The Tagore family, known as Thakur in some cases, boasts a distinguished history spanning over 300 years, and has served as one of the most prominent families in Calcutta, India. They have been widely recognized as key drivers of the Bengali Renaissance, thanks to their significant contributions to various fields, including business, social and religious reform, literature, art, and music.
In terms of the family’s origin, the Tagores were originally known as Kushari, and they belonged to the Pirali Brahmin caste, which historically had a negative and derogatory connotation. They hailed from a village called Kush, located in the Burdwan district of West Bengal. Rabindranath Tagore’s biographer, Prabhat Kumar Mukhopadhyaya, noted in the first volume of his book Rabindrajibani O Rabindra Sahitya Prabeshika that the Kusharis were descendants of Deen Kushari, who was the son of Bhatta Narayana. Deen was granted a village named Kush in the Burdwan district by Maharaja Kshitisura, and he became its chief and came to be known as Kushari.
Tagore’s Family Background
The Tagores are Bengali Brahmins, as noted by various sources, including Rabindranath’s biographer, Prabhat Kumar Mukhopadhyaya, in his book “Rabindrajibani O Rabindra Sahitya Prabeshika.” According to Mukhopadhyaya, the Kusharis were descendants of Deen Kushari, who was the son of Bhatta Narayana. Deen was granted a village named Kush (in Burdwan Zilla) by Maharaja Kshitisura, and he became its chief and came to be known as Kushari. In later generations, a branch of the Tagore family left their ancestral village in Burdwan and migrated to the Eastern part of Bengal. Later, their descendants returned to the Western part of Bengal (now West Bengal) from the Eastern part of Bengal (now Bangladesh) and settled in the region situated on the right bank of the River Hooghly (Rarh) in the 18th century. Panchanan Kushari from Dakshindihi (now in Bangladesh) was the first to settle in the Gobindapur region around 1720, near what became Fort William, and then after eviction by the British, moved to the Jorasanko region south of Sutanuti.
The 16th century saw the arrival of Europeans in Bengal, leading to the establishment of Ugulim (Hooghly-Chinsura) by the Portuguese in 1579. The Battle of Plassey in 1757 resulted in the deposition of the last independent Nawab of Bengal, and after the Battle of Buxar, the East India Company was given the right to collect revenues from Bengal. By 1793, the British East India Company had abolished the Nizamat (the office of nizam, the local ruler) and had taken control of the former Mughal province of Bengal.
The 19th century saw the Bengal Renaissance, a period of remarkable societal transformation in which a whole range of creative activities – literary, cultural, social, and economic – flourished. This was the culmination of the process of emergence of the cultural characteristics of the Bengali people that had started in the age of Hussein Shah (1493–1519), covering around three centuries and having a tremendous impact on Bengali society. Interestingly, this coincided with the rise of the Tagore family, which attained prominence during this period through its unique social positioning between Indian and European influences.
Sir Prodyot Coomar Tagore (1873–1942), the son of Jatindramohun Tagore, was a notable philanthropist, art collector, and photographer. He was the first Indian to become a member of the Royal Photographic Society and was appointed as the Sheriff of Calcutta for the year 1909.
The Jorasanko Tagores gained their renown during the era of Dwarakanath Tagore (1794-1846). Dwarakanath was the son of Nilmoni Tagore’s second son, Rammani Tagore, but was adopted by Ramlochan Tagore, the first son who was childless. Dwarakanath inherited the Jorasanko property and Ramlochan’s vast wealth. Although Dwarakanath was involved in a variety of activities, ranging from being an agent of Mackintosh & Co. to serving as a serestadar, collector, and diwan in the 24 Parganas collectorate, it was his business acumen that brought him both wealth and fame. In partnership with William Carr, he established Carr, Tagore and Company, which was the first equal partnership between European and Indian businessmen and the initiator of the managing agency system in India.
Hemendranath Tagore, the third son of Debendranath, was a strict disciplinarian who took on the responsibility of overseeing the education of his younger brothers as well as administering the large family estates. Like most of Debendranath’s children, Hemendranath had diverse interests in various fields. On one hand, he composed numerous “Bromhosangeets,” while on the other, he wrote articles on physical science with the intention of compiling and editing them into a textbook for school students. Had his untimely death not prevented him from completing the project, this would certainly have been the first science textbook written in Bengali. Hemendranath was known for his physical strength and wrestling skills. Unusually for the times, he insisted on formal education for his daughters. He not only put them through school but also trained them in music, arts, and European languages such as French and German. It was yet another mark of his progressive thinking that he actively sought out eligible grooms from different provinces of India for his daughters and married them off in places as far away as Uttar Pradesh and Assam.
Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941), Debendranath’s penultimate son, was exceptionally talented and the most famous member of the family. He was the first Asian to win a Nobel Prize and is best remembered for writing what became the national anthems of India and Bangladesh, as well as coining the title “Mahatma” for Indian nationalist leader Mahatma Gandhi. The youngest son of Debendranath Thakur, Budhendranath, died at a very young age.
Jorasanko was an environment filled with literature, music, painting, and theatre. The Tagores had their own education system, and in earlier times, women did not go to school but were educated at home. Swarnakumari Debi recalled how in her early days, the governess would write something on a slate, which the girls would then copy. When Debendranath discovered this, he immediately put an end to this mindless and mechanical method and brought in a better teacher, Ajodhyanath Pakrashi – a male outsider in the women’s quarters. Some of the sons, such as Ganendra, Gunendra, and Jyoitrindra, set up their own private theatre, starting with men playing the roles of women, but eventually even the women joined in. The family’s environment played a significant role in the development of its members. Even Rabindranath Tagore, who went on to win the Nobel Prize in literature, had very little formal education.
RATHINDRANATH TAGORE – THE YOUNGER GENERATION
Rathindranath Tagore (1888-1961), the son of Rabindranath Tagore, was a multi-talented individual. Apart from being an agriculturist who received his education in the United States, he was also a skilled architect, designer, master carpenter, painter, and writer. Furthermore, he was the first ‘upacharya’ of Visva-Bharati University. Rathindranath’s wife, Pratima Devi (1893-1969), was an artist associated with Shilpa Sadan, Visva Bharati, and dance drama.
Sharmila Tagore, a well-known actress from Mumbai who is connected to Rabindranath Tagore, mentioned in an interview that her grandmother, Latika Tagore, was the granddaughter of Rabindranath Tagore’s brother, Dwijendranath. Pranati Tagore is a famous and distinguished elocutionist, news reader, and Bengali actor. She is married to Sunando Tagore, the great-grandson of Satyendranath Tagore. Pragnasundari Debi, the granddaughter of Maharshi Debendranath Tagore, married the renowned Assam author Sahityarathi Laxminath Bezbarua. She was a literary phenomenon in her own right, and her cookbook Aamish O Niramish Ahar (1900, reprinted 1995) was a standard given to every Bengali bride with her trousseau, earning her the appellation “India’s Mrs. Beeton.” Nandita, the daughter of Mira Devi, the youngest daughter of Rabindranath Tagore, married Krishna Kripalani, a freedom fighter, author, and parliamentarian. His biography of Rabindranath is among the best ever written.
The Tagore Family’s Contribution towards Santiniketan
Shantiniketan, a town developed by members of the Tagore family, was founded by Debendranath Tagore. The literary maestro, Rabindranath Tagore, penned many of his literary classics in Santiniketan, and his son Rathindranath Tagore was one of the first five students at the Brahmacharya asrama. After his father’s passing in 1941, Rathindranath took on the responsibility of running Santiniketan. In 1951, when Visva Bharati became a central university, Rathindranath was appointed as its first vice-chancellor.
Pratima Devi, Rathindranath’s wife, was actively associated with Visva Bharati from a young age and resided in Santinketan until her death in 1969. Similarly, Mira Devi, Rabindranath’s youngest daughter, lived in Malancha after her failed marriage, which was built for her in the Ashrama complex in 1926. She passed away in Santiniketan in 1969.
Krishna Kripalani, the husband of Nandita (Buri), the daughter of Mira Devi, taught at Santiniketan for almost 15 years, starting in 1933. His biography of Tagore was considered one of the finest ever written. Rabindranath’s eldest brother, Dwijendranath Tagore, spent his final two decades in Santiniketan, residing in Dwaijaviram in the Ashrama complex.
Dinendranath Tagore, Dwijendranath’s grandson, served as the principal of Sangit Bhavana in its earliest years. Dinantika, built-in 1939, housed the Cha chakra where staff members of Visva Bharati gathered for meetings and relaxation.
Indira Devi Chaudhurani, Satyendranath Tagore’s daughter, moved to Santiniketan in 1941 and took over the management of Sangit Bhavana. She briefly served as acting vice-chancellor.
Supriyo Tagore, Satyendranath’s great-grandson, was a student of Patha Bhavana and Visva Bharati University before completing his education abroad. He retired as the longest-serving principal of Patha Bhavana and presently operates Sisu Tirtha, an institution for orphans mainly from economically disadvantaged tribals, located near Santiniketan. His son, Sudripta, who has extensive experience in the education sector, is currently engaged in establishing a school at Ruppur near Santiniketan, embodying the ideas of Rabindranath.