Rabindranath Tagore’s plans of travelling to Australia and his reception in the Australian media by Subrata Kumar Das

Australia is one of the two continents which Rabindranath Tagore did not visit. When the Nobel Committee announced the award for literature in 1913 on 13 November, the news spread across the world, including the Australian continent. Many Australian newspapers published articles on the Bengali poet. Afterwards, Tagore was repeatedly invited to visit Australia, yet he never managed to go. The last attempt that he made to go there was when Rabindranath was seventy-six years old. 

Newspaper article from The Mail

Australian newspaper reports on Tagore before the Nobel Prize

The newspapers that published extensively on Tagore’s winning of the Nobel Prize included the Sydney Morning Herald, the Register, the Sunday Times, the Morning Bulletin, the Mail, the Argus, the Advertiser, the Brisbane Courier, the Kalgoorlie Western Argus and the West Australia.

Yet even before the epoch-making event of a Non-European receiving the Nobel Prize, it is likely that Rabindranath Tagore’s book Gitanjali became a talk of the Australian literati, as the popular edition of Gitanjali had already flooded the English speaking markets by the early months of 1913. On 17 May 1913, the Register, from Adelaide, published ‘New things in Poetry’ on Gitanjali in the ‘Books of Reviews’. The article opened with a citation from W. B. Yeats, who had written the introduction of Gitanjali. Yeats wrote:

The author himself – a  Christlike figure in a Rothenstein portrait given in this little volume – has translated them into English, wisely using a prose form; so that the style merely disappears without being mutilated, and the full beauty of the matter can be retained.’

The article ended with the Hindu ritual practice of Rabindranath, which read:

 

Rabindranath has the true Hindu seriousness. “Every morning at 3,” says one who knows him, “he sits immovable in contemplation, and for two hours does not awake from the reverie upon the nature of God.”

 

On 13 July 1913, the Sunday Times published a report on Rabindranath’s London visit. Published in Perth, the newspaper in its section ‘Printed World: Books and Recollections: Their Builders and Reviews’ wrote:

A very remarkable Indian is just now visiting London – Rabindranath  Tagore. And at the same time a collection of English poems in translations made by him from his own writings in Bengali  are having a large sale in England under the title of  “Gitanjali” (Song Offerings).’

On 02 August 1913, the aforesaid Register published a long letter to the Editor on Rabindranath. The letter was written by J. C Kirby and quoted excerpts from two of Tagore’s poems and from C.F Andrews’s writings. The letter expresses a positive attitude of Kirby’s idea about India, Bengal and Bengali literature.

The same paper published Rabindranath’s poem ‘The Woman in Sorrow’ in the following week (9 August). On 28 September 1913, the Sunday Times again published a small column on Gitanjali.  Register, on 20 October, published ‘Through Eastern Eyes’. The three parts of the column were ‘Indian Poet’s View of England’, ‘Eve of Departure’, and ‘A Different Atmosphere’. All these comments and features show that Rabindranath began to get known amongst the Australian literary world even before he was awarded the most prestigious prize of the world.

 

Australian reaction to Tagore’s Nobel Prize award

The news of the Nobel Award was published in four newspapers, all on 15 November. The Adviser’s heading was ‘An Indian Poet/ Wins a Nobel Prize’. Morning Bulletin, published from Rockhampton, gave a two-line news ‘The Nobel Prize for Literature has been awarded to Rabindranath Tagore, an Indian Poet’ with the title ‘Nobel Prize for Literature’. The heading of the Register article was ‘Indian Poet Honoured/ Awarded Nobel Prize’.

The news in the Register had two parts: one simply quoted the news from Stockholm within one sentence, and the second focused on the works of Rabindranath. The latter part gives many details about the literary as well as physical features of the poet. It quotes Basanta Koomar Roy’s (author of the first English biography of the poet in 1915) article that was published in the American monthly Open Court. The feature ends with the following excerpt of Tagore’s poem:

My salvation shall never come through renunciation. I shall enjoy the triumph of salvation amidst the innumerable bond ages of this world… My Maya will evolve itself into Mukti, and my love will transform itself into adoration.’

