1. Born 1861, died 1941, Nobel Prize (first Indian) for literature 1913 (for Geetanjali in English translation), returned the honour of knighthood to the British Government after the Jallianwallabag massacre of 1919. The only person who wrote two national anthems (for India and Bangladesh).
2. Now recognized not only as an outstanding, prolific and versatile writer and musician but also a very talented painter, stage director, an educationist of rare vision (founded Vishwa Bharati at Shantiniketan with Nobel Prize money to bring the best of the West and the East together in harmony, and make the process of education more rewarding and enjoyable as preparation for a healthy life, not just preparation for livelihoods), an environmentalist long before it became fashionable in the west, a creative social worker (created Palli Shiksha Sadan and encouraged popular scientific education – lokshiksha – which encouraged Nehru to introduce the Community Development Programme with American help in the 1950s), a passionate but broadminded nationalist – he gave the title of Mahatma to Gandhiji (who in turn paid tribute by calling him ‘the Great Sentinel’), yet also strongly disagreed with him over many questions regarding the struggle for Indian independence: like Einstein (with whom he had wide-ranging and profound dialogues concerning many issues of science, religion, philosophy, art and politics), he believed in the cultivation of a universal spirit and being a ‘world citizen’ instead of subscribing to narrow and violent patriotic ideals (as Mussolini was doing in Italy and Hitler in Germany), which, he believed, invariably led to cultural orthodoxy and stagnation, and encouraged hatred, war and misery.
3. Was brought up in the Jorasanko Thakurbari of mid-19th century Calcutta. The family was not only enormously rich and well-connected, both in India and abroad, but for several generations it had produced men and women of rare talent and energy in many different spheres of life, from art to fashion to religion to business, and they were at the forefront of all major cultural experiments in Calcutta (which, being the capital city, was then the centre of British India), from English education to foreign travel to the Brahmo Samaj and the Hindu mela. Rabindranath’s own cultural upbringing was therefore extraordinarily rich and varied (this is very interestingly recollected in Chhelebela and Jibonsmriti), and being a genius, he successfully assimilated ideas and practices from many countries and historical eras to produce his own works. Thus his songs, for example, are set to tunes borrowed not only from various types of Bengali folk music but from many different parts of India, and from Europe. In his philosophy of life, too, he tried to blend everything good that he found from sources as diverse as the Upanishads to 19th-century liberal English ideas.
4. The formal methods of schooling were very rigid and uninteresting in his childhood; he, therefore could never adapt easily to it, and kept changing schools, until he gave them up altogether, and never took a formal degree. Nevertheless his education was vast, intense and meticulous – in childhood his father got him the best and most sincere teachers for everything from music to science to literature to physical exercises, and his work routine was very strict and heavy; in later life he not only read whole libraries on every subject under the sun but learnt enormously from his travels around the world, in the course of which he met and interacted with the greatest thinkers, artists, scientists and statesmen. As a result he became enormously learned. This combined with his infinite creativity produced such a vast and thought-provoking body of written work – poetry, short stories, novels, drama, songs, essays – that hundreds of scholars, Indian and foreign, have taken doctorates and spent their whole lives researching and commenting upon it; and although in a formal sense he remained ‘uneducated’ all his life, kings and presidents bowed to him, and he was honoured with the highest degrees by universities all around the world from America to China; no other 20th century Indian has received so much global recognition, except for Gandhi.
5. In turn he inspired many outstanding Indians, including the great scientists Satyen Bose and Sir J.C. Bose, the mathematician P.C. Mahalanobis (founder of the Indian Statistical Institute), the writer-director-artist Satyajit Ray, Indira Gandhi, and great modern-day authors like Sunil Gangopadhyay and Buddhadev Guha.
6. Though deeply interested in both science and religion, he was a tireless fighter against every kind of hypocrisy, cant, superstition and blind ritualism. He never glorified poverty, but he wrote again and again in glowing terms about all the nobility and simplicity he had seen amidst poverty (his ideal was that of the rajarshi, the royal hermit); at the same time, he condemned the lust for wealth, because he firmly believed that mere accumulation of things – money, houses, cars, clothes, jewellery, land, titles – can never make men either contented or happy; rather, it sows the seeds of jealousy, greed, insecurity, selfishness, fear, frustration, hatred, and ultimately degradation and destruction through disease, madness, crime, riot and war.
