In the late summer of 1941, a few weeks after the death of Rabindranath Tagore, his friend Leonard Elmhirst received a packet from Santiniketan. Besides other memorabilia, it contained a lock of Tagores beard.
The carefully preserved lock is part of the precious Tagore archives at the Dartington Hall Estates in Devon. The archive contains letters, photographs, pamphlets, printed records, the poets cape and a collection of his caps. It also includes 14 paintings of Tagore, which he had personally gifted to Elmhirst, after they were displayed at an exhibition at the Calmann Gallery in London in 1939. For Bengalis and Tagore fans, the 14th century buildings of Dartington Hall and its extensive gardens have always been a part of Devon that is forever Bengal.
Little wonder that the news early this week, that the Dartington Hall Trust was auctioning 12 of Tagores paintings at Sothebys, caused a flutter. The trust announced that the funds raised would go towards the centres £15m ambitious new plans to expand its programmes in the arts, social justice and sustainability. We are rationalising our collection, Vaughan Lindsay, chief executive officer of the Dartington Hall Trust told The Telegraph. We dont have the space to exhibit these beautiful works and have to let them go. The proceeds from the sale will be an integral part of our expansion plans.
The reactions came fast and furious. Tagore scholars based in Britain fired the first salvo, quickly joined by such luminaries as Rajat Kanta Ray, vice-chancellor of Visva Bharati, students, academics and researchers from Bengal. Earlier this week, West Bengal chief minister Buddhadev Bhattacharjee wrote to the Prime Minister, requesting him take steps to bring the 12 paintings back to India. The fear is that this national treasure gifted by Tagore to his friend is likely to disappear into the hands of private collectors. There is a feeling that Tagore, the man who had inspired the foundation of Dartingon Hall itself, was being forgotten by the famous institution.
Leonard Elmhirst, the son of a rural parson from a land-owning family in Yorkshire, first met Tagore in 1919 at Cornell University where the former had gone to study modern farming techniques. The meeting would change Elmhirsts life. Tagore by then had won the Nobel Prize for literature and was also well known as a keen social reformer. The young Elmhirst was immediately drawn to him.
After graduating from Cornell in 1921, Elmhirst went to India to work as Tagores secretary. He travelled the world with him and created the Institute of Rural Reconstruction, Sriniketan, in Tagores estates near Santiniketan in Bengal.
| ENDURING BOND: Tagore with Elmhirst at Dartington Hall
Influenced by Tagores vision, Leonard Elmhirst and his American wife, Dorothy, bought the property in Dartington to set up a centre of experimental study modelled on Santiniketan. Tucked away in the scenic town of Totnes in Devon, a few miles from the beaches of Devon and the haunting beauty of the moors and rock formations at Dartmoor, Dartington would be the base for their educational, social and rural experiment. Dartington Hall School soon became one of the most radical schools in the world and artists and musicians were drawn to it. Much like Santiniketan, classes were often held outdoors. Even the soil was red, as it is in Santiniketan.
Tagore himself visited Dartington Hall twice, in 1926 and 1930. Until a decade ago, the room in which he stayed was preserved as it was. The ink stain in the carpet, where Tagore had dropped his ink pot, was left as it was.
That room was absorbed by the college and is no longer there, says Dr Kalyan Kundu, president of the Tagore Centre, UK, who feels that the auction next month will see yet another Tagore legacy being removed from Dartington. It is very sad that they are doing this. The paintings were an integral part of the collection. Now they could end up with a private collector who will sell them again for profit in a few years.
Dartington Hall had been the focus of controversy in the early 1990s when they had shut down the Indian music classes in the college. Music being such a vital part of Tagores life, there was a feeling that the principles of the founding fathers were being lost under the pressure of cost cutting and excessive streamlining.
One by one, Elmhirsts dreams are being cut back, says Amalendu Biswas, whose son —the musician Ansuman Biswas — studied in Dartington College, and is today a well-known musician and performing artiste.
The authorities at Dartington vehemently deny that Tagore has been forgotten at the institute. From the leafy surrounds of the Schumacher College, part of the Dartington Hall Trust, Satish Kumar, founder of the college, says that it is, in fact, quite the contrary.
We are celebrating Tagores 150th birth anniversary here in Dartington next year with a major festival, says Kumar, who is the creative director of the Dartington Tagore project. There will be a week-long festival here from May 1-7, 2011, with music, drama, poetry, philosophy and current affairs. This place was Tagores idea, we are not forgetting him.
With regard to the paintings, Kumar says that it would actually give a chance to the public to see them if they were sold and acquired by a museum. Here they were stored away in boxes. It was a waste.
Housed in the archives in Dartington are documents sought after by Tagore researchers worldwide. They include Tagores illustrated letters where he discusses Indian and international politics, art, spirituality and religion. There are also letters and papers written while Tagore and Elmhirst travelled in China, Italy and South America, including the records of Tagores meetings with Mussolini and the many letters to and from Victoria Ocampo, the Argentinian writer and intellectual and long-term friend of Tagore.
Elmhirst was a fastidious collector and preserved everything, says Heather MacIntyre, head of collections at Dartington Hall. As Tagores travelling companion in the early 1920s he was in a position to keep detailed records.
We are hoping to have a small exhibition of his memorabilia, letters and papers from our archives during the Tagore festival, says MacIntyre. We have also got the assurance from Sothebys that the paintings will be given on loan during the festival by whoever purchases it at the auction.
Meanwhile, Sothebys is hugely excited at acquiring the paintings for sale. This is a very, very strong body of work, says Holly Brackenbury, deputy director in Indian art at Sothebys. They are museum quality paintings. Tagores paintings are a continuation of his writing and philosophy and channelled his energy. He played a very important part in the early modern movement and had a huge influence on future artists.
The collections include Untitled (Portrait of a Woman), a familiar image from many Tagore paintings and widely believed to be that of his sister-in-law, Kadambari Devi, and Untitled (Lady with a Fan), which is believed to be that of Lady Ranu Mukherjee, the socialite. Both women have been romantically linked to Tagore.
Given the impeccable provenance of the paintings, they make a fantastic collection, says Brackenbury. The 12 paintings are on sale at an estimated price of £250,000.
Meanwhile, two paintings by Tagore from the original collection will remain hanging on the walls of Dartington Hall — testimony to a friendship across the seas between Elmhirst and Tagore and its enduring legacy.