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The world’s greatest secular figure

Sanjukta Dasgupta |

This slim volume of 113 pages featuring ten well-researched essays focusing on Rabindranath Tagore’s five visits to the US. The essays by distinguished critics refer in detail to Tagore’s lecture tours, the content of his lectures, the exhibition of his paintings at New York during his final visit in 1930 and the successful performance of his play, The King of the Dark Chamber in New York in 1961, 20 years after the poet’s demise.

In her introductory essay the editor Indrani Halder cites Tagore’s address to the American people, published as “Nationalism in India” wherein he had observed, “America is destined to justify the Western civilization to the East.” (sic) Initially however, when Tagore was in Illinois, between October 1912 and April 1913, visiting his son Rathindranath, then a student of agriculture in the University of Urbana Champaign, Tagore had expressed rather hastily perhaps his lack of interest about America. On 30 December 1912, Tagore had written to his friend Rothenstein, “I have several invitations to go there (Chicago) but I have succeeded in warding them off. I have not come to discover America or to be discovered by Americans” (Quoted in Rabijibani Prasant Kumar Pal, vol 6 page 351).

Soon after, he changed his mind, visited Chicago among many other places in the midwest and re-visited America four more times — September1916-January 1917, October 1920-January 1921, April 1929 and October-November 1930.

Tagore’s visits can be primarily described as lecture tours and were specifically intended to raise money for the maintenance of Santiniketan. Tagore was always very candid about the reason for his tireless tours and he stated in letters to his friends that he had to submit to a funds chase in order to sustain Santiniketan.

In 1920, on his second visit Tagore felt slighted and hurt by the behaviour of those he had considered to be his friends. In a letter to CF Andrews written on 17 December 1920 Tagore had written, “I try to say something about money, but it sounds so ludicrous… ‘I despise your millions’ such should be my farewell greeting to this country” (Pal vol 8 49). In 1916, the Minneapolis Tribune called Tagore, “the best business man who ever came to us out of India” and made a sarcastic assertion that Tagore managed to scold Americans “at $700 per scold” and pleaded with them at “$700 per plead” (Rabindranath Tagore The Myriad-Minded Man, Dutta & Robinson; page 204).

But that Tagore did impress Americans during his visits and thereafter is a proven fact. In this volume under review, Nikhiles Guha’s essay describes the affinity between the Brahmo faith and the liberal American Unitarianism and how Tagore was deeply impressed by this Christian school of thought.

However, with the advent of the World War I, the interest in cross-cultural religious faith and Tagore’s involvement petered out, though Tagore was not forgotten by the Unitarian group with which he interacted.

Raikamal Das Gupta explores the poet’s deeply subjective understanding of religious faith as she discovers the links between the American thinkers Ralph Waldo Emerson and John Dewey. It is a well-known fact that Tagore unfailingly allied the divine spirit with the boundlessness of the human mind and unlimited creativity.

Many of the essayists have cited America’s gradual indifference towards Tagore, despite the initial warmth and enthusiasm. There were exceptions too but the two essays by Shobha Chattopadhyay and Abhijit Sen describe in some detail how the American cultural milieu, even Tagore’s staunch admirer Ezra Pound, became estranged if not bitter towards Tagore as a person and also criticised his writing. It is noticeable that this freezing of interest happened after Tagore was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1913, the first Asian to have received such an internationally celebrated award.

Tagore’s lectures about nationalism, his anti-war diatribe, his candid criticism of Western imperialism and the agenda of gaining power and profit through engagements in global politics and World Wars met with disapproval by cultural communities on both sides of the Atlantic, though exceptions were noticed as well. America’s closeness to Britain and parts of Europe led to the American people becoming more sceptical about Tagore’s intentions, as after all Tagore was a British subject of colonial India.

Tagore’s return of the British knighthood conferred on him, in response to the horrendous massacre of people at the Jalianwala Bagh, further strengthened the aversion towards the non-conformist and intrepid poet from the East.

Amrit Sen, Madhurima Neogi and Dipendu Chakrabarti refer to the letters, print media responses and the disconnect between Tagore’s understanding of internationalism and American globalisation, respectively. Ananda Lal and Sukla Basu discuss in their essays the positive reception of Tagore’s plays in America long after his demise and refer to the impact created by the experiments that Tagore had made in his plays by breaking free from tradition and weaving together “fairy tale, metaphor and philosophy.”

The editors may have considered the inclusion of an essay that focused on Tagore’s meeting with Helen Keller and her great reverence for Tagore’s writing. In an interesting essay, Indrani Halder records the reception and rejection of Tagore’s paintings in America. The appendices include Tagore’s own foreword to the exhibition of his paintings in New York in 1930 along with an annotated list of Tagore’s plays produced in the US.

Many of the essays interestingly cite Sujit Mukherjee’s Passage to America: The Reception of Rabindranath Tagore in the United States(1912-1941), but perhaps the essayists could have also considered including references from relevant volumes of Prasant Kumar Pal’s Rabijibani. This book will be of immense use to those who are engaged in cross-cultural studies and Tagore studies as the essays address cultural reception and cultural alienation often influenced by world politics, race, location and cultural arrogance.

For, despite all the ambivalence in the reception of the man and his work, it was The New York Times that felicitated Rabindranath Tagore in these timeless words, “If he is not the greatest secular figure in the world, he is the one that is most worthy of our attention and our reverence today.

At a time when man and man, nation and nation, ideal and ideal is (sic) so tragically divided he comes forward to tell us that not in power but in comprehension is the fulfilment of man’s existence.” (Dutta and Robinson, 207).

These lines could have been the inspiration of the editors in producing this valuable book on Tagore’s ambivalent reception in America.

(The reviewer is former professor, department of English, Calcutta University)