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 Kolkata, 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. Rabindranath Tagore, a Nobel laureate and prolific writer, was one of the most notable members of this family. His brother Satyendranath Tagore also played a significant role in the family’s legacy. The Tagores were based in Pathuriaghata, which is now a popular tourist destination in Kolkata.
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.
Rabindranath Tagore’s Family Background
The Tagores, including Debendranath Tagore, 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 Jorasanko.
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 and had taken control of the former Mughal province of Bengal, which included Burdwan Zilla. Kolkata, formerly known as Calcutta, became a hub for Bengali literature during this time.
The 19th century saw the Bengal Renaissance, a period of remarkable societal transformation in Kolkata, formerly known as Calcutta, 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, led by Debendranath Tagore and his son Rabindranath Tagore.
Sarada Devi (1830-1875): Rabindranath Tagore’s Mother
Sarada Devi, a name that resonates with profound maternal love and sacrifice, held the esteemed role of being Rabindranath Tagore’s mother. Married to Debendranath Tagore, she shared the blessing of parenthood with him, welcoming a total of fifteen children into their lives. When Rabindranath was born, it was his eldest sister, Saudamini, who lovingly assumed the responsibility of caring for the newborn, as his mother was battling illness.
Sarada Devi’s life was one of relentless devotion to her family, and while she may have had limited time and energy to spare for her youngest child, it was not unexpected given the demands placed upon her maternal heart. The longing for a mother’s affection, left unfulfilled during his formative years, persisted within Rabindranath as an enduring ache, a recurring yearning for feminine warmth and care.
This poignant yearning found its voice in the exquisite child-poems penned by Rabindranath during the peak of his manhood, some of which were later translated into English and published as “The Crescent Moon.” Within the pages of his short stories and novels, the tender embrace of a mother’s love was depicted with such richness that it leaves one pondering whether the author was not only crafting literature but also seeking solace for his own unquenched thirst for maternal love.
On the 10th of March 1875, Sarada Devi departed from this world, leaving behind a family that deeply mourned her loss. At the time of her passing, Rabindranath was barely fourteen years old.
This was Rabindranath’s first encounter with the profound concept of death, and while his family undoubtedly grieved her departure, Rabindranath did not experience fear when he learned of her passing or when he saw her lifeless form. It was only as her body was solemnly carried away for cremation that the tempest of grief surged within him. In his own words, as Rabindranath recalls in “My Reminiscences,” he felt the storm of sorrow engulfing him, realizing that his mother would never return through that familiar doorway, never again assume her rightful place in the daily affairs of their household.
Sir Prodyot Coomar Tagore (1873–1942), the son of Jatindramohan Tagore, was a notable Bengali philanthropist, art collector, and photographer from Kolkata. 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. Rabindranath Tagore, a renowned Bengali poet, was also a distant relative of his.
The Jorasanko Tagores gained their renown during the era of Dwarakanath Tagore (1794-1846). Dwarakanath, who was adopted by Ramlochan Tagore, the first son who was childless, inherited the Jorasanko property and Ramlochan’s vast wealth. Although Dwarakanath was involved in a variety of activities, 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. Dwarakanath’s nephew, Rabindranath Tagore, went on to become a renowned poet and writer. Debendranath Tagore, another member of the family, was a philosopher and religious reformer. Darpanarayan Tagore was also a notable member of the family.
Hemendranath Tagore, the third son of Debendranath and elder brother of Rabindranath, was a strict disciplinarian who took on the responsibility of overseeing the education of his younger brothers, including Dwarkanath Tagore. He also administered the large family estates and was known for his physical strength and wrestling skills. Like most of Debendranath’s children, Hemendranath had diverse interests in various fields, including composing numerous “Bromhosangeets” and writing articles on physical science. His intention was to compile and edit them into a textbook for school students, which would have been the first science textbook written in Bengali had his untimely death not prevented him from completing the project. Unusually for the times, Hemendranath insisted on formal education for his daughters, including Santiniketan’s founder Bharati Devi. 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), a Bengali polymath and Debendranath’s penultimate son, was exceptionally talented and the most famous member of the family. He founded Santiniketan, an experimental school in West Bengal, and was a close associate of Jatindramohan Biswas, a revolutionary freedom fighter. Tagore 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 and his brother Dwarkanath was a prominent industrialist.
Dwijendranath Tagore, Rabindranath Tagore’s eldest brother, is a significant figure in the history of Santiniketan. He spent the last twenty years of his life there and was a poet, musician, philosopher, and scholar. Dwijendranath Tagore was not only supportive of his brother’s vision for Shantiniketan but also provided valuable contributions to the institution’s intellectual and cultural ethos. His presence and contribution lent great depth to the creative and intellectual environment of the institution. As an accomplished poet and musician himself, Dwijendranath Tagore participated in various activities through which the community explored and expressed their creative potential.
Jorasanko, located in Kolkata, 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 under the guidance of their governess. Swarnakumari Debi recalled how in her early days, the governess would write something on a slate, which the girls would then copy.
When Debendranath Tagore 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, including Ganendra, Gunendra, and Jyoitrindra, set up their own private theatre in Bengali language at Jorasanko, 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. Later in his life, he founded Santiniketan – an institution located near Dwarkanath Tagore’s estates, as a revolutionary response to the traditional methods of education prevalent during that era.
Santiniketan, which translates to ‘Abode of Peace’, sought to break away from the rigidities of conventional education systems. Rabindranath Tagore conceived it as a place where learning could be a joyous process, and pupils could have a holistic educational experience that was in harmony with nature. This was a distinct contrast to the prevalent educational practice which heavily relied on rote learning.
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 based in Kolkata (formerly known as Calcutta). 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, renowned author, and professor, who later became the principal of Khalsa College in Mumbai. Krishna Kripalani wrote many popular books, including a biography on Rabindranath Tagore and Mahatma Gandhi, further cementing his ties to the family.
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, the wife of Rathindranath Tagore and daughter-in-law of Dwarkanath Tagore, was actively associated with Visva Bharati from a young age and resided in Santinketan until her death in 1969. Similarly, Mira Devi, Rabindranath Tagore’s youngest daughter and niece of Abanindranath Tagore, 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 in West Bengal 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. Santiniketan is located near Kolkata (formerly known as Calcutta), the capital city of West Bengal.
Dinendranath Tagore, Rabindranath’s nephew and 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. The institution is located in Bengal and not far from Kolkata (formerly known as Calcutta).
Indira Devi Chaudhurani, Satyendranath Tagore’s daughter and a prominent Bengali figure, moved from Kolkata to Santiniketan in 1941 and took over the management of Sangit Bhavana. She briefly served as acting vice-chancellor under the guidance of Rabindranath Tagore.
Supriyo Tagore, Satyendranath’s great-grandson, a Bengali, was a student of Patha Bhavana and Visva Bharati University in Santiniketan before completing his education abroad. He retired as the longest-serving principal of Patha Bhavana in Kolkata, formerly known as Calcutta, 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 and Sourindro Mohun.