Saturday, 14 June 2014

Who is Rabindranath Tagore?

Rabindranath Tagore

Old Court House Street Calcutta
Rabindranath Tagore was a Pirali Brahmin, born in Calcutta in 1861. His family name is Banerjee. "Tagore" is the English version of his Brahmin title Thakurmashai (Holy Sir).

Rabindranath had an impressive command of language from the age of eight. At the age of sixteen, he published his first work under the pseudonym Bhānusiha (The Sun Lion). He also started to press for India's independence from Britain.

Debendranath Tagore
Founder of Brahmoism
Rabindranath's father Debendranath sent him to public school in Brighton where he lived in Medina Villas. He was accepted at University College London to study law, but preferred to make his own studies of Shakespeare and traditional music of the British Isles. He returned to Bengal, was married to Mrinalini Devi Bhabatarini and took over the management of his father's estates.

a picture from the
Illinois University
During this time he wrote much of his collection of short stories "Galpaguchchha". At the turn of the century he moved one hundred miles north to the town of Bhubandanga, which had been given to the Tagore family by Satyendra Prasanno Sinha. Debendranath had renamed the town Santiniketan (Place of Peace). Mrinalina joined Rabindranath, but she and two of their children died shortly afterwards. Debendranath died in 1905.

At about the time of his father's death, Rabindranath sent his eldest son Rathindranath to the University of Illinois in Urbana to study modern agricultural techniques. Rabindranath also founded the Brahmacharya Ashram and the Visva Bharati School at Santiniketan, and published "Naivedya" (Votive Offering), a collection of poems on patriotism, religious devotion, and altruism, dedicated to his father.

Rabindranath Tagore
Visva Bharati
Rabindranath's literary work was found to be very accessible to European readers. Following the publication of an English version of "Gitanjali" (Song Offerings) in 1912, by the India Society of London, The Swedish Academy awarded Rabindranath the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1913 (six years after Rudyard Kipling). In 1915 Rabindranath was knighted by King George V.

The following year Rabindranath was invited to tour the United States giving lectures and readings. Rabindranath hoped that the tour would fund the development of Visva Bharati into a university. The tour took place at the height of the war in Europe. His warnings regarding the dangers of nationalism and militarism, like those of his contemporary Bertrand Russell, were as unpopular in America as they were in Europe, and undermined his appeal as an author. Eventually Rabindranath was forced to abandon the tour, which resulted in considerable financial loss.

Dorothy Elmhirst
(née Payne Whitney)
In 1919 Rabindranath renounced his knighthood, in protest against the murder of hundreds of sikh worshippers at the Jallianwala Bagh gardens in Amritsar during the festival of Baisakhi in April 1919.

On his return to America in 1920 he met an even cooler reception than before. His attempts to interest wealthy philanthropists in his university at Santiniketan met with little success. However, during his tour he met Leonard Elmhirst, a Yorkshire farmer. Leonard had completed a degree in agriculture at Cornell University and married the wealthy divorced American heiress Dorothy Straight.

Leonard was very enthusiastic about Rabindranath's projects in Bengal and went to Santiniketan to work for him as his secretary. He helped create the Institute of Rural Reconstruction in the neighbouring village of Sriniketan. Emily, out of devotion to her fiancée, provided much needed funding for the project. Leonard also accompanied Rabindranath to almost every part of the world to promote Visva Bharati.

Rabindranath Tagore
& Leonard Elmhirst
Villa Miralrio
In 1924 they were invited to Peru to celebrate the centennial of Peruvian independence. They travelled together to Beunos Aires on the Royal Mail Liner "Andes". However, Rabindranath became ill during the trip and doctors advised against continuing the journey over land (and the Andes mountains) to Lima.

In Buenos Aires Rabindranath and Leonard had the good fortune to meet Argentine author Victoria Ocampo. Victoria had greatly admired "Gitanjali" and had just published an essay, "The Joy of Reading Tagore", for La Nacion magazine a few days before. She rented a house (Villa Miralrio) in San Isidro, where Rabindranath convalesced for two months surrounded by gardens of colourful and fragrant flowers. Rabindranath was deeply moved by the experience. The following year, when he published "Purabi" (The East in its Feminine Gender), he dedicated it to 'The Lotus Palms of Bijaya' (Bijaya is Bengali for Victoria).

Leonard & Dorothy
Dartington Hall
In 1925 Leonard and Emily were married, and embarked on a rural recostruction programme of their own - at Dartington Hall. Emily was also a generous patron of the arts, and Dartington became an important centre for music, drama and creative arts. The School at Dartington - inspired by the Visva Bharati - opened in 1925. (One of the first pupils was Michael Young. Later Michael joined the Labour Party and was Secretary of the policy committee which created the 1945 Labour Party Manifesto "Let Us Face the Future". Michael opposed streaming in schools and helped create the Open University, which was founded by the Labour Party in 1969.)

Meanwhile Leonard and Emily continued their other projects around the world, in particular the Visva Bharati. Rabindranath became increasingly concerned about the Indian caste system, and the exclusion of Dalits from education. He included Dalit heroes in his compositions, and successfully intervened with the Zamorin of Calicut to persuade him to respond to Mohandas Ghandi's epic fast in Yeravda Prison and open the Guruvayour Temple in Kerala to Dalits (or Harijan as Mohandas called them).

Rabindranath Tagore
& Mohandas Ghandi
Rabindranath and Mohandas had closely allied for many years, although they did not share the same opinion about what would be best for India's future. Rabindranath rejected Mohandas' ideas of nationalism and isolationism, as he did in all other contexts. In 1932 Rabindranath visited the Beduoin of Iraq and was told that the teachings of Islam concurred with his own thoughts - that one's words and deeds should harm no-one. He was subsequently appalled when Mohandas Ghandi attributed the 1934 Bihar-Nepal earthquake to divine retribution (or karma) for the continued discrimination against Harijan.

Rabindranath continued to compose poetry and write novels until his death in 1941. From 1937 on, he suffered a recurring and grave illness. He wrote some of his best poetry despite this suffering, and died three months after his eightieth birthday during which, sadly, he was barely conscious. On 30th July he dictated his final poem, accepting his fate and expressing his gratitude for what little he had received in return for all his efforts.

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