Celebrating the 150th year of Rabindranath Tagore, we take a look at his writings, his poems and movies.

Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high;

Where knowledge is free;

Where the world has not been broken up into fragments

by narrow domestic walls…….

Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake.

These immortal words were written by an Indian who stood tall in the world of literature. His writings were translated and read all over the world. He wrote poems, plays, essays, stories and novels. He wrote and tuned songs. He was also an artist and a patriot.

We are talking of the Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore.

He once travelled on a ship along with the great Irish poet, Y. B. Yeats. During the journey he showed him his poems. Reaching London, Yeats called a meeting of renowned writers and asked the Indian poet to read out his poems to them. When he finished reciting, no one said a word. “They don't like it!” thought Tagore. Actually, the Englishmen were speechless with emotion. And then the room filled with applause. Tagore's poetry had reached the world.

Tagore also met the scientist Albert Einstein in Germany. The two men talked of science and Nature, and the nature of things. Tagore received the Nobel Prize. He was also given a knighthood by the British Empire, but he returned it two years later when the British massacred Indians at Jallianwala Bagh. Tagore was a reformer and wrote against social ills. He wanted Independence for India, and was a big source of inspiration for Mahatma Gandhi and other freedom fighters.

Tagore was born in 1861 in a rich and prominent family of Calcutta. His father was Maharishi Debendranath Tagore, a scholar and social reformer. His mother Sarada Devi died when he was very young. He was the youngest child. The servants used to beat the children regularly. In such a large household, Rabindranath was in many ways a loner, and wrote his first poem when he was eight. When he was 17, a friend published a collection of his poems, surprising him.

Rabindranath Tagore was like a lake, brimming with lotuses. But besides the lotus, there were other flowers too, colourful and bright, pure and white, dark and light. From his creative flow, there bloomed not just poetry, but also musical dramas about a brave new society, and stories of courage and love, and songs that urge us to celebrate the joy of life. He started painting pictures very late in life. By the time he died at 80 years of age, he had taught us that one man can achieve so much with the dream of a child.

(Shreekumar Varma is the author of The Magic Store of Nu Cham Vu)

His books

Among Tagore's most interesting novels is Gora. Gourmohan, an Irish orphan, is adopted by Brahmin parents. He is steeped in religious practices, and looks down upon others as inferior. When he discovers who he really is, he's shattered. It is an important book against prejudice and racism. It is also a fine study of people and their outlook.

Noteworthy among his plays and stories are Chokher Bali, Dak Ghar, Nashtanir, The Crescent Moon, Chandalika, The Hungry Stones and Other Stories, The Return of Khokababu, Ghare Baire and The Housewarming. Tagore wrote so much that it's difficult to select and highlight particular works. His most famous work is Geetanjali, a collection of mystical and spiritual poems.

Creativity to the fore

Tagore wrote our national anthem, “Jana Gana Mana”. He believed we can reach God through personal purity and service to others. He believed in the oneness of mankind, and sought the unity of all nations. Through his own amazing range of creative work, he showed Art liberates us and also helps us express our ideals. He embraced all art forms — music, poetry, painting, dance, story-telling and theatre.

In 1921, he started an ashram away from Kolkata at Shanti Niketan amidst lush greenery. This included an experimental school and library. The school, Vishwa Bharati, propagated his ideas in a refreshing atmosphere of creativity. No trip to Kolkata is complete without a trip outside the city to visit this haven of creative learning and communal living where students from all over the world come together to breathe in the air of Tagore's super-charged world.

On screen

Many of Tagore's stories have been made into films. Prominent among them are “Kabuliwallah” directed by Bimal Roy, “Ghare Baire” and “Charulatha” directed by Satyajit Ray, Chokher Bali directed by Rituparno Ghosh and “Chaturanga” directed by Suman Mukherjee. There are probably two reasons behind the success in getting Tagore's works on screen. He wrote about people and their very real and relevant problems. Also, being a playwright, his stories have the drama and play of relationships that can light up a story on screen. He deals with powerful emotions and radical ideas, and worked through his stories to change the stale, rotting state of social institutions and beliefs.