Most of us would recognize the images of a wrinkled face, shining eyes and long, flowing white beard in our history books as Sri Rabindranath Tagore. We know him as a visionary, an educator and prolific writer. However, there was an often unexplored side to him.
As a Bengali, I have heard stories of Tagore recounted countless times during my childhood, recited Rabindra Sangeetha during Durga Puja, and possessed a copy of “Gitanjali”, the work that won him a Nobel Prize. Yet, it wasn't until I read his biography that I realized what an incredible life the man had led, going from a recluse to a pioneer of education, and heralding a revolution in the arts.
Tagore had resolved to direct his life’s work towards the benefit of the nation when he was still quite young. Until he was about 25 years old, he lived in utmost seclusion, in the solitude of an obscure Bengal village by the river Ganges in a boat-house. The wild ducks which came during the time of autumn from the Himalayan lakes we're his only living companions, and in that solitude, he seemed to have drunk in the open space like wine overflowing with sunshine. It was almost as if the murmurs of the river spoke to him, telling him the secrets concealed by Mother Nature. It would then come as no surprise that this man commanded a grip on the hearts of several billion readers across the world; one they could not get rid of if they tried.
With Gitanjali, Tagore became the first non-European to win the Nobel Prize. In spite of his belonging to a different race, parted and separated by seas and mountains from the children of the West, his work had been acknowledged and duly rewarded.
Funnily enough, Tagore did not, at first, think much of the telegraphic message he'd received bearing the good news.
His publisher from England had sent him a cablegram one afternoon when he was staying at Shantiniketan. He was taking his students over to the forest at the time when a man came running up to him and help up the telegraphic message. He also had an English visitor with him in the same carriage, so he decided to read it once he reached his destination, putting it away for the rest of his journey.
When he did read it, he suspected that the telegraphic language was not quite correct and that he had misread its meaning. However, when realization dawned upon him, it was a moment of rejoicing not just for the students and teachers at the school, but for the entire country altogether.
We look upon Tagore with utmost reverence and pride, yet there was a time when he sat on his terrace alone and questioned his caliber as a poet. As it goes with most artists, Tagore had his moments of self-doubt, wondering what the reason could be for his poems being accepted and honored in this manner.
After reading “Gitanjali”, I suspect one of the reasons was the atmosphere and environment in which he wrote. In the early morning and afternoon glow of sunset was when he worked, never feeling impelled to come out and meet the heart of the large world. He sang his poems to himself at midnight, under the glorious stars of the Indian sky.
He eventually left his seclusion when his students yearned to see him again, and he realized that doing a service to his fellow creatures was only a prelude to his pilgrimage to a much larger, less forgiving world.
Tagore had always been an advocate for unfettered learning. He harbored a deep love for nature, and naturally a love for children as well. His objective in starting the institution if Shantiniketan was to give the children of men full freedom of joy, of life, and communion with nature.
Tagore detested the dogmatic nature of the conventional education system, considering his younger self-had suffered under the impediments inflicted upon most boys who attended school. According to him, the education system resembled a merciless machine that crushed the joy and freedom of life, for which children have such insatiable thirst.
Tagore would try to keep his students active, happy and interested. He was their playmate and companion. Often, he got so engrossed in their companionship that he felt like he shared their life, and he was the biggest child of the party.
The vigor and joy contained within Shantiniketan certainly was an energy to behold. In the evening, during the sunset hour, Tagore often sat alone watching the trees of the shadowing avenue. In the silence of the afternoon, he could distinctly hear the voices of his children coming up in the air. It seemed to him that these shouts and sings and glad voices were like trees, which come out from the heart of the earth like fountains of life, towards the bosom of the infinite sky.
Tagore is known to have gifted the world of nature with innumerable beautiful metaphors.
When he symbolized, it brought before his mind the whole cry of human life; all expressions of joy and aspirations of men rising from the heart of Humanity up to the sky.
Tagore bore a strong resemblance to his characters - he was melancholic, introspective and wayfaring. However, the moment he set out on a quest he'd resolved to succeed in, he emerged victoriously.