Would you travel with Rabindranath Tagore?

Yes, I am a traveller,
Nothing can hold me back,
False are the bindings of pleasure and pain,
The homely ties are left far behind.

Rabindranath Tagore was perhaps the most travelled man of his time. Which is a statement in itself, as in those days there were not many celebrities or politicians of such international stature who had travelled so extensively within their own countries let alone around the world. In his eighty years, bar Australia, Tagore travelled all five continents and visited a total of 34 countries (some on more than one occasion). He did receive an invitation from the University of Sydney in 1918, but declined due to what he deemed the unacceptable treatment of migrants and settlers from both India and around the world. He was not keen on Australia’s immigration laws back then either. Later he was invited on more than one occasion, but turned them all down, after he realised that a section of the Australian community did not appreciate his renunciation of his Knighthood. For the same reason he had no intention to visit Canada, though eventually he accepted an invitation to travel there in 1929.

However, wherever he went, whatever time of year, the man himself was no easy-going passenger! He was indeed all over the place when he went all over the place!

No small entourage

Whether India or abroad, Tagore hardly ever travelled alone. He usually travelled with relatives, friends or students – taking full responsibility for his entourage in the manner of a feudal head. He also had his own servants who acted as cooks travelling with him. His hosts, both in India and abroad, were aware of this and when inviting Tagore for a visit, had to include such expenses for his entourage within their budget.

His dress code was unconventional. While travelling within India he used to wear a dhooti, chadar (shawl) and punjabi. However, his usual attire abroad consisted of colourful long silk robes over a kurta and specially designed headgear on his head. Only once was he outraged when his wardrobe was in disarray during a trip to the USA in 1916. There he was forced to give a lecture in a silk shirt and tweed pair of trousers. “I am like a show lion in a circus now!” was his immediate reaction in a letter he wrote to Harriet Monroe; “however, I shall try to look cheerful and go on dancing to the tune of your American dollars.”

His robes had deep pockets, but he barely carried anything in them, no wallet and hardly any cash. All expenses during his tours were managed by his secretary or his son, who would sometimes take this mantle. Once in London when he was returning alone from Epstein’s studio to his hotel at Kensington Palace Mansions by taxi, it occurred to him that he had no money and was facing an embarrassing situation. Fortunately one of his students, waiting outside the mansion, understood the situation and rescued him. It’s probably important to note that there were a lot of ‘potentially embarrassing’ situations in many of his travels.

Tagore travelled in first class or second class when using rail. But as he became a world-renowned figure the Department of Railways in India often provided him with extra comforts for his journey. This level of care was more prevalent when he travelled in Western countries, with many providing both him and his entourage the most comfortable modes of transport, the best hotels and first class private accommodation.

The Italian, Hungarian and Romanian governments arranged for a special saloon to be attached to the train. The (then) Czechoslovakian government once placed an airplane at Tagore’s disposal to travel more swiftly between countries. However due to the weather, he never used it and in fact his first flying experience was actually from London (Croydon) to Paris on 16 April 1921 in a small twelve-seater plane.

Eleven years later, at the age of 71, he was flown from Calcutta to Persia in a special plane provided by Dutch airline KLM, the ultimate extravagance.

That’s quite a lot of baggage Babu…

As he travelled with a company of people and often for a longer duration, the quantity of accompanying luggage was exceedingly large. Bags, suitcases, holdalls, portmanteau – all were exceeding in numbers. In places where he spent more time, such as visiting his estates in East Bengal, his servants used to carry all kinds of food and commodities, most of which were not available within that particular village. A Tagore biographer cited one such example of his style of travel and the luggage that he used on his way to Shilaidaha. A family account book, recorded on 7 December 1907, revealed a list of items which Tagore travelled with – basmati rice, mung dal, peanuts, sultanas, bananas, oranges, guavas, apples, oatmeal, Quaker oats, toast, gloy, vapolin, molin soap, hazlin cream and even toothpowder. On top of this, he used to carry his note-books, diaries, writing equipment and what seemed to be a miniature library of books. His choice of books was also diverse. He once explained in a letter:

When I go to Mofussil (to visit his estates) I have to carry books with me. It is not that I read all of those but you never know which I might need and when. It is difficult to assume beforehand. Therefore I keep most of my books ready to hand and it’s why I carry a copy of Nepalese Buddhistic (Buddhist) Literature at the same time as the complete works of Shakespeare!”  

But there was more, while visiting his estates he would carry his box of homeopathic and general medicines, not only for himself, but for his whole entourage and anyone he thought would need it. He was a great believer in homoeopathy and always claimed himself to be a good homoeopath. If I would charge fees I could have a roaring practice he often remarked wittily.

But it wasn’t just his own food he carried with him. Tagore entertained a lot of guests at his properties in Shilaidaha and Potisar, including local Divisional Magistrates, Deputies, Sub-deputies and other British officers and friends who frequented his homes. He regularly carried with him from Calcutta a good stock of tinned fish, sausages, champagne, claret and even whisky, just for his guests.

