Tagore in South America : Some Perspectives
Dr. Rajat Chanda, Bell Laboratories, New Jersey, USA
In May of 1924, Rabindranath Tagore received an invitation to participate in the festivities in celebration of the centennial of Peru's independence in December of that year. In September, he boarded the ship Haruna Maru, which was bound for Europe, at Colombo. During the passage from France to South America on board the ship Andes, he fell ill. In a letter to C.F. Andrews, he later wrote, "... On October 24, I had written a poem addressed to the terrible (the two poems, Jhar and Padadhwani, written on that day appear in the collection Purabi- author). Since that day, I suffered so much that I thought I was going to die. When I came to Buenos Aires, the doctor's advice prevented my proceeding to Peru."
Victoria Ocampo was born in 1890 into an aristocratic Argentinian family. She was married in 1912, and was divorced in 1922. To free herself of the oppression of loneliness, she sought refuge in the world of her favorite writers, in the domain of letters. She translated extensively from French and English literature. Gitanjali moved her deeply. In 1924, she wrote an essay The Joy of Reading Tagore in the magazine La Nacion (this essay, which appeared on November 9, 1924, was titled La alegria de leer a Rabindranath Tagore - MRC). Only a few days after the essay was published, Tagore arrived in Buenos Aires on November 7th. Victoria wrote later, "... A friend and I decided we would go to see him at the Plaza hotel, and inquire about his health. A blue-eyed Englishman, Leonard Elmhirst, was then Tagore's Secretary. The doctors, meanwhile, had advised that the poet should abandon his plan to cross the Andes and go to Lima. Moreover, it would be better for him to rest for several days in the countryside before he was well enough to board another ship. Upon learning about these developments, I proposed to Elmhirst: why don't the two of them come to San Isidro (a suburb about 20 miles from Buenos Aires) and spend a few days there. I rented a garden house from a relative for Tagore to live in. From its piazza, and the hall on the second floor, one could see the river. The garden was laden with a profusion of fragrant blossoms." Her first acquaintance with Tagore, albeit very brief, had delighted and impressed Victoria considerably. Tagore spent almost two months in the garden house in San Isidro.
The memory of the garden and the piazza had become indelible in Tagore's mind. Years later, he wrote from Santiniketan, "... Time and again, my mind flies back to that verandah in San Isidro. I still recall quite vividly the exquisite festival of red and blue flowers glittering in the morning sun. And the endless display of colors atop that great river." The poet would spend his mornings writing, strolling in the garden, or reading. During the evenings, he would receive visitors and admirers. Once in a while, he would even get unexpected visitations, such as the time a woman came in to ask the poet to interpret her dreams.
Tagore called Victoria by the Bengali equivalent of her name, Bijaya. He dedicated his collection Purabi, which was published in 1925, to "The Lotus Palms of Bijaya". Thirty poems in this collection were written in San Isidro. He wrote to Bijaya, "I am sending you this book written in Bengali. I would have preferred to give it to you personally. It has been dedicated to you, even though you will not know what is contained in it. I trust it will spend more days at your side than did its author." Many years later, in 1939, he wrote, "... Those unforgettable days, and her tender and compassionate care have been enshrined in my poems; they may well be among the best I have written." Tagore had expressed the desire to return to Buenos Aires several times. Victoria wrote, "When the International Writers' Conference was held here in 1936, he (Tagore) had mildly chided me for not inviting him. He was apparently prepared to come here despite advancing age and poor health."
During his trip to China in early 1924, the poet had to endure much hardship. The political turmoil back home, too, afflicted his mind greatly. For these reasons, perhaps, the peaceful surroundings and loving care he found in San Isidro, and the distance it afforded from the daily chaos and turbulence in India, touched Tagore deeply.
It is probable that it was Bijaya who first encouraged Tagore to paint. She wrote, "A small notebook used to lie on top of his writing table;he would write poems in it in Bengali. This notebook impressed and amazed me. It would seem that he would really enjoy connecting the parts of the writing he would strike out, and create doodles with his pen out of the rejected parts. From these doodles there would emerge a variety of faces, prehistoric monsters, reptiles, and the like. Thus, from all the rejected lines and words, a new world of exotic forms would come to life. I pleaded with him to let me photograph these pages. He approved. When I met him in Paris six years later, his whimsical playing with doodles had turned into a serious hobby. The pictures looked so original that I proposed that there should be an exhibition. Through the cooperation of my friends, the exhibition was finally opened at the Gallerie Pigalle." It was Bijaya who paid for all the arrangements. The exhibition later moved on to London, Birmingham and Berlin. Several luminaries of the art world, including Riviere, Kollwitz and Noailles heaped generous compliments upon the paintings for their originality. Romain Rolland and Ezra Pound, among literary greats, however, were far less enthusiastic.
