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Tagore in America

Gautam SenGupta

Above six feet tall, the head of a Greek god over which flows a mass of soft iron gray locks, a full high brow, soft dark eyes, a Whitman beard, and a figure as straight as an Indian's of the plains, Sir Rabindranath Tagore is one of the most notable individuals today in the world. Those were the words used by the reporter from The Seattle Post Intelligences to cover the celebrated poet's visit to Seattle in September 1916. My family and I stumbled upon this information during our last visit to Visva Bharati, the educational institute founded by Tagore, when our daughter spotted a little clipping from a newspaper on the lower shelf of a display case. It mentioned his second visit to the U.S. in 1916, and his first stop happened to be in Seattle and his talk was sponsored by an association called The Sunset Club. On our return to Seattle, I found that the club still existed; however, they didn't have any records that old! Finally, in desperation, I went to the public library and searched through the microfiche copies of the Seattle Post Intelligences and Seattle Times of that year, and I could at last see how his visit was treated. Yes, he arrived on September 18, on a steamship from Japan, to give lectures on "The Cult of Nationalism" and he did impress and charm Seattle by his sincerity and gentle spirit. His visit was just three years after he received his Nobel Prize, and he was referred to as "Sir Rabindranath Tagore," since he was also knighted in 1913. (He rejected that title later in protest against the massacre in Jallianwala Bagh.) The Seattle Post Intelligences was particularly impressed with the beautiful English he spoke! "The lectures I am to give in the U.S.," said Tagore, "are for the purpose nearest to my heart; to get funds to carry on my school for boys in India ... The Nobel Prize came just when I needed money for the school. All the royalties from my books go to keep up the school. That is my great ambition."

Tagore in America
Gautam SenGupta Discussing his personality, the paper reported on September 26: "Those who dwell in the belief that the Hindu thinker is a suppressed soul who is content to voice the misty dreams that come from sitting cross-legged under a tree looking at the point of the nose until the body is atrophied and the senses hypnotized into a sort of voluptuous delirium, will be well disillusioned if they hear this vigorous logician, seer, poet, what you will.... There is fire in this tall, slender, dreamy-eyed Oriental. At moments of inspiration, his figure seems to rise high, out of all proportion, and his words fairly leap from his trembling lips. But for the most part he is gentle, composed, and quiet." While in Seattle, he also visited the Juvenile Industrial School on Mercer Island, at the invitation of Lilburn Merrill of the Juvenile Court. Tagore's school at Santiniketan had about 200 boys at that time. Some of them joined his teaching staff after completion of their education. A few of them also accompanied him during his tour of the U.S. One of them was the famous artist Mukul Dey, whose sketch of Tagore was printed in the Seattle Post Intelligencer under the caption "The Shakespeare of India in Seattle!" When I showed this report to Norman D. Palmer, Professor Emeritus of Political Science and South Asian Studies, University of Pennsylvania, who met tagore during one of his subsequent visits to the U.S., he remarked that it was probably more accurate to call Shakespeare The Kalidas of England than to refer to Tagore as The Shakespeare of India! Later I came across two excellent references describing in detail Tagore's many visits to America. The first is an article by Stephen N. Hay entitled "Rabindranath Tagore in America" published in American Quarterly, vol. XIV, 1962. The other is a book by Sujit Mukherjee, called Passage to America: The Reception of Rabindranath Tagore in the United States, published in 1964 by Book Land Private Ltd., of Calcutta. These two scholars chronicle one of the most important chapters in Indian American history. Tagore's first trip to the U.S. was from October 1912 to March 1913, and the purpose was to spend some time with his son Rathindranath and daughter-in-law. His son was then a student at University of Illinois. When he first arrived in New York, his presence did attract the attention of one newspaper reporter. Tagore wrote that evening to his friend Rothenstein, "My turban attracted the notice of a newspaper interviewer and he attacked me with questions, but I was almost as silent as my turban. This was my first taste of America ... Within a few days of his settling down at Urbana, Tagore wrote to India, "There is no noise here the sky is open, the light abundant, and there is uninterrupted leisure. Sometimes I forget I have come to America almost it seems I am still at home ..." At that time, he was mainly seeking rest and recuperation, and didn't want to be involved in a public life. He wrote, "I have not come to discover America or to be discovered by Americans." During his first visit, Tagore eventually gave a few lectures and occasionally regretted not being able to raise funds in America: "To turn to another nation for the needs of my own country seems so embarrassing that I am unable to say clearly that we need the money." This reluctance was apparently overcome later, since the purpose of his subsequent visits was to raise funds for Visva Bharati. Tagore received the Nobel Prize for literature in November 1913, just a few months after his departure from the U.S. It is interesting to note American reactions to his receiving the Nobel Prize. Sujit Mukherjee writes:

