You might not know that Rabindranath Tagore’s first sustained experience of America was not New York or San Francisco, but the farming/university town of Urbana, Illinois. He went there in 1912, to visit his son Rathindranath, studying at the University of Illinois. Father Rabindranath had wanted his son not to study literature or the arts at a place like Oxford or Cambridge (or London, as Rabindranath himself had done), but rather agricultural science in the service of what Tagore hoped would turn into a program for village development.
You might expect this small-town Illinois experience in 1913 to have been a lesson in culture shock for the cosmopolitan (soon to be world-famous) Tagore, who just a few weeks earlier had been dining with the cream of the crop in literary London. But no, Tagore fit right in, impressing the local Unitarians and making friends as he would do wherever he went in those years. He quickly moved from Urbana to Chicago, where he was a hit with the literati there, and from Chicago he started getting invitations to lecture at some major universities, which he accepted.
Tagore actually made five trips to the US, starting in 1912, and ending in 1930, according to his biographers Krishna Dutta and Andrew Robinson, in their excellent (but out of print!) book Tagore: The Myriad-Minded Man. (Note: Their book is the source for most of the information in this post.) By looking at those trips in particular, we can get an image of the man rather different from the aristocratic ‘Gurudev’ that most people know. Tagore came to America, first, to visit his son (who did not stay long), then to raise money for his new university at Shantiniketan. But above all, he came to argue with Americans about American business, industry, and war. What he said and how it was received tells an interesting story about both Tagore and the U.S. in those days. 1. The Mystic
In his early visits to the U.S., Tagore presented himself as a mystic poet and a philosopher, and was received by rapt audiences at packed lectures, standing-room only, at dozens of U.S. universities. But it’s tricky: in his lectures in the U.S. (especially in the second go-round, in 1916-17), Tagore did present a kind of mysticism, mainly as a response to modern political repression. Tagore was deeply critical of the British “machine” in India, even if he wasn’t quite a nationalist (not after the failure of the Swadeshi movement in Bengal). In his later visits, though some of this mystical language remained in his speeches, Tagore spoke quite directly about current events, and criticized British and American policies quite specifically. He also got into some fights with people in the American print-media (for instance, when a reviewer made a comment about his views on Indian child marriage), and wrote copious ‘letters to the editor’ when newspapers misquoted or misunderstood his ideas. As this image of Tagore took hold, he became much less popular than earlier -Â– but he nevertheless showed he could hold his own quite well.
2. ‘$700 Per Scold’
By his second trip in 1916, Tagore was a Nobel Laureate and a worldwide literary star. He was booked for lectures in twenty-five American cities, many of them at university campuses. He gave talks organized by a professional lecture agency associated with his publisher (Macmillan), and received impressively hefty fees ($700-$1000 a pop Â– a huge sum in those days). He was lecturing, essentially, against western materialism and for a kind of universal spiritual awareness. There was of course an irony in getting paid very well for criticizing materialism, and the Minneapolis Tribune called him on it:
Half-way through the tour the Minneapolis Tribune called Tagore ‘the best business man who ever came to us out of India’: he had managed to scold Americans at $700 per scold’ while pleading with them ‘at $700 per plead’. (Dutta and Robinson, 204)
(Of course, Tagore wasn’t scolding Americans for his own benefit. By this point he had begun planning for his university at Shanitiniketan, and all of the money he earned would go to that cause.)
Tagore was, not surprisingly, speaking out against militarism a great deal during this lecture series (you can get a flavor for his perspective in the lectures collected in Nationalism). Here he was lucky in his timing; he managed to leave for home just before the U.S. entered World War I.
On his third trip in 1920, Tagore stayed primarily in New York, trying to raise money from wealthy American industrialists. This trip was a failure, in large part because many of the wealthy men he met Â– people like J.P Morgan -Â– were involved in businesses that in one way or another depended on dealings with the British empire, and were leery of helping out anyone who was speaking out against it. As Rathindranath put it in a letter, “It was easier for us to speak out against the British Empire in England than in America.” And there were signs that the earlier intense curiosity Tagore’s presence inspired had worn thin. Perhaps America was a different place in 1920 than it had been before the War, or perhaps (as Dutta and Robinson suggest), fashions had merely changed.
Fortunately, Tagore came to depend less and less on the mysticism and other-worldliness that characterized his early years. As he gained experience, his political critiques of American capitalism became more specific and targeted, less like the vast generalizations about eastern and western ‘civilization’ of 1917, and more on the order of international power politics.
[We're skipping Tagore's fourth brief trip to the U.S., as not much of consequence transpired, except that he was harassed by immigration at the Canadian border. (Nothing changes, eh?) He also made some statements to the press about the ghastly book by Katherine Mayo called Mother India, which was then a huge bestseller in the U.S. Mayo's book offers that other old myth of India: poor, backwards, savage.]
