Questioning the Frontiers: Rabindranath Tagore and Romain Rolland

An excerpt from Bridging East and West

Edited and annotated by Chinmoy Guha, Bridging East and West: Rabindranath Tagore and Romain Rolland Correspondence (1919-1940), brings together, for the first time in English, letters and telegrams that are among the finest exchanges of thought between the Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941) and the French novelist, playwright, and biographer, Romain Rolland (1866-1944) — the East and the West.

The book records the differences of opinion and misunderstandings between the two outstanding humanists of contemporary history, who often felt isolated in their own countries, on issues like Gandhi and Fascism. It is also the story of a profound friendship, where Tagore and Rolland unlock their hearts to each other.​ This correspondence, comprises 46 letters and telegrams, along with three dialogues between the two at various times, as well as letters by Rathindranath Tagore and others.

The following is an excerpt from the Introduction to the book:

Image courtesy OUP

To the magic bird of India I offer this youthful song of a little blackbird of
France who was trying his wings, on leaving his nest. 

— To Rabindranath Tagore, with my affection and respect. 

Romain Rolland1 Villeneuve, 1931

Quest for an Alternative Discourse 
Is the near-forgotten interface between two cultural icons from India and Europe—Rabindranath Tagore2 (1861–1941) and Romain Rolland3 (1866–1944)—one of the most significant dialogues of the last century,4 which Isaiah Berlin5 described as ‘the most terrible century in Western history’?6 These two visionaries, both prolific letter writers, tried to build bridges between the East and the West at a crucial point of time in history when ‘the whole race of mankind seemed to be in a cataclysm of death’.7 

The two Nobel laureates in literature, who won the award consecutively,8 suffered intensely at the advent of war and questioned the whole idea of the frontier and disrupted the notion of the nation as ‘a narcissistic narrative of national progress’.9 It was a journey towards the imaging of a different world which would create the possibility of not only a different kind of space, but a new space outside cultural hegemony. It was a quest for an alternative discourse.

Was it not inevitable that these two should meet in a moment of chaos and anxiety, each representing an era, its tension, its battles, its dreams? Always in search of a cultural idol who could radically transform the prevalent discourse, Rolland’s encounter with Tagore, at first so improbable, seems almost preordained. Like their friendship, this correspondence (1919–40) too was a fascinating cross-cultural encounter, an intimate fireside conversation, an interface not only between two historical and cultural discourses, but between two great artists who, in spite of their mutual respect and admiration, occasionally collided with each other, and yet never gave up. This correspondence is a document of this heroic endeavour to create a new imaginative space for mankind in times of deep anguish and pain. Rodolphe Schlemmer’s10 excellent photo, which framed together Rolland and Tagore in Villa Lionnette11 in Villeneuve, Switzerland, in July 1926, posted it for eternity and remains in many ways a symbol of international understanding and peace.

In their attempt to create an intercultural discourse, they exchanged at least 46 letters and telegrams between 1919 and 1940. Published for the first time in English, these letters—which are now in the public domain—will not only narrate the story of a profound friendship but also an account of their conscience. There is a splendid serenity in these letters. They also reveal a subterranean tension when the two did not see eye to eye on some fundamental political issues of the time, like Latin American dictatorship or Mussolini’s fascism. As Rolland wrote so significantly to Kalidas Nag12 on 8 February 1923: ‘Tagore’s letters are a testimony of the highest value. Whatever Tagore writes has something ethereal about it: it is the song of a “Prophet-bird” (the title of a beautiful page by Schumann),13 but it also sets in motion a historic debate’.14 

Tagore had written to his son Rathindranath in 1916: ‘The era of nationalistic parochialism is over. The first beginning of the global fraternity of the future will be seen in the greens of Bolpur’.15 He probably meant what Frantz Fanon would write many years later: ‘National consciousness which is not Nationalism, is the only thing that will give us an international dimension’.16 ‘The idea of the Nation’, Tagore stated in nationalism lectures, ‘is one of the most powerful anaesthetics that man has invented. Under the influence of its fumes the whole people can carry out its systematic programme of the most virulent self-seeking without being in the least aware of its moral perversion—in fact feeling dangerously resentful if it is pointed out’( Nationalism 25–6). 

