Five things you need to know about Rabindranath Tagore

  • HT Correspondent, Hindustan Times, New Delhi
  • Updated: May 09, 2015 13:01 IST

Rabindranath Tagore is best known as a poet but he was a man of many talents. On the one hand, he was the first Indian to win a Nobel for literature and on the other, a novelist who wrote and composed an entire genre of songs. He was a philosopher and educationist who established a university that challenged conventional education.

Tagore was a painter who played an important role in modernising Bengali art. And he was a nationalist who gave up his knighthood to protest British policies in colonial India after the Jallianwala Bagh massacre.

On his 154th birth anniversary, here is a list of five interesting things about Tagore that you must know:

The confusion about the birthday
Tagore was born, according to the Gregorian calendar, on May 7 in 1861 - but according to the Bengali calendar, it was the 25th of Baishakh.

Tagore's birth anniversary is widely celebrated by the Bengali community on Baisakh 25 - which coincides this year with May 9 - and 'Pachishe (25th) Baishakh' is an important cultural occasion.

This year too, top leaders like Prime Minister Narendra Modi and home minister Rajnath Singh paid their tributes to the poet on May 7, two days ahead of Baisakh 25.

But for many, Gurudev's birth anniversary is on Saturday, according to the Bengali calendar.

The first non-European to win a Nobel Prize

Rabindranath Tagore is the first non-European to win the Nobel Prize for Literature.

When Tagore was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1913, he became the first non-European to win it. He was awarded the prize after the publication of his acclaimed collection of poems Geetanjali.

Tagore was recognised, according to the Nobel committee's statement, "because of his profoundly sensitive, fresh and beautiful verse, by which, with consummate skill, he has made his poetic thought, expressed in his own English words, a part of the literature of the West".

Unfortunately, in 2004, the prize was stolen from the safety vault of Visva-Bharati University.

Later, the Swedish Academy presented two replicas of the prize, one made of gold and the other of bronze, to Visva-Bharati University.

Establishing Visva-Bharati

Visva-Bharati University was started in 1921 at Santiniketan. (Shutterstock)

In an attempt to challenge conventional methods of classroom education, Tagore established an university of his own, where he wanted humanity to be studied "somewhere beyond the limits of nation and geography".

Here, many classes are still held under trees in open fields.

Visva-Bharati University was started in 1921 at Santiniketan in Bengal's Birbhum district. For setting up Visva-Bharati, declared a central university in May 1951, Tagore used the cash he received with the Nobel prize and collected funds from around the world.

The only person to have composed the national anthems of three countries

Most people know that Tagore wrote the national anthems of India and Bangladesh - 'Jana Gana Mana' and 'Amar Sonar Bangla' respectively.

But few know that Sri Lanka's national anthem is based on a Bengali song originally written by Tagore in 1938. It was translated into Sinhalese and adopted as the national anthem in 1951.

One of Tagore's students at Visva-Bharati University, Ananda Samarakoon, translated the lyrics of Nama Nama Sri Lanka Mata from Bengali to Sinhalese. Tagore is thus the only person to have composed the national anthems of three countries.

Tagore's friendship with Gandhi and Einstein

Tagore conferred the title of Mahatma on Gandhi. Albert Einstein and Tagore shared a love for music. (HT Photo)

It's interesting to note the kind of relationship Tagore shared with Mahatma Gandhi and Albert Einstein.

It was Tagore who conferred the title of 'Mahatma' on Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi in 1915. But experts have said that though Tagore admired Gandhi, he differed with him on certain issues.

"Tagore admired Mahatma Gandhi immensely and expressed his admiration for his leadership time and again, but sharply differed with him when Gandhi was departing from adequate reasoning," economist Amartya Sen once said.

A recent story on shed light on how after the Nepal-Bihar earthquake of 1934, Gandhi attributed the disaster to the practice of untouchability among Biharis. Gandhi had said the quake was "a divine chastisement for the great sin we have committed against those whom we describe as Harijans".

Though Tagore was opposed to untouchability, he found this argument on Gandhi's part irrational.

The report said: "Tagore shot off a rebuttal on rationalist lines, with a request for it to be published in Gandhi's journal, Harijan. The letter expressed 'painful surprise' at 'this kind of unscientific view of things'. It was simply inaccurate, Gurudeb argued, to 'associate ethical principles with cosmic phenomena'."

To this Gandhi had replied that he felt phenomena like droughts, floods, earthquakes and the like, though they seem to have only physical origins, are somehow connected with man's morals.

Tagore met Albert Einstein four times between 1930 and 1931 and their conversations were marked "by their curiosity about the other's contributions, their pursuit of truth and their love of music".

According to a New York Times report, Tagore wrote about Einstein after their first meeting: ''There was nothing stiff about him - there was no intellectual aloofness. He seemed to me a man who valued human relationship and he showed toward me a real interest and understanding."

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