Corps de l’article

Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941), the “Myriad-Minded Man” and the first Asian poet to win the Nobel Prize in literature, was a poet, novelist, essayist, playwright, composer, painter, philosopher, and pioneering educator from colonial India. Tagore’s vision and philosophy, either ignored or shrouded by his image of the mystical poet from the east, are now being addressed to restore his salience as a thinker of universal reach and significance, one who defied national-imperial and elite-subaltern binaries (Collins, 2012, p. 3). His legacy -- vast literary output and educational institutions he founded -- persists in a new conceptualization of humanity that transcended boundaries of the home and the world. An iconic figure of Indian modernity, his well-documented life conveys intersections of personal experiences with his public endeavors for the common good. The trajectory of Tagore’s life-works, common yet unique, reveals complicated notions of age and gender characteristic of the specific historical conjuncture in India.

This essay attempts to reclaim Rabindranath Tagore through his “ages of life” – as a son, father, and educator – and his envisioning of an alternate education and masculinity. Historians in different fields have identified the connection between masculinity and fatherhood (Laqueur, 1990; Tosh, 2007 [1999]). The quest for fatherhood as moral guardians or biological fathers, although hardly addressed in South Asian literature, was a crucial component of Indian masculinity as well. Different “psychic and social investments” constituted gendered identities of men in the precolonial and colonial contexts (O’Hanlon, 1997). Colonial masculinity was constitutive of a symbiotic relationship between the “manly” Englishman and “effeminate” Bengalis/Indians (Sinha, 1995), a perception fostered by the official British community and internalized by the colonized Indian literati (Rosselli, 1980). British officials and Bengali men, the latter being the main target of attack, forged their manliness in relation to one another, not through opposition but through shared values as well. Educated Indians resisted their stereotypes by incorporating hegemonic forms of masculinity such as body-building and muscular strength (Alter, 1994; Chowdhury, 2001) and infused them with imagined cultural myths of “warrior monks” and “Hindu soldiers” drawn from India’s ancient past (Banerjee, 2005; Banerjee & Basu, 2006). Moreover, nineteenth-century educational reforms promoted a masculinity that crystalized religious-communal identities (Sengupta, 2011). But in the late colonial era, Indian “fathers,” biological and metaphorical, articulated a masculinity through a reformed education that was secular in nature. Visionaries like Rabindranath Tagore envisaged a new pedagogy that would prepare the future generation for a world where its “head is held high” and the “mind is without fear” (Tagore, 1912). Further exploration of masculinity thus demands investigation of familial and filial relationships that traversed the private-public domains of politics and culture.

Rabindranath Tagore has been often criticized by fellow Bengalis for his bourgeois effeminacy. What got elided is his radical critique of colonial education and his daily practices that defied conventional notions of masculinity. His experiments with institutions that transcended the geopolitics of the nation, and a curriculum that emphasized arts, moral aesthetics, and “public poetry” (Nussbaum, 2007) over muscular nationalism, challenged the dominant culture of masculinity. His paternalism embraced a “manliness” privileging moral and spiritual sustenance over economic and political considerations. Drawing on Tagore’s everyday experiences captured in his personal writings, essays, and correspondence, this essay demonstrates the tangled relationship between his domestic reality and his public commitment to social justice and education. As a global-historical actor, Rabindranath has been described as a product of the nineteenth century who displayed sensibilities informed by post-Enlightenment European philosophies (Kumar, 1991; Chatterjee, 2001; Collins 2012; Sen 2014). Scholars disagreeing with such a view have explained Tagore’s distinctive thinking drawing from indigenous roots and environment in addition to the European ideological influences (Sarkar, 2009; Bandyopadhyay, 2013). The familial context that was integral to colonial modernity (Chakrabarty, 2000; Chatterjee, 1993; Sarkar, 1992) and was especially critical for Rabindranath’s pedagogic endeavors still awaits investigation. Even a recent examination of Rabindranath’s meditations on love and interiority relies solely on his novels and poems, at the exclusion of his intimate experiences (Kaviraj, 2015). By foregrounding the importance of the family as an enabler and restrictive force, my study explores connections between one family’s life and the Bengali understanding of age, gender, and class in late colonial India.

“Age” was a contentious public issue in British India. The colonial state backed by its Western-educated native elites, driven by a “liberal” progressive agenda to eradicate oppressive social customs, passed several Acts related to the “right” age for marriage and its consummation (Forbes, 2007; Tambe, 2009). In 1929, the Child Marriage Restraint Act declared “the child as a person who, if a male, is under 18 years of age, and if a female, is under 14 years of age,” thus establishing an “incontrovertible definition of the “child,” mapped along the axes of sex and age” (Pande, 2012, p. 205). The controversies revolved around a specific age for a girl and a boy, both covered by a blanket term, “children,” in which the category of youth was conspicuous by its absence (Banerjee, 2014). Unlike the majority of the Indian population for whom the boundaries of age and the stages of life were blurry, Rabindranath, as a male from a privileged background, enjoyed distinct “ages of life” evident in his self-writings. Rabindranath’s stages of life as a boy, youth, and adult intersected with his public practices as an educationist, a father, and a reformer who created an edifice for the modern Bengali “child” of the bhadralok (respectable middle class) community. In the prime of his life he assumed a moral guardianship and positioned himself as the “father” to his diverse body of students who looked up to him as the “mentor,” Gurudev (literally, teacher-god).

