Language no bar — the Tagore-Rolland friendship forged via letters

A recent publication reveals the deep bond between the two Nobel Laureates which developed over the years of their correspondence “When my mind was steeped in the gloom of the thought that the lesson of late war has been lost… your letter came and cheered me up with the message of hope.” Thus wrote poet and Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore, completely devastated by the Jalianwala Bagh massacre, to fellow Laureate, French writer, dramatist and biographer Romain Rolland on June 24, 1919. Tagore’s reply to Rolland’s letter of April 1919, which urged him to sign the Declaration of Independence of the Mind, was the beginning of a fruitful and historically significant exchange between the two great minds of the East and the West. Documented in a recent publication — Bridging East & West: Rabindranath Tagore and Romain Rolland Correspondence (1919-1940) — are 46 such exchanges in the form of letters and telegrams, along with three conversations between the two men on various occasions. Professor of English at Calcutta University and well-known French scholar Chinmoy Guha, who compiled the correspondence, said the publication is the first in English. Prof. Guha has dedicated the book to Rolland’s sister Madeleine, as it was through her that the French novelist, playwright, biographer and musicologist was introduced to India, its thought and culture. In the correspondence, Rolland’s letters were written in French, while Rabindranath Tagore wrote in English, Prof. Guha said. It was Madeleine who translated Tagore’s letters into French. And in Santiniketan, it was Fernand Benoit and historian Kalidas Nag who translated Rolland’s letters into English for Tagore. Deep friendship Through the correspondence, Prof. Guha said, a profound friendship developed between the two men, evident in Tagore’s address of Rolland as ‘My Very Dear Friend’. In a letter from April 1921, Tagore writes, “You speak of the barrier of language. It is there, no doubt, but what is most precious in us does find its way through it. The cloud hides the sun but cannot extinguish the day.” “What triggered dialogue between Rolland and Tagore was Rabindranath’s lectures on nationalism at Tokyo’s Imperial University almost 101 years ago. And in faraway France and Switzerland, Rolland jotted down Tagore lines,” observed Prof. Guha, a Rolland scholar for several years. Rolland wrote in his diary that Tagore’s lectures were a “turning point in the history of mankind” and described the poet/philosopher as a “burning flame of joy, which is always shrouded in a fog of melancholy in the West”. Three meetings Tagore and Rolland met thrice. The first time in 1921 and then in June – July of 1926 when Tagore went to stay at Villeneuve, Switzerland, for a couple of weeks. The publication also brings to fore “the differences of opinion and misunderstandings between the two outstanding humanists of contemporary history”, Prof. Guha said, referring to the Tagore-Mussolini controversy. Rolland took it upon himself to “to reveal to Tagore the real face of fascism”, Prof. Guha said. In the post script, Prof. Guha refers to a letter from Rolland to Kalidas Nag where he shares how the Mussolini episode rocked their friendship. According to him, the Tagore and Rolland correspondence should be read as a companion volume to the correspondence between Rolland and Nag, compiled by Prof. Guha in The Tower and the Sea: Romain Rolland-Kalidas Nag Correspondence (1922-1938), consisting of 136 letters. The volume also describes the efforts of Rolland for several years to set up a World Publication House and his desire to publish Tagore’s Gora and Chaturanga as the part of the project.

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