As a young man, Rabindranath Tagore was deeply impressed with the works of 19th-century American writers Waldo Emerson and Walt Whitman. Their works, he had felt, resonated with oriental ideas and feelings. The way America had fought for her freedom from the British and championed freedom as a fundamental human right had also left a lasting impression on the Indian poet-philosopher. Possibly, this had prompted him to send his eldest son Rathindranath to America in 1906, instead of England, which was the usual choice for affluent Indian families for their children’s higher education back in those days.
In the winter of 1912, Tagore had arrived in America for the first time in his life. He had sailed from London, where he had become an overnight sensation in the literary circles with his slender volume of poems ‘Song Offerings’ (Gitanjali in Bengali). A year later, the book would go on to win 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 of that happened, a selection from ‘Song Offerings’ was published in the celebrated Poetry Magazine and Tagore’s friends and admirers in America arranged for a 4-month lecture tour for the Indian poet in the U.S. universities. Thus began the long and chequered association between America and one of its greatest early 20th-century visitors from the Orient. On his part, Tagore would utilize his American lecture tours to highlight Indian philosophy and its implications and applications, and also as a fundraising campaign for his newly-founded, unorthodox educational institution at Shantiniketan near Calcutta. The poet would also be a staunch advocate for fostering closer ties between the two countries. But interestingly, while he would praise the core essence of freedom, a cornerstone of the American way of life; he would not mince his words in criticizing its policies on military and foreign affairs, and a lifestyle that was according to him, laid more importance on materialistic achievements rather than spiritual awakening.
In 1916, Tagore was invited for an extensive lecture tour of the US by an NYC-based speaking bureau that was associated with his publisher Macmillan. The agreement was for an impressive sum of $700 per lecture session, most of which were held on university campuses. His lectures passionately advocated universal spiritual awareness and again, sharply criticized western materialism and, on this occasion, the belligerent nationalism that he felt was becoming a dangerous global trend. In 1916-17, when Tagore was touring across America, Europe was in the midst of a raging war, hitherto unseen in the history of mankind. And he had reached his own conclusion as to the root cause of this mass destruction.
“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.” – Tagore would proclaim in one of his lectures in the U.S. in 1917.
A judgment that would later prove to be prophetic, it took immense courage to time his opinion when the whole world had been caught in the throes of jingoistic patriotism. A section of the media, despite the initial reception amid a lot of excitement and fanfare, grew intensely critical of him. However, his lectures were well-received in packed auditoriums, especially on the West Coast. Los Angeles Times would write of the Indian poet that he “looks like the pictures men paint of the Christ” and proclaimed that Los Angeles “buys more of his books than any other city of the country.”
Tagore’s 1916-17 US trip was also riddled with a couple of murky and controversial affairs. A possible attempt on his life was made by an extremist outfit when he was staying at the Palace Hotel in San Francisco. Later, the poet was also accused of being part of a Hindu-German conspiracy that would put him under clandestine surveillance by British intelligence while traveling in the U.S.
Three years later, in October 1920, Tagore returned to America again to raise funds for Shantiniketan. This was a disappointing four-month trip for the poet. The enthusiasm built around his previous two visits was markedly absent this time. His unconventional views on nationalism, his criticism of materialism, and his staunch anti-war stand were met with disapproval in a post-war America. Even his fundraising efforts for Shantiniketan went in vain. American businessmen whom he had met (J.P. Morgan and John D. Rockefeller among them) were skeptical of the overtures of the Indian poet, who was known for his anti-imperialist diatribes, and his renouncement of knighthood in the aftermath of the Jalianwala Bagh killings in 1919 was viewed as an insult to the British Empire, with which the American industrialists had close business ties.
In January 1921, Tagore returned home a bitter man.
Throughout the 1920s, Tagore would remain an inveterate globe-trotting poet. He would visit many countries in Europe on multiple occasions, travel to the exotic Far East, and exchange ideas with luminaries like Romain Rolland and Albert Einstein. But it would take eight long years for him to return to the American shores. In 1929, Canada’s Council of Education invited Tagore and the Canadian sojourn was to be followed by an extensive tour of the U.S. cities. However, an untoward incident cut his visit short. Tagore was handled in an abrasive manner by the immigration officials at Vancouver, his port of entry. Reportedly, the Nobel Laureate was asked, among other things, whether he could read and write! An infuriated Tagore canceled all his engagements and after a 3-week stay in Los Angeles, headed off to Japan.
A year later in late 1930, Tagore returned to America for what would be his last visit, following his tour of the Soviet Union. The final trip was, in comparison with the intermediate visits in the 1920s, a resounding success story. During the two-month visit, the New York Times carried twenty-one reports on Tagore, which included two interviews and a story captioned ‘A mathematician and a mystic meet in Manhattan’ that wrote on his meeting with Albert Einstein when the duo deliberated on profound questions on truth and beauty. Tagore was a guest of honor at the White House and a private interview with President Herbert Hoover had been arranged. When Tagore lectured at Carnegie Hall in New York, which held 4000 people, thousands had to be turned away. A dance performance was given at the Broadway by Ruth St. Denis to raise funds for Shantiniketan. Tagore’s paintings, which had a successful run in a traveling exhibition across Europe, were showcased in art spaces of New York and Boston.
Rabindranath Tagore had traveled to more than 30 countries in 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 longest time the poet had stayed in any country, except his homeland and England.
In his philosophy of denouncing militarism and aggressive nationalism, Tagore was far ahead of his times, and that perhaps explains why he often fell from the favor of his audience, not only in America but also in his homeland. But his views turned out to be too true when the world was engulfed in yet another war in 1939, two years before his death. Eight decades later, with the rise of jingoism and hostile foreign policies in many parts of the globe, Tagore’s luminous words of caution still ring true in the modern consciousness.
Sugato Mukherjee is a journalist based in Kolkata with bylines in The Globe and Mail, Al Jazeera, Nat Geo Traveller, Fodor’s Travel, Atlas Obscura, Mint Lounge, and The Hindu Business Line, among others.