Tagore and Caste: From Brahmacharyasram to Swadeshi Movement (1901–07)

in Overview
Published on: 19 September 2018

Rajarshi Chunder

Rajarshi Chunder has submitted his PhD at the Centre for Historical Studies, JNU, New Delhi. His research is on the political ideas of Rabindranath Tagore.

Rabindranath Tagore’s ideas about caste have received the least attention from historians. Even though Tagore’s oeuvre has been lauded mainly for its literary value, it may be said that in his writings he was definitely vocal about social and political issues, caste being one of them. Tagore himself belonged to the inferior caste of Pirali Brahmans, considered to be polluted because of their social interactions with Muslims. Though Tagore did not face social ostracism himself, the family did, as caste Hindus refused to enter into marital relationships with its members, and those who did were socially ostracised and had to stay in Jorasanko (for the origins of the Tagore family see Dutta and Robinson 2005:17–18). During Tagore’s formative years, caste was a factor to be reckoned with.   


The development of Tagore’s ideas on caste can be divided into several phases. The first phase corresponds to the period between 1899 and 1905. It started with the foundation of a school at Santiniketan on a supposedly Vedic model—Brahmacharyashram. Students were required to lead a life of celibacy, abiding by caste regulations that involved living with their preceptors and practising a simple and austere life. Tagore idealised Vedic brahmanism as the principal repository of cultural vitality, which, in turn, made Eastern civilisation superior to the materialistic and imperial West.


The second phase corresponds to the period between 1906 and 1918. It saw Tagore’s gradual disillusionment with mainstream nationalist politics. This was due to growing communal tensions between Hindus and Muslims on one hand, and his growing awareness of the oppression of lower caste peasants by upper caste Hindu Swadeshi leaders, on the other. Apart from this, political violence in the form of individual acts of terrorism against British officials disenchanted him with politics as a whole. The period also saw a deep spiritual transformation in Tagore, along with a transformation in his ideas about caste. Although Tagore still regarded caste hierarchy to be rational, he admitted that it was an impediment to progress. He thought that strictly abiding by caste prerogatives and not allowing permeability of any kind would definitely lead to social stagnation. In the essays, short stories and poems that he wrote, particularly in the journal Sabuj Patra, there is a note of radicalism in his voice; a passionate anger about untouchability was a result of that radicalism.


The third phase, corresponding to the period between 1919 and 1934, saw a sharpened polemic against untouchability. This was evident in Tagore’s engagements and arguments with Gandhi on the issue. In some of the literary pieces written during the period, such as Chandalika (1933) and a short story Samaskar (1928), Tagore attacked untouchability as inhuman. And, much like Gandhi, Tagore considered untouchability an evil that had crept into an otherwise rational system of caste hierarchy.


This essay concentrates on the first phase—the inspirations that led Tagore to turn into a passionate spokesman of Vedic Brahmanism, their implications, felt particularly at the Brahmacharyasram, and his transformation into a liberal in caste matters.


Between 1899 and 1905, Tagore was fascinated by ancient Vedic customs and social prerogatives. The reason for this fascination is not entirely clear. In the preceding decades he had challenged conservative opinion on gender, written stories on transgressive themes and upheld the need for social and political reforms.[1] Yet by the turn of the century, however, he had shifted his position drastically. No biographer offers an adequate reason for the change. I have attempted an explanation, although I do admit that this is tentative.


