Biography of Rabindranath Tagore

Rabindranath Tagore was born in Calcutta in 1861, the youngest son of the influential spiritual leader Debendranath Tagore. The elder Tagore was instrumental in the Brahmo Samaj reformist movement, which was a monotheistic interpretation of Hinduism based the Upanishads of the Vedic texts and a community form of worship that eschewed the typical class delineations of the traditional Indian caste system. Rabindranath was raised in this religious tradition and it is clearly reflected in his work.

Tagore was educated at home but spent a brief period of time in Britain, where he received a formal English education starting at the age of 17. This did not last long, and he soon returned to Calcutta. This was not his only dalliance with formal education, though. Later in life, he would start a school to teach the Upanishadic ideas championed by his father as part of that Brahmo Samaj movement.

Generally considered a polymath, Tagore wrote across multiple forms (poetry, fiction, theatre, memoir, music, philosophy), while also taking part in his country's politics during a period of Indian modernization, managing his family's estates, and, towards the end of his life, painting prolifically. With that said, he is best known as a poet, publishing over 50 volumes of verse including his masterpiece Gitanjali. All of Tagore's writings were in the Bengali language, and his life's work helped modernize that language's literary canon. Prior to Tagore, Bengali work typically hewed to the concerns of other classical Indian literatures, focusing on epics and religious matters.

Tagore's political work focused on helping educate India's underprivileged, and ending Britain's imperial rule in India. On that latter point, he struck a strange balance between advocating for India's own national freedom while remaining a staunch anti-nationalist. Through and through, Tagore detested any kind of institution that stratified people, be that based on class or national identity group. Tagore survived an assassination attempt by Indian expats in San Francisco in 1916, attributed to his political outspokenness.

Perhaps what Tagore is best known to the Western world for, though, are his awards. In 1913 he was awarded the first-ever Nobel Prize in Literature to be granted to a non-European. Famously, Tagore was knighted by the British crown in 1915, but refuted that knighthood in 1919 following the brutal Jallianwala Bagh massacre.

Study Guides on Works by Rabindranath Tagore