Noel A. Webb wrote an article entitled ‘Rabindranath Tagore’ that was published in the Mail on 15 November 1913. It opened with the message, ‘Cable message announces that Rabindranath Tagore, the Bengali poet, has been awarded the Nobel prize for Literature’. It recalls the feelings of W. B. Yeates on his reading of the Gitanjali. At the end, the newspaper published three Rabindra-poems.

On 22 November 1913, the Sydney Morning Herald published a long feature titled ‘Rabindranath Tagore’. The feature pointed out that Rabindranath Tagore had inherited the practical ability of his grandfather, as well as the spiritual ideals of his father. He had been a schoolmaster, and after his visit to England had gone back to his boys. His school, one of the few boarding schools in India, was founded in memory of his father, because he believed that no movement for the regeneration of Bengal could have any success unless it was founded on education.

From then on, many Australian newspapers thus published many small and big news articles, features, etc. on Rabindranath. Examples are short news articles on 23 November by the Sunday Times and on 9 November by the West Australian. On 27 December the Brisbane Courier published a long feature with the title ‘Indian Poet Honoured / Nobel Prize for Bengal ‘Prophet”. The feature was based on the article published in Daily Chronicle, London, on 14 November, in which the poet was described as ‘Prophet of Indian Nationalism’.

Kalgoorlie Western Argus, published ‘A Remarkable Indian in London’ on 30 December. On New Year’s Day, the Brisbane Courier published a photograph of the Nobel Laureate poet. This seems to have been the first photograph seen in any newspaper of Australia. On the same day, the West Australian published a very important piece of news related to the decision of the Swedish Academy. Under the title ‘The Nobel Prize for Literature’ it said:

The Swedish newspapers express some surprise at the decision of the Swedish Academy to confer the Nobel Prize of Literature on the Indian poet, Rabindranath Tagore. The choice, however (remarks the Madras Mail), is hailed as a very happy one, and extracts are given from the English translation of the poet’s work Gitanjali.

The Swedish poets Karfelt and Heidenstam and the writer Hallstorm, who are all members of the Academy, have expressed their satisfaction with the award, and they declare that the Indian poet’s works, although they have become known only recently in the Western world; show an original and poetical vein of great depth and undoubted literary merit.

Altogether, Australian newspapers published hundreds of news items on Rabindranath during the years 1914, 15, 16 and 17. This included reviews of all of Tagore’s books.

 

Opportunities of visiting Australia

Unfortunately, Rabindranath, one of the greatest traveller of the twentieth century across the world, did not get the opportunity to visit the land that had shown so much enthusiasm for the poet and although he appears to have been invited to visit Australia four times, each time from different universities and other organisations in 1918, 1919, 1934 and 1937.

Rabijiboni
Rabijiboni

Possibility of such a visit was first emerged in 1918 which can be traced in the diary of Rathindranath Tagore of 7 April. Prashanta Kumar Paul cites the page of the diary in his hailed book Rabijiboni (Biography of Rabindranath):

Mr. Andrews had told him that the people in Australia would give him a warm welcome if he were to visit the country. Mr. Boomanji also encouraged him to go to America. It was settled that Nagen and Andrews would accompany him. Passports had been applied for. The only boat available was the B.I.S.N. Co’s “Teesta”, which sailed on the 5th of the May. [1]

Another noted biographer of Tagore, Prabhat Kumar Mukherjee, writes: ‘Sydney University invited the poet but at last he could not go.’[2]

On 11 July 1919, Rabindranath Tagore wrote a letter to Ranu Mukherji (1908-2000) that included notes about his planned Australia visit:

By now, several telegrams from Australia have arrived. After much hesitation, I have decided to cross the ocean next September. They seem to need me. Moreover, it seems that we should get to know the whole globe on which we were born. [3]

In his biography of Tagore, Paul focuses on this visit in Rabijiboni, where he cites the letter, dated 10 July, of the Registrar of Melbourne University to C. F. Andrews: ‘The matter of the invitation to Sir R. Tagore has only just been finally settled by the several Universities… those of Western Australia, Adelaide, South Australia, ourselves.’[4] Regarding this visit, news clipping in Western Argus from 15 July reads, ‘Sir Rabindranath Tagore, the Indian Poet and philosopher who was recently awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, may be invited to visit Australia’.