Tagore in America
Gautam SenGupta The news was startling enough to cause the New York Times to err in transcribing Tagore's first name as "Babindranath" and to write, "It is the first time that this s prize has been given to anybody but a white person." The Times sought to repair the damage belatedly the next day with self-disparaging remarks about racial prejudice in the West, but actually made it worse by mentioning, as a consolation, that "Babindranath Tagore, if not exactly one of its, is, as an Aryan, distant relation of all white folk." It must be said to the credit of the New York Times, however, that after this initial distress it settled down to give Tagore a more extended and just coverage than any other American newspaper. There was an article in the Los Angeles Times, entitled "The Ignoble Decision: Hindu Poet Unworthy of Nobel Prize." The writer of that article called the Nobel Prize Committee incompetent, based on his evaluation of the literary merit of Tagore's writings. In contrast to all these, the editorial in the New York Times was much more positive. For providing a bridge between East and West, the New York Times editorial commended Tagore rather than Kipling and found Tagore far more worthy of a prize for "idealism in literature" than Kipling whose work "does not really answer to the spirit of the founder's testament." Above all, it saw in the award, "a sharp rejoinder in the recognition by Europe of the fact that the East can contribute something more to the West than a burden for the white man to bear." "Whichever way America reacted to Tagore's winning the prize," writes Mukherjee, "there is no doubt that it was the most effective single means by which America came to know Tagore ... American literature had to wait until 1930 before a similar recognition was given to one of its writers." The Nobel Prize in November of 1913 changed the tranquil pace of Tagore's life. "The rude touch of the curious world is all over me," he complained. "I am pining for the shade of obscurity. However, for all his distress, he saw in the award a heartening sign that his ideals had been granted worldwide recognition. His second U.S. trip was from September 1916 to 1917, and it started with his lecture in Seattle. From Seattle, he went to San Francisco where he scored his greatest success, according to S.N. Hay. "The cult of Tagore," wrote the San Francisco Examiner, "which has stirred the intellectual world as the thoughts of no other contemporaneous writer have done, has taken San Francisco by storm." Next, he went to Los Angeles, where he remarked, "This is a beautiful country. I believe it has a great future. America is unhampered and is free to experiment for the progress of humanity. Of course she will make mistakes, but out of those series of mistakes she will come to some higher synthesis of truth and be able to hold up the banner of Civilization. She is the best exponent of Western ideals of humanity." His progress across the country was almost triumphal. Audiences filled to overflowing the halls and theaters where he spoke against the evils of nationalism. An undergraduate in Iowa State University said, "I thought that the Hindus were a bunch of people who needed to be taught; but now comes a Hindu who can really teach us Americans. For the love of Mike! Doesn't that beat all!" Of course, there were also negative tor referred to his lecture fees as "seven hundred dollars per scold." The Minneapolis Journal editorialized, "Nationalism is today the greatest actual force in the world ... We in America ... are compelled to cultivate an intense nationalism. Woe to us if