3. Arguing with America
Tagore’s final trip to the U.S. in 1930 was, by comparison to the intermediate visits in the 1920s, a definite success. Though he still took every opportunity to scold western militarism and American business practices (while politely requesting American money for his university), Tagore got invites to all the right parties:
Apart from [Tagore's] striking looks and personality, India was in the news because of Gandhi, and Tagore’s [sympathetic] attitude to Soviet Russia had aroused curiosity; probably too, editors realized that this would be Tagore’s last visit. In the sixty-seven days Tagore was in the USA, the New York Times ran twenty-one reports on him, including two interviews and a beautiful photograph of him with Einstein, captioned ‘A mathematician and a mystic meet in Manhattan.’ He was given a private interview with President Hoover, introduced by the British ambassador (a strange contrast with British official behaviour in 1917-1918. When Tagore once more spoke at Carnegie Hall in New York, which held 4000 people, thousands had to be turned away. A dance performance was given at the Broadway Theater by Ruth St. Denis as a benefit for Shantiniketan; Tagore appeared on stage introduced by his admirer Will Durant. There were exhibitions of his paintings in New York and Boston, to which Ananda Coomaraswamy wrote an interesting introduction. (Dutta and Robinson, 298)
On this final visit, Tagore was more careful than earlier about how he posed his critique of western civilization. But he was still ready to dish it:
At a dinner in New York in his honour . . . in the presence of Franklin Roosevelt, the governor of New York, Sinclair Lewis, the latest Nobel laureate in literature . . . and five hundred others, Tagore 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.’ At Carnegie Hall a week later, he went even further. As always he expressed admiration for the ideals of liberty and self-expression of the West at the close of the nineteenth century, but he deplored its failure to live up to them in the East, in particular the failure of Americans to recognize the appeal of India to be free. ‘Our appeal does not reach you, because you respond only to the appeal of power.’ Japan appealed to you and you answered because she was able to prove she would make herself as obnoxious as you can.’ This remark ‘elicited considerable laughter and hand-clapping’, according to the New York Times (Dutta and Robinson, 300-301)
Reading this account today provokes several thoughts.
It’s important to keep in mind that Tagore was not a life-long nationalist figure. He was responding to the situation, and making his critique in language which he thought his listeners would understand. If someone with the Tagore’s aristocratic demeanor were around today, he would be talking about very different kinds of issues, and doing it differently. Hopefully, he would be aware that talk of “civilizations” is generally oversimplified and counterproductive. But he made his point: Tagore’s aim was criticize an unjust practice (colonialism) and an international system (the League of Nations) which was thoroughly unsympathetic to the plight of colonized people in Asia, Africa, and the Americas. Moreover, he was Â– in the halls of American power — pointing out how badly the international system was, even on its own terms, utterly failing.
In some respects, it’s surprising how similar America today is to the America of the 1910s and 20s. There is something very typical about the media frenzy that accompanied his first major lecture tour, the dud of his intervening visits, and finally the glamor (with dignity) he managed to get on his last visit there in 1930. He had weathered the initial clamor and the subsequent backlash, and had ended up as a kind of “opinionated celebrity.”
Of course, being a “celebrity” rather than an actual political organizer or a committed philosopher has its limits, and it’s hard to say whether Tagore’s visits to the U.S. had any lasting impact in the American imagination. Certainly, the self-translated Gitanjali has pretty much always been in print, though it has few champions amongst serious literary critics. (These days, Tagore’s novels in Bangla are read much more closely; some, like Gora, have been newly translated.) However, though Tagore’s literary reputation was generally in decline in the west in his later years, it always remained high in India (where Tagore’s Â“Jana Gana ManaÂ” was adopted as the national anthem), and particularly in Bengal (where ‘Rabindra Sangeet’ remains incredibly popular and influential). But for all the work fundraising, Shantiniketan suffered for a long while, never quite becoming the site of worldly enlightenment Tagore had hoped for (Visva-Bharati University prospers today). Finally, Tagore’s point about the U.S. only recognizing an opposing perspective when backed up by force seems as true today as it was then. At the very least, it seems clear that Tagore knew the American media beast for what it was, and found a way to work with it without compromising himself.
Ok, so it’s not an inspiring story of total triumph (but how many of those do we have?). The story of Tagore in America is still instructive, and I think we’ve seen versions of it again Â–- with the rapid rise and quick declines in popularity of people like Deepak Chopra (note: he’s now making ‘spiritual’ video games), and perhaps even Arundhati Roy. (If you benefit by exoticization, prepare to spend your life in a cage of well-lit irrelevance.) After his first two trips, I believe, Tagore realized how he was being used, and worked to find a different, more honest way to speak to America.
Tagore was the first Indian writer to really succeed on a global stage not as a curiosity or show-piece, but on the strength of his ideas and his writings. He did a lot to overcome western misconceptions about Indians, even if he did (especially early on) play into some western stereotypes of mystic India. He also probably helped fight the dominant racism of the time, partly by example and partly by his specific political ideas and positions.
More on Tagore:
Articles at Parabaas (including some in Bangla)