“Alex Aronson’s Centenary Birthday” (Lecture)

Lecture at Lipika, Visva-Bharati, Santiniketan

on 20 December 2012

Alex Aronson’s Centenary Birthday

by Martin Kämpchen

With Alex Aronson we today celebrate a person who in the West has been one of the last strong links between Rabindranath Tagore and our time. Alex Aronson lived at Santiniketan during the final years of Rabindranath’s life. On 30 October of this year was his birth centenary. He died a mere 17 years ago, in December 1995. From his adopted home country Israel he actively participated in the dissemination of Tagore’s educational ideas and shared his memories of Santiniketan in an autobiography published from Kolkata.

Alex Aronson was born in Breslau, then a part of Germany, on 30 October 1912. A German Jew, he found refuge from the Holocaust raging in Europe by opting to leave and settle in Santiniketan. He studied in the south of France and then at Cambridge, UK. He wrote to Rabindranath Tagore from London, explaining his situation and a few weeks later, Tagore sent an invitation suggesting that he get in touch with Amiya Chakravarty and C. F. Andrews, who stayed in London at the time. This is how Aronson was able to travel to Santiniketan, where he stayed from November 1937 to 1944, that is, until three years after the poet’s death. He taught English and, most importantly, established the huge archive of news clippings on Rabindranath’s European trips at Rabindra-Bhavan, Santiniketan.

Santiniketan provided Aronson a “shelter from chaos and disintegration”, as he would later write, from the political and social turmoil of Europe which was embroiled in the Second World War, as well as of India. It created for Aronson the ideal setting for concentrated and creative work as a teacher, researcher and academic writer. The “unreality” of life in Santiniketan made him sometimes almost forget the hardships that his people had to bear in Europe. He launched into his teaching, preparing his students for the B.A. examinations of Calcutta University. They affectionately called him “Aron-da”.

However, the discrepancy between his relative comfort at Santiniketan and the brutality and insanity of the World War had, for Aronson, been a cause for anguish and self-doubt until his last years. In his letters and in his autobiography, he never tired of expressing his gratitude to the Santiniketan community for the warmth and affection he received. In one of his early letters to me, Aronson wrote emphatically, “The hospitality I received there goes beyond all praise. It is something I shall never forget and for which I shall be forever grateful.”

In another letter to me, Aronson mixes appreciation and gratitude with a certain modicum of criticism of ashram affairs; he wrote,

“[...] during my stay at Santiniketan I was a very private person, not exactly secluded but keeping to myself a great deal, and as I say in one of my poems ‘kept my fervour to the very few’. Though I easily and readily took to Indian ways of life (dress, food, simple living etc.). I never learnt Bengali [...] and found those who surrounded Tagore in his old age not always fit company.  I wonder whether I can make myself clear – the asrama (as it was then called) was administered by people who had a sort of vested interest in Tagore and unconsciously resented anyone (especially non-Bengali) who wished to join them. In addition I was doubly a stranger, a refugee from Nazi-Germany, one who was neither British nor Indian and whom they found difficult to ‘place’. All this does not mean that they were not good to me – they were, indeed, as hospitable as could be, and I left behind many dear friends.” (Letter 30 April 1990)

Aronson showed his appreciation and gratitude by becoming one of the most prolific writers to emerge from Santiniketan at that time. He read voraciously, tried to understand the Eastern mind by studying Indian philosophy and art, he played the piano and enjoyed listening to music with Satyajit Ray, then an art student, whom he befriended. He began to write book reviews and articles for Santiniketan’s official journals, the Visva-Bharati Quarterly and Visva-Bharati News.

Yet, Aronson remained European in mentality. In a letter to me he explained why he opted not to learn Bengali:

“When I arrived at Santiniketan I was of course asked to learn Bengali. But at that time my English still needed much improvement and I felt that as a lecturer in the College I had much to learn which for lack of time I had not learned at Cambridge, so instead of studying Bengali I studied English and read the many books I hadn’t read before. By the time I was ready to learn Bengali it was too late; I had become a fairly good teacher (so at least I was told) and communicated with everyone in English. But of course all this is no excuse.” (Letter 10 February 1990)

In the first volume of his autobiography Brief Chronicles of the Time (Writers Workshop, Kolkata 1990), Aronson wrote that he felt his future was more with English literature and “in the company of Shakespeare and Mozart” – not “in what appeared to me the chaotic East with its intellectual muddle, its contradictory mythologies… its alien and many-headed gods and luscious goddesses”.

