Bengali poet, novelist, short-story writer, dramatist, painter, philospher and nationalist - Rabindranath Tagore is almost synonymous with the Indian Literature, being the first Indian to be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1913. He is also known as the founder of the experimental school, Shanti Niketan, in which he tried to impart an education that was a blend of Indian and Western traditions. The school went on to become the Vishwa Bharati University in 1921.
His collection of verse, titled Geetanjali, Song Offerings, was hailed by W.B Yeats and André Gide, bringing him the much deserved attention from Western Critics and paving the way to his Nobel Prize.
I've read many of his poems, particularly from the collection Geetanjali and it won't take a genius to guess what motivated that choice ;-) I've also read a couple of plays. Recently I finished reading a volume of selected short stories.
Tagore, known best for having liberated Bengali literature from the shackles of traditional rules and models based on ancient Sanskrit literature, is said to have been greatly influenced by his contact with the "humble life and their small miseries" of the village folk he was in contact with, after taking up residence near the Padma river. His stories have a distinctive poetic lilt, poignantly capturing those elements of their lives, laced with a gentle irony at times. Most of them deal with life of the middle-class family man, and often with the position of the not-yet emancipated Bengali woman in a patriarchal society.
Despite his apparently supporting stance towards women, his stoires have a rather one-dimensional view of women classifying them under the Madonna-Whore dichotomy. Many of his stories seem to be attempting to lift the veil from the hypocrisies of Bengali (and thus, Indian) society, yet their rather simplistic and one-dimensional view, in my opinion, restricts the goal from being achieved. Yet, when I think of other short-stories I've read dating from the same era (or before) that attempt similar reforms in ways of thinking, I have to accept that the trend in short-story writing was rather simple and one-dimensional.
Another possible reason, for what I perceived as a rather soft-handed approach in exposing the evils of a class-ridde, superstitious society, is the fact I am reading a translated work, and it is a well-acknowledged fact that translation robs most, if not all, the essence of the original. You only need to compare the impact of Tagore's Amaar Sonaar Bangla in its original and in its translated English version to understand this - you don't need to understand Bangla to feel the difference in the rhythm, tempo and most importantly the soul of the song in its two version. (Having said that, let me add that I'm still glad to have access to the translation - and feel rather grouchy when denied access to such translations of other pieces of literature and thought in vernacular languages that I come across!)
Tagore's collection of short stories didn't exactly lift me to ecstacies of literary delight, but I'm glad to have finally read the volume that has been on my Must-Read list for as long as I can remember! I guess I can now move on to other such works on that ever-increasing list :-)
(You can read more about Tagore on Wikipedia Here's what Brittanica online has to say about him and what the Nobel society says about him. )