The Story of Indian Art #3: Rabindranath Tagore

One of undivided India’s greatest artists, Rabindranath Tagore, passed away on the seventh of this month… in 1941. Let’s meet him.

One of undivided India’s greatest artists, Rabindranath Tagore, passed away on the seventh of this month… in 1941. Let’s meet him.

Rabindranath Tagore (1861 – 1941)

Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941) was the youngest son of Debendranath Tagore, a leader of the Brahmo Samaj, which was a new religious sect in nineteenth-century Bengal and which attempted a revival of the ultimate monistic basis of Hinduism as laid down in the Upanishads.


Tagore loathed formal education—his scholarly travails at the local Presidency College spanned a single day. Years later he held that proper teaching does not explain things; proper teaching stokes curiosity. He largely avoided classroom schooling. It was his brother, Hemendranath, who tutored and physically conditioned him—by having him swim the Ganges or trek through hills, by gymnastics, and by practising judo and wrestling. He learned to draw, anatomy, geography and history, literature, mathematics, Sanskrit, and English.

Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941) – Veiled Woman, Ink on paper, 53.5 x 73.7 cms, (Acc. No. 1257) , National Gallery of Modern Art, New Delhi


After visiting Santa Barbara in 1917, conceived a new type of university: he sought to “make Santiniketan the connecting thread between India and the world and a centre for the study of humanity somewhere beyond the limits of nation and geography.” The school, which he named Visva Bharati, had its foundation stone laid on 24 December 1918 and was inaugurated three years later. Tagore employed a brahmacharya system: gurus gave pupils personal guidance—emotional, intellectual, and spiritual. Teaching was often done under trees. He staffed the school, he contributed his Nobel Prize monies, and his duties as steward-mentor at Santiniketan kept him busy: mornings he taught classes; afternoons and evenings he wrote the students’ textbooks.


From time to time, Tagore participated in the Indian nationalist movement, though in his own non-sentimental and visionary way. Mahatma Gandhi, the political father of modern India, was his devoted friend. Tagore’s most significant stand against colonialism was when he returned the knighthood – bestowed on him by the ruling British Government in 1915 – after the 1919 Jallianwala Bagh massacre.


Tagore had early success as a writer in his native Bengal. With his translations of some of his poems he became rapidly known in the West. In fact his fame attained a luminous height, taking him across continents on lecture tours and tours of friendship. For the world he became the voice of India’s spiritual heritage; and for India, especially for Bengal, he became a great living institution.

Although Tagore wrote successfully in all literary genres, he was first of all a poet. Among his fifty and odd volumes of poetry are Manasi, Sonar Tari, Gitanjali, Gitimalya, and Balaka. Tagore’s major plays are Raja, Dakghar, Achalayatan Muktadhara, and Raktakaravi. He is also the author of several volumes of short stories and a number of novels, among them Gora, Ghare-Baire, and Yogayog, Besides these, he wrote musical dramas, dance dramas, essays of all types, travel diaries, and two autobiographies, one in his middle years and the other shortly before his death in 1941.


Tagore was a prolific composer and has over 2,200 songs to his credit. His songs are known as rabindrasangit. Influenced by the thumri style of Hindustani music, they ran the entire gamut of human emotion, ranging from his early dirge-like Brahmo devotional hymns to quasi-erotic compositions.

Did you know? Two of Guru Rabindranath Tagore’s compositions are national anthems – Jana Gana Mana for India and Bangladesh’s Amar Shona Bangla


Surrounded by several painters Rabindranath had always wanted to paint. Writing and music, playwriting and acting came to him naturally and almost without training, as it did to several others in his family, and in even greater measure.

Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941) – Head Study, Ink on silk, 42 x 53 cms, (Acc. No. 991), National Gallery of Modern Art, New Delhi

He tried repeatedly to master the art and there are several references to this in his early letters and reminiscence. After taking up drawing and painting at the age of sixty, Tagore went on to hold successful exhibitions of his many works in Paris, to begin with, and, upon encouragement by artists he met in the south of France, throughout Europe.

As a painter, too, Tagore was prolific. He painted animals, landscapes, dramatic scenes, and faces, to name a few of his pet subjects. He also loved to doodle. Here is a very small selection of his paintings for your consideration.

Tagore at a glance:

Sometimes referred to as “the Bard of Bengal”, Tagore introduced new prose and verse forms and the use of colloquial language into Bengali literature, thereby freeing it from traditional models based on classical Sanskrit. He was highly influential in introducing the best of Indian culture to the West and vice versa, and he is generally regarded as the outstanding creative artist of the modern Indian subcontinent.

Born: May 7, 1861, Kolkata

Died: August 7, 1941, Kolkata

Spouse: Mrinalini Devi (m. 1883–1902)

Education: University of Calcutta

Major Awards: First non-European to win the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1913. Knighted by the ruling British Government in 1915, which he returned in 1919.

Did you know? On 25 March 2004, Tagore’s Nobel Prize was stolen from the safety vault of the Visva-Bharati University, along with several other belongings. On 7 December 2004, the Swedish Academy decided to present two replicas of Tagore’s Nobel Prize, one made of gold and the other made of bronze, to the Visva-Bharati University.

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Avinash Subramaniam

Avinash has been an advertising writer, fiction writer, poetry writer, freelance writer and serial wronger. Other roles he has been in include those of an editor, brand builder, and teacher. His interests include advertising, scrabble, body building, chess, cinema, making money, reading, internet culture, cricket, photography. To hear him air his thoughts, follow him on Twitter @armchairexpert.

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