On Tagore, Aronson wrote,

“I recall how deeply impressed I was by his voice, his physical appearance, the utter simplicity of his arguments which were less literary than human. I listened without interrupting him. I was, naturally, much too intimidated to contradict or to argue. That first interview lasted half an hour. By the time I left his room, darkness had fallen. I was as if intoxicated by the warmth of his voice, the shape of his hands, the sensuous perfection of his face.” (Brief Chronicles)

When Rathindranath Tagore asked him to put some order into the vast amount of newspaper clippings that had been collected during his foreign tours, and into the many files of correspondence, Aronson realised that here was a virgin field for some original research. During the course of many months of hard, single-minded work, he classified these newspaper articles and letters and thus laid the basis for the present archive at Rabindra-Bhavan. Delighted with this “wealth of information”, he wrote a book on the Western responses to Tagore based on these newspaper clippings.

*

Alex Aronson’s Rabindranath through Western Eyes (Kitabistan, Allahabad 1943) became an iconic book that is mentioned and quoted till today. It is important because perhaps for the first time Tagore’s impact outside India, that is, his international side of which India is rightly so proud, was seen in a totally unromantic, unsentimental, critically sober manner. Aronson viewed the poet’s noble message against the backdrop of the post-First World War scenario, the political forces of Fascism and Communism. In a way, it was also the first time a modern approach to literary history was being applied to Tagore. The author drew in social and political factors that influenced the popular reaction to Tagore. So soon after the poet’s death, the “establishment” of Santiniketan was clearly not prepared for this. It reckoned that Aronson was out to criticise Tagore.

Amiya Chakravarty did contribute the Preface to the book, but while a preface is normally meant to win sympathy for the book and projects its merits, Amiya Chakravarty attacked Aronson’s book to such an extent that towards the end, he had to give a twist to his text; he wrote, “The introductory criticisms, paradoxically enough, must be accepted as evidence of this writer’s appreciation of Dr Aronson’s book.” – This is paradoxical indeed and illustrates Amiya Chakravarty’s dilemma.

In a long and stinging review in Visva-Bharati’s home journal, the Visva-Bharati Quarterly, Amal Home rejected Rabindranath through Western Eyes outright. I quote, “Who could ever believe that the West’s appraisal of the Poet has been affected by international political rivalries?” He adds with downright cynicism, “[Aronson] has only served us with an amazing and otherwise entertaining anthology of fatuous gossips and speculations…” (November 1943)

Well, research in India and in Europe over the last few decades has long established and analysed the link between Tagore’s literary impact and the socio-political situation of the time.

Kalidas Nag, himself a student and co- traveler of the Poet, however, was balanced and farsighted. He wrote,

“[Aronson] was the first to demonstrate the value of current periodicals in Tagore criticism”, something others sneered at, thinking that only the sophisticated pronouncements of literary critics and literati should be considered. And Nag concluded warmly, “We gladly recommend his thoughtful book to all…” (Modern Review, May 1943).

If Aronson felt hurt, he never showed it. In a letter to me, he explained,

“[The book] I wanted to write [was] not about Tagore […] but about the West: its reaction to a great poet who had come to them from the East, the Western response to India at that time […] That such a response […] was coloured by social, political and religious prejudices opened my eyes to possibilities of reappraisal which shocked some Indians but was accepted enthusiastically by the younger generation.” (Letter of 30 April 1989.)

 

Later, Santiniketan turned a new page. Aronson was awarded the Desikottama of Visva-Bharati in 1993 and the then Vice-Chancellor, Professor Sabyasachi Bhattacharya, suggested to me around that time that I prepare a new, annotated edition of Rabindranath through Western Eyes.

After this book, Aronson wrote or edited four more books. They emerged from his interest in and concern with Rabindranath and his time. He wrote a book on Romain Rolland who, for Aronson, must have been a model thinker leading a model life. The name of the book is The Story of a Conscience (Padma Publications, Bombay 1944). Since Aronson knew French and lived, like Rolland, in the context of Euro-Indian cultural dialogue, he was predestined to write on this sagacious and faithful friend of Tagore.

Jointly with Krishna Kripalani, Aronson edited Rolland and Tagore, a collection of letters and essays they wrote to and about each other. Another fruit of Aronson’s archival work was a collection of letters to Tagore by well-known writers, scholars and public figures from Europe and America. These letters remained unpublished until 2000 when Visva-Bharati brought them out under the title, Dear Mr Tagore.

Finally, in his study, Europe looks at India. A Study in Cultural Relations (Hind Kitabs, Bombay 1946) Aronson opened the horizon beyond Tagore. It is an early academic study on the cultural relations between Europe and India before the theme became popular with the coinage of the term “Orientalism” in the 1970s. Aronson’s knowledge of several European languages served him well. To my knowledge, this is the first book dealing with the European cultural response to India in a comprehensive manner.

