The Life of a Polymath of Modern India – Rabindranath Tagore

The Life of a Polymath of Modern India – Rabindranath Tagore

Rabindranath Tagore



Introduction and Early Life:

India has produced many geniuses since time immemorial. They have been successful in their respective field. But among them we find a very few with talent in multiple fields. Rabindranath Tagore belongs to such category. He was born on 7th May,1861, in their ancestral house at Jorasanko, Calcutta (nowadays Kolkata). His father was Debendranath Tagore and Sarada Devi was his mother. He was the thirteenth child of his parents, among fifteen. Since his childhood, Rabindranath used to spend a lot of time with their servants. We come to know about many events of his life from two of his autobiographical works, My Boyhood Days and My Reminiscences.

Tagore’s grandfather, Prince Dwarkanath Tagore was also a notable figure. Actually their ancestors had moved to Jorasanko from Bangladesh (the then East Bengal) for looking after their family business. Prince Dwarkanath Tagore had a close affiliation with Raja Rammohun, another prominent proponent of Bengal Renaissance. As Raja Rammohun Roy was staunchly against any idolatry, Tagore’s family was highly influenced and they took up the practices of Brahma. During their days, Dwarkanath Tagore and his family were very much influential and affluent too.  Actually the huge wealth and massive philanthropic activities earned Dwarkanath the title ‘Prince’. Though misfortune followed shortly after, and Debendranath Tagore had to pay off his father’s debt.

As Debendranath was not at all a businessman in true sense, he found joy of life in seeking solitude towards the North-Eastern hilly region of India; he was a frequent visitor to different part of Himalayas. On one such outing, Rabindranath accompanied his father. During this trip he explored the grandeur of his father. Sanskrit language as well as literature was introduced to him, practiced meditation extensively under the guidance of his father, and Debendranath taught little ‘Rabi’ about Astronomy too.

After returning home, Rabindranath was completely a changed personality. That particular trip paved the way to his manhood from childhood. Though it has often been said that he did not have any formal education and whatever he had learnt it was from their servants, it is completely baseless. He had been a student of three schools, namely, Oriental Seminary, Normal School (founded by Iswar Chandra Vidyasagar) and St. Xavier’s School. But, his actual inquisition for knowledge bloomed full once his home tutoring started for learning English Literature, Sanskrit, Mathematics, Physics, Geography, History, Music, drawing and physical exercise also.

Education in England:

As Rabindranath was more inclined towards unconventional methods of education, his elder brother, Satyendranath Tagore, advocated to his father for sending Rabindranath to England to pursue the study of law. His proposal was granted. But before sailing to England (1878), Rabindranath was trained in western culture and etiquettes by one of his nieces and sister-in-laws.

In England he studied in University College of London. Though his study remained unfinished there, this period would definitely play a crucial role in his literary career. As he returned from England, gradually get closer to his immediate elder brother Jyotirindranath Tagore. As his dear ‘Jyoti Dada’ was a music composer as well as a playwright, Rabindrandranath used to spend lot of time with his elder brother and sister-in-law at the terrace of their ancestral house. There, some epiphanic moments immensely helped him in understanding the reality and human role in it, instead of his affinity towards  meditative and secluded world.

Personal Life:

The death of his mother shook him completely. When Sarada Devi died in 1875, Rabindranath was merely a boy of 14, a teenage to be specific. Since then he found his refuge in one of his sister-in-laws, Kadambari Devi, the wife of Jyotirindranath Tagore. Among all the brothers and their wives, this trio Jyotirindranath Tagore, Kadambari Devi and Rabindranath Tagore, was grossly engaged in study of literature. Their camaraderie continued as Rabindranath returned from England. By that time he earned his reputation through different genres of literature; not only writing he had already acted in one of Jyotirindranath’s play and would act in his own play Valmiki Pratibha (The Genius of Valmiki). Gradually he established himself as a prominent Author in the society. Few of his notable works of first phase consists of Kavi Kahini (1878), Europe Prabashir Patra (1881), Valmiki Pratibha (1881), Sandhya Sangit (1882), Prabhat Sangit (1883), Bouthakuranir Haat (1883), Prakritir Pratisodh (1884) etc.