Paul writes, ‘After some days Rabindranath learnt that a group of Australians were upset after getting information about his visit.’[5] On 4 November The Brisbane Courier wrote that the visit was cancelled: ‘At the meeting of the University council today a cable message was read regretting the fact that Sir Rabindranath Tagore, the eminent Indian Poet and Philosopher, had found it necessary to cancel his proposed visit to Australia next year’. The title of the news was ‘Indian Poet’s Visit/ Cancelled.’

Paul cites a letter from Rabindranath to P. A. Wisewould of Melbourne, dated 26 April 1921, in which Rabindranath explained his decision of cancelling the visits:

I was about to set off for Australia. Just then I had reasons to believe that my proposed visit to the country had given rise to angry feeling against the organizations of my lectures. [6]

It is likely that the anti-British conspiracy, which started in America and which constructed Rabindranath as a plotter, could be responsible for upsetting the public opinion of him in Australia.

The next opportunity for Rabindranath Tagore to visit Australia came up in 1934. On 11 April, various newspapers reported about this possibility. The heading of The Sydney Morning Herald was ‘POET-LAUREATE/ Hopes to visit Australia’. The Courier-Mail and Mercury gave similar news. The Sydney Morning wrote, ‘The Tagore Society in London has received a cable message from Bengal that Sir Rabindranath Tagore, the philosopher and poet, will visit Melbourne for the centenary celebrations.’

The connection of Tagore and Melbourne was strengthened as in 1934, Melbourne celebrated its centenary, in which one event was a flight competition from London to Melbourne. Among the six women participants, the only Indian was Susama Mukerji, whose endeavour was financially supported by Rabindranath Tagore.

On 1 May, the Western Argus published a photograph of the poet, which was captioned, ‘Sir Rabindranath Tagore, noted Indian author and poet, who may visit Australia during the Melbourne Centenary’. On October 29, the Evening Post from New Zealand published, ‘Famous Indian Poet/ A centenary visitor’. But unfortunately, the visit did not happen. Interestingly, Tagore’s biographies give little information regarding these possibilities.

In 1937, another opportunity arose. On August 28, the Mail wrote a news item entitled ‘Indian Poet to/ Visit Australia’ that read:

Sir Rabindranath Tagore, the noted Indian poet, is leaving Calcutta shortly on a world tour that will include a visit to Australia. He will also visit Java, Siam, China, Japan, Fiji, New Zealand, America, and Europe. ‘In the course of his journey he will make a thorough inquiry into the conditions of Indians forking in Fiji, and will report to the National Congress at Allahabad.’

Similar news can be found, together with a picture of the poet, in the Examiner on 7 September. Yet Rabindranath fainted on 10 September and fell ill, was taken to Kolkata on 12 October and only returned home to Santiniketan one month later. Thus, his dream to visit the distant land of Australia remained unfulfilled.

When the poet died, almost all Australian newspapers published the sad news. Some of them included a picture of him; some published very long stories with full details of his works and his engagement as a social worker and literary activist. On 9 August, the Advertiser mentioned that about 50,000 people attended the route to the banks of the Hoogly River where the dead body was cremated.

 

Bibliographical Notes

[1] Paul, Prashanta Kumar, 2007, Rabijiboni [Biography of Rabindranath], vol. 7. Kolkata: Ananda Publishers, p. 315.
[2] Mukherjee, Prabhat Kumar 2007 [1962]. Rabindraborshoponji [Timeline of Rabindranath Tagore]. Kolkata, Dey’s Publishers, p. 56, translation by S.K.Das.

[3] Mukherjee, Prabhat Kumar 1952. Rabindrajiboni [Biography of Rabindranath], vol 3. Kolkata: Visva-Bharati, p. 25, translation by S.K.Das.

[4] Paul, Prashanta Kumar, 2007, Rabijiboni, vol 7, ibid, p. 419, translation by S.K.Das.

[5] Paul, Prashanta Kumar, 2007, Rabijiboni, vol 7, ibid, p. 430, translation by S.K.Das.

[6] Letter from Tagore quoted in Paul, Prashanta Kumar 2007, Rabijiboni, vol 7, ibid, translation by S.K.Das.


Subrata Kumar Das
Subrata Kumar Das

 

Subrata Kumar Das, a Bangladeshi writer now living in Toronto, Canada, is the initiator of the first literary website of Bangladeshi literature . Subrata can be reached at [email protected]/

 

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