While travelling abroad he was often away from home for several months or a year and as a result carried a similar amount of luggage with him. In later years when he was engaged in painting he had to carry his paintings and tool box with him which was even more challenging. During his Italian tour in 1925 he and his entourage checked into the hotel of Venice with 26 suitcases. Almost a similar record is available on 26 October 1926 when Tagore and his party checked in the Hotel Gellért in Hungary with twenty-four pieces of hand luggage and four large suitcases. In Stockholm the Trans Continental Express, for the first time in its history, had to be detained 10 minutes for the boarding of Tagore and his company.

Rabindranath Tagore on a visit to London.

A ‘Tagore’ section at Lost Property offices?

It was tiresome keeping track of all the luggage when Tagore was travelling from one destination to another in quick succession! Inevitably one or two bags would be misplaced or get lost. The story of how he lost his briefcase containing the notebook of translations of Gitanjali on the first day of his arrival in London in 1912 has practically gone down in folklore, but fortunately the briefcase was found the next day in the lost property office. In France he lost two suitcases full of his clothes when he travelled from Paris to Cape Martin (southern France). On reaching his destination he realised this and there was no option but to return to Paris the following day to buy new clothes.

There were several instances of losing keys to suitcases or even his wallet when he was carrying one. Returning from London in 1890, he reached his hotel in Bombay only to realise he had left his return rail ticket and wallet on the steamer. Fortunately, he found them, but then left one under a pillow in the hotel. More comically, in Portland, Oregon 1916 he had accidentally tipped his set of teeth down the lavatory basin where he carefully placed them the night before. Lucky for him, a Japanese dentist came to the rescue and made another set which actually turned out better.

On his return from Europe from his 1926 tour, he wrote from the steamship to Rani Mahalanobis, four days before landing in Colombo:

“Only four days left, including today, to end our voyage, reaching Colombo on 16th (1926) morning. There will be no immediate peace after reaching land. There will be a long train journey awaiting in several sections. On top of that, in the word of Puppe, malpatras (baggage) are huge in number, each one’s size and volume increased a lot and the containers are looking miserable. There are some boxes divorced from their keys for ever since the beginning of the journey. There is no other ways to organize them without tying ropes around. Some boxes have signs of assault on their bodies. Others look like overeaten patients with enlarged tummies waiting for couple of burps to bring them comfort. But Rathi is very much concerned about these boxes, caring for them as though looking after wounded soldiers lying in the hospital in the war zone.”

In February 1929 while he was travelling to Bombay to board a steamer bound for Canada, he realised that the entire set of keys to his luggage had been left in Calcutta. The following day Sudhakata Roychoudhuri, one of his secretaries travelled all the way from Calcutta to Bombay to hand over the keys. Such incidents were common for this Nobel Prize winning Poet!

“Babu Always Changes His Mind”

It was also quite common for Tagore to change his travel plans at the last minute, and this happened on a number of occasions and for the smallest reasons. Once he was going to Darjeeling from Calcutta (10 May 1917) with five people and three servants; the reservation was already made and a villa had also been booked for a month. But he changed his mind before boarding the train and stayed behind while the rest of his family (and his clothes) proceeded to Darjeeling.

On another occasion his family made arrangements to go to Tindharia (28 May 1918). Servants with luggage left the day before, but on the day of the journey the sky was overcast with the possibility of rain. His son wrote in his diary;

Whether it was on this account or not we do not know, father suddenly changed his mind, decided not to go to Tindharia and then immediately afterwards went off to Bolpur.

In August 1920 he planned to go to Norway from England and even bought tickets but eventually cancelled the trip. This cancellation is amusingly laid out in Rabindranath’s memoir;

“I went to Thomas Cook to buy our tickets (for Norway) for the boat. I was a familiar figure with the passage department and the clerk who had got used to our ways, when handing over the tickets, warned me with a smile, ‘No refund this time!’ The programme ultimately changed and I went to Cook’s office again for the refund from the same clerk, without any other loss, save that of what little reputation was still standing to his credit as a reliable customer in that office.”  

In May 1928 when he was sailing from Madras down to Colombo via Pondicherry by steamer he suddenly decided to visit Sri Aurabindo and his property there. The steamer failed to dock at the jetty at Pondicherry and after installing a makeshift rope-way, with the aid of a crane, pulley and a large empty barrel, the poet was carried ashore.

In his vast literary repertoire, there are surprisingly few references to his grandfather; however, whenever he changed his journey itinerary he would quote his grandfather, saying “Babu always changes his mind!”

Kalyan Kundu
Co-founder of The Tagore Centre UK
The above excerpts is taken from the author’s forthcoming publication Rabindranath Tagore -A Wayfaring Poet

Rabindranath Tagore the Myriad Minded Man by Krishna Dutta and Andrew Robinson;
Rabijibani Volume 5-7 by Prasanta Paul.