As this write up does not seek to explore the literary genius of Tagore, and it is not at all possible to address all his talents in a single canvas, this will only focus on his biography and important events of life which shaped his literary career.

Towards the end of 1883, on 9th December, Rabindranath married Mrinalini Devi, the daughter of one of their estate-employee. As the newlywed couple was spending time quite comfortably and Rabindranath, as usual, was engaged in writing, another poignant event took place in his life. Kadambari Devi, the inspiration and perhaps the greatest of  Tagore’s writing, committed suicide on 21st April, 1884. Shortly after he had to look after his ancestral business of Zamindari. On the other side he led the Brahma movement in Bengal during that period.

In 1890, Tagore sailed to England for the second time. On his return to homeland in the same year (in the month of October) he had obey his father’s instruction of looking after their estate matters. There Rabindranath utilized the opportunity to the fullest. As he was an excellent observer of human life and their sufferings, he got the chance to explore village life and lifestyle there. This period had been very productive for him.

As a Reformer and nationalist:

Though Rabindranath was not a political activist, he could not remain aloof from socio-political scenario of the then India. During that period, he attended few significant nationalist meeting. In the year of 1905 he clearly raised his voice against the partition of Bengal. In the meantime, in 1901, Tagore left Shelidah and settled in Santiniketan. There he established a school following the convention of ancient Ashram (Gurukul). By that time he and Mrinalini Devi together had five children. Most unfortunately his wife died in 1902, in the same year, his daughter Renuka breathed her last. As he was slowly overcoming these events, in 1905 his father left the world. But Rabindranath received the greatest shock of his life when his youngest and dearest son Shamindranath died in the year of 1907. In this devastating situation also, Tagore resorted to writing and somehow managed his personal grief.


The phase between 1910 to 1920 had been most eventful for Tagore’s life. His most notable work Gitanjali was published in 1910. The English translation of the same, The Song Offerings, with an introductory note by notable poet W. B. Yeats, appeared in 1912. Tagore’s reputation spread all over the globe. The ultimate international recognition came in the following year, 1913, he got Nobel Prize for literature. The Western world acknowledged him as Viswa Kabi (World Poet). His extensive writing and travelling across the nation continued. Then he was called from different corner of the world for lectures. Most importantly his songs were adopted as National anthem of two countries namely, India and Bangladesh, as well as the National Anthem of Sri Lanka was highly influenced by his works.

The knighthood, by the British Government, was conferred to him in the year of 1915. But it did not last long. In the year of 1919, he refused the title as the protest of brutal massacre at Jalianwallahbag. Then he concentrated in his Santiniketan Ashram; it started earning its reputation. Tagore enlarged his institution, founded a school and Visva Bharati too. It had become the cultural and educational capital of Modern India very soon. Notable faculty members and dignitaries joined the institution. Many international prominent figures visited the place. Among his utmost engagements, he continued to visit foreign countries and never stopped his writings. Even he materialized every opportunity to guide numerous learners, be it in Santiniketan or in Calcutta.            

As a painter:

Tagore, the Poet; Philosopher; Novelist; Essayist; Song Composer; started painting also at a very mature age, when he was sixty. In the newly explored field also he had been a genius. Last few years of his life, Tagore had been very busy in his number of endeavours.


He could not continue this kind of excessive and superhuman activities for long. In the year of 1941, when he was 80 started suffering from prostate cancer. He had been brought back to Calcutta, in his ancestral house at Jorasanko. A team of notable physicians visited him and decided to execute an operation in spite of Tagore’s unwillingness and resistance. The operation took place on 30th July,1941. But he never recovered from the distressful condition after the operation. Rather the condition worsened gradually. On 7th August, 1941 he left us leaving behind the ocean of his writings and legacy of a brand new culture.

Even today his genius is almost unmatched and unparalleled. Total number of works that has gifted us is very much challenging for one to complete in a single lifetime. Though he had breathed his last many years ago, he would be remembered forever through his works, his words.


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