we cherish in our society will  become the source of danger in politics. The same inertia that leads us to our idolatry of dead forms in social institutions will create in our politics prison-houses with immovable walls. The narrowness of sympathy which make it possible for us to impose upon a considerable portion of humanity the galling yoke of inferiority will assert itself in our politics in creating the tyranny of justice.


His words ring true in the post independence politics of India and Pakistan.  In 1905 when the British partitioned Bengal on communal lines Tagore was at the forefront of the movement to oppose this division. It was then that he wrote the poem Amar Sonar Bangla, an odd of love to Bengal that subsequently became the national anthem of Bangladesh.


My Bengal of Gold,
I love you.
Forever your skies,
Your air set my heart in tune
As if it were a flute.
In spring, O mother mine,
The fragrance from your mango groves
Makes me wild with joy,
Ah, what a thrill!
In autumn, O mother mine,
In the full blossomed paddy fields
I have seen spread all over sweet smiles.
Ah, what beauty, what shades,
What an affection, and what tenderness!
What a quilt have you spread
At the feet of banyan trees
And along the banks of rivers!
Oh mother mine, words from your lips
Are like nectar to my ears.
Ah, what a thrill!
If sadness, O mother mine,
Casts a gloom on your face,
My eyes are filled with tears!
Golden Bengal,
I love you.


Tagore was fortunate that he did not have to watch the bloody and permanent partition not only of India but Bengal that happened a few years after his death.


Wilfred Owen a British soldier who died in WW1 aged 25 is regarded as the leading poet of the war. His poems told the public about the horrors of war rather than harping on jingoistic verses. In 1920 Owen’s mother wrote a letter to Tagore that read; “I have been trying to find courage to write to you ever since I heard that you were in London ~ but the desire to tell you something is finding its way into this letter today. The letter may never reach you, for I do not know how to address it, tho’ I feel sure your name upon the envelope will be sufficient. It is nearly two years ago, that my dear eldest son went out to the War for the last time and the day he said goodbye to me ~ we were looking together across the sun-glorified sea ~ looking towards France, with breaking hearts ~ when he, my poet son, said those wonderful words of yours ~ beginning at ‘When I go from hence, let this be my parting word’ ~ and when his pocket book came back to me ~ I found these words written in his dear writing ~ with your name beneath.”


The poem reads:


When I go from hence let this be my parting word, that what I have seen is unsurpassable.


I have tasted of the hidden honey of this lotus that expands on the ocean of light, and thus am I blessed–let this be my parting word.


In this playhouse of infinite forms I have had my play and here have I caught sight of him that is formless.


My whole body and my limbs have thrilled with his touch who is beyond touch; and if the end comes here, let it come-let this be my parting word.


Rabindranath Tagore


Born 7th May 1861, died 7th August 1941

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(1) Reader Comment

  1. How touching…never knew so much about Tagore!