7. In his own life, he tried consistently to combine the roles of the ever-joyous poet and the quiet, wise sage. His life was marked with one great tragedy after another (including the untimely deaths of many loved ones), and he was much misunderstood and bitterly ciriticized by many for his beliefs and ideals, yet he remained true to his ‘religion of man’ till the last; as he himself said, it is the greatest of all sins to lose faith in man. Mankind will keep on making horrible mistakes, and show a capacity for the worst possible evils, yet again and again greatness and goodness will be born among men, and the wise and the good will show us the road to a better, happier, more prosperous future. In his address to Oxford University shortly before his death, when the sky was darkened by the terrible storm-cloud of the Second World War, he firmly expressed this faith for the last time: that humanity will prevail.
8. It is noteworthy that more than sixtysix years after his death, Bengalis as a race still identify him as their greatest achiever; rabindrasangeet is not only alive but being experimented with in new styles by many present-day singers, in India and abroad; Rabindra Rachanabali is still the most widely sold of all Bengali works, and many learned people are working to make his works known and better appreciated around the world – from 1998 onwards, for example, Oxford University Press in collaboration with Vishwa Bharati has been releasing authorized English translations of many of his writings for global circulation (and for the benefit of some Bengalis who cannot, or will not read Bengali!).
9. The enormous richness of his interests and achievements can be seen if one visits the Rabindra Bhavan museum at Shantiniketan or his house in Calcutta, which is now Rabindra Bharati University. Unlike many modern-day ‘successful’ Indians, who imagine that they have achieved something if they blindly copy everything that westerners do, and don’t realize how westerners habitually look down upon them as a result, he was one of those great Indians (like the Nobel Prize-winning physicist Subramanyam Chandrashekhar) who believed he had much to give to both his motherland and the outside world, and earned the world’s lasting respect for his priceless contributions.
I am a voracious reader, debator and thinking man, and I have read things as diverse as the Gita and Plato, Manu and Kalidas, Shakespeare and Milton, Bertrand Russell and Sigmund Freud, Isaac Asimov and J.K. Rowling … and admired an incredible variety of men, from Jesus to Steve Jobs, from Albert Schweitzer to Robert Falcon Scott, from Leonardo da Vinci to Abraham Lincoln, from the Buddha to Gandhi, and I have acknowledged that men can ‘leave footprints on the sands of time’ in myriad ways, and literally countless men have done so down the ages, yet I believe that really knowing and understanding Tagore is everything that anyone anywhere in the world in any age could ever really need … ‘burn the libraries, because all you need is here!’ To me he is, as the magazine called Desh once said, ‘chiropather shongi’. Scholar, writer, poet, singer, dramatist, painter, actor, judoka, ayurvedic practitioner, essayist, patriot, educationist, social worker and reformer, lover, great father and family man, acute businessman, humorist and mystic … a day will come when all the encyclopedias of the world, shorn of their Anglo-American bias, will acknowledge that he was the nearest approximation to the ideal of the ‘universal man’ that the world has ever seen. Nobody in recent history anywhere in the world deserved the title ‘mahamanab’ more than he did. I believe it is an inestimable privilege to have learnt to worship him, and I count it among my life’s greatest achievements that I was once given the opportunity to translate a tiny fraction of his works for English readers worldwide. Any Bengali who thinks today that the new shopping malls and IT sweatshops and the newfangled familiarity with sms text shows how much we have ‘advanced’ in recent times need only to read any part of Tagore’s works, from Geetanjali to the fantasy stories for children to the ‘lokshiksha’ essays to the love songs to the plays which would still be too risqué to show on Doordarshan Bangla today – and, if he or she has a mind to think with and a heart to feel with, can only rue over how far and how amazingly fast we have sunk since Tagore tried to raise us to the highest imaginable peaks of culture.