On an April morning in 1929, a small welcoming party waited patiently at the harbour in Victoria, Canada, for Empress of Asia. The steamship was arriving from across the Pacific with an esteemed passenger who had been described by the Associated Press as “India’s sublime poet and philosopher” – Rabindranath Tagore.

“Arrayed in a long flowing robe of gray, the white haired poet, with his long beard, presented a picturesque figure as he surveyed the scene at the promenade deck of the liner,” the Associated Press said. “Sir Rabindranath had just concluded a long visit in the Far East in pursuit of both his studies and his teachings.”

Although the poet had been reluctant to come, Tagore’s brief visit endeared him to Canada, a country that was founded just seven decades earlier. “The Poet had been repeatedly invited to visit Canada by the National Council of Education of Vancouver, but had always declined to do for a variety of reasons,” scientist and statistician Prasanta Chandra Mahalanobis, who served as Tagore’s secretary, wrote in his book Rabindranath Tagore’s Visit to Canada and Japan. “This year however it was represented to him from certain influential quarters that he should accept the invitation for the sake of a better understanding between the peoples of India and Canada, and he finally agreed to do so.”

The poet set sail from Bombay in the last week of February, halting at Colombo, Penang, Singapore, Hong Kong, Shanghai, Moji, Kobe and Yokohama. Along the way, he spoke to the media about education since he was travelling to Canada to attend the Triennial Conference of the National Council of Education.

“All my life I have devoted [myself] to the cause of education, and I do not see any factor which will lighten India’s load except the free and intensive dissemination of learning among the lower classes,” Tagore told the United Press correspondent in Shanghai. “In this programme I look to America and Canada for aid, since it is these countries that education has attained its highest form and the student class has the greatest freedom.”

Philosophy of leisure

The local media in Victoria took great interest in Tagore right from the moment of his arrival. For one, journalists were fascinated with the Nobel laureate’s physical appearance.

“In his long robe, with his beard and long curls falling upon his massive shoulders, he was an arresting figure,” The Gazette wrote. “His features with dark glowing eyes, aquiline nose and fine mouth appeared to be of great beauty and there was an air of calmness and utter detachment as he told Western Civilization what he thought of it.”

On the very day Tagore arrived in Victoria, he delivered his lecture titled “Philosophy of Leisure”. In it he spoke of Western materialism and how a disproportionate focus on accumulation of wealth and possessions would lead to intellectual and spiritual decline.

“The creative genius of man is every day losing its dignity,” Tagore said. “It accepts cheap payments from the multitude. It makes faces at things men hold sacred.”

The conference participants listened carefully as he continued with his strong critique. “In the present age, the larger part of our growth takes place, the larger part of our growth takes place on the outside, and our inner spirit has no time to accept it – we grow accustomed to a spiritual slovenliness,” Tagore said. “The mind chronically pursued by a frenzied haste develops a chronic dyspepsia. It comes to believe that reality is truly represented by nightmare.”

Tagore called on Western society to slow down. “It is evident that the modern age is riding on a tornado of rapidity, jealously competing with its own past, every moment in speed and production,” he said. “We cannot stop its course, and should not, even if we could. Our only anxiety with regard to it is that we may forget that slow and mature productions of treasure are of immense value to man, for these only, can give balance to a bloated atmosphere of infinity in a width of leisure across which come invisible measures of life and light, bringing their silent voices of creation.”

Life of difficulty

He said people should give more importance to leisure. “And we say time is money, while we forget to say that leisure is wealth, the wealth that is a creation of human spirit whose material may be money.”

He stressed that the use of leisure could not be standardised. “Some people must have physical recreation after their working hours to enable them to keep fit for the serious affairs of life. Others require some other form of diversion. Indeed, exercise in a bowling alley might be more useful to some people in their time of leisure than anything else. Even the motion picture comedy, by acting as a mental stimulant, might be more helpful to many superior natures than a peaceful contemplation of the moon and stars.”

Tagore touched upon how life was difficult for the masses in India. “Man must live before he can hope to live well. Countless millions in India find it difficult to live at all,” he said.

Since the poet was not in the best of health, he kept his engagements in British Columbia to a minimum. From Victoria he went to Vancouver, where he visited a gurdwara and met some members of the Indian community.

When members of the public found out that the Nobel laureate was going to give a speech in the city, a huge queue formed outside the Vancouver Theatre.

“Thousands sought to see and hear Tagore Monday night, but could not get admission,” the Vancouver Sun said on April 9, 1929. “They stood in long lines for hours outside the theatre, and even after he had commenced speaking, they waited before the theatre door reluctant to leave.”

Those who managed to get inside the theatre listened to the speech in awe and with admiration. “To the two thousand persons who crowded the Vancouver Theatre, the picture of a serene old man, in whose mind burn the unquenchable fires of genius, enunciating his credo, will outlive his words,” the Vancouver Sun added. “He carried his audience far beyond the outposts of every day thought, past the details of and immediate activities of life, into the realm of pure aesthetics.”

Harmony among races

Tagore liked whatever little he saw of Canada and was full of praise for the country. In his last address before leaving for the United States, he said, “Canada is too young to fall victim to the malady of disillusionment and scepticism and she must believe in the great ideals in the face of contradiction – for she has the great gift of youth; she has the direct consciousness of the stir of growth within her which should make her trust herself, which is the only sure way of trusting the world.”

He saw immense potential in Canada’s future. “Let her feel the scared dawn of her life, that the expectation of human destiny is upon her as upon other sister countries which have just entered into the cycle of their promise,” he said. “Canada will have to solve for the salvation of man the most difficult of all problems, the race problem, which has become insistent with the close contact of communities that had their isolation for centuries in their geographical and cultural exclusiveness.”

Acknowledging that the country possessed powers of character and material resources, Tagore said of Canada, “She will have to reconcile the efficiency of the machine with the creative genius of man, which must build its paradise of self expression, reconcile science with religion, individual right with social obligation that it must acknowledge.”

Close to a century after Rabindranath Tagore’s visit, Canada stands out as a country that makes an effort to solve the “race problem”. It is committed, at least in principle, to atone for the atrocities committed on its indigenous peoples. Leisure is taken seriously by it. Vancouver, which briefly hosted the great poet, has a Tagore Society, which actively promotes Indian art and culture.

Ajay Kamalakaran is a writer, primarily based in Mumbai. His Twitter handle is @ajaykamalakaran.