What really prompted the transnational dialogue between Rolland and Tagore was the latter’s tirade against ‘the menace’ of ‘the organized selfishness of Nationalism’ (Nationalism 23) at the Imperial University of Tokyo in June 1916, which Rolland noted down in faraway France in his diary, calling it ‘ un tournant dans l’histoire du monde17 [a turning point in the history of the world, Inde 13]. ‘The Asians are now conscious of the inferiority of Europe’,18 he scribbled in his diary. Rolland took down excerpts19 from Tagore’s interview on ‘Race Unity’ in Christian Science Monitor —ideas which were so dear to Rolland’s own.20 Condemning the modern civilization for its dissociation of intelligence and emotion, Tagore had called it a major period of transition in history. In all great movements, there was action and reaction. The war was only its negative side, an expression of resistance. It was a confused dawn, thought Tagore, from which would emerge unity, peace and light.21

Three years later, Rolland would dash off a letter to Tagore written on 10 April 1919 in faraway Santiniketan in India, requesting him to sign the Declaration of the Independence of Mind . He wrote: 
A number of free minds which feel the urgency to react against the nearly universal oppression and servitude of intellect have drawn up the project of the Declaration of Independence of the spirit. I enclose here a copy. Would you honour us by joining this project? It seems to me that our ideas are in harmony with yours. 

…I shall be personally obliged to you if you can mobilize a few personalities from India, Japan and China. I wish that henceforth the intellect of Asia will take a more active part in the expression of European thought. It is my dream to see the union of these two hemispheres of the mind. I admire you for contributing to it more than anyone else. Allow me to say in conclusion how dear to us are your wisdom and your art. 

Just a few days back, after the Jallianwalla Bagh genocide on 13 April 1919 (a day before, Tagore had written to Gandhi expressing concern about the Martial Law to suppress defenseless people),22 he had sent C.F. Andrews to Punjab, but the latter was not permitted entry.23 Tagore had also failed to mobilize support for a protest meeting in Kolkata (28 May 1919).24 A shattered poet showed the world that he had no intention to live in an ivory tower, and renounced the knighthood25 conferred on him by the British. Earlier, probably still very bitter about the recent episode, Tagore immediately responded to Rolland’s plea with deep empathy on 24 June. He wrote: 
When my mind was steeped in the gloom of the thought that the lesson of the late war had been lost and that the people were trying to perpetuate their hatred, anger and greed into the same organized menace for the world which threatened themselves with disaster, your letter came and cheered me with its message of hope. 

The truths that save us have always been uttered by the few and rejected by the many and have triumphed through their failures. It is enough for me to know that the higher conscience of Europe has been able to assert itself in the voice of one of her choicest spirits through the ugly clamours of passionate politics, and I gladly hasten to accept your invitation to join the ranks of those free souls who in Europe have conceived the project of a Declaration of Independence of the Spirit.

