remembering history

Why the US government maintained records on Rabindranath Tagore – and what they say

Tagore’s relationship with the West was complex. At times he was revered, at times enveloped in international intrigue.

“Music fills the infinite between two souls.” – Rabindranath Tagore

American federal records and poetry – what could possibly be the connection? How might have Tagore – a Bengali writer and poet, educator, musician and visionary – crossed paths with the federal government of the United States?

Tagore was world-renowned and this improved the likelihood there might be federal records related to him. Many saw him as a bridge builder between the East and West, and his world travels, especially visits to the United States, suggested there might be a connection. Controversy over his support for an India free from British colonial rule offered another clue. The records of several government agencies reveal even more about Tagore’s complex relationship with the West, especially the United States, where he was beloved in some circles and viewed with suspicion by others.

The photographs of Tagore in Paris, circa 1930, are part of a collection the United States Information Agency acquired from the Paris Bureau of The New York Times. The Prominent Personalities file includes photographs of Tagore.

Rabindranath Tagore, the poet, admiring the beauties of the Cote d’Azur at Cap Martin (306-NT-351E-1). Photographs from the New York Times Paris Bureau (NAID 2830620). Translations of original French captions by volunteer Judy Koucky.
Rabindranath Tagore, the poet, admiring the beauties of the Cote d’Azur at Cap Martin (306-NT-351E-1). Photographs from the New York Times Paris Bureau (NAID 2830620). Translations of original French captions by volunteer Judy Koucky.
The celebrated poet, Rabindranath Tagore, coming from India, stopped at Cap Martin on the Cote d’Azur before continuing towards Paris (306-NT-351E-4). Photographs from the New York Times Paris Bureau (NAID 2830620). Translations of original French captions by volunteer Judy Koucky.
The celebrated poet, Rabindranath Tagore, coming from India, stopped at Cap Martin on the Cote d’Azur before continuing towards Paris (306-NT-351E-4). Photographs from the New York Times Paris Bureau (NAID 2830620). Translations of original French captions by volunteer Judy Koucky.
Tagore instructing his grand-daughter Nandini on the beauties of nature (306-NT-351E-7). Photographs from the New York Times Paris Bureau (NAID 2830620). Translations of original French captions by volunteer Judy Koucky.
Tagore instructing his grand-daughter Nandini on the beauties of nature (306-NT-351E-7). Photographs from the New York Times Paris Bureau (NAID 2830620). Translations of original French captions by volunteer Judy Koucky.
Pratima Tagore conversing with her father-in-law Rabindranath Tagore in the garden of Cap Martin (306-NT-351E-9). Photographs from the New York Times Paris Bureau (NAID 2830620). Translations of original French captions by volunteer Judy Koucky.
Pratima Tagore conversing with her father-in-law Rabindranath Tagore in the garden of Cap Martin (306-NT-351E-9). Photographs from the New York Times Paris Bureau (NAID 2830620). Translations of original French captions by volunteer Judy Koucky.
Rabindranath Tagore with Captain SW Chaudhari, his physician, and Pratima Tagore, his daughter-in-law at the exit of their Cap Martin Property (306-NT-351E-12). Photographs from the New York Times Paris Bureau (NAID 2830620). Translations of original French captions by volunteer Judy Koucky.
Rabindranath Tagore with Captain SW Chaudhari, his physician, and Pratima Tagore, his daughter-in-law at the exit of their Cap Martin Property (306-NT-351E-12). Photographs from the New York Times Paris Bureau (NAID 2830620). Translations of original French captions by volunteer Judy Koucky.
Rabindranath Tagore showing his grand-daughter the beauties of nature (306-NT-351E-16). Photographs from the New York Times Paris Bureau (NAID 2830620). Translations of original French captions by volunteer Judy Koucky.
Rabindranath Tagore showing his grand-daughter the beauties of nature (306-NT-351E-16). Photographs from the New York Times Paris Bureau (NAID 2830620). Translations of original French captions by volunteer Judy Koucky.

Tagore’s earliest visit to the United States in 1912 followed the first publication of his poetry in Chicago’s literary journal Poetry that year. Six free verses of his devotional poetry were translated from his work Gitanjali (The Offering of Songs). Many years later, during the 1961 centenary celebrations of Tagore’s birth, President Kennedy quoted a “majestic verse” from Gitanjali that “might serve as today’s universal prayer”. It was included in a draft copy of his letter to be read at the centenary celebrations in New York City. The letter is preserved in USIA’s India: Action Messages, Tagore file. (RG 306, NAID 72053874)

Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high
Where knowledge is free
Where the world has not been broken up into fragments
By narrow domestic walls
Where words come out from the depth of truth….

Draft of President Kennedy’s letter for the centenary celebration of Tagore’s birth (NAID 72053874).
Draft of President Kennedy’s letter for the centenary celebration of Tagore’s birth (NAID 72053874).
Draft of President Kennedy’s letter for the centenary celebration of Tagore’s birth (NAID 72053874).
Draft of President Kennedy’s letter for the centenary celebration of Tagore’s birth (NAID 72053874).

During that seven-month visit in 1912, Tagore spent time with his daughter-in-law and son Rathindranath Tagore, who was a student at the University of Illinois and an active member of the Urbana Unitarian congregation. Tagore’s regular meetings with local church members and students, and his famous Harvard lecture series established long-lasting ties with communities in the United States, where Tagore Societies soon sprung up to study his work.