Associating Rabindranath with an “imaginary” fatherhood, I point out his affective connections as a father and a public leader. I n Indian culture, family and fatherhood are polysemic in nature and are not solely determined by biological connections (Chatterjee, 2004). The oldest male member, married or single, held the highest patriarchal authority in multigenerational, patrilineal, patrilocal households. Families subscribing to monastic lineages and religious associations even attributed fatherhood to the spiritual gurus (Chatterjee, 2013). Although paternity in India was determined by property relations and control over family resources, claims to fatherhood were not tied to possession of individual private property as John Locke conceptualized it in the modern West. One of the many ways life was imagined and practiced by the reform-minded Indian patriarchy was through the enactment of fatherhood. The Lockean notion of “possessive individualism” based on the political death of paternal or parental authority never took roots in the Indian soil (Chakrabarty, 2000, pp. 217-218). Rather, the reformed Hindu patriarchy forged their national identity through a natural bond of fraternity and, I argue, through an assumption of fatherhood and propagation of a new pedagogy displacing the colonial system. Contingent on specific socio-cultural and political-economic context, the role of fathers attained heightened significance in late colonial India. Fatherhood, albeit unstable and plural, constituted the subjective identity of men, particularly of those belonging to the “respectable” middle class. I contend that Rabindranath’s position as a biological father and the transference of his affective concern to a larger body of children, in whom he tried to inculcate a new sense of selfhood through his unique education, were inflected with an alternate sense of masculinity. The focus on fatherhood and children, by investigating lives of influential natives like Tagore’s, disrupts the separation between the private and the public and brings out the centrality of the domestic in the larger politics of late colonial India.

The omnipresence of fathers in Indian culture and their simultaneous image as distant and removed from the daily lives of children (Kakar, 1981) possibly naturalized them and explain their lack of inclusion in current scholarship. In the course of the nineteenth century, “fathers” from the educated middle class ( bhadralok ), both in their biological capacity and as ideologues, engaged in reform movements to make their women and children part of a progressive modernity. They emerged as an emotional community displaying altered sensibilities in setting up home, providing economic support, ensuring protection, and training their progeny with “appropriate” virtues of femininity and masculinity – similar to, yet different from, those of the Victorian middle class (Tosh, 2007 [1999]). Rabindranath’s intervention in educational movements and his embeddedness in family offer us an opportunity to explore the role of fathers as mentors and interrogate notions of masculinity that were not connected to gender-specific sex-roles as parents but as “constitutive of social relationships” and an emerging patriarchal ideology (Sinha, 1999, p. 446). To trace the interminable connection between the home and the world, it is in order here to situate Rabindranath in his familial surroundings and the colonial environment.

The “Ages” of Childhood: Family and Colonial Education

Born into one of the wealthiest families of colonial Calcutta, Rabindranath came from a strong patriarchal culture. His grandfather, Prince Dwarkanath (1794–1846), a “business tycoon” partnering with the British, and his father Debendranath (1817-1905), a leader of the new monotheistic, religious movement called Brahmoism, held immense power in the Bengali socio-cultural milieu. Rabindranath’s brothers held important government posts and contributed to various branches of arts and literature. Active involvement in nationalist, cultural, and educational movements made the Tagores the architects of a new colonial modernity (Kling, 1976). Rabindranath was knighted by King George V in 1915, a knighthood that he renounced in the wake of British atrocities in Jallianwala Bagh, Punjab, in 1919. Rabindranath’s accomplishments determined his reception, particularly in the West, as a humanist and a critic. But his personal narratives, letters, and essays unveil his more “radical” side, as a boy/son and then as an adult –husband/father (Dasgupta, and al. , 2013).

Rabindranath’s distaste for and rejection of colonial education was evident in his memoirs. His Boyhood Days opens up with the bustle and scurry that characterized his multigenerational urban household in “old Kolkata,” but he presents his childhood as full of ennui and languor during his regular study hours under the home-tutor (Tagore, 1940, p. 6). It is difficult to ascertain if it was customary for affluent Bengali families to hire private tutors for training their children so early in life. But informal training at home, particularly for boys, was part of the colonial culture. By the time Rabindranath was growing up, primary schools were set up by the colonial administration. The three reports by William Adam (1868 [1835; 1836; 1838]), a Unitarian missionary and ardent abolitionist, who was encouraged by the pioneering Indian social reformer Rammohun Roy to inquire into the status of education, indicated that the number of students under domestic instruction was almost nine times higher than those attending public schools. The average age of admission to a public elementary school was eight years and that of leaving was fourteen years (Nurullah & Nayak 1951: 23). But female education was almost non-existent. Like other male children of the time, Rabindranath went to Normal School and his earliest experience there, “not the least sweet in particular” (Tagore, 1917:33), was that of singing verses, whose meaning was inscrutable to him: “Unfortunately the words were English and the tune quite as foreign, so that we had not the faintest notion what sort of incantation we were practising;…” (Tagore, 1917, p. 33). Rabindranath’s woes over learning were further compounded by his inability to “associate with the other boys” whose manners and habits he found intolerable. Neither did he cherish the memory of the teachers; he found their language so “foul” that out of sheer contempt, he refused to answer any questions they asked (Tagore, 1917, p. 34).

