Vice-President at Kalakshetra. Muse to Sri Aurobindo. Friend of Tagore. And yet, James Cousins lies forgotten today.
There are at least four reasons why the birth anniversary of a forgotten figure called James Cousins merits public attention: his view of art and literature, his notion of politics, his concept of friendship, and his vision of spirituality. Each of these intersects with the larger Indian imaginaries, and each was India-centric in approach.
Yet, Irish poet and critic James Cousins (1873-1956) was no insular nativist or xenophobic nationalist. Cosmopolitan of the higher order, he and his spouse Margaret Cousins (1872-1954) belong to the company of those who constituted what post-colonial critic Leela Gandhi calls transnational ‘affective communities’: Rabindranath Tagore, M.K.Gandhi, Mirra Alfassa, Sri Aurobindo, C.F Andrews, Okakura, Paul Richard and Annie Besant.
Born at Belfast, Northern Ireland to a Protestant family, James Cousins was an active member of the Irish Revivalist Movement and was a close companion of W.B. Yeats, George Russell (AE), and James Joyce. Close to Dublin’s Abbey Theatre, Cousins was an avid actor and produced well received plays such as a ‘The Sleep of the King’. Drawn to occultism and Indian spirituality, he was influenced by Madame Blavatsky, and was one of the members of the Dublin Theological Lodge in 1886. He developed differences with Yeats, according to one account, over Yeats’s lover Maud Gonne and parted from him.
At the invitation of the eminent Indian nationalist and theosophist Annie Besant (1847-1933), James and Margaret Cousins travelled to India in November 1915. Margaret herself was a leading advocate of women’s franchise; a noted writer and singer. Her 1907 book Votes for Women remains an important milestone in the history of women’s suffragette movement.
At Adyar, Madras, Cousins served as a sub-editor in Annie Besant’s journal, The New India. He wrote extensively on philosophy, art, music and education. He became a Lecturer in English in 1916 at the Theosophical College at Madanapalle, and later, in 1918, the Principal of the same college set-up by Annie Besant. In due course, he became the Director in the School of Synthetic Studies at Adyar.
Cousins’ interest in Indian art in the earlier decade of 20th century brought him closer to the members and advocates of the Bengal School of Art, These included R.N. Tagore, O.C. Ganguly, Sir John Woodroffe and others. Travelling widely across the country, Cousins taught the importance of what Sri Aurobindo called ‘the National Value of Art’. He deserves to be recognized justifiably as one of the pioneers of the art movement of modern India. He was invited to join the Government of Travancore as the Art Advisor, a post he served ably till 1947. The first Indian art gallery at Sri Chitralayam was opened in September, 1938 by him.
Cousins’ contribution to national education was acclaimed by the South India Teachers’ Union in December, 1934. He served the Academy of Arts at Kalakshetra as the Vice-President, with Rukmini Devi as the Director. Cousins wrote: ‘A national culture is impossible without the individual creative artist … the true artist is the true patriot speaking the language of eternity but in the vernacular of his own time and space… Art that embodies the creative impulse of universe with high vision and deep emotion in its own time and place and way, will by the force of its authenticity, pass beyond its limits to universal appreciation’.
Cousins’ views on art, literature and spirituality drew him closer to Tagore and Sri Aurobindo. The latter was an admirer of Ireland throughout his life. Young Aurobindo wrote poems like ‘Charles Parnell’ and ‘Lines on Ireland’ (1896) and saw the continued relevance of the Irish experience for India in political cultural and spiritual terms. This affinity was also manifest in influential sections of militant nationalism in India including in Surya Sen’s Indian Republican Army.
The affinity between Cousins and Sri Aurobindo are seen in the book they wrote on the same subject and on the same title, namely The Renaissance in India. (Cousins:1918),(Sri Aurobindo:1920) In The Foundations of Indian Culture, Sri Aurobindo pays a rich tribute to the aesthetic and critical acumen of Cousins, who shared the same synthetic approach to philosophy, art and culture as he did.Cousins’ significant critical work, New Ways in English Literature (1917) inspired Sri Aurobindo to write the essays in the journal Arya from 1917-1920, later published as The Future Poetry in 1953.
The poets Cousins commended in New Ways such as Tagore, Meredith, Carpenter, and Stephen Phillips are precisely the same ones Sri Aurobindo celebrated in The Future Poetry. Both believed that the new age of human evolution, based on a higher consciousness, would usher in the aesthetic form and poetic idiom that Sri Aurobindo calls the Mantra in The Future Poetry. He wrote approvingly of Cousins: ‘I stand Cortez like on the peak of the large impression created for me by Cousins’ book,’ and added that, in Cousins’ writings we see, ‘literary criticism which is of the first order, at once discerning and suggestive which forces us to both to see and think’. ‘The possibility’ he added. ‘is the discovery of the closer approximation to what we may call the Mantra in poetry’.
