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The wandering poet: Review of ‘Kobi & Rani: Memoirs and Correspondence of Nirmal Kumari Mahalanobis and Rabindranath Tagore’

Rabindranath Tagore with Einstein in Berlin, 1930.   | Photo Credit: The Hindu Archives

Poet, patriot, dramatist, painter, singer, composer, nationalist, internationalist and institution builder, Rabindranath Tagore remains an abiding subject of study even in the 21st century. Of all genres of writing related to Tagore, perhaps the most fascinating are the accounts of his travel across the world, written by him or by his friends and followers who accompanied him.

Kobi & Rani is one such. It brings forth fascinating aspects of Tagore’s personality and illuminates our understanding of his life and times. Nirmal Kumari (whom Tagore fondly called Rani) and her husband Prasanta Mahalanobis were well-known names in the Tagore circle. Prasanta Mahalanobis was the founder of the Indian Statistical Institute, Calcutta, and a close confidante of Tagore. We learn that Tagore “trusted Professor Mahalanobis deeply and frequently turned to him for everyday advice in the last two decades of his life”. About Rani, Tagore said about a month before his passing, “You are one of my last friends. I know that even if others go away, you will not leave me.”

Rani was the daughter of Heramba Chandra Maitra, eminent educationist, principal of City College and member of Brahmo Samaj. She was born in 1900 and married Prasanta Chandra in 1923. She became a part of Tagore’s household in due course. In 1936, Tagore dedicated his poem, Shyamali, to her.

This anthology comprises the English translation of two travel memoirs penned by Rani — Kobir Shonge Europey (With the Poet in Europe), which narrates their seven-month long trip to various countries of Europe in 1926, and Kobir Shongey Dakshinattey (With the Poet in the South), describing their journeys to South India and Ceylon (Sri Lanka) in 1928. It also includes the translation of Pathe O Pather Prante, a collection of 60 letters from Tagore to Rani.

Cover of the book

Cover of the book   | Photo Credit: Facebook

When it comes Tagore’s European travels, his visit to Italy clearly takes centre stage. In 1925, two Italian scholars, Carlo Formichi and Giuseppe Tucci, had met Tagore in Santiniketan with books gifted by Mussolini. Tucci stayed behind, worked at Vidya Bhavana, learnt Bengali and translated Tagore’s Lipika from Bengali to Italian. Naturally, Tagore made a return visit to Italy when he went on his Europe trip. He met Mussolini there, causing much controversy in the intellectual and artistic circles abroad and India.

We come to know from Rani that Tagore travelled first class in the ship named Orama. In a letter to Jibonmoy Roy, Prasanta Mahalanobis narrates his own experience on board the ship — they see sharks and other sea animals, and after an eventful voyage, arrive in Naples.

The poet is greeted warmly: Italians display his photograph proudly. In Rome, as the guest of Mussolini, they stay at the Grand Hotel, where “there was no dearth of comfort and luxury”, Rani notes. Formichi is “constantly guarding the poet… he kept a sharp eye at all times and was always alert about who came to visit Rabindranath. His aim was to see that no one against Mussolini should come near the poet.” He is “constantly trying to make the poet praise Mussolini and the Italian government.”

Formichi tampers with press statements issued by Tagore, creating consternation among his admirers in Italy. But these are minor glitches. They meet Romain Rolland at Villeneuve and get cheated at casinos and restaurants as they are thought to belong to the Indian aristocracy. After all, Lalu Karta, one of the members of the entourage, holds “an ivory walking stick in his hand that was wrapped in gold, a handle decorated with the face of a dog carved out of jade, with diamonds, pearls, emeralds and rubies embedded in it.” Rani’s flair for humour shines through in such details.

As the group continue on their journey through Europe, their understanding of art and music is enriched further. At the opera house in Vienna, Tagore tells the Austrian Indologist, Moris Winternitz, “I understand why your music is great. It is meant to be heard by ten or twenty thousand people. In our country songs are heard in a small room where only a few people — who are close by — sit and appreciate them.”

They meet Sigmund Freud, who inquires after his Indian admirer, Dr. Girindrasekhar Bose. Freud gifts the poet a leather-bound copy of one of his books.

In Germany they visit Berlin, Frankfurt, Dresden and Hamburg. In Berlin, Tagore chats with Einstein over tea. Rani describes Einstein as “an excellent person, quite handsome and with interesting looks. The best parts are his eyes, which can be called dreamy. He did not know English, but since his wife knew English quite well it was not difficult for him to converse with the poet.”

They are deeply impressed by Germans and their sense of discipline. A visit to a children’s nursery proves to be an eye-opener: they are struck by how well the children, especially those from lower social strata, are treated. All the while, Tagore continues to compose songs, setting them to tune with Rani’s help.

Among Tagore’s travels to South India, the most interesting account is of his meeting with the maharaja of Coonoor. Everything is in plenty here — cupboards full of soap, powder, candy, cologne, cream, cosmetics, chocolate, lozenges, biscuits, jam, jelly, mustard sauce, oatmeal, sugar cubes, tins of coffee and tea, soda, lemonade, syrup, even wine. There’s a hilarious description of a fight among C.F. Andrews, Rani and her husband over blankets.

In Pondicherry, Tagore is carried in a crane from the passenger liner to a boat, which takes him to the shore. His meeting with Sri Aurobindo goes on for an hour, with Tagore remarking on the “brilliance” of Aurobindo’s appearance.

In the last section of the volume containing Tagore’s letters to Rani, the animate and inanimate worlds come alive through Tagore’s extraordinary descriptions. The book is a treasure trove of memories which will appeal to students, historians, and travelogue enthusiasts alike. Different cultures and a different time return to life in these memoirs and letters.

Kobi & Rani: Memoirs and Correspondence of Nirmal Kumari Mahalanobis and Rabindranath Tagore; Translated and edited by Somdatta Mandal, Birjatio Sahitya Sammiloni, ₹900

The reviewer is former Professor and Head of Department of English, University of Hyderabad.

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Printable version | Mar 2, 2021 9:08:38 AM |

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