Rabindranath’s critical recollections of his school days brought home the nature and purpose of colonial education. The education system developed by missionaries, colonial administrators, and indigenous leaders was fraught with a struggle between the effort “by non-Indians to impose a cheap imitation of the British educational system on India and the desire of the people of the country to create a new system to meet their own peculiar needs and problems” (Nurullah & Naik, 1951, p. xiv). The Charter Act of 1813, the earliest British intervention in Indian education, advocated revival and promotion of the knowledge of science and literature and was aimed at the encouragement of the learned natives in India. The earliest schools, however, were set up by the Christian missionaries in the presidencies of Bengal and Bombay, and in the Punjab. The missionaries had to rely on the knowledge of the native experts for translation and writing of textbooks. The Act thus provided the native intellectuals in Bengal and elsewhere an opportunity to actively engage with the educational movement through literary endeavors (Banerjee, 2007).

Matters came to a head with the British politician and writer Thomas Babington Macaulay’s famous Minute of Education in 1835 that replaced Persian with English as the official language of instruction in India. With a strong Utilitarian justification denouncing Indian languages and literature, Macaulay claimed that “of all foreign tongues, the English tongue is that which would be the most useful to our native subjects” (Macaulay, 1835). Backed by a sizeable section of the native population who realized the importance of promoting western-style learning, Macaulay’s Minute was followed by two other official proclamations, Wood’s Despatch (1854) and the Hunter Commission (1882), that laid the blueprint for the colonial education system.

Intending to spread Western Knowledge and Science at all levels, Wood’s Despatch introduced schemes of grants-in-aid to schools and training of all teachers for schools receiving government aids. This allowed colonial government the right to inspect and assert greater control over education. After the Rebellion of 1857-58 and the transfer of power from the Company Raj to the British Crown (1858), the colonial government became increasingly wary of missionary education verging on conversion. It launched the first Education Commission under Sir William Hunter in 1882 and its Report announced that the government would not delegate western-style education to the missionaries; rather, it would create its own department of education with state subsidies (Topdar, 2015).

Education from the early nineteenth century thus became a pathway for educated native men to work hand-in-hand with the missionaries and the colonial government. This also gave them the opportunity to create their epistemic space as moral guardians of the younger generation (Banerjee, 2007). By 1880-90, the native literati started taking initiative on their own. In 1881-82, Indians conducted the majority of the secondary and primary schools in British India (except Burma): 1341 secondary schools and 54,662 primary schools were administered by Indian managers as opposed to 757 secondary and 1842 primary schools run by non-Indians (Nurullah & Naik, 1951, p. 260). In Bengal, for example, Rabindranath’s grandfather, Dwarkanath Tagore, along with other votaries of modern education, made significant donations for the promotion of schools and institutions, including the establishment of the Calcutta Medical College (Sengupta, 2011). Towards the last quarter of the nineteenth century, the schools were endowed with state power and education became the site of “colonial governmentality” (Seth, 2006). The schools were not only designing curricula and introducing new subjects, they were bent on creating subjectivities and regulating native populations through a range of disciplinary practices. The school’s main subjects of reform were males, with age unspecified, and dissemination of education among women followed a different trajectory (Forbes, 2007). Rabindranath reacted to colonial schools both for their pedagogic practices as well as their stifling regimen. As he himself recorded: “So long as I was forced to attend school, I felt an unbearable torture.” Later on, he realized that what weighed on his mind was the “unnatural pressure of a system of education which prevailed everywhere” (Tagore, 1925, p. 94).

The disciplinary regime of school was matched by an equally strong patriarchal domain at home. Raised predominantly under the “auspices” and “abuses” of manservants, “servocracy,” as Rabindranath described it (Tagore, 1917), the most awe-inspiring male figure in Rabindranath’s life was his pitrideb (Father-god), Debendranath Tagore, whose influence continued through his adult life. Debendranath’s itinerant life-style as a social reformer, his solemn personality, his sweeping command over family matters were testament to the traits of the time; yet, he was very different from the “meddlesome tyrant of middle-class patriarchy,” often described in the Western context (Sen, 2014, p. 70). Child Rabi (nickname) hardly knew his father: “He would now and then come back home all of a sudden, and with him came foreign servants […] when my father came, we would be content with wandering round about his entourage and in the company of his servants. We did not reach his immediate presence.” Rabindranath’s first close encounter with his father was at age eleven when they both traveled to the Himalayas. A commanding personality with a meticulous eye to details, Debendranath carefully chose and ordered for his son a “full suit of clothes” with a “gold embroidered velvet cap.” Rabindranath reflected: “[….] Though nothing would induce him to put obstacles in the way of my amusing myself, he left no loophole in the strict rules of conduct which he prescribed for me in other respects” (Tagore 1917, p. 68).

Rabindranath’s experience with his father was unique. Very few children, male or female, in colonial households enjoyed the opportunity of traveling alone with their fathers and receiving the rigorous training that Debendranath enforced on his children. Likewise, when Debendranath entrusted eleven-year-old Rabi with the responsibility of his cash-box, it was exemplary by the standard of his time. By bestowing a significant responsibility on Rabi, Debendranath enhanced the agency of his child. Yet, any negligence on Rabi’s part would earn him serious consequences. As much as Rabi enjoyed his freedom from his school in Calcutta, his trip to the mountains followed a “rigorous regime” when he would wake up before sunrise to learn his Sanskrit declensions, shower in ice-cold water, hike up the mountain ridges with his father, sing devotional songs for him, and pursue lessons in English, Bengali, and Astronomy (Tagore, 1917:68). It was not Debendranath alone; fathers of aristocratic background wielded tremendous influence in training their sons through different stages of life. Jawaharlal Nehru, the first Prime Minister of independent India, recorded in his autobiography the commanding personality of his father and how he shaped his childhood experience. Daughters, including the ones in the Tagore family, however, were subjected to a different treatment and upbringing.

