The Tagore-Mussolini episode

Published December 2, 2015
RABINDRANATH Tagore’s visit to Italy in 1926 at the invitation of fascist leader Benito Mussolini has been a subject of great interest to Tagore scholars and researchers.
RABINDRANATH Tagore’s visit to Italy in 1926 at the invitation of fascist leader Benito Mussolini has been a subject of great interest to Tagore scholars and researchers.

OF the many countries that Rabindranath Tagore visited in his lifetime, his sojourn in Italy for two weeks in 1925, and the controversial trip from May 30 to June 22, 1926 especially at the invitation of Benito Mussolini, have been a subject of great interest to Tagore scholars and researchers for mainly two reasons. Firstly, the ethics, ideologies, and beliefs of these two human beings were a world apart and hence the acceptance of an invitation from a tyrant dictator by a great humanist baffled the international community at that time.

Secondly, the high drama associated with the imperfect encounter aroused a great deal of media interest both within and outside Italy and also intrigued the scholars. The Tagore-Mussolini episode was largely debated in Indian, Italian, and the rest of the European media during the time of his tour and afterwards. Later of course, Tagore himself said, “Reports of fascist atrocities reached me from time to time and I had serious misgivings about coming back to Italy.”

Based on the information derived from different sources, Tagore scholars have summed up his visit to Italy in 1926 in the following way — Rabindranath Tagore’s Italian visit at the invitation of the government was the result of a heinous ploy by Mussolini, whose international image at that time was an all-time low, especially after the assassination of two prominent socialist leaders, Amanadola and Matteoti in 1924. Hence, it is said that the dictator wanted to divert the world’s attention by inviting Tagore to Italy, expecting that Tagore would praise his fascist government.

He dispatched two professors, Carlo Formichi and Guiseppe Tucci, to Santiniketan with a generous gift of books for Tagore’s university library to encourage and influence him to accept the Italian government’s invitation. Tagore, being unaware of Mussolini’s plan and being ignorant of Italian politics, accepted the invitation in good faith, as he had responded before to other governments’ invitations, and spent a fortnight in Italy as a guest of the Italian government. The Italian government gave a royal reception to Tagore and his entourage, and the poet was overwhelmed by Mussolini’s reception. His praise for Mussolini was reported in the Italian press with exuberance. As Tagore did not know the language, he did not realise that his speeches and interviews were distorted in favour of Mussolini and his regime.

Scholars believe that all this may have been carefully manipulated by the two professors, especially Formichi, to please their ‘Master’. The European press was baffled to read the poet’s euphoric praise for Mussolini and his authority. However, after leaving Italy, Tagore realised his mistake during his days as a guest of Romain Rolland (French novelist and playwright) and in the course of his meetings with some of the expatriates.

Finally, on Aug 5, 1926 Tagore wrote a long letter to Charles Freer Andrews (Christian missionary, educator and social reformer in India) explaining the context of his Italian tour and how he had been trapped by Italian reporters. In that letter published in The Manchester Guardian, Tagore wrote: “It is absurd to imagine that I could ever support a movement [fascism] which ruthlessly suppresses freedom of expression, enforces observances that are against individual conscience, and walks through a bloodstained path of violence and stealthy crime.” He also wrote to Rolland, “I have to pass through a purification ceremony for the defilement to which I submitted myself in Italy.”

Though this seems to end all speculation on the saga of Tagore’s Italian sojourn, some critics however still raise many questions. First and foremost is the question why Tagore accepted the Italian government’s invitation at all. Tagore rationalised with the explanation: he was entranced by the scenic beauty of Italy; he was eager to meet the great minds of Europe; and he had to redeem his pledge to his friends whom he promised a visit sooner or later.

But it is said that Rathindranath and Prashanta Mahalanobis (close friends of Tagore) did not approve of Tagore’s visit, knowing the nature of fascist Italy; they however, did not have the courage to say it to Tagore. When they found that he had made up his mind, they decided to travel with him and guard him against misinterpretation of his interviews. Nirmal Kumari Mahalonobis’s memoir of course narrates a breath-holding suspense story describing how Formichi manoeuvred and prevented Prashanta and her from joining Tagore on the boat and how they succeeded in eluding the watchful eyes of Formichi but a bit too late. At times the story of Tagore’s entire Italian visit sounds very striking and apparently plausible. At other times, like a whodunit many questions have remained unanswered and a meticulous analysis of the evidence still reveals discrepancies.

The main object of the book Meeting with Mussolini, Tagore’s tours in Italy, 1925 and 1926 by Kalyan Kundu is to resolve some of the discrepancies that have been circulating all these years. According to the research undertaken by the author, if we revisit Formichi’s account in India e Indiani with an open mind and take into account the evidence provided, which had been overlooked by previous scholars, and furthermore take this into consideration alongside the policy of the fascist regime, we have to rethink Formichi and Tucci’s action in a newer perspective.

Kundu uses Tagore’s tour itineraries, the nature of receptions, summaries of his lectures and comments, and finally his interviews to get a comprehensive idea as to what had actually taken place. Also by accessing the private archive of Clara Muzzarelli Formentini, the granddaughter of an Italian émigré Professor Guglielmo Salvadori, he has included the accounts of the meeting of Signora Salvadori and Tagore and some of their correspondence which were not referred to by earlier researchers. Salvadori’s version of the meeting with Tagore differs from the one that was published in The Manchester Guardian (Aug 7, 1926). In this context Kundu even analysed Tagore’s lecture in Milan in 1925 due to its controversial aspect. By getting many original documents in Italian translated into English for the first time, Kundu is able to reassess Tagore’s entire Italian tour of 1925 and 1926 in a new light.

There are references to Tagore’s Italian tours in the biographies of Krishna Dutta and Andrew Robinson, Krishna Kripalani, Prabhat Mukhopadhyay and many others, but none matches the details that this book provides. It is for this reason that we need to read this present volume which is not a mere travel narrative but a testament that tries to clear up some of the cobwebs of history.

The Statesman/India

Published in Dawn, December 2nd, 2015

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