Rabindranath Tagore: Poet, Nobel Laureate, Indian Nationalist

Rabindranath Tagore

Few people in the modern world attain the degree of celebrity that allows them to be known by a single name: Napoleon, Gandhi, Madonna. Even those who reach single-name celebrity in their own country may be largely unknown to the rest of the world. Take the example of Bengali poet, novelist and composer Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941) who is known in India simply as Kabi, the Poet. Every Bengali language speaker, all 250 million of them, knows a line or two of his poetry. By contrast, most westerners know Tagore only (if at all) as the recipient of the Nobel Prize, but have no sense of either the poetry for which he won the award or his broader career.

Born in 1861, to a prominent Calcutta family, Tagore was a leading member of the late nineteenth century literary, cultural and religious reform movement known as the Bengali Renaissance. He is generally considered the father of the modern Indian short story, he pioneered the use of colloquial Bengali in literature, and created a new genre of popular contemporary music known as rabindra-sangeet that draws on traditional Bengali folk and devotional music as well as Western folk melodies. (After independence, India, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh all chose songs by Tagore as their national anthems.) He is often compared to Tolstoy, and seen as a precursor to Gandhi,

Tagore became famous as a writer when he published his first novel in 1880, at the age of nineteen. In 1905, he became involved in nationalist politics after the British Viceroy, Lord Curzon, divided Bengal province in two, effectively cutting the power base of the Bengali elite who headed the early Indian nationalist movement. In response, Indian nationalists boycotted British goods and institutions, a protest known as the Swadeshi (of our own country) movement. At first Tagore threw himself into the Swadeshi cause, leading protest meetings, writing political pamphlets and composing patriotic songs. His initial enthusiasm for the movement failed when the Bengali population was torn by increasing communal violence between Hindus and Muslims. Despite bitter criticism from nationalist activists., he withdrew from the movement in 1907, concentrating instead on experiments in economic development and education in the villages on his estate.

Tagore made the leap from national to international fame in a single year with the help of one important admirer. He traveled to London in 1912 with a collection of English translations of 100 of his poems, which became the collection known as Gitanjali. While he was in London, he met William Butler Yeats, who became a passionate advocate of his poetry. In part as a result of Yeats’ championship, Tagore received the Nobel Prize for literature on November 13, 1913. Tagore’s Nobel Prize sparked a brief, but intense, period of popular and critical interest in his work in the west. It was soon translated into many languages, including a French translation by André Gide and a Russian translation by Boris Pasternak. Tagore himself became an international literary celebrity, traveling around the world on lecture tours and revered as the embodiment of the mystical east. His critics accused him of collaboration with the enemy, especially after he was knighted by King George V in 1915.

Accusations that Tagore was an imperial collaborator ended in 1919. On April 13, Brigadier General Reginald Dwyer ordered soldiers under his command to fire on an unarmed crowd of 10,000 Indians who had assembled in an enclosed public park in the Punjabi city of Amritsar to celebrate a Hindu religious festival–an event that became known as the Amritsar Massacre. The soldiers fired 1650 rounds in ten minutes, killing 400 and wounding more than 1000. Tagore resigned his knighthood in protest.

For the rest of his life, Tagore criticized British rule in India while refusing to reject Western civilization, a position that often placed him in opposition to Gandhi.

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