Rabindranath’s evolving relationship with Debendranath attested to the archetypes of manliness that also prevailed in Victorian England: absent, distant, and intimate (Tosh, 2007 [1999]). The distance that Rabi, as a child, felt with his father was bridged in later life through mutual affection and favor. Rabindranath’s son Rathindranath noted, “My grandfather loved his youngest son and was delighted to discover unusual talent in him while still a boy. Probably for this reason he was very generous to him” (Tagore,1958, p. 148). Debendranath also entrusted Rabindranath with the management of his estates but he was such a “strict disciplinarian” that on the second of every month he wanted the accounts to be read out to him. “He [Debendranath] would remember every figure, and ask awkward questions whilst the report was being read.” Rabindranath was “afraid of this day of trial, like a school-boy going up for his examination” (Tagore, 1958, p. 148). As Rabindranath expressed so succinctly, his father “held up a standard, not a disciplinary rod” (Tagore, 1917, pp. 96-98). The so-called tyrannical aspect of Victorian fatherhood, in Rabindranath’s recollection, was missing in Debendranath, the reformed father of a minority religious community.

The strong influence of the father stood in contrast with the distant and short-lived relationship between Rabindranath and his mother Sarada Devi (Banerjee, 2005). Rabindranath reminisced:

when my mother died I was quite a child […] On the night she died, we were fast asleep in our room downstairs. […] Only when her body was taken out by the main gateway, and we followed the procession to the cremation ground, did a storm of grief pass through me […] The day wore on, we returned from the cremation, and as we turned into our lane I looked up at the house towards my father’s rooms […] He was still in the front veranda sitting motionless in prayer” (Tagore, 1917, pp. 255-56).

The God-like image of his father always prevailed over Rabindranath. His venerable portrait of Debendranath was emblematic of a masculinity associated with fatherhood that protected children and gave them moral guidance to grow and develop as individuals. Despite his authoritarianism, Debendranath was broad-minded enough to let his son experiment and explore. He demanded obedience but also granted freedom: the relationship did not thrive on coercion; instead, it fostered independence and individualism among his male children (Sen, 2014, p. 71).

As a rebel child, Rabindranath refused to comply with the demands of a colonial education system. After dropping out of successive institutions, he finally gave up school at age fourteen, the year his mother died, and it was “through the joy” of his freedom that he “felt a real urge to teach himself” (Das Gupta, 2006, p. 69). Shorn of the restrictiveness of the formal school system, Rabindranath was nourished by the strong cultural environment at home. As a “living university,” the Tagore household of Jorasanko exposed him to a confluence of European and Indian thoughts and literature – classical and popular, drawing on folk literature and music through nursery rhymes, baul songs, and Vaishnava literature and lyrics (O’Connell, 2002, pp. 44-45).

Although unique and versatile, the cultural environment of the Tagore household was still heavily gendered, with different expectations and roles for male and female children. Rabindranath’s elder sister Swarnakumari Devi (1855-1932) was an equally prolific figure in nineteenth-century Bengal. Following the custom of the time, she was home-schooled; but she wrote novels, poetry, plays, songs, scientific essays, edited a leading journal, Bharati and engaged in social work (Chaudhuri, 2016). As Teresa Hubel pointed out, Swarnakumari Devi’s family connections and gender stood in the way of recognition of her literary contribution and leadership (Hubel, 2010). Rabindranth himself harbored a dismissive and condescending attitude towards her as he wrote in a letter to his English friend: he had given Swarnakumari Devi no encouragement and had failed to make “her see things in proper light.” Rabindranath dismissed Swarnakumari as someone having “more ambition than ability;” “just enough talent to keep her alive for a short period” (Hubel, 2010, p.170). The statement testifies to Rabindranath’s patriarchal bias. He grew up in the presence of strong women, yet his was a culture that favored male children.

Rabindranath Attains Adulthood: The Father and The Educator

Discriminatory practices by gender and age continued to manifest themselves in the course of Rabindranath’s adult life. An emerging star in the Bengali literary firmament and well-exposed to the Western ideas of Romanticism and Victorianism through his travel to England, Rabindranath at age twenty-two married eleven-year old Bhabatarini aka Mrinalini Devi [1] (1872-1902), selected by his father Debendranath following strict caste rules (Dasgupta and al ., 2013, p. 3). Rabindranath’s coming of age in every phase was intervened by his father. At eleven, Debendranath made him go through the caste-specific practice of upanayan , a rite of passage for Brahmin boys, that introduced him to the gayatri mantra (Tagore, 1917, p. 72). [2] Likewise, Debendranath consecrated Rabindranath’s attainment of manhood through the marriage he arranged for him. At every stage of his career, he reckoned with his father’s authority without confronting him. If Rabindranath’s awe and deference to his father could be explained by bhakti (devotion), that Chakrabarty invoked for analyzing Bengali nationalist patriarchy (Chakarbarty, 2001, pp. 217-31), in his personal life he registered a shift in his dealings with wife and children.

