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In little over a month Shilaidaha nursed Rabindranath to recovery and he felt fit enough to undertake his postponed voyage to England. This time instead of a doctor friend he took his son Rathindranath and his daughter-in-law Pratima as his companions and sailed from Bombay on May 27, 1912. Although on his way home from the USA, where he studied agriculture in the University of Illinois, the poet’s son had spent some time in Europe he hardly knew the country and his wife was making her first voyage abroad. So, according to his son, ‘we made a very inefficient pair of companions to father on this journey.’ And he soon proved his inefficiency. In his memoirs he tells us how. ‘After the usual uninteresting life on the steamer, we found ourselves one evening in London. Thos. Cook had arranged rooms for us in a Bloomsbury hotel. We took the Tube from Charing Cross station. This was our first experience of underground traveling and it left us completely bewildered. I was carrying my father’s attaché case, which contained among other papers the manuscript of the English translations later published as Gitanjali and The Gardener. When on the next day father wanted to call on William Rothenstein and asked for the manuscript, the leather case was found missing. With my heart in my mouth I hastened to the Left Luggage Office. One can imagine my relief, when at last I discovered the lost property there. Since then I have often wondered what shape the course of events might have taken if the manuscript of Gitanjali had been lost through my negligence.’ It is not very difficult to imagine what would have happened – the Gitanjali would not have been published and the subsequent events which took place could not have taken place at all!
The party reached London on 16thJune. During the first few days they ‘felt stranded and lonely’. The poet had visited England twice before. First as a student in the London University he had lived with an English family. He had also spent a four-month ‘furlough’ with his second brother and Loken Palit in 1890. ‘But it was such a long time ago that all associations had completely faded from his memory and no former acquaintances could be traced’. They hardly knew anybody except Mr. Rothenstein whom the poet had met in Calcutta about a year before. This meeting, we may recall, took place in January 1911 at Jorasanko. He was deeply impressed by Tagore’s charming personality. It further deepened when he became acquainted with his writings through translations. Before his departure from India Rothenstein had written in his last letter of 21stFebruary, 1911, ‘Yourself I shall always allow myself to regard with reverence& affection, & I hope you will allow me to write to you sometimes & that you will perhaps remember that I shall be grateful for any translations of poems and stories which may appear at any time’. He was true to his words and returning home he went on enquiring about more translations of the poet’s works.
In India the poet’s admirers and friends were not idle. We have seen their zeal in translating his works and persuading the poet to do it himself. Now they began to try to publish the translations in British journals. His scientist friend Jagadishchandra Bose and Sister Nivedita tried but failed to do so because all refused to publish translations; they wanted original works. Some of his admirers visiting Britain now began to get in touch with Rothenstein; one of them was Pramathalal Sen. As a representative of the Adi Brahmo Samaj he had gone to Europe to attend the 1910 World’s Parliament of Religions held at Berlin. According to a contemporary memorialist Benimadhab Das, ‘His third visit to England in 1911 … was memorable in as much as it was then given to him by Providence a role to play in helping the West to discover the poet ...’ He encouraged many to translate the poet’s works and brought these to the notice of ‘his friends of the West personally while he was there and even through correspondence. Sir William Rothenstein of the Royal Academy of Arts was a friend of Pramathalal….’ It was he who ‘took Dr. Brajendra Nath Seal to his house at Hampstead Heath to be introduced to him. Their talks veered round Rabindranath and this fascinated the Artist’. According to Tagore’s biographer Prasanta Kumar Pal, after coming back home both Pramathalal and Brajendranath must have told Tagore about Rothenstein’s demand for more translation.
Tagore met Rothenstein within a day or two after his arrival in London and handed over his manuscripts to him. The poet expressed his desire to be acquainted with the best minds of the English society. The first thing Rothenstein did was to rent first a boarding house and later an entire house for the poet in his neighborhood so that they could meet frequently. He read the manuscripts in the evening of the day he received them and was overwhelmed. He made three typed copies and sent them to the young Irish poet Yeats, A.C. Bradley, then the Professor of Poetry at Oxford, and Stopford Brooke. He was already so enthusiastic about Tagore that even before his arrival he had planned with his friends for the poet’s reception and meetings with the prominent men of letters, artists and thinkers of the British society. But before these could take place another Englishman, till then totally unknown to the poet, had arranged a tea party for the poet at his residence. He was William Winstanley Pearson (1881-1923). A science graduate from the University of Cambridge, in December, 1907 he had gone to Calcutta as a teacher of botany in the London Mission Society College at Bhowanipur with the additional responsibility of Christian missionary work. He had learnt Bengali, used to attend various meetings and often delivered lectures in a temple established by one Shashipada Bandopadhyay. He must have read Tagore in original Bengali. He had also developed an interest in the poet for his activities in rural reconstruction. It is evident from his letter, published in the Bengali of 18th February, 1908, which he wrote after reading in English translation Tagore’s presidential address at the Pabna Provincial Conference. He became a devotee of the poet and dedicated his entire life to the poet’s works at Santiniketan. This is how Tagore described his first encounter with Pearson in a memorial meeting held after his death in 1923 – ‘For the first time I met this friend in London. The day I went to his house I found a charming young man standing at the gate. He bowed his head before me and took the dust of my feet. I was startled because it was quite beyond my expectation. … Many of his countrymen were present. Some of them must have thought it demeaned their status as a ruling race.’
From two Bengali invitees we can gather what transpired in this tea party. As the representative of Calcutta University Debaprasad Sarbadhikary had gone to London to attend the Conference of the Universities of the Empire. According to him being repeatedly requested by Pearson he had gone to his tea party on 19th June. It was arranged to introduce Rabindranath to the English society. A Bengali gentleman then resident in London read a paper on Bengali literature in which he profusely praised the poet. Requested by the assembly Tagore charmed the gathering by singing one of his own songs. The gentleman who read the paper was the other Bengali invitee. He was Sukumar Ray, the father of the famous film maker Satyajit Ray. He wrote to his sister Punyalata about this party where among others Mr. and Mrs. Arnold, Mr. and Mrs. Rothenstein, Dr. P.C.Ray, and Mr. Sarbadhicary were present. ‘Not only that Rabibabu himself was also present. And you can imagine my condition! I somehow finished reading my paper.’ It included a few poems of Tagore in the reader’s translation which were highly appreciated by all. Mr. Cheshire, and Mr. Cranmer Byng, the Secretary of Northbrook Society and the editor of the ‘Wisdom of the East Series’, in particular asked him to translate more poems and the latter offered to publish them. Mr. Rothenstein took his address and told him, ‘You must come to our place sometimes and stay in to dinner.’ In his letter to Ajitkumar Chakraborty at Santiniketan Rabindranath wrote that Mrs. Byng was amazed to see that an Indian graduate could write such literary English and Mr. Byng wanted to publish his translations in his Series and also offered to collaborate with him.
This is how Tagore’s introduction to the English intellectual society began. Earlier for publication translations were turned down. Now in the very first meeting a reputed editor was more than eager to publish them. Soon there would be more enthusiastic response. We shall continue the story in our next blog.
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