*

With the outbreak of the Second World War, Aronson, a German national, suddenly became an “enemy alien” for the British colonial rulers of India, even though he, a Jew and refugee from Nazi Germany, could not be suspected of working against the British. Aronson was sent to an internment camp, first at Fort William in Kolkata, later to Ahmednagar. Two months later he was able to return to Santiniketan. But only due to Tagore’s repeated interventions did Aronson remain free.

In one such intervention, Rabindranath wrote a letter (on 4 September 1940) to Sir Nazi-muddin at Dhaka (who a decade letter was to become the second Prime Minister of Pakistan) on behalf of Alex Aronson. Here is an extract of this letter by Rabindranath:

“I have reasons to believe your intercession in [Aronson’s] behalf secured his early release. He may be taken away once again to a ‘parole settlement’; by orders of the Government he should be ready to go by September 30. I understand the Government is not examining the details of each individual case. It will be a very great favour shown to Visva-Bharati if you will put in a word in his favour.

He volunteered his services for war purposes on three occasions since the outbreak of war. His need here is very great, as he is specially in charge of examinees. I cannot easily replace him and our educational work will considerably suffer if he is removed from our midst. If in the opinion of the Government he can be safely allowed to remain in freedom, will you kindly also secure his exemption from war voluntary work for which he has offered his services. […] With kind regards, Yours sincerely, Rabindranath Tagore”

*

These traumatic experiences certainly contributed to Aronson’s yearning to return home. Where was home? His parents had migrated to Israel. So, after a two-year interlude in Dhaka where he taught English at the University, Aronson joined his parents in Israel and within time became a much-loved, admired professor of English Literature in Tel-Aviv and then in Haifa.

He continued to write, now preferably on Shakespeare. He never married. Listening to Western classical music became his deepest love. He preferred a solitary life away from political or social activism, but he reached out to the world, and especially to India, with the help of a vast and dedicated correspondence.

In Israel, Alex Aronson was as much an outsider as in India. In 1995, he summed up his situation to me:

“I have been an alien and an exile wherever I went. This country [Israel] has not kept its promises and I feel more than ever a stranger here. […] Most of my life here was devoted to teaching on several levels, school and university. […] I was never a convinced Zionist nor an orthodox Jew. Opposed as I am to any form of nationalism and being a pacifist by conviction and temperament I hardly ever found a suitable place in this country. On the other hand I couldn’t possibly live anywhere else. Unwilling to adapt myself to the political life of this or any other country, I am by definition an outsider.” (Letter of 9 February 1995)

***

I knew Aronson for the last six and a half years of his life. The British Tagore scholar William Radice introduced me to the Israeli scholar by letter. My first letter to Aronson is dated 8 April 1989, sent from Santiniketan to Haifa. At that time I was involved in preparing my book Rabindranath Tagore and Germany: A Documentation (Max Mueller Bhavan/Goethe-Institut, Kolkata 1991) and I was desperate to discuss it with a person knowledgeable on the subject. I saw myself in the footsteps of Aronson’s Rabindranath through Western Eyes. Yet, I had realised that there was a wealth of new information at the Rabindra-Bhavan archive and in the archives in Germany that Aronson could not have seen and evaluated. Aronson replied to my letter at once, generously offering a long commentary on my letter, which led me to revise certain judgments I had made on Tagore’s reception in Germany.

This initiated a correspondence which soon became intense and intimate. Until his death on 10 December 1995, I received not less than 73 letters, many of these running into several pages. I could rarely measure up to the flow of letters pouring into Santiniketan or Boppard, my German hometown. I sent him my books and essays, which he read immediately and discussed them in his letters. He did not just generously praise and encourage me, he also showed me where improvement was possible and necessary. This was the time when, after many years of preparation and study, I was able to publish a spate of books on Tagore in Germany: There was my translation of Rabindranath’s aphorisms; then my book with fifty Tagore poems translated from Bengali to German; further my Tagore biography which is in its fourth edition now; and, in Kolkata, I was able to publish the book mentioned, Rabindranath Tagore and Germany: Documentation.

Imagine my situation, dear listeners: I was working from Santiniketan where nobody knew German and was able to read and judge my translations and writings. Germany was far away, besides in Germany Tagore was for many a poet of a bygone era who had his day of glory in the 1920s and thereafter had become irrelevant. I had no discriminating readers of my writing which is meant to resurrect Tagore from this presumed irrelevance and show the poet in his true light. Here, Aronson fulfilled a most urgent need as a senior guide whose authority I could trust.

In July 1990, Alex Aronson and I met for the first time. We had already switched to addressing each other by our first name – Alex and Martin – but we still wrote in English, although his and my mother tongue was German. The reason may escape an Indian audience. Germany is the country that murdered six million Jews during the Second World War. Aronson escaped the Holocaust at Santiniketan. Although I was born after the war, the stigma is on my generation as well and will not be erased for many generations to come.