The concluding years of the 19th century witnessed a strengthening of imperial controls as Curzon came to rule India as Viceroy in 1899. The Indian National Congress, under its moderate leaders, found it virtually impossible to attain any worthy political concessions. The plague outbreak in Bombay may be taken as an example of imperial disciplinary measures which brought about enormous popular resistance. Bubonic plague struck parts of the Bombay Presidency, where, in early autumn of 1896, it took a toll of 9,000 lives in the first six months (for the history of the Bombay Plague see Catanach 1984:183–92; Arnold 1995; Chandravarkar 1998; Klein 1998:723–55; Kidambi 2004; Sarkar 2013). Lord Elgin, Viceroy of India, soon found himself in the midst of a political storm. Plague came at a time when a large part of India was reeling under a famine which spread over 2,25,000 square miles and affected over 62 million people. The already grim situation was compounded by the plague. Plague control was shifted away from the hands of municipal authorities to a special military executive; its head, W.C. Rand, adopted ruthless measures to tackle the problem. British troops were summoned. Men, women and children were forcibly evacuated; their belongings were burnt and their shrines were desecrated. Such action was seen as sacrilege by local Indians and the Congress took up their cause. Yet nothing was done to redress the wrong.


The event had two important repercussions: first, the initiation of revolutionary terrorism—Rand was assassinated in June 1897 by two youths, Damodar and Balkrishna Chapekar; second, there was a gradual strengthening of Hindu revivalist politics in the province. Revivalism was already in vogue under the extremist leader Bal Gngadhar Tilak. Tilak’s influence on Tagore was considerable, as he had been resisting what he termed as the materialistic and exploitative West. The East, according to Tilak, was synonymous with everything that was Hindu (Goradia 1997:120–32; for an assessment of Tilak’s career see Woolpert 1962). He was a strong advocate of the caste system and a powerful critic of liberal social reformism—he violently protested against the Age of Consent Bill of 1891, and celebrated the strength and bravery of Hindu cultural and political icons by organising the Shivaji Utsav and the Ganesh Utsav. Tilak was arrested and imprisoned in 1898 and protests were quickly silenced by gagging the press with the Sedition Bill.


Tagore addressed a mammoth gathering in Calcutta and strongly protested the arrest (Tagore 2003a:120–25). He was also one of the enthusiasts to raise funds to give legal assistance to Tilak. The new revivalist trend in Tagore’s thought can be partly explained in the light of his admiration for Tilak and his ideas, and partly by his opposition to official ruthlessness.


In Bengal, too, these years saw a resurgence of Hindu supremacism. In late 1897, Swami Vivekananda returned to Calcutta after his triumph as a champion of Hinduism in the West. He propagated the spiritual supremacy of Hinduism over all other religions. Although Tagore never explicitly wrote anything about Vivekananda, nor directly owed allegiance to his ideas, it is indeed possible that he was influenced by the Swami for a while, given the fact that he became a close friend of Sister Nivedita, the Irish disciple of Vivekananda. Nivedita, too, was a strong proponent of the superiority of Hindu religion and culture (Atmaprana 1992).


During Curzon’s viceroyalty (1899–1905), official measures like the Calcutta Municipalities Act (1903), the Universities Act (1904), partitioning the province of Bengal (1905) and so on, aimed at limiting the scope of Bengali political and intellectual ambitions (Sarkar 2006:102–104). In the international sphere, imperial drives in Africa, particularly the Boer War in 1899, initiated an era of wars inspired by aggressive nationalism. Tagore was a strong critic of imperialism at home and abroad. The alternative to aggressive nationalism that he suggested was a return to the ancient Vedic past.[2] Political anti-imperialism was instantly translated into a cultural nationalism in an environment of religious revivalism. Tagore had criticised this revivalist trend earlier but now he was affected by it.


Tagore’s attachment to Vedic brahminism—particularly to the caste system, the supposed superiority of brahmanical celibacy and austere life—inspired him to set up the Brahmacharyashram at Shantiniketan. The plan originally came from one of his nephews, Balendranath Tagore. Balendranath had travelled extensively in Northern and Western India and he came into contact with the leaders of the Arya Samaj in Punjab and the Prarthana Samaj in Bombay. He wanted to form an All India Theistic Society by fusing these two organisations with the Adi Brahmo Samaj. It was decided that the Ashram at Santiniketan would be the headquarters of the Society where, along with the worship of a single formless God, a school would be set up in order to impart religious education to the students (Rathindranath Tagore 2013:41–42). But his untimely death left the work unfinished.


