Rabindranath Tagore: Forgotten friendships, and an impact worth reconsidering

Rabindranath Tagore: Forgotten friendships, and an impact worth reconsidering

November 28, 2013

Rabindranath Tagore was the first Indian ever to be awarded the Nobel Prize.

As that was in 1913, it is the Centenary of the event, and I have been prompted to re-engage withTagore’s work. In fact, I must admit that I had admired Tagore’s poetry and paintings but not delved into his Tagore’s thinking, writing and life beyond that – so I am really reading his non-poetic work and finding out about his life for the first time.

For example, I was dimly aware that Tagore and Gandhiji didn’t always see eye-to-eye, though they were dear friends.  I had not realised that they were introduced to each other, and that their friendship was actually more or less maintained, in spite of their profound differences of personality and outlook, because of the efforts of “Charlie” Andrews.

Andrews was an Anglican missionary who had invited Tagore as a guest to my alma mater, St Stephen’s College, Delhi, where Tagore is reputed to have completed work on the English translations of his poems which constituted Gitanjali and which eventually won Tagore the Nobel Prize.  That is one small reason Gitanjali was loved by all of us at the College who cared for Tagore.

Tagore had seen Andrews’ articles since 1907 in the journal, The Modern Review.  In turn, Andrews held Tagore in high esteem as “the poet who has so raised his nation by his songs”. When Andrews and Tagore first corresponded is not clear, but it was agreed that Andrews would visit Tagore at his place of residence in London in 1912. However, Tagore was delayed returning from another visit, so Andrews’ journey to Tagore’s London home was in vain, and Tagore actually first met Andrews the next day at the London home of William Rothenstein, an influential Jewish artist, who had, a couple of years earlier, travelled to India in order to draw and paint its ancient temples as well as its urban centres.  During the course of that Indian journey, Rothenstein certainly met Abanindranath Tagore (nephew of Rabindranath) in Calcutta; I have so far been unable to establish whether he met Rabindranath.  However, Rabindranath’s poems had been “translated” into English with the assistance of another Christian missionary, Edward John Thompson, who was father of the famous historian at Oxford, E.P. Thompson.  These English renderings were read out that evening by W B Yeats at Rothenstein’s home.

In the next few months, Andrews and Tagore met frequently.  Andrews invited Tagore to stay that summer in the quiet and remote village of Butterton with his friend the Rev. W Outram and his family (the vicar was a son of James Outram, a military Captain who had become famous for his role in what was then called the Mutiny of 1857 and is now dignified in nationalist Indian discourse as The First Indian War for Independence).  In turn, Rabindranath invited Andrews to live and work in Santiniketan (which Andrews did from 1914). Andrews edited several of Tagore’s books in English, and acted as Tagore’s representative to his British publisher, Macmillan.

In 1914, too, Andrews went to South Africa to meet Gandhiji, with whom he also became close friends, helping Gandhiji organize an Ashram in Natal and publish his famous magazine, The Indian Opinion (eventually, Andrews travelled with Gandhiji to London for the Second Round Table Conference in 1931). In fact, it was S.K.Rudra (a second-generation Christian, and the Principal of St. Stephen’s College from 1907-1923), whose idea it had been to draw Gandhiji away from his decades-old base in South Africa, back to India so as to lead India’s freedom struggle.  Andrews persuaded Gandhi to return to India with him in 1915.  When they arrived in Delhi, both were guests at Rudra’s home where, later, the draft for the Non-Cooperation Movement as well as the open letter to the Viceroy outlining the Khilafat demand were prepared.  In any case, Andrews not only travelled to South Africa in order to meet Gandhi, Andrews was one of the most active members of the Indian National Congress, travelling the world to investigate the condition of the Indian Diaspora (mostly, in those days, working class people) in places such as Fiji, Kenya and Guyana.   It was Andrews who first brought Gandhiji’s message to the African-American community (which influenced Martin Luther King’s non-violent struggle for civil rights), edited Gandhiji’s autobiography for a Western audience, and produced the first significant collection of Gandhiji’s prose.

In addition, Andrews was a life-long friend of Tagore, and a very active supporter of Santiniketan – for example, writing and publishing the pamphlet A Short Account of Rabindranath Tagore’s Institution at Santiniketan (Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute, Alabama, USA) as means of raising money for Santiniketan.  Andrews played a key role in linking the struggle for civil rights in the USA with the struggle for freedom for the British colonies.  It was also Andrews who introduced Tagore and George Washington Carver to each other.

Tagore made five visits to the USA (in 1912-13, in 1916-17, in 1920-21, in 1929, and in 1930), staying a total of seventeen months– the longest that he spent in any country outside  India (if one excludes England, where he was a student from 1878-1880).

However, Tagore’s first visit to America had nothing to do with Andrews.  The visit was for the purpose of visiting his eldest son,  Rathindranath who had been sent by Tagore in 1906 to Urbana, Illinois, to study agriculture and animal husbandry in order to tackle the long-term food crisis in Bengal. Tagore’s decision was doubly surprising, in the locale as well as in the subject of study: it was to England that rich Indian families sent their children, and that was done usually in order to prepare for the civil service or for the Law. Rathindranath received his Bachelor’s Degree, and returned to Urbana a few years later to pursue a graduate degree, but did not complete it. However, the knowledge he acquired in the US helped him to build a field soil-testing laboratory at Shelaidaha. Incidentally, during his time in Urbana, Rathindranath co-founded an international students’ organization – the Cosmopolitan Club – which still flourishes.