Tagore in America
Gautam SenGupta we do not ... India has no nationalism and she is conquered." Another critic accused him of being "in essence everything that ancient India, philosophically and religiously, was not," and contrasted the austere and militant spirit in the Bhagavat Gita with the "puddling in sentiment" he found in Tagore's verses. Shortly after this trip, Tagore's name was somehow linked to an Indo-German conspiracy, in which Indian revolutionaries in the U.S. were conspiring with Germany to overthrow British rule in India. When Tagore heard about it, he sent a telegram to President Wilson protesting "against such lying calumny." His third U.S. visit was from October 1920 to March 1921. He had already invested the money from his Nobel Prize and from his previous lecture tours to upgrade the boys' school in Santiniketan to an international university called Visva Bharati, whose foundation stone was laid on December 23, 1918. It was to be an international center of culture where ideas from all over the world could arrive and mingle, and lead to international understanding and cooperation. This third visit was primarily to promote these ideas and to raise funds for that purpose. However, the mood in America had changed, and this trip was a failure. His goal was to raise $5 million. Instead, he received a gift of $10,000 a year for five years for the endowment of chairs at the University. Mukherjee writes: How much he had failed in his own eyes is apparent in a letter he wrote front New York just before his departure: "... I am suffering from an utter disgust for raising funds. I cannot tell you what an agony of longing I am feeling to go back to my quiet life and wash my hands of all traces of ambition for helping the East and the West etc. etc. These phrases have lost their taste for me; I am carrying them like a mother whose child has died in her womb." His fourth visit was the shortest, lasting from April 18 to April 20, 1929. According to Hay, he was attending a conference of the Canadian National Council of Education in Victoria, British Columbia, and had received invitations from Harvard, Columbia, and other American universities. Unfortunately, he lost his passport in Vancouver, and the U.S. Consul kept him waiting for more than half an hour, and then asked: Was he able to pay his passage home? Did he realize the penalty for overstaying the time allowed by his visa? On reaching Los Angeles, he felt "something in the air - a cultivated air of suspicion and general incivility towards Asiatics." He concluded that the laws passed in 1924 excluding Asian immigration (since repealed) were being interpreted in a manner insulting to the people of Asia, and decided to protest against this treatment by sailing back to India on the next Japanese freighter crossing the Pacific. He must have felt that America was betraying his own highest hopes for her future. In 1916, he had declared, "America is the only nation engaged in solving the problems of race intimacy. Its mission is to raise civilization by permitting all races entry and widening the ideals of humanity." His fifth and final visit was from October 9 to December 14, 1930, after his visit to the Soviet Union, where he was most enthusiastic about their educational work and was critical about their use of terror. Leading Americans now became aware of the political significance of Tagore's visit to the United States. This time, the State Department made special efforts to insure "every courtesy" be extended him on his arrival, and the British Ambassador arranged to bring Tagore to the White House for

Tagore in America
Gautam SenGupta a call on President Hoover. There was a banquet in his honor in New York, where he said: "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 ... Columbus set out to find the passage to India' and found the American continent. Now the West should continue the journey and complete the voyage to India." He emphasized this final point by reciting from Walt Whitman's Passage to India. According to Mukherjee, it was in the limelight of the Broadway Theater that Tagore appeared to the American public for the last time, when in the last item of a public recital of music, poetry, and dance, Tagore stood on the stage at the center of a group of dancing children who placed garlands around his neck. As his parting message to America, he donated the entire proceeds of the performance to the Mayor's relief fund for the unemployed in New York City. That was the year after the stock market crash of 1929, when America was entering into the era of economic depression. "To measure Tagore merely by his lectures and comments in this country, however, would be to lose sight of his greater importance as a creative artist and thinker," writes Stephen N. Hay. "To know the essential Tagore, therefore, we must study his writings in their original Bengali, and his ideas the context of the remarkable modem renaissance of Hindu thought. We might then look back on Tagore's passage to America, and America's discovery of India through him, as opening the way to the gradual achievement of his vision: a single civilization and culture in which the great minds of each nation will be directly accessible to all men." Here is what Tagore had said in Seattle, about the destiny of America: "This America is a wonder worker. Something new, something unique is going on here. This country is tackling a great problem, taking the people of all countries and harmonizing them into one people ... European countries cannot do that. Here are to be solved the problems of the human race, national, political, and religious. Here will come the nationality of man."