There are two poems I learned from my school and college days which continue to reverberate in my mind. The first one is ‘The Invictus’ by W.E. Henley and the second one is Tagore’s ‘Where the mind is without fear’. I don’t know whether the first poem was permanently etched in my young mind because of the charisma of Father Kenny and his brilliant rendition of the poem to his students at the St. Anthony’s college or because of the sheer beauty of the poem or both. Looking back at Tagore’s poem which I learned as a student in the Jowai Government Boys High School, I can’t remember the teacher who taught us the poem in the class, but one thing I know, I fell in love with the poem the first time I heard it.
The teachers began the lesson by telling us that the poem was taken from Tagore’s famous book the Gitanjali and that was about it. We were not told much about Tagore; it was only when I was growing up that I began to understand why the poem appealed to me so much. It is because Tagore is a liberal religionist apart from being a poet, an artist and many other things. Even before I embarked on my journey to the USA in the summer of 2009 which in some ways I consider to be a pilgrimage I had no inkling that it would connect me to Tagore. I knew Tagore had some connection with the Unitarians and for that matter since its inception the Brahmo Samaj and its founder Raja Ram Mohon Roy too was closely connected with the Unitarians in the west but it never crossed my mind that Tagore would have a very deep connection with one of the Unitarian Churches in the USA. In fact it was the Unitarian church of Urbana which literarily introduced Tagore to the USA if not to the entire western world.
The Unitarian Church in the University of Illinois in a little town of Urbana discovered the gem in Tagore much before the USA or the west did. Blair Kling the academic editor of the publication in the editor’s note of the booklet published by the Tagore centre which is housed in the Channing-Murray Foundation in the heart of the University of Illinois noted that the foundation along with the centre used to organizes an annual Tagore festival but in the year 1990 it decided to bring out a publication which will reflect on the multi-faceted talents of Rabindranath Tagore. It was the first essay in the booklet which has opened my eyes to the long lasting relation between Tagore and Urbana Unitarians. The first essay of the booklet is a piece written by Ingrid Kallick entitled ‘Tagore and the Urbana Unitarians 1906-1921’. Interestingly, Tagore came in contact with Urbana church not at his own initiative but he was introduced to the members of the church by his son Rathindranath and his fellow alumnae from Shantineketan, Santosh Majumdar. In the edge of time Tagore wrote that the duo arrived at San Francisco in the aftermath of the Great San Francisco earthquake. But Berkeley had no charm for the young Indians and they were suggested to try the University of Illinois in Urbana. Ingrid Kallick mentions in her article that Rathindranath and Santosh founded the University of Illinois branch of the Cosmopolitan club for international students and met groups of educators, students, their spouses and friends who would later become the Tagore Circle of Urbana.
The newly formed congregation of the Unitarian Church in Urbana gave birth to the Tagore Circle and the brand new congregation also had a young graduate Reverend Albert Vail fresh from the Harvard Divinity School to take charge as the new minister of the church in the year 1906. Before 1906 Urbana offered little support to students who were interested in exploring issues in a liberal setting. Even during those early years Vail’s reading in the church services included passages from the Koran, Buddhist Sutras, and Hindu text, as well as the writings of religious liberals of the day noted Spencer Lavan in his book, ‘Unitarians in India: a study in encounter and response’. Lavan also said that Vail personally invited Rathindra and Santosh to these sessions and the two were already familiar with Unitarian ideas through their association with the Brahmo Samaj in Calcutta. Mayce Fries Seymour in an article ‘That Golden Times, in the Visva-Bharati Quarterly, (Shantiniketan, summer of 1959) referred to the frequent meetings that the two had with the members of the church. The writings say ‘It was at Mrs. Forbes’ reception that we met Mrs. Kelly, another charter member of the church, where we held frequent gatherings in her home to discuss religious and philosophical matters. One day, when the conversation turned to India, the Tagore Circle was born.’ Seymour mentioned that it was Mrs. Florence Curtis, Professor of Library Science who turned to Rathindranath and Santosh with a question. "What writers of distinction do you have today in India, and what are they writing about?... Santosh gave a ready answer. ‘There are two groups of writers in India today; the one follows tradition, and employs only classical forms and idioms.
The second group makes use of a great variety of forms; they create new rhythm and one of their greatest offences in the opinion of the classicalist is that they believe in simple expression and use language of everyday speech. The leader of the second group is Rabindranath Tagore, the father of my friend here, and the greatest poet in India today.’ Seymour also added that because there were no translations of Tagore’s work in English at that time, Santosh volunteered to recite some of the poems in Bengali. He recited from Nadi: the River. This was Tagore’s introduction (in absentia) to the Unitarians of Urbana added Ingrid Kallick.
The people of Urbana had to wait another 6 years to meet Tagore when he along with Sathindranath, arrived in Urbana in November 1912. It was sometime in the first week that Tagore was in Urbana. Vail invited Tagore to speak in the church. It was on 9 November 1912 that Tagore gave the first reading of his work in the United States at the Unitarian Church at the University of Illinois, Urbana, noted Sujit Mukherjee in his writing Passage to America (Sadhana Press Calcutta 1964). The programme was introduced as "The Bible of the world: The Upanishads of India". Since then Tagore spoke on a regular basis at the Sunday evening meeting at the Church and at semi-private Tagore circle meetings. The Circle was instrumental in introducing Tagore to the wider group of admirers including the poet Harriet Moody notes Olivia Howard Dunbar. Then the list of Tagore’s admirers grew. Ezra Pound sent some of Tagore’s poems to Harriet Monroe. Although most histories list December 1912 Poetry Magazine as the first publication of Tagore’s work in the United States, it was actually the second. Mayce Fries Seymour had published two poems and a short biography of the poet in the University of Illinois magazine during the same week recorded Seymour. While he was in Chicago Tagore also associated himself with Unity magazine and the Abraham Lincoln Centre the two progressive Unitarian institutions in the area. It was Vail and his other Unitarian friends who encouraged Tagore to lecture and recite and it was none other than Sujit Mukherjee himself in his Passage to America who said that "…(the Unitarians) of Urbana had launched Tagore’s career as a public speaker in America and Tagore’s ideals were expounded at various centers of Unitarian following.
The people of Urbana still have a great respect for Tagore and during my visit to Urbana I also visited the Channing-Murray center which was named after the two Unitarian and Universalist stalwarts William Ellery Channing and John Murray. The two churches the Unitarian and the Universalist merged in the year 1961. The Unitarian church, from where Tagore gave his first public speech was converted to Channing-Murray Center which still houses the Tagore Centre while the services are now held at the then Universalist Church of Urbana. (The writer is a columnist and an Elder of the Unitarian church )