How America Honored Tagore

An Indian scholar recalls the enthusiastic celebration of the poet’s centenary in the United States in 1961 and his research for Tagore memorabilia.

By Sujit Mukherjee

Retrospective Edition, January 2022

How America Honored Tagore

Rabindranath Tagore. Photograph courtesy Library of Congress

The recent Gandhi centennial celebrations in the United States bring to mind similar events honoring Tagore.

Everybody in America in 1961 knew about Rabindranath Tagore. And this includes the Indians resident in America in various capacities for varying periods of time. All over the United States, Indian scientists, doctors, engineers, nurses, dancers, yoga experts, hybrid rice specialists—all caught the fever of knowing all about the poet and telling everybody about him. The Tagore Centenary must have been the greatest centripetal force for Indians abroad since the Non-Cooperation Movement and the Round Table Conference days.

Traditionally anti-imperial America has always lent a sympathetic ear to Indian causes more controversial than this, and in 1961 I am sure there were at least as many Tagore Societies in the United States as there were in Tagore’s homeland. As the one-hundredth May of Tagore’s birth approached, the pace grew hotter—like the last hundred days before the election of an American President—and each Tagore Society vied with the other in planning a still bigger and better celebration.

America, of course, responded in equal measure. In fact, the American celebrations would probably have been just as enthusiastic even without the aiding and abetting of available Indians. There was no large university campus in the land, no world-minded literary organization, no center of art and culture, no city which Tagore had visited even once, which did not underline the occasion in some form or another. More than the lectures and editorials and special broadcasts, the most interesting feature of the celebrations was the array of Tagore memorabilia which came out of oblivion, however briefly. Philadelphia unearthed a Sturge Moore letter to Tagore. In Chicago, one could see the galley-proofs of Tagore’s first American publication—the six poems carried by the December 1912 issue of Poetry. The Cleveland Public Library showed a copy of Education and Leisure, a volume which is so rarely seen that it sometimes does not even appear in Tagore bibliographies. There must have been countless other instances elsewhere in the country to demonstrate beyond question how well Tagore was remembered. New York City, as always, went one better than all others by renaming Times Square for a day to call it Tagore Square. If that was only a formal gesture, there was no formality about the theater-goers who kept turning up at an off-Broadway house where “The King of the Dark Chamber” was diffidently planned for a four-week run and eventually ran for nearly four months.

I was in Philadelphia from August 1960 and remember how reassuring it was to find there a ready-made circle of fellow Indians brought together by a Tagore Society. Though it was by no means an appendage of the University of Pennsylvania, a majority of the members were Indians studying or working at Penn, while the Society had become a natural extrapolation of the South Asia Regional Studies Department, which provided not only a permanent president for the Society in Professor W. Norman Brown, but also other facilities as well. For example, the departmental library acted as a kind of publicity center for the Society; non-Indian students in the department formed a reliable quorum at meetings; visitors heard of through the department invariably were pressed into addressing the members, the catch varying from Dr. John Matthai to Raja Rao.

Soon after l arrived there, everybody was selling tickets (many were buying them) for an evening’s entertainment organized by the Society. The Irvine Auditorium of the University was pleasantly full for the function where Bhaskar—a dancer better known in New York than, say, in New Delhi—gave a series of dance-items, some solo, some with two other girls. Enough money was raised by the Society to hold the real celebration in May 1961, for which we had Mrinalini Sarabhai perform memorably, a talk on Tagore as a painter (with colored slides) by the incomparable Dr. Stella Kramrisch, and a rousing address by Professor T. W. Clarke (then visiting professor at Penn from London). He brought the Indian portion of the house down when he launched into a Bengali recital of Tagore and concluded by saying that everybody in the world should learn Bengali in order to read Tagore!

My own share in the American celebration of the Tagore Centenary in America was rather pedantic—a laborious putting together of facts and figures about Tagore’s five trips to the United States between 1912 and 1930—but much of my enjoyment was in the incidental pleasures of this task. The subject itself, for example, was practically dropped into my lap by my supervisor. Those who have been to graduate school in America will know what a blessing this was, because the happy conjunction of subject and supervisor and research student is usually the result of much tactical deployment of the last named’s limited resources and time. Mine emerged from the confession made by my professor that as an undergraduate at this same university, he had gone about with a copy of “Gitanjali” under his arm. Why and how had its author dropped from this elevated position so soon? My explanation occupied the next 10 or 12 months, and it convinced him—at least, for the moment.

The search for material took me to many places, to Chicago for example. Through a friend of a friend of a friend I had heard that a history professor there was interested in a similar subject. I wrote to him and received what I thought was an unexpectedly friendly reply from a busy teacher. I did not know then what a rich strike I had made entirely by chance. When I went to Chicago, this gentleman not only took me home and gave me dinner, but handed over quite casually a microfilm of press-clippings from Tagore’s 1916-17 visit to America. It would never have occurred to me to even ask him for the microfilm even if I had known he had it, but he made it seem as if he were giving me a book for which he had no use.

It was the same professor who told me about a recent purchase of papers made by Harvard University which contained material on Tagore. Here again was a lead none of the hardworking ladies in the reference section at the University of Pennsylvania library could have given me. Generally these ladies gave the impression that they knew everything, or at least knew where to find out everything. I never heard them say no to a request even for the most outlandish information. I once overheard a telephone conversation in which the caller wanted to know about the weather at Washington on the morning of some date in July 1846. The reference librarian did not reply, as she might well have, “Why not ask Wally Kinnan the Weatherman?” Instead, she asked him to call back in about half an hour when she might have some information on the subject.

