For almost half a century, it’s been there, this very rare picture of a stately Rabindranath Tagore, taken by the fascist dictator of Italy, Benito Mussolini. The black-and-white picture of the poet, humanist and Nobel laureate, eyes closed, immersed in thoughts, is among the rare collection left behind by the late G. Ramachandran, a disciple of both Tagore and Mahatma Gandhi who set up a trust to propagate humanist ideals. Ramachandran had also co-founded the Gandhigram Rural University at Dindigul, Tamil Nadu.
Taken when Tagore visited Mussolini in May-June 1926 at his office in Palazzo Chigi, Rome, the picture sheds light on the artistic side of Il Deuce, as the dictator was called. But it also hides a story of subterfuge. Mussolini, who had unleashed terror and brutal repression through his band of followers known as Blackshirts, grabbed at the opportunity of hosting Tagore, an internationally known humanist.
Mussolini often invited the foreign press, dignitaries and cultural delegations to publicise and demonstrate the positive successes of his regime and divert international attention away from the gory murders and torture in Italy. He wanted to extract political mileage from Tagore’s visit at a time when many intellectuals had fled Italy. He guessed Tagore would be loath to criticise him in Italy and perhaps by playing the perfect host he could win the poet laureate over.
Tagore visited Italy twice in his lifetime, once in 1925 and again a year later, in 1926, though he passed through the country several times before and during his visits to England. It was on his second visit to Italy that he met Mussolini twice. And out of touch with local realities, he ended up praising him.
This evoked a huge international furore against Tagore, an ardent defender of public liberty and free press. So, once out of Italy, Tagore felt compelled to explain his position. He eventually wrote a letter to Andrews, which Tagorephile Kalyan Kundu says “briefly describes the story of an imperfect encounter between two personalities whose ideologies and beliefs were worlds apart”.
The record of that encounter is left behind in the picture of Tagore, which the typewritten inscription below credits to Mussolini. It’s a quirk of fate that the picture should travel all the way and remain a historical relic in a non-descript village in Kerala. However, Sr Mythili, who devotes all her time to the trust, has a grievance: “You have forgotten Ramachandran, without whom this institution wouldn’t have come up. Through the picture, let us recall the story of a kindred soul that left this village, aged 14, to follow in the footsteps of Tagore and the Mahatma.”
I loved the article on Mussolini’s photograph of Tagore (Shuttered Poet, Dec 27).
Now that the whole world knows about it, we should be really worried about the safety of this invaluable piece; I hope it will not meet the same fate as Tagore's nobel medal
Thank you very much for an interesting story.
I wish this little known fact had remained confined to the trustees from a non-descript village of Kerala.
Tagore's photograph taken by Mussolini indeed would be a prized possession of international collectors. And the Outlook is now inviting attention of the thieves and vandals from all over India...
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