Rabindranath Tagore was born in 1861 and died in 1941. He was an outstanding member of a remarkable family dynasty. The early Tagores migrated at the end of the 17th century from the district of Jessore in Eastern Bengal to the village Gobindapore on the river Hughli where the Fort William of Calcutta was later built. In Rabindranath’s words, his ancestors came with the ‘earliest tide of the fluctuating fortune of the East India Company’.
They left their inherited priestly duties as high Brahmins to become banians or brokers to the Europeans. The villagers of Gobindapore addressed their Brahmin guests as thakur or ‘holy sir’ which was anglicised into Tagore as the family’s padabi or title. In Bengali their title is still Thakur.
A historian of the Age of Enterprise’ in ‘Eastern India’ writes how these ‘descendants’ of the ‘humble priests’ became ‘aristocrats’ or ‘the “Medici” of Calcutta’. The Tagore family could boast of the first independent Indian merchant, of several venturesome landholders and banians, of freethinking reformers, of Sanskrit scholars and polyglots, a first high civil servant, a world famous poet.
Dwarkanath Tagore (1794-1846), who was Rabindranath’s grandfather, added spectacularly to the family estates. His meteoric career took him from Bengal to Europe. He turned himself into an independent merchant at a time when wealthy Indians in the mercantile professions worked only as banians to European firms. In 1834 Dwarkanath chose to retire from his high post as diwan of the Board of Customs, Salt, and Opium and launched the firm of Carr, Tagore & Co.
He was congratulated by the governor-general, Lord William Bentinck, for being the first Indian to start an Indo-British commercial enterprise. The firm supplied indigo and silk, and did business in coalmining, shipping, insurance, and banking. He had many successes on his tour of Europe in 1842, when he dined with Queen Victoria at Buckingham Palace, and had audiences with the Pope in Rome and with King Louis-Philippe in Paris.
In his own country he was a dedicated partner to Rammohan Roy (1772-1833) in founding the monotheistic Brahmo Samaj, in abolishing the rite of suttee or widow burning, in sponsoring the Landholders’ Society for monitoring the government’s land legislation, and in championing freedom of the press.
Being the leading Indian merchant of his generation Dwarkanath was a fabulously rich man. He was popularly known as ‘Prince Dwarkanath’, both for his great generosity and for his high style of living. A cosmopolitan and a bon vivant, he was proficient in Persian, Arabic and English, and was said to have had close contacts among many classes of people in England, France and Italy – from ‘royalty to radicals’.
He entertained his European guests lavishly, and acquired a suburban house called Belgachia Villa for the purpose, in deference to his wife, who was religiously and socially orthodox. He also had a baithak-khana, or living room, built for himself in the courtyard of Jorasanko House also for the purpose of entertaining his foreign guests. He was sensitive towards his family’s way of life and saw to it that he did not impose upon them.
In his own personal faith he remained a Vaishnava Hindu throughout but, again, his way of worship was his own. He was remarkable in combining his love of his country and heritage with his radical thinking. After his death The Times of London wrote in their obituary that ‘his name will be proudly associated with all the noble institutions flourishing in Calcutta’. 
Dwarkanath’s eldest son, Debendranath Tagore (1817–1905), who was Rabindranath’s father, was the first Tagore to become an initiated brahmo. He led the Brahmo Samaj movement following Ram Mohan Roy’s passing. With his uncompromising austerity Debendranath paid off his father’s debtors instantly, thus effecting a reversal in the economic status of his family.
He was popularly called Maharshi, or great sage. Like his father he did not interrupt the family’s orthodox religious practices but he dissociated himself from them after he became a brahmo. He married Sarada Devi (1826?–1875). Among their progeny were Dwijendranath Tagore (1840–1926), a freethinking philosopher whom Mahatma Gandhi revered; Satyendranath Tagore (1842–1923), the first Indian member of the Indian Civil Service, who emancipated the women of his family from the purdah or veil; Jyotirindranath Tagore (1849–1925), a painter and patriot who courted bankruptcy for swadeshi (the promotion of Indian economic self-sufficiency); Swarnakumari Tagore (1856–1932) who was an early woman novelist, and Rabindranath who was a world-renowned poet and educationist.
As reformers and patriots the Tagore family found themselves drawn into the heated debates of those times on religion and politics. But they never closed their window to the world which they gained mainly from their love of English literature. The air that young Rabindranath breathed in Jorasanko was described by him as follows:
“There was something remarkable about our family. It was as if we lived close to the age of pre-Puranic India through our commitment to the Upanishads… Along with that there was a genuinely deep love of English literature among my elders. Shakespeare and Sir Walter Scott had a strong influence over our family…”
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.