Rabindranath’s first visit to Urbana is important because that was when friendly Christians, who did so much to make them all comfortable, extended to Tagore his first invitation to lecture in America.  So it was that he spoke at a local church, Urbana Unitarian Church (now known as Channing-Murray Foundation). Tagore’s religion, Brahmoism (which defines itself as neither Hindu nor Muslim), has many parallels with Unitarianism, so it was not surprising that the audience liked his lectures and poems – and this could be the reason that Tagore positioned himself as a sage rather than a poet during his subsequent visits to the USA.

Tagore’s second visit to the US, in 1916, was for the purpose of raising money for his new university at Santiniketan. By this time, Tagore was a Nobel Laureate, his literary star still rising. A professional lecture agency marketed his lectures in twenty-five American cities, getting him an impressively large fee for each appearance. But he had been infected by the bug of being a sage, and presented his mysticism as a counter to modern business, repression and war. At that time in history, it was still considered ironic that someone might be well paid for criticizing materialism.  The Minneapolis Tribune called Tagore ‘the best business man who ever came to us out of India’: nowadays there may be other gurus who are even better paid, but they don’t manage to ‘scold Americans at $700 per scold’ while pleading with them ‘at $700 per plead’.  Whether scolding Americans and the West for its materialism and militarism, or pleading with them to support Santiniketan, he became much less popular than he had been earlier. The lectures from this visit were later collected and published as the book Nationalism – which critiques nationalism as much as global capitalism, and Western materialism as much as blind Hindu orthodoxy.

On his third trip in 1920, Tagore didn’t travel much; instead, he focused his energies on New York, which he probably figured was the best place to raise money from wealthy American industrialists. However, his critiques of American capitalism had, by this time, become thorough– and whether for that reason or some other, the trip raised neither money from America, nor his reputation with Americans.

Tagore’s fourth trip to the U.S. was very brief, and not much of consequence transpired, beyond some statements to the press about the best-seller that far eclipsed his visit: Katherine Mayo’s Mother India, which portrays India as poor, backward and savage.  Today, Tagore would probably ask for that book to be reprinted, to remind us of what we do not like to know about our country – and what we need to address and to change.  As he put it in his book, Sadhana (1916): “We never can have a true view of man unless we have a love for him. Civilisation must be judged and prized, not by the amount of power it has developed, but by how much it has evolved and given expression to, by its laws and institutions, the love of humanity.”

Tagore’s final trip to the U.S. in 1930 was, however, a stunning and multi-dimensional success.  Gandhiji had catapulted India into America’s consciousness, and Tagore’s physical appearance had become even more striking.  His tour lasted sixty-seven days, during which the New York Times published nineteen reports on him, two interviews, and a memorable photograph of him with Albert Einstein, captioned ‘A mathematician and a mystic meet in Manhattan.’ There was a private interview with President Hoover (arranged, curiously enough, by the British ambassador). At the Broadway Theater, Ruth St. Denis performed a dance as a benefit for Santiniketan; Tagore appeared on stage, introduced by his friend and admirer Will Durant. Exhibitions of his paintings, to which Ananda Coomaraswamy wrote an introduction, were hosted in New York and Boston.  A dinner was held in New York, where 500 or so participants gathered in his honour (including Franklin Roosevelt, Sinclair Lewis the latest Nobel Laureate in Literature, and the Governor of New York).  Tagore felt able to castigate them thus: ‘The age belongs to the West, and humanity must be grateful to you for your science. But you have exploited those who are helpless and humiliated those who are unfortunate with this gift. A great portion of the world suffers from your civilization.’ A week later, at Carnegie Hall (capacity: 4000 people, but thousands had to be turned away because it was packed out!), he expressed admiration for the West’s ideal of liberty, but deplored the West’s failure to live up to that ideal in the East, particularly in failing to respond to India’s appeal for freedom.  Though Tagore was not a mere nationalist, he was a trenchant critic of colonialism as well as of an international system unsympathetic to the plight of colonized people in Asia, Africa, and the Americas. Right in the halls of American power, he was able to communicate how completely the international system was skewed – something that few can do even today.

Starting as a sage, Tagore ended as an opinionated celebrity, though less waspish than Nirad Chaudhuri. Tagore was one of a long line of Indian writers to succeed in the West, starting with Sake Deen Mahomed, the Dutt Family and Raja Rammohan Roy.  Like them, Tagore did an enormous amount to overcome western misconceptions about Indians. He was, of course, like most non-Westerners in a Western-dominated world-order, partly a curiosity and a show-piece, but he was able to overcome all those trammels at least partly because of the strength of his personality and his ideas, and partly because of the strength of his friendships with people who disagreed with him.

In beginning properly to reconsider his legacy, I find that we have far more to learn from him today than from Gandhiji – for example, Tagore was a much greater promoter of environmental awareness and a far more outstanding Indian internationalist, with a deeper and more profound understanding of the roots and consequences of genuine spiritual growth and its consequences in global social change.

Prabhu Guptara was born and educated in India, and is now based in Switzerland, helping Boards of companies and organizations with strategic, organizational, human resources, and market related issues. He contributes through a portfolio of activities: Board memberships, consultancy, or leading projects. Widely reputed as a featured speaker and broadcaster, he is or has been Chairman, CEO or Board Member of several companies and organizations – e.g. the Institute of Management, University of St Gallen, Switzerland; the Academic Council of GOPIO (the Global Organisation of People of Indian Origin, headquartered in the USA); and Relational Analytics Ltd (Cambridge, UK). Author of several books, and a member of the jury of numerous literary, business and management competitions, he is included in Debrett’s People of Today.

Video directed exclusively for Indiaspora by Vaishali Sinha, featuring music by Reena Esmail and Art by Raghava KK.

Posted by Indiaspora Forum on Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Also view this special video created for Indiaspora by world-renowned composer Reena Esmail, inspired by Tagore.