Did you know that one of Rabindranath Tagore’s daughters was named Meera? I learned this fact last week and it made me feel a great deal closer to his legacy–and confident too, about my forthcoming journey to West Bengal.
For those with Indian ancestry, Tagore is a venerated figure–the first Indian (actually non-Western) Nobel laureate, a talented poet, writer, and painter, a world-traveler, and the composer of not one–but two–national anthems (India and Bangladesh). A quintessential Renaissance man, I am always surprised at having to explain his achievements to my American classmates. After all, his friends included the likes of Charlie Chaplin and Ezra Pound.
I first studied Tagore in greater detail while abroad at Oxford. (Tagore actually visited Oxford! There is a photo of him at Harris Manchester College) Through one of my tutorials, I had the opportunity to trace his artistic development through a series of paintings displayed at the Ashmolean. Coming from a well-to-do family that was part of the Bengali bhadralok, Tagore had no formal education but was able to become culturally educated through his family’s musical and theatrical connections.
As I have mentioned earlier, I will be based in Santiniketan for the duration of my fellowship. This location is inextricably tied to Tagore himself as he founded Visva-Bharati University to be a place where students could develop emotionally, intellectually, and spiritually. I have the highest respect for Tagore and am looking forward to living in a place that he loved so greatly.
My respect was recently compounded tenfold when I began watching Stories of Rabindranath Tagore, a TV series based off of his short stories (available on Netflix) and realized that Tagore truly was a progressive. In beautiful stories such as Chokher Bali and Nashtanirh, Tagore questions a woman’s role in society and highlights the plight of women who are at the mercy of their elders and of their husbands. His heroines are bright and bold–but are held back because of cultural norms and societal oppression. The stories have really resonated with me as much of my research is concerned with gender norms and roles in modern Indian art.
Once I arrive in Kolkata, I am planning to pick up several of Tagore’s books to learn more about Bengali culture–and about women’s rights in the past century. I encourage all of you to check out the TV series, an artistic and important production in making Tagore’s works more accessible to all.