Equally impressed by Sri Aurobindo’s poetic excellence, Cousin’s wrote: For a companion to Mr. Ghose’s double-sightedness, the glimpsing simultaneously of norm and form, we have to pass behind the confines of Europe and listen to the spiritual songs of AE. The Irish poet has not the patience and expansiveness of his Aryan brother, but in heart and vision they are kindred. (New Ways in English Literature, Madras: Ganesh and Company, 1970, p.28)
Cousins’ friendship with Tagore is equally noteworthy. The former travelled to Santiniketan on 30 April 1919 to pay homage to Tagore’s world vision. His review of Tagore’s The Creative Unity was published in The Modern Review in July, 1922. Travelling to Japan, he served as a Visiting Professor for one year in the Keijuku University of Tokyo. In Japan, he came in close contact with several key Pan-Asian figures of the times such as Nuguchi, Tamikoume, Okakura, Paul and Mirra Richards. He founded the Tokyo Lodge that attracted the Buddhists and theosophists alike.
Invited by the Cousins, the poet of Bolpur journeyed to Madanapalle in south India. Eager but unsure of his plans, given his unfamiliarity with southern culture, Tagore wrote an extraordinary letter full of humor:
Dear Mr. Cousins,
Certainly I shall never fail to see you at Madanapalle. But my heart quakes to imagine what is awaiting me at your presidency and I hope I shall be able to keep up my courage up to the last moment and take the final desperate step towards the south. Death’s door is called the southern door in Bengali, and I hope it won’t claim me as a duly consecrated victim sacrificed to the myriad-tongued divinity of the public meeting. However, it will not be possible for me to be present at your art exhibition and I shall not be free to move before the last week of January. But should I not warn you not to put to implicit faith upon my promise? Chanakya advises never to trust women and kings, but I think the poet should top the list of all unreliables!
Very sincerely yours,
(Original MSS at Rabindra Bhavan, Santiniketan)
In the event, Tagore reached Madanapalle in February 1919 and stayed there for about a week, hosted by the Cousins.
Enjoying the salubrious atmosphere of the college and the immediate ambience, Tagore translated Jana Gana Mana into English which he termed ‘The Morning Song of India’, and Margaret Cousins with her considerable experience in music and singing, gave tune to it. Recalling the memorable moment, Cousins wrote vividly:
In a voice surprisingly light of so large a man, he sang something like a piece of geography giving a list of countries, mountain and rivers; and in the second verse a list of religions in India. The refrain to the first verse made us pick up our ears. The refrain to the second verse made us clear our throats. We asked for it again and again, and before long we were singing with gusto; Jaya hai, Jaya hai, Jaya hai, Jaya Jaya Jaya Jaya, hai (victory, victory, victory thee).
The importance of the event left a lasting impression upon the Cousins. Later, he recollected in his autobiography:
It made literary history and carried the name and thought of Tagore into the minds and hearts of billions of young in schools and colleges and outside them and ultimately gave humanity a nearest approach to an ideal national anthem. It happened, as so many great events of the spirit do, without anticipation and without collusion.
Tagore left on March 2, 1919 and described the Madanapalle College as the Santiniketan of the South.
James Cousins left behind a long list of titles in the varied areas and disciplines he excelled in. Mention may be made here of a few of them: The Quest (1906), The Wisdom of the West (1912), The Renaissance in India (1918), The Cultural Unity of Asia (1922), Above the Rainbow and other poems (1926), Collected Poems (1940), among others.
Despite the many-sided achievements of James and Margaret Cousins in India, they are sadly forgotten figures today. Barring stray critical works of scholars like D.K. Chatterjee’s James Henry Cousins: ‘A Study of His Works in the Light of Theosophical Movement in India and the West, Sharada Publishing House, 1994, fairly comprehensive, and C.N. Mangala’s, James Cousins: A Study, B.R. Publishers, 1995, there seems to be little scholarship on Cousins.
This is both sad and puzzling: A literary critic and historian par excellence, Cousins introduced the term ‘Indo-Anglian’, perhaps for the first time, in the critical idiom of the subject in his book, New Ways in English Literature.1917. Similarly, his contribution in the field of art history and art criticism are equally impressive, just as his understanding and appreciation of Indian mysticism and spirituality in the cross-cultural context, remains unparalleled.
Above all, Cousins would be known for the deep and abiding friendship he cherished across cultural, ideological and political barriers. The institutions that Cousins served and the founders of movements: Tagore, Gandhi, Sri Aurobindo and Annie Besant, with whom he shared deep affinities, are today gone. But the legacy of liberal thinking beyond the East-West boundaries that James Cousins deeply believed in and promoted would serve the contemporary world well.