Tagore found the location of Santiniketan ideal for such a school. The Brahmacharyashram was modelled on the idea of a tapoban (forest hermitage)—a peaceful retreat, away from city life. With the Guru at the helm, who would not only impart education to the students but would also be a living example of virtue to them, the students would live in close contact with Nature, which was impossible in the city. Life within the Ashram would have to be austere—with a strict vegetarian diet, simple handwoven clothes, no slippers or shoes, no warm water for baths and so on. Students were to sleep on the floor without bedding, mosquito nets or pillows (Rathindranath Tagore 2013:43). These hardships were absolutely necessary as Tagore felt that comfort would rob the students of the vitality and inner strength which should be used for the purpose of nation building (Tagore 2003f:951–53). Thus the school became a repository of Vedic brahmanism, an ideal which was largely Tagore’s own construction.


In April 1900, after a gap of about 20 years, Bangadarshan, a journal originally started by Bankim Chandra Chattyopadhyay in 1881, was republished by Srish Chandra Majumdar, a friend and admirer of Tagore. Majumdar’s choice for the new editor naturally fell on Tagore. After some initial hesitation he agreed. Bangadarshan became the mouthpiece of Tagore’s ideas about a Hindu socio-cultural utopia.


At the same time, unlike Bankim who initiated a culture of combative and militant patriotism, Tagore strongly criticised nation worship as a form of Western politics. The Boer War and its repercussions were the immediate inspiration for the poem 'Shatabdir Surya Aaji Rakta Megh Majhe' ('Sunset of the Century', 1901). He warned that jati prem (aggressive nationalism was utterly self-destructive (Tagore 1998:71). The alternative was a return to ancient social and spiritual system of Vedic times.




Tagore located the basis of social progress in the system of caste distinctions as they were prevalent in Vedic times or so he thought. For Tagore, it was both a rational and humane system of division of duties among individuals because it put a check on mutual conflict which could lead to the destruction of the weak and culturally inferior groups by the superior. In one of his essays, he thus explained the idea of caste: in ancient times, Brahmans, Kshtriyas and Vaishyas were dwija (twice born)—the entire Aryan society was dwija. Shudras consisted of the Santhals, and other such lower orders. It was impossible to associate their customs, religion and ethics with Aryan society. But that did not pose a problem. The nature of Aryan ethics had a distinct uniformity; the only difference was in the nature of the duties. As the ethical values which were upheld remained constant, everyone could retain the sanctity of the ideal. Kshatriyas and Vaishyas helped the Brahmans to become true Brahmans, and the Brahmans did the same for the former (Tagore 2003c:30).


Tagore thought that far from being a system of stratification, caste in ancient India brought different antagonistic groups under an umbrella of unity. This was exactly the opposite of European history, where antagonistic and ‘inferior’ groups and races had been destroyed by conquerors in order to establish the political supremacy of the superior group. Indian caste, in contrast, achieved a peaceful integration of various mutually opposed groups (Tagore 2003c:31).


Tagore considered caste as the exact opposite of what it really was—a divisive system. He ignored the fact that caste had led to social oppression of weaker sections of people and somewhat idealistically said that it was the only rational system to prevent destruction. At the Santiniketan Ashram, caste distinctions were introduced. In his very first address to the students, Tagore extolled hierarchy. He pointed out that Brahmans, by virtue of their deeds—knowledge, fearlessness and spirit of sacrifice—were at the apex of the ancient social order. The hardships that they bore and the sacrifices that they made drew respect, even from kings. Kshatriyas ruled as kings, but they did so based on the principle of Dharma (duty, in this context). Even the wars that they fought were in the interest of justice. They were not at all exploitative. In old age, therefore, they would retire to the forest to spend the rest of their life in meditation. Vaishyas were ideal householders. Although they accumulated wealth through business deals, they did so only to spend it on virtuous deeds such as hospitality. Like kings, they too retired to the forest in old age. Strangely, Tagore was silent about Shudras. Probably what he prescribed for them was similar to what he expected from the students—absolute subservience to Brahmans (Tagore 2003f:952).


