Rabindranath Tagore (1861 – 1941) was an Indian Bengali writer who was a towering figure of 20th century world literature. Apart from being a prolific writer, he was also an influential artist and a musician. Tagore’s best known work in poetry, Gitanjali, led to him receiving the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1913 making him the first Asian Nobel Laureate. Among the numerous contributions of Tagore is introducing the short story genre to Bengali literature; moving Indian poetry towards Modernism; and founding the prestigious Visva Bharati University. Moreover, Tagore composed the national anthem of India as well as Bangladesh while contributed to the national anthem of Sri Lanka. Due to this, he remains the only person in the world to have penned the national anthem of more than one nation. Know more about the various contributions of Tagore to literature, art and education through his 10 major achievements.

 

#1 He introduced the short story genre to Bengali literature

In 1877, at the age of 16, Rabindranath Tagore wrote a short story titled Bhikharini (The Beggar Woman). The story was first published in 1877 in Bharati magazine. Bhikharini was the first short story written in Bengali language and thus Tagore is credited with introducing the short story genre to Bengali literature. Rabindranath Tagore went on to write numerous short stories throughout his career. While managing his family’s vast landholdings, Tagore interacted with the common people of Indian villages. This reflects in his short stories in which he examines the lives of the poor people of India with a penetrative depth that was singular in Indian literature up to that point. The best known short stories of Rabindranath Tagore include Kabuliwala (The Fruitseller from Kabul), based on which a 1957 Bengali film and a 1961 Hindi film were made.

Rabindranath Tagore
Rabindranath Tagore in middle age

 

#2 He is widely regarded as the greatest Modern Indian poet

Rabindranath Tagore wrote poetry from the age of eight and published his first major poetry collection, Bhanusimha Thakurer Padabali, at the age of 16. His best known work in poetry, Gitanjali, was published in 1910. Tagore himself translated its works to English and the The English Gitanjali or Song Offerings was published in 1912. The best known poems by Tagore include Bharoto Bhagyo Bidhata, Chitto Jetha Bhayshunyo, Birpurush, Sonar Tori and Jete Nahi Dibo. The major theme in the poetry of Tagore is the essential unity of all creation, which is also the main theme of the Upanishads, ancient Sanskrit texts that contain some of the central philosophical concepts and ideas of Hinduism. Rabindranath Tagore is regarded as the greatest Indian poet of the 20th century and he is the most renowned modern Indian poet.

Gitanjali (1912)
Gitanjali (1912) – Rabindranath Tagore

 

#3 He was a leading playwright of his era

Tagore wrote his first original dramatic piece at the age of twenty. An opera titled Valmiki-Pratibha (The Genius of Valmiki) it is based on the legend of Ratnakara the Thug who later became Sage Valmiki. In 1890, in his late twenties, Tagore wrote a drama titled Bisarjan (Immersion), which explores a story in which humans loose their paradise in order to satisfy a god who wanted animal sacrifice. Bisarjan is regarded by many as Tagore’s finest drama. Another renowned play by Tagore is Dak Ghar (The Post Office), which was written in 1912. Apart from India, this play also had a successful run in Germany with 105 performances. Other renowned works by Tagore in drama include the Rabindra Nritya Natya, a group of three dance-dramas titled Chitrangada, Chandalika and Shyama.

Painting on Dak Ghar
Painting on Tagore’s play Dak Ghar

 

#4 Tagore is regarded as a towering figure of 20th century world literature

In addition to his work in poetry, short stories and drama, Tagore also wrote a total of eight novels and four novellas in his lifetime. His best known novels include Chokher Bali, Noukadubi, Gora, Chaturanga, Ghare Baire, Shesher Kobita, Jogajog and Char Odhyay. Several of these novels and novellas have been adapted as films, most prominently Chokher Bali and Ghare Baire. A prolific writer, Tagore was a literary giant of India. His writings went on to establish new artistic and literary standards in the nation owing to his unique perspective of life arising from his own experiences. He was able to leave behind tremendous impact on the thought process of numerous Indian intellectuals, poets and writers that followed him. Tagore is also regarded as a towering figure of 20th century world literature.

