In the Footsteps of Tagore in America – Best Indian American Magazine | San José CA

As a young man, Rabindranath Tagore was deeply impressed by the works of 19eAmerican writers of the century Waldo Emerson and Walt Whitman. Their works, he had felt, in resonance with oriental ideas and feelings. The way America fought to free itself from the British and defended freedom as a basic human right also left a lasting impression on the Indian poet-philosopher. This may have prompted him to send his eldest son Rathindranath to America in 1906, instead of England, which was the usual choice of affluent Indian families for their children’s higher education at the time.

In the winter of 1912, Tagore had arrived in America for the first time in his life. He had left London, where he had become a sensation in literary circles overnight with his small volume of poems. “Song offerings” (Gitanjali in Bengali). A year later, the book won the Nobel Prize for Literature. And Tagore, as the first Asian to receive the coveted award, would be catapulted to unprecedented literary stardom.

But before all that, a selection of “Song offerings” was published in the famous Poetry Magazine and Tagore’s friends and admirers in America organized a 4 month speaking tour for the Indian poet to American universities. Thus began the long and eventful association between America and one of its greatest beginnings.e-th century visitors from the Orient. For his part, Tagore would use his US speaking tours to highlight Indian philosophy, its implications and applications, as well as a fundraising campaign for his newly founded unorthodox educational institution in Shantiniketan near Calcutta. The poet would also be an ardent defender of the rapprochement between the two countries. But it’s interesting that he would praise the very essence of freedom, the cornerstone of the American way of life; he would not mince words when criticizing his policy on military and foreign affairs, and a lifestyle that he felt placed more importance on materialistic achievement than spiritual awakening.

In 1916, Tagore was invited on an extensive speaking tour of the United States by a New York-based conference bureau associated with its publisher Macmillan. The deal was for a staggering $ 700 per class session, most of which took place on college campuses. His lectures passionately advocated universal spiritual consciousness and, once again, sharply criticized Western materialism and, on this occasion, the bellicose nationalism that he felt was becoming a dangerous global trend. In 1916-17, when Tagore was on tour across America, Europe was in the midst of a raging war never seen in human history. And he had come to his own conclusion as to the root cause of this massive destruction.

“The idea of ​​Nation is one of the most powerful anesthesias that man has invented. Under the influence of its fumes, the whole people can carry out their systematic program of the most virulent selfishness without being in the least conscious of its moral perversion – in fact feeling dangerously resentful if it is. reported. “ – Tagore would proclaim in one of his conferences in the United States in 1917.

A judgment that would later prove prophetic, it took immense courage to time his opinion as the whole world was caught in the throes of chauvinistic patriotism. Part of the media, despite the initial reception amid much excitement and fanfare, became intensely critical of him. However, his lectures were well received in crowded auditoriums, especially on the West Coast. The Los Angeles Times would write of the Indian poet that he “looks like the pictures men paint of Christ ”and proclaimed that Los Angeles“ buys more of its books than any other city in the country ”.

Tagore’s trip to the United States from 1916-17 was also fraught with some murky and controversial affairs. A possible assassination attempt was made by an extremist group while staying at the Palace Hotel in San Francisco. The poet was later also accused of being part of a Hindu-German plot that would put him under clandestine surveillance by British intelligence services while on a trip to the United States.

Three years later, in October 1920, Tagore returned to America again to raise funds for Shantiniketan. It was a disappointing four month trip for the poet. The enthusiasm built around his two previous visits was clearly absent this time. His unconventional views on nationalism, his critique of materialism, and his strong anti-war stance were frowned upon in post-war America. Even his fundraising efforts for Shantiniketan were unsuccessful. The American businessmen he had met (JP Morgan and John D. Rockefeller among them) were skeptical of the overtures of the Indian poet, known for his anti-imperialist diatribes, and his renunciation of chivalry in the aftermath of the massacre. by Jalianwala Bagh. in 1919 was considered an insult to the British Empire, with which American industrialists had close commercial ties.

In January 1921, Tagore returned home a bitter man.

Tagore and Einstein (Image from Wikimedia Commons)

Throughout the 1920s, Tagore remained an inveterate globe-trotting poet. He visited many countries in Europe on several occasions, traveled to the exotic Far East and exchanged ideas with luminaries like Romain Rolland and Albert Einstein. But it will take him eight long years to return to the American coast. In 1929, the Canadian Council on Education invited Tagore, and his stay in Canada was to be followed by an extensive tour of American cities. However, an untoward incident interrupted his visit. Tagore was treated abrasively by immigration officials in Vancouver, his port of entry. It is reported that the Nobel laureate was asked, among other things, if he could read and write! An enraged Tagore canceled all his engagements and after a 3 week stay in Los Angeles, headed for Japan.

A year later, at the end of 1930, Tagore returned to America for what would be his last visit, after his tour of the Soviet Union. The final trip was, compared to the intermediate visits of the 1920s, a resounding success. During the two-month visit, the New York Times ran twenty-one reports on Tagore, which included two interviews and a captioned story “A mathematician and a mystic meet in Manhattan” who wrote about meeting Albert Einstein when the duo deliberated on deep questions about truth and beauty. Tagore was a guest of honor at the White House and a private interview with President Herbert Hoover was arranged. When Tagore gave a talk at Carnegie Hall in New York City, which numbered 4,000 people, thousands had to be turned away. A dance performance was performed on Broadway by Ruth St. Denis to raise funds for Shantiniketan. Tagore’s paintings, which were a resounding success in a touring exhibition across Europe, have been shown in art spaces in New York and Boston.

Rabindranath Tagore had traveled to over 30 countries during his lifetime, but it remains a little known fact that the seventeen months spent in America on five occasions from 1912 to 1930 was the poet’s longest stay in a country, except for his homeland. and England.

In his philosophy of speaking out against militarism and aggressive nationalism, Tagore was way ahead of his time, and this perhaps explains why he often fell out of favor with his audiences, not only in America but also in his homeland. But his views turned out to be too true when the world was engulfed in a new war in 1939, two years before his death. Eight decades later, with the rise of chauvinism and hostile foreign policies in many parts of the globe, Tagore’s bright words of caution still ring true in modern consciousness.


Sugato mukherjee is a Calcutta-based journalist with signatures in The Globe and Mail, Al Jazeera, Nat Geo Traveler, Fodor’s Travel, Atlas Obscura, Mint Lounge and The Hindu Business Line, among others.


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