The Renaissance Man: A Profile on the Bengali Polymath Rabindranath Tagore

A profile of the writer, who was also a playwright, philosopher, composer, and social reformer.


State Archive, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Here is a classic portrait of Rabindranath Tagore, taken four months before his death on August 7th, 1941.

The newly bought German clock hits 5:26 a.m. It is about to be dawn and you can see light trickling in through the window as you try to write down your thoughts before they fade away, like the darkness of the night.

It would be a shame if you could not capture the struggles of the residents of your estate. Your heart cries for their struggle. Even in this modern era of the late 1870s, they are being torn apart in the battle of power and wealth. 

Perhaps this would not be you. You have other responsibilities and most importantly, you are not from the 1870s. But this was certainly the life of the people’s poet, Rabindranath Tagore. 

From his start as an ambitious yet uninformed man to the first Nobel Laureate outside of Europe, Rabindranath Tagore embodied an exceptional journey of acquiring knowledge. In the contemporary world, he is most prominently known for his music and literature, but this Renaissance man was proficient in several fields. Though his approach to learning was different, it was never nonsensical. At a time when many pushed for nationalistic ideals, Tagore was already expressing his thoughts regarding universalism, the idea of belonging to a general unified culture and community, regardless of your location. Despite his status as a traditional and religious individual, Tagore introduced innovative ideas to the people of the Indian subcontinent. 

It often comes across as a shock that this man, referred to as the Bengali Polymath, because of his mastery in numerous fields, did not receive much institutional education. In fact, after attending law school at the University of London, England, due to his father’s wish, Tagore soon dropped out due to his lack of interest. From an early age, Tagore was exposed to various contrasting subject matters. While there was constant discussion of traditional Bengali and Indian music at home, it was the ones he heard about when in England that found its way into his mind. The privilege of being from an elite family paved the way for him to interact with big personalities, both European and Asian. Tagore’s father, Debendranath Tagore, was an extraordinary philosopher and religious reformer, influencing his son greatly. Debendranath Tagore was very accustomed to traveling, and he often took young Tagore on long journeys. It was here that his creations truly took their form. 

Evidently much of Tagore’s personal experiences were reflected throughout his compositions, literature, and artworks. However, the most important pattern that ties these together is his devotion to traditional ideals. While he was surely ahead of his time, his innovative thoughts never conflicted with his values. This is what sets him apart from other writers of his time. Tagore was a focused man, and he knew what he believed in. 

The tunes of his songs usually reflected his taste in music. He enjoyed Indian Classical music, thus he used ragas (a melodic framework found in Indian Classical music), tunes that indicate his connection with his roots. At the same time, he was captivated by European music, and so he included that in his work as well. A very famous example of this blend is the song “Purano Shei Diner Kotha” which more or less means “the tales of the old days.” Very clearly, this song was inspired by Robert Burns’ “Auld Lang Syne,” not just with its sound, but also with its central message. The most remarkable characteristic about Tagore was that he did not hide or alter what made an impact on him. As a true artist, he took what meant something to him and interpreted it in his own way. This is why until this day, the subcontinent of India has not forgotten the legacy that this man has left behind. 

Over time, Rabindra Sangeet – literally meaning music by Tagore – evolved into a genre itself. It is an umbrella term for the wide collection of over 2,000 poems, song lyrics and music compositions that explored love and devotion. An individual can only accomplish such heights simply out of love for the arts if they are truly passionate about what they are doing. Now after nearly a century of their birth, people have a hard time distinguishing them as anything other than “innovative,” “distinctive,” or even “old.”

What is commonly disregarded is the inspiration for these creations. Tagore is known for his love for Bengali culture and the people of Bengal. It was this deep attachment that gave birth to few of his most notable works. 

When it comes to flexibility, Rabindranath Tagore was the epitome of this trait. His outlook on life was so simple yet so complex that it can take a lifetime to understand. In a time period where wealth was a dividing factor in any colony under British rule, his stance on life remained unchanged. 

His outlook on life allowed him to create art that resonated with everyone. After all these years of their existence, it is hard to classify any of his works as outdated. One great example of this is his poem, ‘Stray Birds.’ A Bengali version of this is titled ‘Dui Pakhi,’ or two birds. 

In this poem, Tagore mentions two birds, one caged and one free. The immediate interpretation of this poem is that the caged bird is the one suffering, while the free bird is happy. But it really takes a lot more close reading and deeper understanding to grasp that Tagore is exploiting the ideas of chaos and order through this concept. The birds merely serve as extended metaphors, as is evident in many of his other works. While the caged bird is locked, it is also safe. On the other hand, the free bird has the sky, and yet it desires even more freedom. The free bird cannot understand why the other would want to be outside, when there is potential danger in the outside world and a struggle to find food. 

In both cases, the two birds are looking at the other in awe because there is lack of empathy. This is quite similar to the common human behavior of a lack of compassion for others, especially when you are going through pain yourself. Going back to what was at the core of Tagore’s work, here you can see a strong influence of the divine. 

Tagore himself was from a Hindu family, and he grew up learning about the religion from ancient texts. In one of such Hindu scripture, there is a mention of a story regarding two birds, one caged and one who has liberty. This idea is also very much connected to the concept of yin and yang, as well as many other traditional beliefs regarding life. But through the work of Tagore, his motifs took on a modern form.

Despite all the contributions made to the world of literature and to human society, Tagore is nearly not recognized as much today. It is a shame that his heartfelt work is not being as read and celebrated as it should be. 

A more active conversation of Tagore’s work may encourage another generation of youth to carry the legacy that Tagore left behind, to pick up the pen that he dropped, to complete the thoughts that he completed, before the next light of dawn could begin. 

A more active conversation of Tagore’s work may encourage another generation of youth to carry the legacy that Tagore left behind, to pick up the pen that he dropped, to complete the thoughts that he completed, before the next light of dawn could begin.