Satyendranath Tagore was the first Indian to join the Indian Civil Service. He was an author, song composer, linguist and made significant contribution towards the emancipation of women in Indian society during the British Raj.
The second son of Debendranath Tagore , elder brother of Rabindranath Tagore and grandson of Dwarkanath Tagore of the Jorasanko branch of the Tagore family of Calcutta (now Kolkata), he learnt Sanskrit and English at home. A student of Hindu School, he was part of the first batch of students to appear for the entrance examinations of the University of Calcutta in 1857. He was placed in the first division and was admitted to Presidency College.
As was the custom of the day, he was married early in life to Jnanadanandini Devi in 1859. The same year, he and Keshub Chunder Sen accompanied his father on a visit to Ceylon (now Sri Lanka).
For a long time, only British officers were appointed to all covenanted posts. In 1832, the posts of munsif and sadar amin were created and opened to Indians. In 1833, the posts of deputy magistrate and deputy collector were created and opened to Indians. The ICS Act of 1861 established the Indian Civil Service. The Act of 1853 had already established the practice of recruiting covenanted civilians through competitive examinations.
It was a daunting task to go to England and compete with the British for a position. However, his friend Monomohun Ghose offered encouragement and support, and both of them set sail for England in 1862 to prepare for and compete in the civil service examinations.
Satyendranath was selected for the Indian Civil Service in June, 1863. He completed his probationary training and returned to India in November 1864.Monomohun Ghose did not succeed in the examination for the ICS but was called to the bar.Satyendranath was posted to Bombay presidency, which then covered western parts of present-day Maharashtra, Gujarat and Sindh. After initial posting of four months in Bombay (now Mumbai), he had his first active posting at Ahmedabad.
With postings at numerous towns he travelled across the country. Because of his long stay away from home many in his family visited him and stayed with him for long periods. Amongst his regular visitors were his younger brothers Jyotirindranath Tagore (1849–1925) and Rabindranath Tagore (1861–1941), the Nobel Prize–winning poet, and his sister Swarnakumari Devi.
His posting outside Bengal helped him to learn several Indian languages. He translated Bal Gangadhar Tilak’s Geetarahasya and Tukaram’s Abhang poems into Bengali.Rabindranath Tagore had also translated some poems of Tukaram. Satyendranath took an active interest in the activities of the Brahmo Samaj wherever he was posted, as for example at Ahmedabad and Hyderabad, Sindh.
While in the Maharashtra region he had close contacts with many of the leading reformers and Prarthana Samaj figures — Mahadev Govind Ranade, Kashinath Trimbak Telang, Ramakrishna Gopal Bhandarkar and Narayan Ganesh Chandavarkar.
He served in the ICS for about thirty years and retired as Judge of Satara in Maharashtra in 1897.
Ram Mohan Roy found Hindu women ‘uneducated and illiterate, deprived of property rights, married before puberty, imprisoned in purdah,and murdered at widowhood by a barbaric custom of immolation known as sati.’ By the time Satyendranath was born sati had been banned (in 1829), and the process of reformation had set in.
The position of women in his society troubled him from a young age. He used to think that the purdah system in his family was ‘not that of our own nation but a copy of Muslim practices’. His visit to England where he witnessed more freedom for women helped him understand the relatively poor position of women in Indian society.
After his marriage, he found in Jnanadanandini Devi an ideal partner to fulfill his thinking. When he was thrilled to witness the progress of women in the advanced society in England, he wanted to take her to England to witness the same, but his father, Devendranath Tagore, stood in the way.
Back in India, Satyendranath took Jnanadanandini Devi to Bombay, where she tried to live in the manner and style of the wives of the English officers of the ICS. When the couple returned to the ancestral home at Jorasanko for a holiday, they created a sensation in Calcutta society. They were invited to a party in the Government House (now Raj Bhavan). Breaking all traditional rules, Jnanadanandini Devi accompanied her husband to the party. There she was – ‘a lone Bengali woman in the midst of hundreds of English women.’ Prasanna Coomar Tagore of the Pathuriaghata branch of the family, who was present in the party, could not bear the sight of a wife of a family member in such an open place and left immediately ‘in shame and anger’.