1. Ramananda Chatterjee, editor. The Golden Book of Tagore: A Hornage to Rabindranath Tagore from India and the World. Kolkata: The Golden Book Committee, 1931. For original French, see p. 2; for English translation, p. 333.
2. Bengali poet, who was also a pioneering lyricist, composer, short-story writer, novelist, playwright, essayist, educator, letter-writer, and painter who almost single-handedly changed the cultural discourse of his time in Bengal and India. A product of the nineteenth-century Bengal ‘Renaissance, his monumental achievements remind one of Goethe and Victor Hugo. He was the first Asian to win the Nobel Prize for literature, in 1913.
Rolland referred to Tagore at least a 100 times in his diary bide (1915-1943), more than 30 times in the second volume of Romain Rolland—Stefan Zweig Correspondence (1920-7) Edition établie, présentée et annotée par Jean-Yves Brancy. Traduction des lettres allemandes par Siegun Barat. Paris: Albin Michel, 2015 (henceforth RZC), and six times in the third volume (1928-40), 2014.
3. French novelist, dramatist, biographer, essayist, polemicist, letter-writer. and musicologist. Born in Clamecy (Niévre), of Emile Rolland, notary, and Antoinette-Marie Courot on 29 January 1866, he studied in the college of Clamecy, and then in Paris (1873-80), Lycée Louis-Le-Grand (1882-6), Ecole Normale Supérieure (1886-9), Agrégation in History (1889), École française de Rome (1889-91), Doctor és Lettres (1895: on the History of Art). Professor at École Normale Supérieure and Sorbonne from 1895 to 1912. Author of the novels Jean-Christophe, Colas Breugnon (1919), Pierre et Luce (1920), Clérambault (1920), L’Ame enchantée (1922-33); plays like Les Loups (1898), Danton (1899-1900), Le Quatorze Juillet (1902), Liluli (1919), Le jeu de l’amour et de la mort (1925), Paques-fleuries (1926), Les Léonides (1928), and Robespierre (1939); biographies of Millet(1902), Beethoven (1903, 1928), Beethoven: Les Grandes époques créatrices (1930-49), Michelangelo (1906), Handel (1910), Tolstoy (1910), Gandhi (1924), Ramakrishna (1929), Vivekananda (1930), and Péguy (1945); Le Théȃtre du people (1903); Quinze ans de Combat (I Will Not Rest, 1935); autobiographical writings like Journal des années de Guerre 1914-1919 (1952), Le Voyage intérieur (1959), Voyage á Moscou (1992). Rolland’s correspondences have been regularly published in Cahiers Romain Rolland (Paris: Albin Michel; henceforth CRR) from 1948. One of the leading voices of Europe against nationalism and war, he is remembered for his anti-war appeal, Au-dessus de la Mêlée (1915). Nobel Prize for literature in 1915, delivered in 1916, ‘as a tribute to the lofty idealism of his literary production and to the sympathy and love of truth with which he has described different types of human beings’ (`The Nobel Prize in Literature 1915. Nobel Media AB 2014. Web. 27 June 2018. http://
4. The other two noteworthy interfaces of Tagore were with Mahatma Gandhi and Albert Einstein.
5. Isaiah Berlin (1909-1997): Russian-born British social and political philosopher and historian.
6. Quoted in Hobsbawm, Eric. The Age of Extremes 1914-1991. London: Abacus, 2012, 1.
7. This is Charles Freer Andrews’ (1871-1940) description of the world situation just before the encounter between Rolland and Tagore.Rolland and Tagore’, Liber Amicorum Romain Rolland, Zurich: Rotapfel Verlag, 1926, reprinted in Rolland and Tagore, Kolkata: Visva-Bharati, 1945, 10. Tagore dedicated his Nationalism (1917) to Andrews.
8. Tagore won the Nobel Prize in 1913, Rolland in 1915. There was no Nobel Prize in 1914 because of the World War.
9. Homi Bhabha, editor, Nation and Narration. London: Routledge, 1990.
10. Rodolphe Schlemmer (1878-1972) from Montreux was the German photographer who took the famous photographs of Tagore (26 July 1926 at Villa Lionnette, Villeneuve) and Gandhi (9 December 1931) with Romain Rolland. He learnt photography in Geneva and opened a workshop in Montreux in 1910.
11. Rolland’s sister Madeleine’s house in Villeneuve (Inde 1915-1973. Paris: Albin Michel, 1961, 127). The photos were taken on 26 June 1926 after 5 p.m.
12. Kalidas Nag (1891-1966): Bengali historian, professor of ancient Indian history and culture at University of Calcutta (1926-55) and general secretary of the Royal Asiatic Society of Bengal (1942-6). He researched under Sylvain Lévi for his DLitt at the Sorbonne on Kautilya’s Arthasastra. He met Romain Rolland in Paris on April 1922, and the latter found him ‘brilliant, full of vitality and fire’ (Inde 23). The Weltbürger (World-traveller, in Rolland’s words) soon became his ‘intellectual lieutenant’ and one of his closest confidants. It is Nag who helped Rolland to write the biography of Mahatma Gandhi (1924). His correspondence p (135 letters) with the Rolland is indispensable for an appraisal of the relationship between Rolland and Tagore. See, The Tower and the Sea: Romain Rolland-Kalidas Nag Correspondence 1922-1938, edited and French letters translated by Chinrnov Guha, 1996, New Delhi: Sahitya Akademi, 2010, 2016 henceforth cited as TS‘ . Nag collaborated with Pierre-Jean Jouve for the French translation of Tagore’s Balaka (Le Cygne 1923). Rolland wrote to Stefan Zweig on 11 July 1923: ‘He is one of the richest and most charming spirits in modern India: Professor of History at the University of Calcutta, he has a vast culture and an internal flame’ (RZC 348).