The address may have been the exposition of an ideal and imagined social order, reworked in a colonial milieu, but Tagore was not averse to practical segregation. Hence Brahman students dined separately from non-Brahmans. They were also not supposed to touch the feet of non-Brahmans, even if the latter were teachers. This practice prevailed till as late as 1915 (Dutta and Robinson 2005:135).


This is interesting in the light of the address where the students were advised to follow the commands of the teachers. What was more interesting was that three of the teachers of the Ashram were Christians (Dutta and Robinson 2005:135). It may be mentioned that all students initially came from elite upper caste families—Gourgobinda Gupta, Ashok Kumar Gupta, Jogendra Mitra, Sudhir Chandra Nan, Rajendranath Dey, Prem Kumar Gupta, Girindra Bhattacharya, Rathindranath Tagore and Samindranath Tagore, to name a few (Mukhopadhyay 2010:50).  Apart from the last two, who were his own children, the first six were high caste Kayasthas and the seventh was a Brahman. It seems that Girindra Bhattacharya, being a high caste Kulin Brahman, dined separately from the others and did not touch the feet of the Christian teachers.


In an essay written during the period, ‘Brahman’ (1902), Tagore eloquently praised the imagined virtues of the ‘purest’ caste and pointed out that the true Brahman, by leading an austere life and through tapasya (spiritual endeavours), would regenerate India (Tagore 2003c:22–33). The immediate context was an incident in Bombay, where a Brahman cook was severely beaten up by his European master. Tagore did not underline the innate racial hatred of the British towards Indians that marked the incident, instead he used it to imaginatively rationalise the superiority of Vedic Brahmanism and the virtues of social stratification. Tagore argued that if the present-day Brahman recovers the virtues of ancient Vedic Brahmans then he would lead society once again and no one, far less an alien power, would be able to mistreat him. It would be through the Brahman that Indians would gain self-respect and recover the glory that they had lost to colonial domination. Tagore was more interested in drawing an ideal picture of the Vedic Brahman, thereby suggesting a social solution to a racial problem. He painted an impossibly utopian picture of pre-modern society where everything was in perfect order even in the face of political crisis and oppression.


Tagore claimed that the pre-colonial social order remained unaffected by Muslim rule. Although there were political crises, social peace reigned. Relations among individuals were strong as everyone followed a basic ethical code of behaviour (Tagore 2003c:24). This was because Muslim rulers, though they too were outsiders, did not interfere in the actual functioning of society. Brahmans were true social leaders and, Tagore continued, it was with the advent of colonialism that they had lost their former status. Order was possible because of the system of caste, which limited competition among people by binding them to specific duties.


Tagore was not altogether unaware of the possible threats which such stratification entailed, but he had an explanation for the corruption of the system. He felt that the excessive greed of contemporary Brahmans had robbed them of their leadership qualities and, subsequently, the authority which once bound society together was weakened. This inevitably had led to a Western cultural onslaught which, for Tagore, was completely unsuitable for a country like India (Tagore 2003c:27).


Tagore remarked that society should have a class of men who had the strength to lead a simple life of spirituality and humility. They should impart knowledge unselfishly and should acquire knowledge humbly. If this could be achieved, then the country would progress even if it remained under subjection. He prioritised the progress of society over political self-determination: political independence should be a secondary concern in relation to the moral and spiritual regeneration of individuals constituting a society. Tagore endorsed hierarchy. What resulted from such idealisation was a deliberate silence about the exploitation and discrimination that such hierarchy inevitably entailed. 


In the essay, ‘Nababorsho’ (The New Year, 1901), Tagore extolled Vedic brahmanism in a poetic language, drawing a contrast between the spiritual East and the materialistic West. Unlike the West, that was predominantly political, the East was intuitive and meditative. It was brimming with spiritual vitality that emanated from the ‘burning flame of the sacrificial fires of ancient hermitages’ (Tagore 2003b:10).


