“A Faithful and Conscientious Sentry” is how Romain Rolland described his role in Tagore’s controversial trip to Italy in 1926. Indeed, the correspondence between two of the world’s pacifist thinkers spanning across two decades provides a fascinating insight into the interaction between the private and the pubic selves in a critical juncture of history.

Tagore and Rolland were uncompromising in their stance against the shrill nationalist voices sweeping the globe; both faced intense vilification in their respective countries. Noble laureates separated by a year, their friendship was based on a humanist philosophy that sought to bridge the civilisations of East and West that were facing its severest crisis. While Rolland left France to settle in Switzerland, Tagore sought to create his own utopia of cosmopolitanism at Santiniketan; in that sense both were citizens of the world.

“Dear and great friend...”

Chinmoy Guha’s meticulously edited volume provides an annotated account of their rich correspondence across two decades. As Tagore responded to the Jalianwalabagh massacre in 1919, he must have sensed a kindred soul in Rolland’s call for the Declaration of Independence of the Spirit, where Rolland called for the “union of the two hemispheres of the spirit” and turned to India’s “beehive of its ancient mind, its divine polyphony”.

Rolland had, of course, followed with interest Tagore’s European career after the award of the Nobel Prize in 1913 and had hailed Tagore’s Nationalism lectures in 1916 as a ‘”turning point in the history of the world”. The correspondence quickly matured into Tagore’s visit to Rolland in France in April 1921, deepening their mutual admiration as they discussed philosophy and music. Tagore was now addressed as “Dear and Great Friend” instead of “Dear Friend”, while Tagore acknowledged to Kalidas Nag, “Romain Rolland stuck me as nearest to heart and most akin to my spirit”.

Rolland’s project to create a “world library” was initiated with the attempt to translate Gora and Chaturanga. Between 1921 and 1925, both recognised the sadness lurking within their souls as they swam against the tide of nationalism surging within their own people.

The fascism test

Yet, their friendship was soon to be tested during Tagore’s 1926 trip to Italy. Rolland had earlier warned Kalidas Nag that an ailing Rabindranath could possibly be a prey to Mussolini’s charm offensive, meeting a selected group of intellectuals sympathetic to fascism. His words proved prophetic, and Rolland undertook two major efforts – to inform Rabindranath about the Fascist agenda in Italy, while defending Tagore within the European anti-Fascist movement. It was largely due to Rolland’s intervention that the disaster of the “affaire Tagore-Mussolini” was rectified by Tagore’s letter to CF Andrews, published in The Manchester Guardian, where Tagore denounced Fascism as a force that “supresses freedom of expression, enforces observances that are against individual conscience and walks through a bloodstained path of violence and stealthy crime”.

Tagore himself spoke about the need for “purification” after this “defilement”, to Rolland in July 1926. Tagore scholars have repeated ad nauseum Rolland’s efforts to sensitise Rabindranath about Mussolini’s fascist agenda; what Guha meticulously unravels is the zeal with which Rolland defended Tagore amongst European intellectuals, often berating those who were aghast at Tagore’s response. He reiterated that Tagore knew no European language other than English and that his schedule was tightly regulated by the state.

However, the episode did take some sheen off their friendship and as Guha notes, their correspondence dwindled. When they met for the last time in Geneva in April 1930, their encounter was somewhat diffident. On a more personal note, they shared their individual losses and their friendship remained “faithful”, each visiting the other in “thought”.

Rich scholarship

Guha’s volume documents for the first time the entire gamut of letters with extensive annotations and a detailed introduction. The correspondence is supplemented by references to the Rolland-Kalidas Nag correspondence and translations from Rolland’s diaries that provide detailed accounts of Rolland’s joy, sense of awe and sometimes despondence at Rabindranath’s European travels and reception. The appendices provide material from The Manchester Guardian, conversations between Salvadore and Tagore and a correspondence between Saumyendranath Tagore (grandson of Dwijendranath, Tagore’s elder brother) and Rolland.

Guha’s nuanced introduction not only brings out the various shades of the Rolland-Tagore relationship; it also provides a panorama to critically revisit this in the context of Rolland’s interaction with Mahatma Gandhi, Kalidas Nag, CF Andrews and Rathindranath Tagore. Interestingly, Rolland recognised and acknowledged Tagore’s misgivings about the Gandhian movement (this august debate has been richly documented by Sabyasachi Bhattacharya), but was sympathetic to the spiritual force that Gandhi brought to the ideology of the freedom struggle.

What is also interesting in the light of the last meeting is how Rolland had moved towards Ramakrishna and Tagore’s deep unease with the cult of Kali. Guha’s introduction and translations reveal the churning within Indian socio-cultural histrionics and Rabindranath’s attempts to respond to them. Guha rightly underscores Rolland’s acknowledgement of Tagore as attempting to reconcile his roles as a poet and a public intellectual.

The only reservation one has about this volume is over the necessity of the Rolland-Saumyendranath correspondence. It documents Rolland’s riposte to Saumyendranath’s dismissal of the Gandhian way, but barely contributes to any significant understanding of the mandate of the book. One also speculates whether references to Rolland by CF Andrews could have enriched the volume. The Rolland-Kalidas Nag correspondence is of course available in a volume edited by the same author.

Along with Uma Dasgupta’s richly edited collection of the Tagore-Andrews correspondence, Chinmoy Guha’s volume is undoubtedly one of the most important contributions in Tagore scholarship of this decade. In an age when jingoistic nationalism threatens to dominate global discourse, the Tagore-Rolland correspondence is a timely reminder about alternative perspectives and conflict resolutions. It is also a testament to a deep friendship across cultures within a fraternity of creative public intellectuals who never hesitated to caution and compliment each other in their commitment to their ideals. Guha’s beautiful translation of Tagore’s “Praved” ( a poem that Tagore sent to Rolland with his illustration) is a fitting conclusion.

“Though I know my friend, that we are different,
my mind refuses to own it,
…But a magnanimous breath of life has carried me to your side
and the dark line of our difference
is aglow with the radiance of a dawn.”

Bridging East and West: Rabindranath Tagore and Romain Rolland Correspondence (1919 to 1940), edited and French Letters Translated by Chinmoy Guha, Oxford University Press.