13. Robert Schumann (1810-1856): German composer of the Romantic era.’The Prophet-bird’: No. 7 from Forest Scenes, Op. 82.
14. TS 51.
15. 11 October 1916, Chithipatra, vol. 1 Kolkata: Visva-Bharati, 70.
16. Frantz Fanon. The Wretched of the Earth. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1967, 199.
17Inde 13.
18Inde 12.
19Inde 14.
20‘Des idées trés parentes des miennes’ (Inde 14).
21Inde 14.
22. Sabyasachi Bhattacharya. Rabindranath Tagore: An Interpretation. New Delhi: Penguin Viking, 2011, 278.
23. Sabyasachi Bhattacharya, Rabindranath Tagore 276.
24. Sabyasachi Bhattacharya, Rabindranath Tagore 276.
25. We reproduce Tagore’s famous letter of renouncement of knighthood to Lord Chelmsford, governor-general of India, on 30 May 1919 (courtesy: The English Writings of Rabindranath Tagore, vol. 3, edited by Sisir Kumar Das, New Delhi: Sahitya Akademi, 1996, 751-2) after General Dyer, governor of
Punjab, fired without warning on an unarmed crowd of mostly villagers, protesting against the infamous ‘Rowlatt Act’, killing in an official estimate 379 persons (unofficial accounts gave much higher figures): 
The enormity of the measures taken by the government in the Punjab for quelling some local disturbances has, with a rude shock, revealed to our minds the helplessness of our position as British subjects of India. The disproportionate severity of punishments inflicted upon the unfortunate people and the methods of carrying them out, we are convinced, are without parallel in the history of civilized governments, barring some Conspicuous exceptions, recent and remote. Considering that such treatment has been meted out to a population, disarmed and resourceless, by a power which has the most terribly efficient organization for destruction of human lives, we must strongly assert that it can claim no political expediency, far less moral justification. The accounts of the insults and sufferings undergone by our brothers in the Punjab have trickled through the gagged silence, reaching every corner of India, and the universal agony of indignation roused in the hearts of our people has been ignored by our rulers—possibly congratulating themselves for imparting what they imagine as salutary lessons. The ,:allousness has been praised by most of the Anglo-Saxon papers, which have in some case gone to the brutal length of making fun of our sufferings, without receiving the least check from the same authority, relentlessly careful in smothering every cry of pain and expression of judgment from the organs representing the sufferers. Knowing that our appeals have been in vain and that the passion of vengeance is blinding the noble vision of statesmanship in our Government which could so easily afford to be magnanimous, as befitting its physical strength and normal tradition, the very least that I can do for my country is to take all consequences upon myself in giving voice to the protest of the millions of my countrymen, surprised into a dumb anguish of terror.
The time has come when badges of honour make our shame glaring in the incongruous content of humiliation, and as for my part wish to stand, shorn, of all special distinctions, by the side of those of my countrymen who, for their so-called insignificance, are liable to suffer degradation not fix for human beings. And these are the reasons which have compelled me to ask Your Excellency, with due deference and regret, to relieve me of my title of knighthood which I had the honour to accept from His Majesty the King at the hands of your predecessor, for whose nobleness of heart I still entertain great admiration. 
Yours faithfully,
30 May 1919 

Chinmoy Guha is professor of English and former chair, University of Calcutta, former Vice-Chancellor of Rabindra Bharati University, Kolkata, and Director of Publications, Embassy of France in India, New Delhi. The French Government conferred on him the titles of Chevalier des Palmes Académiques (2010) and Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres (2013). He received the Vidyasagar Puroshkar from the West Bengal Government in 2017. His works include Where the Dreams Cross: T. S. Eliot and French Poetry, The Tower and the Sea: Romain Rolland-Kalidas Nag Correspondence 1922-1938 (Sahitya Akademi), Tagore at Home in the World (co-ed, Sage Publications). His best-known collections of essays in Bengali are: Chilekothhar Unmadini, Garho Shankher Khonje and Ghumer Darja Thele (Ananda Publishers and Signet Press).

These are excerpts from Bridging East and West: Rabindranath Tagore and Romain Rolland Correspondence (1919-1940), edited and annotated by Chinmoy Guha and published by Oxford University Press, 2019. Republished here with permission from the publisher.

Courtesy: Indian Cultural Forum



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