Saturday, April 26, 2014

Rabindranath Tagore - revered Indian writer, poet, songwriter

One of the most enjoyable aspects of teaching World Literature 2 is learning about fascinating worldwide authors.  I enjoyed learning about Tolstoy and Chekhov (he's next week), and I especially enjoyed learning about Rabindranath Tagore.  Say his name to an Indian and see a face light up!  Every Indian friend/colleague I told about our class studying Tagore immediately smiled and shared their own knowledge.  I thank Christina for her insights and links to songs and information!
Tagore was born in 1861 and died in 1941, so lived a long life full of creative writing.  He attended several schools, including University College in London.  Tagore corresponded and met with such illustrious peers as Mahatma Ghandi, W.B. Yeats, Robert Frost, Bernard Shaw and Albert Einstein!  He was the first Asian to win the Nobel Prize in Literature, for Gitanjali.  He also wrote the national anthems for both India and Bangladesh.

Born when Britain controlled India, he embraced his Indian identity and the Bengali language, writing in Bengali, but often translating his own work into English.  Tagore wrote eight novels, and hundreds of songs and poems. Finally, he founded a school - Shantiniketan - at which students learned outdoors, as he felt they should be exposed to nature and the change of seasons.

For this special day in class, I wore a lime green Punjabi (thanks Ruby) and played Tagore's music as the class worked on the quiz.  After teaching them a bit about Tagore, we dove into the short story he wrote, Broken Ties.  I regret to write, this was not their favorite reading of the semester.  I think they found it hard to understand.  To fully understand this work, a deep understanding of the history of India, and of Hinduism, is necessary, and we didn't have time for that in one class period.  Broken Ties highlights the stark contrast between "Westernized" atheists and devout Hindus.  The two main characters, Satish and Srivlas, begin as confirmed atheists, but when Satish's atheist uncle dies, he becomes a devout Hindu, following a swami and eventually becoming a mystic in his own right.  These two men embody the extremes in Indian culture. The story has a lot of layers, and symbolism -- their house is literally divided in half, with the atheist brother living in one half, and the Hindu brother in the other half -- symbolizing the divided nature of many Indians under British rule.  The women in the story play an important, though secondary, role, and both die. Broken Ties has been described as a "complex exploration of the contradictions and ambiguities within Indian culture."

Although the class did not fully embrace the story, they did enjoy the music!  Here are some links to songs by Tagore.  Enjoy!


  1. Christina Victor-BandyopadhyayApril 30, 2014 at 6:12 PM

    I am so happy I could help. I agree, a lot of Tagore's thoughts can be lost in translation - both literal and cultural. There is a movie on his life. I will try and get that for you, if you plan on teaching him again.

    Your classes are so culturally rich. I wish I could sit in sometime.

  2. Thanks Christina for your comment, and for your help. This class has been the most challenging, and most rewarding, class I have taught. You're getting a lot of it just reading my blog!