He would make notes in the margins of W B Yeats’s poetry, then hand the pages back to him for consideration; agree to attend a soiree and then hold spellbound writers of the likes of Ezra Pound. These are things only a genius can do, but even he can only do them given the right mix of circumstances.
That is perhaps why it is important to consider Rabindranath Tagore’s travels. In a series of tours spread over 20 years, Tagore – the poet, writer, humanist and abiding pride of Bengal — visited 34 countries either as a state guest or on hosted public-speaking engagements. While on his travels, he amazed, he inspired, he provoked debate and even courted controversy. Somewhere along the way, he also became the first non-European to win a Nobel Prize.
It was the summer of 1912 when Rabindranath Tagore arrived in London to kick it all off. It was his third visit to England, a country he had first visited when he was just 17 years old. He had headed there in his teens, after enrolling for a law degree at University College London. It was an unsuccessful stint. Always a non-conformist where education was concerned, Tagore returned home two years later, his course unfinished, for reasons unknown. Ten years later, in 1890, he was in England again, as part of a whistle-stop European tour.
In 1912, Tagore was 51 and the early years of the new century had not been kind to him. He had lost his wife, his father and two of his children in a span of just five years, and his robust involvement in the political movement during the partition of Bengal in 1905 was ebbing. He was a diehard patriot but abhorred militancy, and the aggressive turn the Indian freedom struggle was taking had left him growing increasingly disenchanted.
The personal losses Tagore had suffered over the past years, and the intense involvement in the school that he was establishing at Shantiniketan had an effect on his health; and he was advised a European vacation by his doctors.
During the month-long voyage to England, Tagore spent his time in contemplation and he also translated a volume of his poems he was carrying with him, from Bengali to English. Soon after he reached London, he contacted William Rothenstein, a distinguished painter and writer on art, whom he had met at his ancestral home in Calcutta in 1910. When Rothenstein inquired about Tagore’s work, the poet reluctantly handed over his translated verses.
Gitanjali is in the tradition of devotional poetry, but its spontaneous abundance had lent it a fresh and original treatment, and most importantly a mystic beauty that had struck the poets in England. This is also what the English poets had called the poetry of a ‘new order’, which was a decisive break from the past.
The effect was immediate and profound. Rothenstein showed Tagore’s works to W B Yeats, the English poet who would later win the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1923. Yeats was equally struck by the depth and power of the slender volume.
Things began to unfold quickly. A private reading session at Rothenstein’s Hampstead home was attended by London’s literary luminaries like Ezra Pound, Ernest Rhys, Charles Trevelyan and C F Andrews, who were overwhelmed by the poetry of a ‘new order’. C F Andrews even wrote that “the experience was not unlike that of Keats’s when he came for the first time for Chapman’s translation of Homer”.
Ezra Pound, then the London correspondent for Poetry, an American magazine, reserved space for six of Tagore’s poems in the next issue of the magazine. A limited edition of Tagore’s work titled Song Offerings (an English translation of his celebrated collection of poems, Gitanjali) was published in London in November, and when it was quickly sold out, the publishing house MacMillan brought out a popular edition.
Tagore had become an overnight literary sensation in the Western world but he had already sailed for the United States. He was headed for the university town of Urbana in llinois, where his son Rathindranath had studied a few years earlier. And thus began a new chapter in Tagore’s life – of travelling the world – one that would continue for the next 20 years.
From Illinois, Tagore travelled to Chicago on the warm invitation of Harriet Monroe, editor of Poetry magazine. During the next four months, he covered half the country, delivering lectures in American universities. The most notable of these lectures was at Harvard, where he found the audience most receptive to his talks on spirituality and Indian philosophy.
In April 1913, Tagore returned to England and found himself in a social whirl that revolved around him and his now-famous works. The reviews of Song Offerings were glowing. The precision and clarity of his poetry had struck a chord with both critics and general readers, and one reviewer went as far as to describe his poems as “an achievement unequalled in the English language since the appearance of the King James Bible”!
In September, Tagore decided to sail back home. Not long after, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. The Nobel Committee had selected Song Offerings for its “deep and rare spiritual beauty”. Rabindranath Tagore had become the first non-European to receive this honour, which catapulted him to literary stardom.
It was three years before Tagore left India again. This time, he had been invited by a speaking bureau (it was a NYC-based company that used to host lecture tours of eminent global personalities in USA. The name of the company is not known) in New York that offered him USD 12,000 for a lecture tour that would start in San Francisco. After this lecture, he headed for a tour in Japan hosted by the leading Japanese daily Asahi Shimbun.