In his addresses to Ashram students and in other contemporary writings Tagore urged the people not to depend in any way on the Government for solving social problems but to become self-reliant. This was the first and the most vital step towards nation-building. If this could be done, colonial domination would lose its real meaning and society would become autonomous. He pointed out that colonialism in India had brought about important structural changes. Even though there were political conflicts earlier, leading to the collapse of the state, social duties were performed by the people themselves through their rural representatives. But the real loss of freedom in the colonial period came when all responsibilities got transferred to the Government while the people became inert and excessively dependent on alien authorities. This led to the loss of both political freedom and of self-dependence in the social sphere (Tagore 2003e:808–26). However, Tagore’s ideal of ancient India considerably problematised the logic. Not all people, even in his highly romanticised vision, participated in social decision making. He thought that social regeneration could come through enlightened propertied classes who obeyed ancient social norms, particularly caste hierarchy. Tagore, thus, insisted that only the benevolent landlord, who would be preferably a Brahman, could lead the common people and instil in them the spirit of self-reliance, he would be the deshanayak or the leader whose orders were to be followed to the letter (Tagore 2003e:808–26; Tagore 2003d:167–73). Caste, as a system of binding people from diverse strata into a coherent whole, was also essential (Tagore 2000).




Tagore’s participation in the Swadeshi Movement in Bengal (1905–1908) shaped his ideas about the vitality of Vedic Brahminism in distinctive ways. He emphasised the huge gap between the literati and the masses, and suggested that the means to bridge the gap was to make the latter aware of their rich cultural heritage. Therefore, he suggested that roaming bands of singers should retell the stories of Shivaji, Prithviraj, Guru Govind Singh. Plays could be written and enacted on themes drawn from popular fiction and ballads such as Bankim’s Anandamath and Rajshingha (Pal 2011:246). Although Bankim’s novels gained immense popularity during these turbulent days, recent scholars have found some communal potentials in them (Sarkar 2009:192–228). Tagore also equated history with heroic tales and most of the heroes he celebrated in his poems were men who fought against Muslims. These poems were collected in Katha o Kahini (1901).[3] Although Tagore was perhaps the first to sense the dangers of communalisation of politics in the later days of the Swadeshi, yet his own images of Hindu heroes definitely problematised his position.


As the Swadeshi Movement developed, it came to be dominated by upper caste Hindu leaders. On one hand, they used Hindu symbols and images to rally the masses, on the other, they forced peasants to boycott cheap foreign goods for expensive Swadeshi ones. This alienated Muslims and lower caste peasants. To this was added the oppression of the peasants by the upper caste Hindu zamindars. Zamindars were, on the whole, die-hard supporters of Swadeshi. Thus caste oppression and communalisation of politics became inextricably linked. Tagore, although a zamindar himself, was quick to realise the danger of such alienation. He strongly emphasised Hindu-Muslim unity, along with a passionate criticism of the attempt by Swadeshi leaders to impose Swadeshi on an unwilling mass of lower caste Namasudra and Muslim peasants. In order to explain Tagore’s opinion about mass participation, one needs to discuss the nature of communalisation of politics simultaneously with his ideas about caste.


In the lecture ‘Bijoyashommelon’ (Bijoya Celebration, 1905), delivered on October 9 (a week before the partition of Bengal was formally announced) at the Bagbazar residence of Pashupatinath Bose, noted landowner and Congress sympathiser, Tagore reiterated the need for unity between Hindus and Muslims. It was the auspicious day of Bijoya Dashami, the tenth day of Durga Puja, marked by the ritual forging of bonds of friendship. Tagore urged the audience to turn this event of mutual love and fellow feeling into an occasion of public celebration which would include the Muslims as well. He emphasised a strong inter-communitarian bond which the alien rulers threatened to break apart, with the belief that bonding of hearts was too strong for any outside force to destroy. The significance of the event lay in the fact that Tagore used the occasion of the Hindu festival of Durga Puja to foster Hindu-Muslim unity (Tagore 1905:13–18). As against this, Extremist leaders were using the image of the Durga to imagine an exclusively Hindu nation.