In 1877, he sent Jnanadanandini Devi to England with an English couple. She went with three children, a daring task in those days. They initially stayed with the family of Prasanna Coomar Tagore’s son Gnanendramohan Tagore, who had converted to Christianity and was the first Indian to qualify for the English bar. Later they shifted to Brighton and lived on their own there.
Subsequently, Satyendranath accompanied Rabindranath Tagore in what was the latter’s first visit to England. All of them returned to India in 1880. It was not only with his wife, but also his sisters that he took the lead to change things. His sister Soudamini Devi wrote, ‘The mocking we faced when we went out in the carriages is difficult to believe now.”
Thus were laid the foundations of freeing the upper and middle class women from the purdah. It was a major achievement of Satyendranath Tagore.
Jnanadanandini Devi contributed in some unique ways also. As she had to go out in society, she developed a style of wearing the sari, which is broadly followed by Indian women today. She also introduced the use of proper undergarments.
Jnanadanandini Devi took special interest in children’s matters and started the system of observing birthdays of children in the family, giving them gifts and celebrating the occasion. She started and edited a magazine named Balak for children in 1885. It was possibly the first magazine for children in the Bengali language. The magazine motivated Rabindranath to write for children. Many of the pieces included in his book Sishu were first published in Balak. The magazine was wound up after a year and merged with the family magazine Bharati.
The Tagore family was deeply patriotic. In an age when copying the West in matters of dress and language was a fashion in high society, the Tagores stuck to wearing Indian dress and developing the Bengali language. While admiring the positive qualities of English society, Satyendranath took the path of reforming and developing Indian society. The sense of patriotism was strong in him.
He was one of the persons associated with the Hindu Mela organised to arouse patriotism in people. When the first session was held in April 1867, he was away in western India. However, he was present in Calcutta for the second session in 1868. He composed the patriotic song mile sabe Bharat santan, ektan gaho gaan (Unite India’s children, sing in unison) for the occasion. The song was hailed as the first national anthem of India. Satyendranath wrote a number of other patriotic songs.
Satyendranath had deep regard for his father Debendranath and the religion he had taken so much pain to develop. At a considerably young age, he and Monomohun Ghose accompanied Keshub Chunder Sen for his campaign to win over the younger generation at Krishnanagar College.
In England, eve when he was busy with other work, he found time to preach the ideals of Brahmo Samaj. Later, when he was posted in Ahmedabad, he sent a report about Brahmo Samaj to Max Müller. It was included in Max Muller’s biography written by his wife.
On retirement, he lived for some time in Park Street and then in Ballygunj in Calcutta. His house was a meeting place for his friends and relatives. Amongst those from outside the family who visited him regularly were Taraknath Palit, Monomohun Ghose, Satyendraprasanna Sinha, Umesh Bannerjee, Krishna Govinda Gupta, and Behari Lal Gupta, all important people of the age in Kolkata.
His house on Park Street was the centre of a literary majlis (gathering). The deliberations were noted in a book which was not to be circulated outside the family and it was not printed. Among the subjects discussed were “Bengali language and the Bengali character”, “The elements of poetry”, “Chivalry”, “Love in women and in men”.
He was president of Vangiya Sahitya Parishad from 1900–01, and presided over the 10th session of the Bengal provincial conference held at Natore in 1897.
Sushila O Birsingha (play, 1867), Bombay Chitra (1888), Nabaratnamala, Strisvadhinata, Bauddhadharma (1901), Amar Balyakatha O Bombay Prabas (1915), Bharatvarsiya Ingrej (1908), Raja Rammohan Roy.
Both his children, Surendranath Tagore (1872–1940) and Indira Devi Choudhurani (1873–1960), were well-known figures. They had the experience of English life as children. Surendranath had great command over English and had translated Rabindranath’s Four Chapters into English. He had produced a condensed version of the main portion of Mahabharata in Bengali.In his time, he had links with militant revolutionary organisations fighting for Indian independence from the British, which were considered terrorists by the British establishment.Indira was a great French scholar and was an authority on music, particularly Rabindrasangeet. She was vice-chancellor of Viswa Bharati University. She was married to Pramatha Chowdhury, the noted Bengali author.