As a “modern” man, Rabindranath’s masculinity characterized a closeness in his conjugal relationship. His correspondence with his wife reveals tenderness and intimacy that ran contrary to his father’s distance with his mother. Rabindranath’s deepest emotions as a husband and father were best expressed in his letters to his wife when he traveled. In these letters to Mrinalini Devi, he expressed his longing for her and deliberated on matters about their children. He discussed their well-being, happiness, and marriage. His hands-on parenting and playful connection with children inverted the image of his detached yet overbearing father. Rabindranath straddled a contested terrain in his family life: on the one hand, he conformed to the gendered practices of his times in raising his male and female children; on the other, he challenged the gendered stereotypes of parenting as he continued to engage with his children through every step of their lives. Following the death of his wife in 1902, he single-handedly took care of his five children and often their spouses. [3] As Rathindranath recalled, his father was a “down-to-earth man” and his “august personality” did not stand in the way with his children:

Father never treated any of his children harshly, nor did he…lavish sentimental affection upon them. I do not remember any occasion when Father subjected any of us to physical punishment. Temperamentally it was impossible for him to use violence. (Rathindranath Tagore, 1958, p. 148).

Rabindranath’s parenting defied distinct gender roles based on perceived differences between fathers and mothers. Neither temperamental nor effusive, Rabindranath was also a strict disciplinarian like his father. He too subjected his son Rathindranath to rigorous training and hardship (Mira Devi, 1968). His youngest daughter Mira Devi’s correspondence with him reveals how close she was with her father since she was a little girl (Banerjee, 2015). Moreover, Rabindranath as a public intellectual was equally committed to the causes of children envisioning new educational curriculum that he enshrined in his school and university in Santiniketan, a small town west of Calcutta in the Birbhum district of West Bengal . Rabindranath’s vast repertoire of children’s literature, consisting of poems, plays, short stories, primers, and essays, let loose his imaginings of an idealized childhood. But his imaginings were also rooted in a colonial reality and frustration that he experienced as a child. Rabindranath’s special relationship with the child commenced from “his own lived experiences” and it was his “poetic words” that acted as the primary site of the relationship between the adult and the child (Sarkar, 2009, p. 271).

As his commitment to social justice deepened, Rabindranath increasingly saw his family members “less as individuals than as part of the greater cause to which he felt his life was dedicated” (Dutta & Robinson, 1997, p. 45). His natural impatience with formalism led him to formulate a new prose-form and invent new institutional structures that privileged nature over artificial boundaries and constructions. He produced his collection of poetry for children, Shishu, while taking care of his ailing daughter Renuka (aka Rani) during the last days of her life. His joyous approach to learning resonated with the progressive spirits of the literary movements of the late nineteenth century that emphasized reading for pleasure (Sarkar, 2009). It is this new spirit and vitality that Rabindranath attempted to infuse in his new pedagogy that commenced in his family estate and thrived with the active support of his family members.

Bhudev Mukhopadhyay (1827-94), a conservative social critic from colonial Bengal who served as a head master and worked for the Department of Public Instruction, regretted that in India, there was “very little effort to encourage mutual affection and understanding between fathers and sons.” In his teacher training manual Bhudev urged schoolteachers to take on the role of an understanding and affectionate father: the behavior between the teacher and the students “should be the same as between fathers and sons” (Sengupta, 2011, p. 81). Rabindranath’s lifeworks merged the roles of father and teacher through his new educational experiments.

Rabindranath’s manliness, manifested in his role as a dear husband and a close parent, bolstered his critique of colonial education. As an adult his first formal intervention in educational movements corresponded with his life as a family man. An aristocratic man in his thirties, a husband, and a father, he pushed educational reforms that were not far removed from his family. His zeal for reforms was part of a larger social experiment in India in which other leaders, including his predecessors, played an active part. With pre-existing family connections to eminent reformers, Rabindranath in later life developed his own link with leaders dedicated to education. He joined the National Education Movement in the early 1890s to actively champion vernacular education (Mukherjee, 2013; O’Connell, 2002; Seth, 2007).

His speech, “ Shikshar Herpher” (“Vicissitudes of Education,” 1892), delivered in the Rajshahi district in eastern Bengal (now Bangladesh), contained his most scathing critique of colonial education. Reflecting on his boyhood experience when he felt the disconnect with rote English learning, he argued that the failure of the Bengalis to communicate their ideas and opinions effectively like an adult ( sabalok) could be explained by the lack of connection they felt with Western-style education imparted in schools and colleges. Echoing the sentiment of the time he blamed the enfeeblement of the Bengalis on the colonial system, a point that Tanika Sarkar emphasized in a different context (Sarkar, 2001). He stressed that being forced to master English, the children neither learned nor played: they did not have the leisure to enter the “true-land” ( satyarajya ) of nature; the doors to the imaginary lands of literature were sealed. The only way to strike a balance between thought and expression, between education and life, was by promoting vernacular language and literature and not English (Tagore, 1892).

