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Portrait of R. Tagore
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Eminent Bengali Renaissance poet, philosopher, essayist, critic, composer, and educator, Rabindrinath Tagore became the first-ever Asian writer to be awarded a Nobel Prize--in 1913 for his cycle of song-poems, GITANJALI, for which he made English free-verse translations of the original Bengali lyrics. His long and influential artistic, political, and pedagogical career helped build a bridge between Western and Eastern thought.

Bengali Illumination on cover of GITANJALI
Bengali Illumination on cover of GITANJALI
Born on May 6, 1861 in Calcutta into the Brahmin caste -- (the family surname, "Tagore," was an anglicization of the Bengali "Thakur," which means "Lord") -- Rabindrinath Tagore came of an affluent, artistic, and well-educated Hindu family who were activists of the Bengali Renaissance. His grandfather Dwarkanath Tagore was one of the first Hindus to visit England; the poet's father Debendranath Tagore was active in the Brahmo Samjai, a Hindu nationalist movement which stressed the revival of Indian literature and folklore, at the same time that it believed in promoting cross-cultural ties between East and West.

From his boyhood, Tagore wrote verse--some 7000 lines by the time he was seventeen--inspired by his travels throughout India with his father and influenced by the ancient Bengali Vaishnava poets, as well as by Shakespeare, Shelley, Keats, and the English Romantics. Raised in an atmosphere where the necessity of East and West to each other was a basic tenet, Tagore was sent to England in 1877 to study at University College in London. His year in Britain produced several sentimental dramas, but more importantly introduced the young poet to his first Western music: the IRISH MELODIES of Thomas Moore, which he would later incorporate into his play THE GENIUS OF VALMIKI.

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East & West

Back home in 1878, Tagore continued to write prolifically, as well as to compose and perform his own Bengali songs. Music figured prominently as a metaphor, a dramatic presence, and prime mover in his verse, and sung melody was often the underlying inspiration for his poetry. Among his early collections are PICTURES AND SONGS, SHARPS AND FLATS (which also contained translations of Moore, Shelley, Browning, and Rossetti). His youthful autobiography, REMINISCENCES, ends abruptly in his twenty-fifth year with the suicide of his sister-in-law Kamali, with whom there is some suspicion he may have been in love.

In the period from 1887-1897, Tagore began to experiment with blank verse in his dramas, to embark on some political writing, while continuing to use the song form in poems such as MANASI, which recalls Wagner's FIRE MUSIC and Keats' ODE TO A NIGHTINGALE. The outbreak of the Boer War and the accompanying unrest in the British Empire in 1898-1905 increased Tagore's preoccupation with politics and strengthened his vision of the poet as a moral presence. Not only does Tagore's verse become more mystical and religious, but the poet also sought to put into practice his philosophy through the founding of a special school. He called it "Santiniketan" and saw it as a self-governing, idealistic republic in which teacher and pupil enjoyed a close relationship. Staffed by Indian and Western scholars, Tagore's sacred groves of academe sheltered him and gave him peace through the death of his wife in 1902, of his second daughter in 1904 and of his son in 1907--losses which he commemorated in twenty-seven sonnets to his wife and in THE CRESCENT MOON, a revelation of a child's mind.

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the Nobel Prize
Gitanjali From 1905-1919 Tagore was active as a speaker, lecturer, organizer, and song writer for the Swadeshi Nationalist Movement, while composing the poems which would bring him international recognition: GITANJALI (1907-1910) and later GITIMALYA, GITALI, BALAKA, and PHALGUNI--all written to be sung. William Butler Yeats, when he first read GITANJALI, exclaimed that the poems were "as much the growth of common soil as the grass and rushes." After winning the Nobel Prize in 1913, Tagore traveled abroad more extensively--to Europe, England, North and South America, and Japan--where he met many of the great Western writers and philosophers of the day and lectured on Indian politics and art.

Worried that the British Raj was moving toward ultimate ruin in India, yet convinced that Indian social systems needed to modernize before political freedom would be productive, Tagore avoided the Indian National Congress Movement. He was, however, jolted by Lord Chelmsford's bloody suppression of the 1919 Punjab Riots. Feeling betrayed because he had always believed in the essential fairness of the British character and torn because he had friends in England, Tagore made a public protest by renouncing the Knighthood that had been conferred on him by the British Crown. Though he never abandoned his belief that East and West needed each other and that for India the Western tradition from Homer to Christ to modern literature held spiritual truths which could not be ignored, he suffered from these conflicts, which he struggled to express in his work.

He died on August 7, 1941, seven years before Mahatma Gandhi, who found inspiration in Tagore's writings, would win independence for India.

Though they never met, Tagore has often been compared to Walt Whitman, whose transcendentalism, Romanticism, and mysticism appealed to the Bengali poet. While most of the uncanny correspondences in their poetry appear to be more the result of that curious literary phenomenon of spontaneous simultaneity, both Whitman and Tagore share a common theme: that art is a process of self-creation which uses the divine within the individual to grow toward an awareness of the larger purpose of existence.

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When and Why (adapted by John Alden Carpenter)

When I bring [to] you colour[e]d toys, my child, I understand why there is such a play of colours on clouds, on water, and why flowers are printed in tints--when I give colour[e]d toys to you, my child.

When I sing to make you dance, 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.

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

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


I know not how thou singest, my master! I ever listen in silent amazement.

The light of thy music illumines the world. The life-breath of thy music runs from sky to sky. The holy stream of thy music breaks through all stony obstacles and rushes on.

My heart longs to join in thy song, but vainly struggles for a voice. I would speak, but speech breaks not into song, and I cry out baffled. Ah, thou hast made my heart captive in the endless mesh of thy music, my master!

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