The only region inside the libraries where one met some resistance was in the Rare Books and Manuscripts Room. This department of the Harper Memorial Library of the University of Chicago, for example, turned out to be even more impregnable than the outside had looked. Only after the aforesaid history professor had put in a word for me did I get to handle some original letters in the Harriet Monroe Collection.* So when I went to Harvard, I armed myself with introduction letters and other such weapons in case I had any trouble in getting to the sources. Much to my ill-disguised relief, l had merely to sign my name legibly in a register to gain access to perhaps the most important assembly of Tagore letters in America. I didn’t even notice that the door locked itself after one entered, and no exit was possible without cooperation from the girl at the desk who operated a concealed mechanism to release the door.

No such finesse attended the Rare Book Room of the New York Public Library. Here you make a request through a collapsible iron gate which clashes open to admit you if you have proved your bona fides and clashes close behind you once you are in. Considering that one has to step outside the building to smoke a cigarette, I am sure that they had to oil those gates for facile movement after I had spent two days working there.

From this last point of view, namely, of smokers, the new library at Penn is ideal. It not merely claims that it is fireproof but you are actually permitted to smoke practically everywhere inside the building. In addition, it is completely air-conditioned. Thus the soggy summer in Philadelphia is no problem now to graduate students. Some old-timers, however, missed the old library with its Gothic architecture and a central heating plant almost as old as the Vikings. Snoozing there in the Reading Room was impossible, because the pipes would give out noises like pistol­shots from time to time. Otherwise, the whole place reeked of the study and scholarship of generations, overpowering enough to make one take one’s own studies seriously.

Much of the information I was looking for was to be found in daily newspapers dating as far back as 1912. The New York Times was no problem since it has a running index as well as being on microfilm. Other East Coast newspapers were available in the Annexe of the New York Public Library. It was easier reading the files standing up than sitting down, and one turned the pages with reverence not only for the aging paper, but also for the irrevocable past. Here I read about the war in Europe as Americans had done then, almost as we read about Vietnam in Indian newspapers—a nagging problem that is mercifully at some distance. The advertisements were invariably interesting. Nothing, surely, reflects contemporary mores as advertisements do. Then there were the screaming headlines about people and events of the time which have never achieved a line of print again, and I wondered anew at the ephemeral nature of news.

Tagore’s travels had taken him to the mid-West as well as to the West Coast. In despair about locating some news items exactly, I wrote to the San Francisco Public Library asking for confirmation of some of my conjectures. Within a few days I received photostat copies of the news items I had asked about. Encouraged by this, I wrote to other faraway newspapers and almost invariably got what I wanted. Had I known of this shortcut to research earlier, I might have spared myself long hours of eye ache running through miles of microfilm and yards of faded newsprint. The greatest courtesy, however, was the one extended by the public library at Omaha, Nebraska. Tagore had lectured at Omaha once, but the reference librarian wrote back to say that she was unable to find any newspaper report of this occasion. However, she added, a recently retired member of the staff had actually attended the lecture and he would send me whatever details he remembered. He did so, in a shaky but decipherable longhand, looking back with transparent pleasure at an event that had taken place more than 40 years earlier.

Throughout these activities my headquarters were in Philadelphia, and here I came across Tagore in the most unexpected places. While cashing a check at a Sears Roebuck store, I had to explain to the cashier that I was from India: whereupon she asked me if I had heard of Tagore and quoted a few lines from “Gitanjali,” which she said she had learned while she was in school. One summer I tried to get a job on the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin. The gentleman who interviewed me told me that he could not give me a job, but as a cub reporter his first important assignment had been to attend a press conference with Tagore in 1930. This rather took the sting off his having to refuse me and we had a long chat on Tagore. Another time I saw a copy of that rare volume, “Six Portraits of Rabindranath Tagore”—drawn by Sir William Rothenstein and with an introduction by Max Beerbohm—in the window of a secondhand book shop. I went in to enquire about the price, found it was more than I could afford just then and promised to return for it. I made the mistake of delaying a few days, for when I did go again, the book was gone. Someone else was stalking Tagore in those days and he had forestalled me.

In case all this gives a rather exaggerated notion about Philadelphia’s esteem for Tagore, I must mention my most sobering experience in this regard. Looking for a copy of “The Golden Book of Tagore”—presented to him on his 71st birthday in 1931—1 found it indexed in the Penn library along with the personal collection of Theodore Dreiser’s books which the library has inherited from the novelist. The collection is housed in the Rare Book Room on the fifth floor, and as you sit there looking for what you want, a bronze bust of Dreiser glowers down at you. I knew that Dreiser had contributed something to the volume honoring Tagore, but what I did not know was that Dreiser had never bothered to open the book. The publisher’s slip giving the number of the limited edition and mentioning that it was a complimentary copy was still there. All the pages were uncut, and my substantial share in the American celebrations of Tagore’s centenary of birth was to rouse this volume from its 30 years’ sleep and cut the pages ceremoniously.

Presently 1961 grew older than its May and the Tagore Centenary receded in America into the annals of countless other public excitements which periodically stir that country from coast to coast. Before this essay grows any longer, I must present the question which arises invariably in retrospect—how much of the celebrations bespoke a genuine and enduring regard for Tagore in the United States? I must conclude with that question because it is not really of my own making, nor can I answer it. Those who want an answer must find it for themselves and not seek it at second hand. All that I can say is that in celebrating the lives of those who have gone before us we renew our own lives. As in 1961 with Tagore, so now it is with Gandhi in the Mahatma’s centenary year.

Originally published in May 1970


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