When requested to write the Constitution for the National College founded by the nationalist leader Aurobindo Ghose (1872-1950), he authored the essay “Shiksha Samasya (“Problem with Education”) that again addressed the key issues of colonial education. For Rabindranath, the problem lay in the unfathomable distance between Western-style education mechanically disseminated in schools and the experiences of common people in India (Tagore, 1906). In his proposal for the National College as well as in his own school (Brahmacharyashram) in Santiniketan, he rejected the popular “gallery model” championed by the Scottish educator David Stow and adopted by early Bengali educators like Bhudev Mukhopadhyay (Sengupta, 2011, p. 84). To promote his idea of freedom for children he advocated a spatio-structural transformation of the classroom. He moved the classroom to the heart of nature and he stripped it of any furniture. For him, students and teachers sitting on floors and preferably holding classes in natural surroundings would be the most effective way of lowering costs of education (Tagore, 1906). By the time he was engaging with these questions, the vernacularization of education was already underway under the initiatives of nationalist-reformers and missionaries. They all shared a Western model and their demand was infused with strong religious overtones (Sengupta, 2011; Goswami, 2004). But Tagore’s pedagogy, creative and secular, offered an alternative, drawing on the best of both the East and the West. Open to ideas of European thinkers like Pestalozzi and Rousseau and with ties to the Unitarian movement, Rabindranath’s model, however, differed from that of the missionaries and the early reformers.

Family continued to be Rabindranath’s major arena of play and support in every project he undertook. He launched his initial educational experiments in his family estates in eastern Bengal. As early as the 1890s, hoping to alleviate the hunger and poverty of his tenants, he tried, without much success, to educate the adult villagers in collective farming. Around the same time, he also started experimenting with his children’s education. Confronted with a school system that belied his vision, it was in eastern Bengal that Rabindranath started home-schooling his three children -- Bela (thirteen), Rathindranath (eleven), and Renuka (nine) – a practice that he encountered in his own life but for different reasons. As his son noted, fully aware of the ill-effects of the stereotyped school-teaching, Rabindranath was “anxious that his own children should be spared such unhealthy and stifling influences (Tagore, 1958, p. 20).” The children were taught English by a British tutor who lived with them; they also learned Mathematics, and Sanskrit; Bengali was taught by Rabindranath himself. When imparting basic education to his children he did not make a distinction between daughter and son. He wrote texts for his children, but the children never learned grammar. He insisted that the children read the two Indian epics, The Ramayana and The Mahabharata , and being unhappy with the existing printed editions, he entrusted his wife to translate from Sanskrit an abridged version of The Ramayana , left unfinished due to Mrinalini’s untimely death (Tagore, 1958, pp. 21-22). The responsibility for translating The Mahabharata fell to his nephew, Surendranath Tagore. In Rabindranath’s enterprise everyone in his family was included.

As a father-cum-educator, Rabindranath extended his pedagogical experiments far beyond his immediate family. His major educational reforms were launched in the thick of political controversies and nationalist upheavals. On 22 nd December 1901, with permission and assistance from Debendranath, he inaugurated his school in Santiniketan with less than ten students, including his son. Departing from a Western model, Rabindranath invoked the ancient Indian ideal of brahmacharya (a life-stage prescribed for males) where disciples studied in the secluded areas of the guru’s house restraining themselves through strict rules and hardship. All clothed in long yellow robes, the students rose at four in the morning, bathed, meditated, prayed, and chanted Vedic hymns. Rabindranath’s son Rathindranath noted that with the “ideal of brahmacharya ” as the “keynote,” both students and teachers led not only simple but an austere life (Tagore, 1958, pp. 44-45).

This school suffered from an acute shortage of funds since it did not collect any fees from students at first and provided them with food, lodging, and often clothing as well. The school was funded by a Trust set up by Debendranath, the money gained from selling his wife’s jewelry, and his own meager resources. Rabindranath hoped to realize his ideal of democracy and self-reliance by reaching out to the wider public and transgressing class-caste and religious boundaries. Through his conception of the ashram (hermitage), the ancient Indian institution, Rabindranath “sought to imagine a space where his ideas of self-reliance and democracy could be translated into praxis” (Chandra, 2014). In his new school, modeled after the ancient Indian system of tapovan (forest schools), Rabindranath attempted to establish real swaraj” in his ashram (Tagore, 1934), where students were tied in a bond of fraternity underscored by a devotion to the guru and the new order.

Rabindranath approximated the environment of the ashram by imparting spiritual training to all his students: he insisted on understanding and chanting Gayatri mantra, an ancient hymn, that he learned as a child. According to Rabindranath, the mantra made the connection between individual consciousness and external reality, linking the inner self with its deepest aspects and transcending boundaries of race, class, nationality, and religion. Displaying the influence of the Father as the god-head Absolute, he reminded children that “God is our father, and like a father always gives us lessons of wisdom. The teachers are only the vehicles, but the real knowledge comes from our universal father” (O’Connell, 2002, p. 67). Rabindranath’s strong enunciations testified to his own authoritarianism and control, a streak akin to his father’s, but he expressed himself in a different idiom for an imaginary public. His invocation of God as “Father” displayed Christian (Unitarian) influence that his father publicly denied yet enigmatically upheld in the faith he propounded. While Father for Rabindranath might not have been a sexist symbol, it represented an all-pervading masculinity as a sovereign source of power.