The Rakhi Bandhan ceremony planned by Tagore in order to signify the bond among all the people of Bengal, performed on the banks of the Ganga on the day when partition was formalised (October 16, 1905), followed Hindu ritualism. Members of the Tagore family and others who participated went barefoot to the river, took a holy dip and tied rakhis (yellow thread, signifying unity) on one another’s wrists. Tagore wanted to observe the occasion till partition was revoked. Again, Arandhan (a day when no food is cooked at home) was also another Hindu ritual incorporated in the Rakhi Bandhan ceremony, which was originally put forward by Ramendrasundar Tribedi and was later taken up by Tagore. Interestingly, Tribedi’s ‘Bangalakshmir Bratakatha’ (The Song of Prosperity of Bengal, 1905), an emotional treatise describing the splendours of Bengal with a strong Hindu undertone, had, at its conclusion, a song composed by Tagore.[4] Significantly, although the Rakhi Bandhan ceremony followed Hindu symbols, Muslims were not left out. Much to the consternation of the other members of his family, Tagore tied rakhis on the wrists of the Muslim maulavis at the nearby Nakhoda Masjid (Abanindranath Tagore 2007:32).


Tagore’s participation in the Swadeshi Movement in Bengal ended in utter disappointment. He realised the futility of nationalist politics which aimed at ousting foreign rulers through the boycotting of foreign cloth. Preaching boycott was easy for the leaders of the movement—most of whom came from the propertied elite class who had the means to buy expensive indigenous cloth. But it was impossible for the rural poor to do so. The majority of the rural masses were Muslim and Namasudra peasants who had been oppressed continually by predominantly Hindu zamindars. Naturally, peasants refused to abide by the orders of the latter. They saw boycott as a Hindu ploy to further impoverish the Muslims and the low castes. The inevitable implication of such antagonism was communal riots in large parts of Eastern Bengal (1906–07) which defeated the real purpose of Swadeshi. Communal outbreaks were quickly succeeded by the entry of revolutionary terrorism in politics. Tagore rejected terrorism as a creed. The alternative for him was patient rural reconstruction. He put this to practical test in his estates at Shelaidaha and Kaligram. However, a closer interaction with actual rural realities ultimately made him re-examine his ideas about caste.



[1] Tagore in the 1880s and 90s did not address the issue of caste. Yet his stay in Shelaidaha, the Tagore family estates, definitely brought him in contact with the low caste peasants. Although he speaks about peasants in the letters he wrote to Indira Debi, Tagore did not address caste as an inherent problem within village society. One wonders why. Information about his work among low caste peasants during this time can be found in the Tagore family estate papers archived at Rabindra Bhavan, Santiniketan. But unfortunately I was not allowed to consult them as they are in the process of digitisation. This has forced me to leave out for the present, an analysis of Tagore’s stand on caste matters during the late 19th century.


[2]I have discussed Tagore’s attack on Western Nationalism during the Boer War elsewhere.


[3] Both Naibedya and Katha o Kahini were published in 1901. Their publication coincided with the establishment of the Brahmacharyasram. The celebration of an imaginary brahminical past was given a practical shape in the Ashram.


[4] In Bangalakshmir Bratakatha, the Kali of Kalighat exhorts the Bengalis, in a dream, to prevent Lakshmi, the goddess of prosperity, from abandoning Bengal. She tells them that Lakshmi had earlier left Bengal during Muslim rule which had ruined the province. But now she had been reinstated and it is the duty of the patriots to protect her from colonial inroads. This is possible by resorting to Swadeshi. Although the treatise upheld Hindu-Muslim unity as crucial for the success of the struggle, it also used the trope of Muslim oppression of Hindus as the root cause of Bengal’s ruin.  





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