Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941)

To this day, Tagore continues to inspire people around the world. A group at the University of Illinois holds a Tagore Festival every year. In December 2013, the festival focused on how Tagore inspired American suffragettes and, in that way, contributed to voting rights for women in the U.S.
Daniel Buttry

Indian artist and philosopher, influential worldwide and across time

Rabindranath Tagore profile

Public Domain/Wikimedia Commons

Rabindranath Tagore was a literary giant in India. Born into a Bengali Brahmin family in Calcutta, Tagore founded an ashram in West Bengal that included an experimental school. He believed that God was found through personal purity and service to others. Tagore was known primarily for his poetry which was deeply influenced by the mysticism of the Hindu Upanishads but at the same time was accessible to many Western readers. In 1913 he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature becoming Asia’s first Nobel laureate.

Artistry

However, Tagore was prolific in many other artistic fields. Besides his poetry, Tagore produced many novels, short stories and dramas. He wrote non-fiction works on diverse topics: Indian history, linguistics, travelogues and science. He composed more than 2,000 songs, including many devotional hymns and the national anthems for both India and Bangladesh. When he was sixty he began to draw and paint, and his art was exhibited in Paris and London.

Rabindranath Tagore at his painting desk, Government School of Art, Calcutta 1932

Rabindranath Tagore at his painting desk, Government School of Art, Calcutta 1932. Public Domain/Wikimedia Commons

Politics

Tagore was a controversial figure in Indian politics. He supported the Indian independence movement and was a friend of Gandhi, but he also disagreed with Gandhi over many issues. He was especially virulent in his attacks on nationalism. He denounced fascists, Japanese and American nationalists, and even the nationalism in the Indian independence movement.

Human Rights

He spoke out against India’s abnormal caste consciousness, decrying the evils of social systems in India that left millions in poverty and labeled entire groups of people as untouchable. He raised feminist concerns in his writings, calling for liberation of women from many of the customs in marriage. In his stories, he attacked those who still glorified the custom of self-immolation by women after their husbands’ deaths.

Rabindranath Tagore sitting with a group

Rabindranath Tagore in 1925. Public Domain/Wikimedia Commons

Influences and Connections

Tagore’s writings were influenced by many religious streams. The Muslim mystical poet Hafez was an inspiration to him. He used a Buddhist story of Ananda, one of Gautama Buddha’s disciples, who asked an untouchable girl for water, as an exemplary tale for his Hindu culture. During Tagore’s travels he engaged with many people in discussions of a transcendent humanism. He addressed the annual Quaker gathering in London, and became a friend and associate of Charles Andrews, the Christian missionary who was Gandhi’s protégé. Tagore was deeply disturbed by the tensions and violence between the Hindu and Muslim communities in India. He explored these issues in his writings, taking on the religious zeal that leads to bigotry and violence, especially when wedded to nationalism.

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