Rabindranath publicly abandoned his nationalist agenda when the anti-partition Swadeshi movement (1905-08) against Lord Curzon’s plan to divide Bengal gave way to Hindu-Muslim antagonism, self-aggrandizement, and violence. Disassociating himself from the movement to which he gave active leadership, he critiqued parochial patriotism and shifted his focus to ideas of universalism and rural reconstruction. He then took the unprecedented step of admitting six girls to his school in 1908-9. By 1920, the school became both co-residential as well as coeducational.

Ironically, despite including girls in his school, in his personal life Rabindranath yielded to the practices of his aristocratic family, class, and era. He had home-schooled his daughters with tutors specially selected and mentored by him. Like his sister from the previous generation, his daughters were not expected to go to public schools. Just as he had married an 11-year old girl, he arranged the marriages of two of his daughters, Bela (14), and Rani (10), both in 1901, the same year he founded his school. Through the nineteenth century age of marriage for girls was heavily debated among the social reformers and colonial administration. The Age of Consent Act (1891) sanctioned consummation of marriage with brides below twelve as a punishable offense. Even earlier, the Brahmo community split into three factions over Act III of the Marriage Act of 1871 that aimed to formalize Brahmo marriages by designating the specific age of marriage, fourteen for girls and eighteen for boys (Majumdar, 2009, pp. 167-205). Surely, those Acts had little relevance for the Tagores. Rabindranath justified the early marriages of his daughters by arguing that it would allow them to quickly adjust and identify with their in-laws. After leaving Bela at her husband’s home for the first time, he expressed his parting pains in a letter to his wife: “We must forget our own joy and sorrow where our children are concerned. […] We must make room for them so that they can mould their lives in their own way” (Tagore, 1901, pp. 11-12). Incidentally, Rani, the younger daughter, died of tuberculosis (1903) before she turned thirteen.

That Rabindranath was committed to his educational endeavors despite inconsistencies in personal life was beyond doubt. As the War broke out in 1914, he became more convinced of his message of universalism. His reaction against parochial nationalism was expressed in his condemnation of Western education. He claimed that his countrymen would gain their India by “fighting against the education which teaches them that a country is greater than the ideals of humanity” (Chatterjee, 2011, p. 99). For him, “the highest education is that which does not merely give us information but makes our life in harmony with all existence.” He believed that “the object of education is the freedom of mind […] though freedom has its risk and responsibility as life itself has” (Tagore, 1916). In his ashram the “guiding spirit” of children was “personal love” and life was “fully awake” in its activities:

[w]here boys’ minds are not being perpetually drilled into believing that the ideal of the self-idolatry of the nation is the truest ideal for them to accept; where they are bidden to realize man’s world as God’s Kingdom, to whose citizenship they have to aspire; where the young and the old, the teacher and the student, sit at the same table to partake of their daily food and the food of their eternal life (Tagore, 1916).

Rabindranath, as a father-teacher, evolved through the ages of his life, transcending nationalistic limits and extending his moral and pedagogic leadership over a larger body of pupils. In 1918 the establishment of Visva-Bharati, an international university, crowned his educational experiments. Based on a multi-racial network, Visva-Bharati emphasized a non-sectarian and aesthetic curriculum that included fine arts, music, Indian folk culture, and literature to understand the psychology of Indian people (Nussbaum, 2009).

Rabindranath’s daring educational experiments (like his literary and philosophical works) remained restricted to his close followers. Scholars have blamed the lack of success on his elitist background. His aesthetic moralism did not provide a viable model for mass education (Chatterjee, 2011). However, what is missed in this assessment is Rabindranath’s paternalistic concern for common people as evidenced by his efforts to educate the peasantry. His last major experiment was the establishment of Sriniketan in 1922 with the help of Leonard Elmhirst, the British agro-economist, and twelve of his former students. Based on international cooperation since its inception, Sriniketan’s objective was rural reconstruction to make the villagers “self-reliant and self-respectful, acquainted with the cultural traditions of their country and competent to make use of modern resources for improvement of their physical, intellectual and economic conditions” (O’Connell, 2002, p. 195). Organizing boys and girls in ways that were modeled on the Boy Scouts, Girl Guides, and the 4-H movement of America, village children were trained in practical skills and were made to overcome caste prejudices through group participation.

Rabindranath delegated the main responsibility of Sriniketan to his son, Rathindranath, who was sent to study Agriculture at the University of Illinois, US, and Göttingen University, Germany. Upon his return from the West, Rathindranath served on his family estates training poor farmers in the art of scientific farming. For the next four decades, he worked for Visva Bharati and became its first Vice-Chancellor when it became a central university. Rabindranath arranged Rathindranath’s marriage with seventeen-year-old Pratima Devi, a child-widow, in 1910. Later, he trained and educated her to be part of his educational schemes. Again, Rabindranath exerted his paternal authority, like that of his father, in arranging his son’s marriage; but his choice of a widow for his son was consonant with the legislation, the Widow Remarriage Act (1856), passed in the previous century. His closeness with Pratima Devi defied the conservatism that his father displayed. He signaled a change from the domineering father like Debendranath to a more self-confident, engaging father in his own right. Through the ages of life Rabindranath relied on the strength and support of his family, abided by family rules and customs, but also offered resistance to the limitations imposed by them.

