Acquaintance with Death

When his mother died Rabindranath was a very young boy. But when his sister in law and companion Kadambari Devi died he was utterly distraught. At the time he was writing a prose-drama called Nalini which was going to be acted by the Jorasanko family when she committed suicide.

Rabindranath Tagores son Rathindranath and daughters Madhurilata Devi (Bela), Mira Devi and Renuka
Rabindranath Tagore’s son Rathindranath and daughters Madhurilata Devi (Bela), Mira Devi and Renuka

Recalling his shock in his Reminiscences Rabindranath referred to it as his first ‘permanent’ acquaintance with Death.  Yet, he also experienced some flashes of joy in the midst of this unbearable grief. A realisation that life was not a stable permanent fixture helped to lighten his mind. He wrote:


“With the loosening allure of the world, the beauty of nature took on a deeper meaning.”[19]


This forced insight into life and death was of no little significance when we recall that he had to face many deaths in his close family starting with the death of his wife in 1902 followed by the deaths of three out of five of their children. A few months after his wife’s death their second daughter Renuka fell ill.

His renowned collection of poems for children titled Sisu (Child) was written at this time while he was attending to Renuka’s illness and also looking after the two younger children bereft of their mother. The poems are so full of innocent delight that nobody would imagine how anxious and grief stricken he must have been at the time.


In 1903 Renuka died, nine months after her mother’s death. There was more sorrow to come with the deaths of his father in 1905, and of his youngest son Samindranath who died of cholera in 1907 when the boy was only eleven.


In those years his verse was becoming increasingly an offering to God, of finding in Divinity ‘the medium of a higher love, shorn of all superficial ornaments’. Coming from an inner surrender, after much personal pain, the language of these poems became simple and direct.


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This article was written by Uma Das Gupta

Professor Uma Das Gupta is a historian and a renowned Tagore biographer. She is the author of many books and articles on Tagore. Some of the most recent are: Rabindranath Tagore: My Life in My Words. New Delhi, Penguin Books, 2010;  Rabindranath Tagore: An Illustrated Life. New Delhi, Oxford University Press, 2013.