Finding mention of Tagore in the US Department of the Interior, National Park Service was a surprise. Owing to the special relationship between Tagore and the Unitarian Church of Urbana, his interactions with the church are included in the nomination materials of the church submitted in 1991 to the National Register of Historic Places (RG 79, NAID 28891794). This church was the first religious centre at the University of Illinois to accommodate international students (including Tagore’s son), whose religions were Christian and non-Christian. These attendees became known as the Unity Club. Educators and students in Urbana, who drew inspiration from Tagore’s poetry, music and art, became known as the Tagore Circle.

Between 1912 and 1930, Tagore visited the United States five times, travelling from coast to coast and receiving a warm welcome. In 1913, Gitanjali was translated and published in England in its entirety. Being awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature that same year propelled Tagore onto the world stage. He literally became a man of the world, travelling, lecturing and raising funds for the famous and unconventional educational institution he founded 93 miles from Calcutta, Santiniketan (Abode of Peace). Tagore Visits the United States and Tagore and America are two publications that were prepared for the 1961 centenary celebrations in English, Hindi and Bengali by US Information Services as the local overseas posts of USIA were known. (RG 306, NAID File 6087550)

Records created by the War Department, Military Intelligence Division, between 1918 and 1947, include biographies of leaders, politicians and significant people such as Tagore. From the undated typewritten draft, we learn that the close circle of friends referred to Tagore as “spiritual master”, Mahatma Gandhi as “great soul” and Tagore’s “Nobel prize money, his royalties…and the revenue of his estates were all made gifts to this school [Santiniketan].” (RG 165, NAID 3431609)

The publications and multimedia programmes created in 1961 for the 100th anniversary of the birth of Tagore provide a glimpse into the depth of his popularity and esteem as well as a perspective on United States foreign policy. Private organisations across the United States, such as the Asia Societies, Tagore Societies and university-affiliated literary groups began planning for the centenary activities two years earlier. Faculty and administrators from universities across the country, who were members of The Rabindranath Tagore Centenary Committee in America included American University, Georgetown, Howard, Yale, Harvard University and the University of Pennsylvania.

During the Cold War, when India was a non-aligned country, these centenary activities were embraced by the USIA, responsible for the public image of the United States abroad and the overseas USIS posts. Because of Tagore’s significance to Indians and Pakistanis, the centenary celebrations became fair game for the United States to compete with the Communist bloc for “psychological leadership”. The file, India: Action Messages, Tagore can be found in the records of the Department of State (RG 59, NAID File 72053874).

Memo concerning the need for the United States to position itself prominently in Tagore’s centenary celebration (NAID File 72053874).
Memo concerning the need for the United States to position itself prominently in Tagore’s centenary celebration (NAID File 72053874).

Two days of a week-long programme commemorating the memory of Tagore sponsored by the Asia Society of New York were recorded by Voice of America for distribution overseas. “Robert Frost on Tagore” is part of a treasure trove of VOA audio recordings housed at the National Archives at College Park. (RG 306, NAID 122176; 306-EN-J-T-3601) John D Rockefeller, III, opened the large public meeting by reading letters from Prime Minister Nehru and President Kennedy. Robert Frost then speaks informally, with a sense of humour and deep appreciation for Tagore’s work.

Even during World War I, politics and international intrigue enveloped Tagore when his name became associated with the Hindu-German Conspiracy trials in San Francisco. The British Secret Service uncovered plots in the United States by Germans and Indian nationalists conspiring against British rule in India, which were in violation of the United States’ neutrality laws. National newspapers reported in early 1918 that secret papers purported to show Tagore enlisted the help of Japanese statesmen in establishing an independent India and the plot implicated such luminaries as Tagore.

A handwritten letter and cablegram from Tagore to President Wilson in early May 1918 are preserved in the records of the Department of State. (RG 59, NAID File 83577575) Tagore calls for protection against the prosecution counsel’s “lying calumny”. He explains his thinking on patriotism and honesty and assures the President that the hospitality he received in the United States “was not bestowed upon one who was ready to accept it while wallowing in the subsoil sewerage of treason”. A letter from the Department of Justice to the Department of State in August 1918, ends with, “When Preston [the prosecution counsel] was on here he told me that Tagore was not in any way implicated in the plot…” (RG 59, NAID File 83577575)

During World War II, when Paris fell in June 1940, Tagore sent a telegram to President Franklin D Roosevelt, the handwritten draft of which was published in Tagore and America. It is a plea to the President and the United States. (RG 306, NAID File 6087550)

Today, we stand in awe before the fearfully destructive force that has so suddenly swept the world. Every moment I deplore the smallness of our means and the feebleness of our voice in India so utterly inadequate to stem in the least, the tide of evil that has menaced the permanence of civilization.

All our individual problems of politics to-day have merged into one supreme world politics which, I believe, is seeking the help of the United States of America as the last refuge of the spiritual man, and these few lines of mine merely convey my hope, even if unnecessary, that she will not fail in her mission to stand against this universal disaster that appears so imminent.

Less than two years later, the United States entered World War II after Japan bombed the US naval base at Pearl Harbour, Hawaii on December 7, 1941.

In 2011, the 150th anniversary of Tagore’s birth was marked by the publication of The Essential Tagore, the largest anthology of his work available in English. It was a collaboration between Harvard University Press and Visva-Bharati University.

Many thanks to Netisha Currie, Billy Wade, and Carol Swain for their technical assistance with the records.

This post was written by Tisha Mondal and Judy Luis-Watson. Tisha is a National Archives Volunteer and Judy is the manager of Volunteer and Education Programs at Archives II in College Park, Maryland.

This article first appeared on The National Archives’ Unwritten Record blog.

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Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”

“Terrible!!!”

“Like what?”

“Like….”

A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”

“Shameless!”

“Shameful!”

“Ashamed.”

“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:

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This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.