Rabindranath’s masculinity rested on an assumption of fatherhood that he experienced with his father and older brothers (Sen, 2014). The sense of freedom he inculcated among the future generation was restrained by his authority as the paterfamilias in the geographical locale of the ashram . He actualized the dreams of the earlier educators like Bhudev who wanted to train the teachers so that “they could relate to [their] students as fathers relate to their sons” (Sengupta, 2011, p. 81). He achieved this first by training the teachers; second, by positioning himself as a father-cum-educator and becoming a role model for the teachers. His rigorous training of teachers for his school at Santiniketan is best captured in a series of essays written between 1936 and 1941, “Ashram-er Rup o Bikash” (Tagore,1941). As one commentator later reflected, Rabindranath “succeeded in establishing a cordial atmosphere of mutual understandability and warmth of sympathy as a teacher-father - Gurudev of the Ashrama [School]” (Chakrabarti, 1990, p. 94).

Committed to nineteenth-century values of liberal individualism, the entanglements of Rabindranath’s familial side with his pioneering educational experiments reveal in him an insurgent consciousness that challenged both colonial oppression and native injustices. While in his imaginings, the child, mostly male, was “Indian but not orthodox, modern but not mimic [sic],” and its “rebelliousness was contained within a formalized context and limited authority,” it will be delimiting to understand Rabindranath only within the post-Enlightenment analytic (Sen, 2014, p. 60). By focusing on the ages of his life, I have endeavored to foreground his experiential reality and familial context from which he drew sustenance.


Rabindranath’s reforms were a culmination of the Tagore family’s long involvement in education over four generations. Rabindranath’s pedagogical enterprise was a family project. Neither he nor his family superseded prevailing caste, class, and gender norms, but the family as a whole, and Rabindranath’s meditations and activism on social ills, gender norms, and education, gestured towards a radicality that set the Tagores apart as trend-setters and culture-builders in colonial India. The novelty lay in Rabindranath’s new pedagogic model, irrespective of age, gender, sex, caste, class, or religion. As a father-cum-educator he transcended the home ( ghar ) and reached out to the world ( bahir ). While his experiments, localized and limited, failed in the long run, his critique still remains salient for understanding colonial modernity.

Rabindranath’s enactment of masculinity can be tracked along interconnected trajectories: as a rebellious thinker, Rabindranath rejected the authoritarianism of British institutions. He blamed colonial education for the emasculation of Indians. Unlike the majority of his contemporaries, including his own niece Sarala Devi Chaudhurani, he did not participate in a movement for body-building and wrestling that would strengthen the “weak” body of the Indians. His masculinity encompassed a fatherhood, traits of which he chiefly inherited from his predecessors: a fatherhood that commanded compliance but also nurtured freedom. Through the ages of his life, his model Pitridev (father-god) evolved into his own archetype as the “Gurudev” (teacher-god), the father-cum-teacher that the early native educators emphasized. His “empire” of fatherhood extended beyond his immediate familial and religious domain. He encouraged the independent spirit of his students as world citizens but did not subscribe to the Enlightenment notion of private individuals entrenched in property rights and predicated on a separation with the father (Chakrabarty, 2001). Mutual deference ( bhakti) that sustained the relationship between him and his disciples did not undermine the autonomy of either but fostered a culture of creativity unfettered by the “technologies of power” (Chatterjee, 2011:126). The micropolitics of everyday life shaped by many competing forces reconstituted his fatherhood in its nurturing, care-giving roles both within home and outside, thus giving a new meaning to masculinity that was not just an expression of physical might but also an “education in emotional literacy” (Broughton & Rogers, 2007, p. 22). Identifying imperialism as the principal enemy, the drafting of alternate educational strategies suggested an overturning of the colonial model and a refusal to be treated like enfeebled children by the colonial state.

Samir Dayal has argued that the “fulcrum” of Rabindranath’s universal humanism was “an erotic economy of love” that could be best identified in the notion of sahridayata or empathy, as Dipesh Chakrabarty argued in a different context (Chakarbarty, 2000). Dayal writes: “Tagore’s preferred version of patriotism was couched in the rhetoric of love, rather than the received modality of aggressive nationalist self-affirmation” (Dayal, 2007, p. 78). If “Tagore’s counternarrative was calculated to destabilize the hegemony of a hypermasculinist discourse of nationalism” (Dayal, 2007, p. 79), I suggest that his counternarrative could be traced to his pedagogical experiments in which his family played a central role. His “love” for humanity (including children) was not confined to the microcosm of the home but became a blueprint for his public action. By taking care of a larger community of children as dependents, by protecting them through training and education, by giving them a home in his ashram outside of home, by nurturing deeply spiritual, yet secular, democratic principles, Rabindranath displayed his larger concern as a modern father endowed with altered sensibilities.

As an imperial subject of international stature, Rabindranath felt a bigger onus of freeing children’s minds and preparing them with skills and knowledge as autonomous, independent subjects of the modern world. Beset with ambivalence and contradictions, his sensibility was also conditioned by his contextual reality as a son and father. Through the ages of his life, family played an important role through its enabling and restrictive presence. By focusing on the private and the quotidian aspects that are subsumed under his more popular image of a benign, universalist poet, I have attempted to establish the link between the history of a notable family and more widespread notions of the life course, gender, and masculinity. While one aspect of Rabindranath’s masculinity was anchored in everyday acts of reformed fatherhood, his other aspect of masculinity de-linked itself from maleness and acquired its meaning through enunciation of education programs that challenged colonial forms of domination.