Chokher Bali poster
Poster of Chokher Bali – A film based on Tagore’s novel

 

#5 Rabindranath Tagore was also an influential artist

Rabindranath Tagore began painting late in his career when he was in his sixties. Though he began by creating doodles, he later produced a variety of images including fantasized and bizarre beasts; masks; mysterious human faces; mystic landscapes; birds; and flowers. Tagore went on to produce thousands of works in art and in 1930, he became the first Indian artist to exhibit his works across Europe, Russia and the United States. The art of Tagore is highly individualistic and is characterized by bold forms, vitality, rhythmic quality and a sense of fantasy. It may be noted that Tagore was likely red-green color blind and this resulted in his works exhibiting strange color schemes and off-beat aesthetics. Tagore was an influential artist and he went on to inspire many modern Indian artists. 102 works by him are listed in the collections of India’s National Gallery of Modern Art.

Head Study by Rabindranath Tagore
Head Study – A Painting by Rabindranath Tagore

 

#6 He founded the prestigious Visva Bharati University

Rabindranath Tagore despised formal education. Deeply inspired to restructure the education system in India, he decided to establish an experimental school in a vast stretch of land owned by his father in Santiniketan, a small town near Bolpur in the Birbhum district of West Bengal, India. In the institution, Tagore introduced a curriculum that revolved around nature with classes held under the canopies of lush trees. He aimed to revive the ancient method of Indian teaching and spread it across the nation. This institution was later expanded into a university known as Visva Bharti University. Today, the Visva Bharti University is one of the most famous institutions of higher learning in India with celebrated alumni such as the Noble Prize winning economist Amartya Sen and the renowned film-maker Satyajit Ray.

Visva Bharati University
A view of the campus of Visva Bharati University in Santiniketan

 

#7 Rabindranath Tagore wrote the national anthem of India

In Hindu philosophy, Para Brahman is the formless spirit that eternally pervades everything, everywhere in the universe and whatever is beyond. It is the “Highest Brahman” that which is beyond all descriptions and conceptualizations. Penned by Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore in a highly Sanskritized Bengali, Bharoto Bhagyo Bidhata is a poem dedicated to the Para Brahman, who is hailed as the dispenser of the destiny of India. Consisting of five stanzas, the poem was first sung on the second day of the annual session of the Indian National Congress in Calcutta on December 27, 1911. When India became independent, the first stanza of the poem was adopted as the National anthem of India. It became known as Jana Gana Mana.

 

#8 He remains the only person to have penned the national anthems of two nations

In 1905, Tagore wrote the song Amar Shonar Bangla (My Golden Bengal). The song is an ode to Mother Bengal and it was written during the British partitioning of Bengal, a time of great national unrest. After Bangladesh won the Bangladesh Liberation War in 1971, the first ten lines of Amar Shonar Bangla were adopted as the national anthem of Bangladesh. This made Tagore the only person in the world who has penned the national anthems of two nations. Ananda Samarakoon was a Sri Lankan composer and musician, who came to Visva Bharati, the university founded by Tagore. Inspired by the work of Tagore, he then wrote Sri Lanka Matha, a song which was chosen as the national anthem of Sri Lanka on 22nd November 1951.

Rabindranath Tagore stamp
Rabindranath Tagore on a stamp issued by the Indian Postal Department in 1961

 

#9 Rabindranath Tagore was the first Asian to win a Nobel Prize

On August 14, 1910, Tagore’s collection of poetry Gitanjali was published. Tagore was completely unknown in Europe until 1912. However, in that very year, he met famous Irish poet W.B. Yeats. Yeats became a passionate follower of Tagore and helped him get Gitanjali published. Thus Tagore’s own English translations of his Bengali poems in Gitanjali were first published in November 1912 by the Indian Society of London. The English Gitanjali became popular in the west and was widely translated. It was primarily due to Gitanjali that Rabindranath Tagore received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1913. This made him the first non-European to win the Nobel Prize in Literature. Tagore was also Asia’s first Nobel laureate and the second non-European after Theodore Roosevelt to receive a Nobel Prize.

Rabindranath Tagore statue
Statue of Rabindranath Tagore in Moscow, Russia

 

#10 He was awarded an honorary degree by Oxford University

Rabindranath Tagore was knighted by the British in 1915 but returned his knighthood in 1919 in protest of the Jallianwala Bagh Massacre, in which many innocent Indians were brutally murdered by the British. In 1940, the University of Oxford in England conferred Tagore with an honorary doctorate for his numerous achievements, including those in the field of education, especially at Santiniketan. This was the only degree that the great writer ever received in his entire life. This was primarily due to the fact the Tagore was against formal education and dropped out of school due to his distaste for the system.

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