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Rabindranath Tagore was born in Calcutta, India, on May 7, 1861. He was the son of Debendranath Tagore, a prominent philosopher and religious reformer. Throughout his childhood, Tagore was educated by tutors and wrote extensively, despite a marked disinterest for traditional schooling. In 1877, he sailed to England to study. He remained for just fourteen months, during which he was schooled in Brighton, East Sussex and at University College, where he studied law and attended lectures on English literature. He expressed dissatisfaction with the constraints of Western educational practices in England, however, and returned to India.
Throughout his career, Tagore not only wrote and translated poetry, but published numerous novels, short stories, plays, letters, essays, memoirs, and criticism. He was also known for his musical compositions. Tagore’s most notable work of poetry is Gitanjali: Song Offerings (Macmillan, 1912), for which he received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1913. He was the first non-European, as well as the first lyricist, to win the prize. Other notable poetry publications, written and published in Bengali, include Sonar Tari [The Golden Boat] (1894) and Manasi [The Ideal One] (1890). Tagore often published first in Bengali, then translated his own work to English. He wrote novels, plays, and short stories in both languages, including the plays Chitra (India Society of London, 1914) and The Post Office (Cuala Press, 1914). He is credited with pioneering the short story form in Bengali literature, with some of his best work collected in The Hungry Stones and Other Stories (Macmillan, 1916) and The Glimpses of Bengal Life (G. A. Nateson & Co., 1913). His short stories were especially famous in India, as many were based on his ten years in Shilaidah and Shazadpur, where he went to manage his family’s estates in the 1890s. During this time, he lived on a houseboat on the Padma River and socialized with the neighboring villagers. His compassion for them, and his belief in education for all, deeply influenced his short stories, as well as his later activism. Tagore’s stances on Indian independence, the caste system, education, religion, and other sociopolitical issues were expressed through his work.
In his introduction to the English translation of Gitanjali, W. B. Yeats lauds Tagore’s poetic vision, writing: “these lyrics […] display in their thought a world I have dreamed of all my life long. The work of a supreme culture, they yet appear as much the growth of the common soil as the grass and the rushes. A tradition, where poetry and religion are the same thing, has passed through the centuries, gathering from learned and unlearned metaphor and emotion, and carried back again to the multitude the thought of the scholar and of the noble.”
In 1901, Tagore’s work as an educator and activist led to his founding an experimental school at Shantiniketan, a retreat in rural Bengal that his father created in 1863. There, he hoped to merge Eastern and Western educational traditions. He believed there might be a more natural way for young people to learn, utilizing a method which would foster their imagination and instincts. For a time, he lived at the school, which became the international Visva-Bharati University. In 1912, Tagore left the school to read his work across Europe, America, and East Asia, and to lecture and advocate for Indian independence. In 1919, as a protest against the Jallianwala Bagh Massacre, he rejected the British knighthood in 1915. Six years later, Tagore and Leonard Elmhirst founded the “Institute for Rural Reconstruction,” a feature of the Visva-Bharati University experiments. Through the institute, many of the concerns that Tagore expressed in his early short stories came to fruition: he believed rural India was barred from mainstream intellectual and urban life, and sought to facilitate a collaborative education. He requested aid from various artists, donors, and scholars across the world for this project.
While Tagore pursued writing, teaching, and activism during much of his life, he became recognized as a painter when he was in his sixties, with many of his works enjoying success at exhibitions in Europe.
Tagore died on August 7, 1941, in Calcutta.