Tagore was an ardent admirer of Japanese art for its simplicity and harmony. And although he had supported Japan’s military victory over Russia in 1905, he was intensely critical of its imperialist policies and the way Japan was shifting towards belligerent nationalism. The central theme of his lectures in Japan and later in the US was a warning against this approach.
The year was 1916 and Tagore was touring Japan and the US while Europe was in the throes of World War I (1914 – 1918). In one of his lectures in the US in 1917, he would later say of the war and the mass destruction it had caused: “The idea of the Nation is one of the most powerful anæsthetics that man has invented. Under the influence of its fumes the whole people can carry out its systematic programme of the most virulent self-seeking without being in the least aware of its moral perversion — in fact feeling dangerously resentful if it is pointed out.”
It was a judgement that would later prove to be prophetic, but it took immense courage to voice his opinion when the whole world had been caught up in jingoistic patriotism. He also paid a price for it. A section of the media and the public, both in Japan and in the US, grew critical of Tagore to the point of being openly hostile. Tagore revisited both countries on multiple occasions but things would never be the same.
Throughout the 1920s, Tagore returned to Europe almost every year for lecture tours hosted by universities and governments. On his three visits to Germany, he was seen as an Oriental mystic dispensing consolation and courage to a land and its people going through a profound spiritual and cultural crisis after World War I.
One of the highlights of his visits to Europe were his interactions with some of the greatest men of his time, most notably Nobel Laureates, writer Romain Rolland and physicist Albert Einstein. The poet would meet the great physicist in Berlin in 1926 and again in New York in 1930, where the duo would engage in a famous intellectual discourse on science, humanity and the nature of truth.
In Hungary and then Czechoslovakia, Tagore was an inspiration to many poets and artists. The humanism that runs through his work, together with notes of optimism cut straight to the heart of many writers, artists and intellectuals in the newly emerging Czechoslovakia, during his two visits in 1921 and 1928.
On his brief tour in 1921, he delivered two public lectures and met leading Czech music composer Leos Janacek, who was inspired by Tagore to compose one of his best choruses, The Wandering Madman. During his 1928 visit, which was hosted by the Czech government when Tagore and his entourage were assigned a chartered aircraft, two of Tagore’s plays were staged in the National Theatre. Thakurova Square, a prominent plaza in the Czech capital of Prague, was named after the bard and a bronze bust sits right in the middle of a leafy park. Below the bust, an inscription reads, ‘Rabindranath Thakur’ (‘Thakur’ is Bengali for the Anglicised ‘Tagore’).
Two very short stays in Paris in his youth had given Tagore the experience of a Turkish bath and a taste of the joie de vivre that the city exudes. But it was much later, in 1920, that he really discovered Paris and made friends there. Andre Gide, who would later win the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1947, had already translated Tagore’s Gitanjali into French after being introduced to his works by a very young Saint-John Perse, the French poet who went on to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1960.
Tagore visited the City of Lights many times and when he decided to showcase his paintings, a talent he indulged when he was almost 70, Paris was the natural choice. The exhibition was held at Galerie Pigalle in 1930 and it was a resounding success.
The Paris exhibition was orchestrated by Victoria Ocampo, an Argentine writer and critic who would later found the celebrated literary magazine Sur. The poet had met Ocampo under very unusual circumstances. In September 1924, Tagore had received an invitation to attend Peru’s commemorative centennial celebrations. He had just returned from an exhausting four-month trip to China and Japan and although doctors had advised rest, the invitation from an exotic land was irresistible. After a long voyage, when his ship docked at Buenos Aires in Argentina, Tagore developed serious health complications and had to abandon his Peru plans. Further travel could be fatal, doctors had declared.
Tagore had already become a major literary figure in South America, due mostly to the translations of his work in Spanish by Juan Ramón Jimenez (another Nobel Laureate, 1956) and his wife Zenobia Camprubi, who had translated 22 books by Tagore. The translations also influenced other major literary figures like Gabriela Mistral and Pablo Neruda in Chile, and Octavio Paz in Mexico.
That Tagore should be in Buenos Aires made waves in literary circles, even if he was there only to recuperate from ill-health. Victoria Ocampo rented an entire villa for Tagore in the suburb of San Isidro, not far from Villa Ocampo where she lived. She sold a diamond tiara to pay his rent!
During the two months at the villa nestled amid a tranquil riverside landscape, while the poet convalesced, a bond would foster between them that would last till his death in 1941. It would also spark speculation of romantic involvement for years to come. Tagore named her ‘Bijaya’ (the Bengali version of her first name - Victoria and completed a volume of poems at San Isidro that he dedicated to her.