In an interview with the Free Press of India in July 1925, Tagore observed,
I had long entertained a desire to visit South America and compare that continent with North America. My idea was to see what was the difference in the mentality of the people. In spite of my enforced seclusion, the people of Buenos Aires continued to show their sustained interest in me. Although I was not able to satisfy their desire to take part in public functions or lecture to them, they considered it a pleasure and privilege to have me in their midst.
The chair which the poet used to sit in while in San Isidro, became a favorite. On his way back to India, Bijaya had reserved two lavish cabins in the Giulio Cesare for him, "... at unnecessarily excessive expense, ..." to quote Tagore. Bijaya decided that the chair would go with the poet. To accomplish this, she had the Captain make special arrangements to unhinge and remove the cabin door so that the chair could be placed inside. That chair is still preserved inside the Rabindra Sadan in Santiniketan. Bijaya would sometimes translate poems by Baudelaire from the French and read them to Tagore. One day the poet said to her, "Bijaya, I am not sure if I like your poet of home furnishings much." Later, however, he wrote to her in a letter,
"... I pass most of my day and a great part of my night deeply buried in your armchair which, at last, has explained to me the lyrical meaning of the poems of Baudelaire that I read with you."
In response, Bijaya wrote back,
"...I hope that you may understand through the same piece of furniture what the lyrical meaning of my devotion is!
In Tagore's collected letters, there is further mention of this chair. In the twilight of his life, in 1941, he even wrote a poem about it.
In a letter to Rani Chanda, Tagore wrote, "Bijaya would discuss various subjects with me. Often she would complain, why did you not learn any Spanish, I cannot explain everything to you in English. I too would deeply regret my ignorance of Spanish." It was this barrier of languages that contributed to Tagore's inability to assimilate or comprehend Latin culture. From the ship on his return trip, he wrote to Bijaya,
"...I have not the energy and strength needed for knowing a strange country and helping the mind gather materials from a wide area of new experience for building its foreign nest ... For me, the spirit of Latin America will ever dwell in my memory incarnate in your person."
In his poem Exotic Blossom, he wrote (translation by Chatterjee)
Exotic Blossom, I whispered again in your ear What is your language, dear? You smiled and shook your head And the leaves murmured instead. © Monish R. Chatterjee (1992)
It is worth mentioning here that Tagore had written the song Ami Chini Go Chini Tomare, Ogo Bideshini (I know you well, O exotic woman, I know you well) in 1895 while he was in Shelidah. He had given Bijaya a translation of the song within days after they had first met. There are only two poems in which Tagore had directly addressed Bijaya; the first, which appears in Purabi under the title Atithi (The Guest), begins with the lines, The days of my sojourn overseas, you filled to the fullest, woman, with the nectar of your sweetness ... . The second, written in April 1941, only months before his death, appears as the fifth poem in Shesh Lekha (The Last Words). It reads (translation by Chatterjee),
With love so earnest and extrinsic The beloved who found a place in my heart Forever shall keep me bound The words she whispered, though oceans apart. Her language I knew not Her eyes that spoke a language of their own Forever shall awaken in my mind Their plaintive message, though unknown. © Monish R. Chatterjee (1992)
For fifteen years, many letters were exchanged between Tagore and Bijaya. Most of these are now preserved inside the Rabindra Sadan. Towards the end of his life, this Argentinian poetess many continents away exerted a significant influence upon Tagore. Unfortunately, Victoria Ocampo never could visit India because of either poor health or other circumstances. She wrote a short book about Tagore, and translated his play Rakta Karabi (Red Oleanders) into Spanish. As editor of the literary magazine Sur, and as an accomplished poetess, she had received much acclaim in South America. Victoria Ocampo died in 1979.
As such, the ties between India and Latin America remain weak at best. Yet, to this day, Tagore's is a familiar and honorable name in educated Latin American circles. On his way back to India, Tagore had stopped for a day in Rio de Janeiro. There is still a school in that city in his name. The translations of Tagore's poetry into Portuguese by the Brazilian poetess Cecilia Meireles are of a high order of merit. In North America, sadly, Rabindranath Tagore is today all but forgotten.
The contents of the article in this page are Copyright © Rajat Chanda, 1986. All Rights Reserved.
(*) For a detailed discussion on this topic, see 'On the trails of Rabindranath Tagore & Victoria Ocampo' by Ketaki Kushari Dyson and some follow up exchanges.
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