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A masterpiece by the essence of Bengali poetry, Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore.
Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore, also known as "Bishwa-Kabi"(poet of the world), is a legendary figure in the rich literature of Bengal. His genius traveled far and wide. Tagore was the first Asian to be awarded the Nobel Prize for literature for the collection of his poems- Gitanjali (an offering of songs).
Bengali or Bangla is a member of the Indo-European family of languages. Spoken by around 270 million people across the globe; It born from a form of Prakrit or Middle Indo-Aryan language. The Bengali script has been derived from the Brahmi alphabet of the Ashokan inscriptions (273 to 232BC). It is more than just a language; it’s a door to the rich literary heritage of Bengal.
Bengali literary heritage is deeply knotted with the classical Indo-Aryan Sanskrit language and literature. History of Bengali language divided into three eras – Old Bengali (950-1350), Middle Bengali (1350-1800) and Modern Bengali (1800 to the present day). Charva songs written by Buddhist Siddhacharyas (enlightened) ones, is a compilation of forty-eight poems. It forms the most important part of Old Bengali literature. Descriptive, story based poetry inspired by religion was the essence of Middle Bengali. Krittivas' Ramayan, Srikrishnavijaya by Maladhar Vasu and Srikrishnakirttan by Baru Chandidas are considered classics of this era. Vaishnavism influenced a fusion of music and poetry towards the end of this period. In the Eighteenth century, Rameshvar Bhattacharya's description of Shiva as a poor farmer in Sivasankirttan marked the development of secular and narrative writing.
The nineteenth century saw a literary revitalization in Bengal. Modern Bengali poets like Michael Madhusudan Datta and Bankim Chandra Chatterjee laid the foundation of modern Bengali literature. The real progress happened in the latter half of the nineteenth century, with literature encompassing romance, social realism, drama, literary prose and politics coming to the forefront. Digdarshan (a monthly magazine) and Samachardarpan (a weekly) marked the arrival of periodical press. Bankim Chandra, Peary Chand Mitra, Girishchandra Ghosh , Amritlal Bose, D L Ray and Ishwarchandra Vidyasagar were some of the well known literary figures of this century.
Rabindranath Tagore is one of the most illustrious names etched on the literary history of Bengal. A poet, novelist, short-story writer, dramatist, essayist and literary critic; he was the first Indian to receive a Nobel Prize for translated version of his series of song-poems, Gitanjali.
Tagore's works include 28 volumes of poetry, stories, novels, operas, essays and diaries, 2,500 songs. His works talked of universal harmony and spiritual sovereignty; regardless of the nature, culture, race and nationality of the human. W.B. Yeats described him,
"Tagore was the product of a whole people, a whole civilization, immeasurably strange to us, and seems to have been taken up into this imagination; and yet we are not moved because of its strangeness, but because we have met our own image, as though we had walked in or heard perhaps for the first time in literature, our voice as in a dream"
Gitanjali, a collection of 103 English poems (Bengali version had 157 poems), with an heady prefaces by WB Yeats; was enormously well received everywhere. It is one of the most famous works of Tagore. The poems in Gitanjali bear spiritual and metaphysical essence. They talk about the aspirations of the human soul for meeting the divine. The element of celestial and heavenly love takes inspiration from the Vaishnava literature of ancient India (12th Century).
As the name suggests, Gitanjali is an offering of devotional songs to the supreme. The strong spiritual essence of Gitanjali is evident from the following extracts
"My debts are large, my failures great, my shame secret and heavy; yet I come to ask for my good, I quake in fear lest my prayer be granted."
Poem 28, English Volume
"In this playhouse of infinite forms I have had my play, and here have I caught sight of him that is formless."
Poem 96, English Volume
Tagore was a humanist to the core. He criticized imperialism of any kind and was very critical of the British rule in India. However, he also disapproved of against any violence in the name of nationalism. He wrote, "Patriotism cannot be our final spiritual shelter; my refuge is humanity. I will not buy glass for the price of diamond, and I will never allow patriotism to triumph over humanity as long as I live." It was the universal appeal in his words that reached out to the world transcending the boundaries of regions and beliefs.
His poetry talks of the liberation of human mind and spirit from all fears. It abandons the doubts and embraces the reasons. The following poem from Gitanjali expresses his values clearly-
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;
Where words come out from the depth of the truth;
Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection;
Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way into the dreary desert sand of dead habit;
Where the mind is led forward by thee into ever-widening thought and action
Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake.
The features of his poetry that got enthusiastic appreciation, to quote an English critic's opinion, "combines at once the feminine grace of poetry with the virile power of prose"
Gitanjali was a reflection of Tagore’s poetic character. It is 157 elements of chaste devotion for the almighty. The poems flow like different notes of an orchestra. In fact, Gitanjali is more appropriately a collection of songs. The innate rhythm in the words of Tagore makes reading it a profound and intense spiritual experience. As in the introduction to Gitanjali, W.B Yeats says of Tagore’s poetry:
"At every moment the heart of this poet flows outward to these without derogation or condescension, for it has known that they will understand; and it has filled itself with the circumstance of their lives."
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