During his extensive travels, Tagore was embroiled in two major controversies. The first was in 1918, when he was suspected of being involved in the Hindu-German Conspiracy in the US. This was an effort by Indian nationalist groups to enlist overseas support for a rebellion against British rule in India. As a result, Tagore was not granted permission to dedicate his seminal book on nationalism to American President Woodrow Wilson. However, on a later visit, in 1930, he was a guest of President Herbert Hoover at the White House.
The second controversy had a more far-reaching impact. Tagore visited Italy in 1925 and again in 1926, as a state guest, and was taken by Benito Mussolini’s charisma. The poet’s trip was cleverly designed to meet only those intellectuals and members of the press who were pro-fascist. His praise for Mussolini in public lectures was also used by pro-fascist newspapers to their advantage, and it fell to his friend Romain Rolland to caution him against being used by the Italian dictator and his publicity machinery.
When Tagore reached Geneva to meet Rolland, the French Nobel Laureate took it upon himself to sensitise him to Mussolini’s fascist agenda and how the poet’s European friends had been affronted by his stance on the dictator. Appalled at this grave misunderstanding, Tagore wrote a letter to C F Andrews, which was published in The Manchester Guardian, where he denounced fascism as a force that “supresses freedom of expression, enforces observances that are against individual conscience and walks through a bloodstained path of violence and stealthy crime”.
Tagore was more circumspect in his observations during his trip to Russia in 1930. While the cultural construction of a country trying to rebuild itself after a bloody civil war through its theatres, art and a robust education system left a deep imprint on him, he was sceptical of the ways inherent in its system to fetter the freedom of the mind and of expression.
His effervescent praise and critique of the new Russia were eloquently contained in a series of letters. However, his critical assessment irked Joseph Stalin, who took measures to block the poet’s interview to Izvestia, a daily broadsheet newspaper. The paper would run the interview 58 years later during Russian President Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika.
Tagore’s forays in Japan and China were largely unsuccessful. His sharp criticism of the militant nationalism that Japan was championing in those times drew flak from intellectuals and the general public. And in China, in 1924, his lectures, which centred on his rather ambitious ideal of the spiritual reawakening of the Orient as opposed to Western materialism, was unabashedly rejected by his young audience and a little less vehemently by intellectuals. The reason was mostly ideological. Tagore was perceived as a religious poet in China, at a time when Communism was already gaining popularity there. Also, his vision of a united, rejuvenated Asia differed widely from that of Chinese intellectuals, who believed in their uniquely Chinese identity. Tagore left China a bitter man.
However, three years later, another Asian tour of Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia and Siam (present-day Thailand) was a delightful experience, and the islands of Java and Bali filled him with a sense of wonder. The rich legacy of an impeccably maintained indigenous culture and the fine elegance of showcasing it through art, most notably through dance, inspired Tagore to write a series of letters and a few outstanding poems based on his experience.
Five years later, in 1932, Reza Shah Pahlavi, the Shah of Iran invited Tagore for an official visit, and the inveterate globe-trotter, now 71, embarked on yet another journey. He was flown across from Calcutta in a private aircraft.
Familiar with the country’s chequered history and curious to see a new regime seeking to reassert an old civilisation, Tagore travelled through the cities of Bushehr, Tehran, Isfahan and Shiraz, and then went on to Baghdad to attend a state banquet hosted in his honour by King Faisal of Iraq.
The trip went delightfully well for the poet and its highlight was his visit to the tomb of Hafez in Shiraz. The 14th-century Sufi mystic poet had been his childhood favourite. Tagore would later note in his diary, “I had the distinct feeling that, after a lapse of many centuries, across the span of many births and deaths, sitting near this tomb was another wayfarer who had found a bond with Hafez.”
His three-week sojourn in these West Asian countries would be Tagore’s last overseas tour. He had visited 34 countries by then, and was easily one of the most-travelled people of his time. He never visited Australia, despite multiple invitations, for a number of reasons, most notably their ‘White Australia’ immigration laws only favoured ‘White Only’ immigration. Africa eluded him too, a continent about which he had penned one of his most celebrated poems called ‘Africa’.
These travels, over 20 years, made Tagore an instantly recognisable name across the world. The interest in the man and his works would gradually wane in later years, but that is an altogether different story.
– ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Sugato Mukherjee is a writer and photographer based in Calcutta with bylines in prominent national and international publications.