One-hundred years ago, the immortal Indian literary figure Rabindranath Tagore became the first non-European and first Asian to win the Nobel Prize for literature.
On the eve of a global world war, 1913 was an extremely busy year for the Bengali poet, novelist, playwright, songwriter, painter and lyricist, as his fame had spread to the West. Tagore extensively toured the U.S. that year, delivering lectures at various universities and public halls, including appearances at Boston, Chicago and New York, before sailing to London, where he was feted by luminaries, including fellow poets William Butler Yeats and Ezra Pound.
Upon returning to India in November, the Nobel Committee awarded him the prize for literature for his magnum opus "Gitanjali" ("Song Offerings"), citing the work’s “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.”
Often considered the William Shakespeare -- or even the Leonardo da Vinci -- of India, Tagore remains largely an obscure figure in the West, apart from a coterie of scholars and culture aficionados.
However, during his time, Tagore enjoyed considerable global acclaim on par with his Indian contemporary Mahatma Gandhi.
Two years after receiving his Nobel Prize, George V, king of the United Kingdom (and emperor of India) knighted Tagore. (Tagore subsequently renounced the knighthood in 1919 to protest the massacre of Indian men, women and children by British soldiers at Jallianwala Bagh in Punjab.)
Tagore’s international friends and/or admirers included Albert Einstein, Persian mystic Hafez, Argentine intellectual Victoria Ocampo, Benito Mussolini, Robert Frost, Thomas Mann, André Gide, George Bernard Shaw, H.G. Wells and numerous others.
Born to a wealthy, prominent Bengali Brahmin family in Calcutta in 1861 in British India, Tagore (who advocated for Indian independence throughout his life, although he ultimately opposed any form of nationalism) single-handedly transformed Bengali literature by freeing it from rigid, Sanskrit-based formality and by writing on subjects that would appeal to the common man.
Tagore’s father, Debendranath, was a member of the Brahmo Samaj, a group that sought to reform and modernize Hinduism -- a movement that deeply influenced his son.
Due to his family’s wealth and property inheritance, Tagore enjoyed such perks as foreign travel and studying abroad -- things light years beyond the aspirations of the majority of his countrymen. However, unlike most of his social class, Tagore detested such Indian traditions as caste and untouchability, and he also campaigned for universal education and the eradication of rural poverty.
But it was his talent at writing that sealed his everlasting fame more than his social reform campaigns.
Tagore not only wrote thousands of short stories, but also composed hundreds of songs, including two works that became the national anthems of India ("Jana Gana Mana") and Bangladesh ("Amar Shonar Bangla").
Strangely, for such an accomplished intellectual and supremely well-educated man, Tagore loathed the restrictions of classroom teaching -- in response, he helped create the Santiniketan, a progressive educational institution that focused on developing and encouraging the student’s personal growth, originality and creative impulses.
Tagore died in 1941 at his ancestral home in Calcutta -- seven years before India gained independence.
A century after Tagore received the Nobel Prize for literature, he remains the only Indian person so honored. In fact, of the more than 850 Noble prizes awarded since 1901 in various categories, India accounts for a total of only eight, including Tagore’s. In contrast, the United States has received well over 300.