On February 22, 1912, a play adapted from Edwin Arnold’s The Light of Asia (1879) was staged at London’s Royal Court Theatre. Simply called Buddha, it was produced by Kedar Nath Das Gupta and William Poel, the noted Shakespearean actor and stage manager. The play’s cast included established actors like Clarence Derwent and Ruby Miller, with SC Bose, the scriptwriter, essaying a minor role. When the audiences and reviews came out, they were so full of praise – The Guardian called it a “beautiful dramatization” – that the play’s run was extended from three to seven performances.

Das Gupta followed Buddha with a performance of Kalidasa’s Kumarsambhava, originally written in Sanskrit, and some weeks later, he founded the India Arts and Dramatics Society. Behind the society was the laudable intent to foster understanding of Indian culture in Britain through ancient stories, dance forms and plays. And by all accounts, it did try. The society presented multicultural productions of ancient Sanskrit plays and contemporary work by Rabindranath Tagore, a sort of mentor to Das Gupta.

For Das Gupta, it appears, theatre was sometimes a vehicle to achieve the object he dedicated a good part of his life to: promotion of understanding and unity. Before World War I, he proselytised the message of fellowship among the world’s peoples without distinction of race, colour or creed. During the war, he staged plays for the benefit of wounded soldiers. And after it, he entwinned his love for the arts and his desire to promote goodwill among nations.

A scene from Das Gupta’s 'Savitri' that appeared in the Daily News on July 2, 1922.

East And West

Little is known of his early life. Kedar Nath Das Gupta was born in Chittagong in undivided Bengal on October 11, 1878. His father was a provincial judge. Das Gupta had some acquaintance with the Tagore family based in Calcutta. He was, it is believed, also involved in the Swadeshi agitation of 1905-07.

It was when he left for London in 1908 to study law – he could manage a third class at best – that he was really drawn to the stage. But braided with the passion for theatre were finer ideals and loftier ambitions. In 1914, he renamed the Indian Arts and Dramatic Society as the Union of East and West. It was his hope that that the Union would advocate a message of cooperation and fellowship.

As World War I broke out, Das Gupta staged plays for the benefit of wounded soldiers, especially those convalescing at the largest hospital complex in Netley. For his part, he joined the stretcher bearers of Indian Ambulance Corps that had been set up by Mahatma Gandhi during his short stay in England in 1913.

Das Gupta’s productions, staged at prestigious venues like the Royal Albert and the Cosmopolis Hall, earned much praise. In England, he staged more than 12 productions, including plays from ancient India like Mrcchakatika, Vikramovarshi and Ratnavali; those based on the Puranas, such as The Ordeal of King Harishchandra; and those based on Tagore’s works such as Post Office and The Maharani of Arakan. His most impressive production, however, was Sakuntala, based on the version written by poet Laurence Binyon, with Sybil Thorndike in the title role.

Das Gupta made his productions collaborative: his plays had a diverse cast, featuring some of the leading actors of the time such as Thorndike and William Stack. His patrons included well-established figures from the arts, such as Thomas Walker Arnold, the scholar of Islamic history who had taught at Aligarh, Henry Holiday, the pre-Raphaelite painter, and EB Havell of the Bengal School of Art.

A scene from the 'Buddha and His Great Renunciation' that appeared in the Daily News on November 19, 1922.

In October 1920, Das Gupta left for the US in the company of Tagore. Travel records of the SS Rotterdam list them both as writers. In the US, Das Gupta continued promoting comity while pursuing the arts. He found in New York, like-minded people – artists and reformers – who hoped in the aftermath of the World War to create a better world. That very year in August, America’s women had won the right to vote, and, coincidentally, suffragettes and women reformers were among his first supporters.

Later that year, Das Gupta’s plays Savitri and Post Office were performed in New York in the manor grounds of Mary Woodmull Martin, a suffragette. He would stage three other plays at the Bramhall Playhouse in April 1921: The Farewell Curse, The Maharani of Arakan, and Savitri or Love Conquers Death. Like all his productions, these too were colourful pageants, complete with music and dance.

Fellowship Of Faiths

The next year, the Union of East and West hosted a three-day event to commemorate the nations of India, China and Japan. The play Buddha, now called Buddha and His Great Renunciation and starring Converse Tyler with Muriel Bodkin, was performed in a New York community church. By this time, Das Gupta’s organisation had influential supporters including actors and diplomats, such as Sir Auckland Geddes, the British ambassador to the US, and reformers Charles Weller and Jane Addams (later the first American woman to win the Nobel Prize for Peace in 1931).

Weller was the founder of the League of Neighbors, a society in Chicago that promoted interaction among people across classes. Das Gupta’s Union of East and West joined hands with Weller’s League of Neighbors to create Fellowship of Faiths, an organisation that would seek common ground among religions. In 1926, the three groups – the Union of East and West, League of Neighbors, and Fellowship of Faiths – came to be called the Three-Fold movement. That year, a conference proposed an international peace week in May 1929, with a special day to mark goodwill among nations. Das Gupta, an ardent believer in Gandhian ideals, also proposed a week of vegetarianism during this time.

While living in the US, Das Gupta travelled to England almost every year to meet those working in the New Thought movement, an amalgam of ancient thought derived from the world’s oldest religions that believed in a supreme universal god, individual divinity and unconditional love towards all. Among its proponents were explorer-mystic Francis Younghusband, writer Arthur Conan Doyle, Annie Besant of the Theosophical Movement, and Buddhist monk Anagarika Dharmapala.

A clipping from the Los Angeles Evening Post Record, January 23, 1936.

Permanent Peace

Das Gupta’s deep interest in building bridges was visible at the 1933 Parliament of World Religions in Chicago and New York that was attended by nearly 10,000 delegates. The parliament’s international president, Maharaja Sayajirao Gaekwad of Baroda, spoke about a religion for all nationalities, but the conference showcased a broad range of subjects, as evident in the compilation later produced by Weller and Das Gupta.

Das Gupta translated ancient Sanskrit prayers that were recited at the conference and Gandhi sent special messages of encouragement. Other delegates included Prithvi Bahadur Singh of Nepal, Bhagat Singh Thind and John Dewey. A special session on women and their progress included Muthulakshmi Reddy of the All-India Women’s Conference and activists like Margaret Sanger and Mary Terrell.

A second congress was held at London three years later. Initiated by Francis Younghusband, this congress was narrower in scope, as deliberations focused on the need to bring religions together. In later years, though Younghusband came to be considered a leading light of world congresses, Das Gupta’s contribution and groundwork vitally mattered. He networked, reached out to a diverse range of people, and travelled almost annually to London from the mid-1920s to the 30s, until World War II broke out.

Das Gupta died in New York in December 1942 after a debilitating stroke. Peace efforts such as the ones he espoused might have appeared eccentric – a newspaper labelled the Chicago conference a meeting of “godly dreamers” – but he never lost hope. With his penchant for founding associations and finding common ground, he helped set up the All-World Gandhi Fellowship in New York in 1931, where, in the spirit of Gandhi’s ashrams, guests were encouraged to offer voluntary work in lieu of payment. In 1941, just a year before his death, Das Gupta organised events to mark Gandhi’s birthday. One of the lectures he delivered there had the poignantly hopeful title “Post-war Preparedness for Permanent Peace”.

This is the twelfth part in a series on early Indians who blazed a trail in other parts of the world. Read the rest of the series here.