Later Aronson told me that for years he had avoided reading or speaking in German because that was the language spoken by the murderers of his people. When we met in Stuttgart, we crossed an emotional barrier. We spoke in German and, henceforth, corresponded with each other in German. He generously dashed off a hand-written note soon after our meeting. In it he wrote,

“I just want to tell you how greatly I enjoyed our talk in Stuttgart. It’s good to find one’s expectations fulfilled – and you are, indeed, the kind of person I thought you were. I rarely felt so much at home with a relative stranger as I felt with you.”

We immediately began planning my visit to Israel. On behalf of the Max Mueller Bhavan / Goethe-Institut, Kolkata, I also invited Alex Aronson to Kolkata for Tagore’s 50th death anniversary programme in 1991. But Aronson could not be lured back to India. Old age and the burden of travel were one reason. Another, probably more important reason was that he was unwilling to face the sad fact that most of the friends and associates he had known in Kolkata and Santiniketan had died in the meantime. In 1980, Aronson had indeed visited Kolkata, but that remained the only return to India. However, twice I visited Alex in Israel, in 1992 and 1993, and stayed with him in his flat on Mount Carmel above the city of Haifa.

After I had stayed on with Alex Aronson for a few days in 1992, he wrote me a letter which perhaps is the most moving testament to our friendship. I translate a few sentences from German:

“My dear Martin, now you are again back in Boppard [in Germany], but I write to you once again to Santiniketan, so you will find my letter when you arrive there. I want to thank you for visiting me and for everything you have told me, for your presence, for looking into the future in peace and confidence. Since you have left, my thoughts are with you often, with your work among the poor, with your books and lectures, even with your friends who I don’t know. My thoughts are full of good wishes for your success, that your strength of purpose may never falter, and that you may achieve what you have resolved to do and what you are already doing since many years.

I also owe you a big thank you for all you have been doing for my name, in your books and articles. I do not deserve all this. The little I have done was in the service of literature. You however work among people and expect no help from people, who merely observe you from afar as an alien among them, a great exception which one may admire but cannot imitate.

I have a feeling that you have many friends and that friendship for you is a purpose in life – as it is for me as well. May I hope that you will accept the friendship of mine as it was gifted to us, even though we will meet rarely and letters cannot always express what one may wish to say.” (Letter of 24 June 1992)

*

The second time I went to meet Alex Aronson in Haifa a year later, in 1993, with a special mission. The Vice-Chancellor of Visva-Bharati requested me to deliver the insignia of the Desikottama that had been conferred on him in that year. It was a lovely celebration in his flat in Haifa.

During those visits and in his letters, Aronson demonstrated an unshakable loyalty. He was genuinely grateful to have gained another friend in his old age. Friendship became a recurring theme in our letters. He supported me in my work in the villages around Santiniketan, always telling me how important it was even though I may get little appreciation. He believed in the genuineness of my life, and I know that only because of this support was I able to maintain it.

The last letter Alex Aronson wrote to me, on 21 October 1995, about six weeks before he died, was again full of appreciation for the work I did for making Tagore known in Germany. I had sent him my recent book of Tagore poetry translation, a book which also contained numerous full-page photo plates by Samiran Nandy, the photographer of Rabindra-Bhavan, taken in and around Santiniketan. I had dedicated this book to Alex Aronson. Alex wrote,

“[The book is] a labour of love. [It is] also a work of friendship. […] It is a beautiful book with many pictures which mirror the atmosphere of Santiniketan, the meditative loneliness which I enjoyed for seven years and which enabled me to survive the events of that time. [Then there was] the poems which speak the language of our time, in all simplicity and tenderness. You are the right person who was able to translate these poems in their perfection.”

***

Today, I donate copies of the letters I received from Alex Aronson, including copies of my letters to him, to the archive of Rabindra-Bhavan. I am grateful to the Director of Rabindra-Bhavan, Prof. Tapati Mukherjee, for accepting them. Through the Australian student of Alex Aronson, Mrs Ruth Fluhr, I have received a few photographs of Alex Aronson which were taken during his Santiniketan days as well as later in Israel. These photographs are exhibited today and will also become part of the photo archive of Rabindra-Bhavan. I thank Ruth Fluhr to make them available to us.

The original letters of Alex Aronson I have recently donated to the German Literature Archive in Marbach near Stuttgart, an institution of national importance and international repute. They will be preserved there together with about fifty original letters by Rabindranath and over a hundred photographs of Rabindranath which I had made over to the German Literature Archive twenty years ago. In other words, the archival niche that has been created for Tagore in Germany will be expanded by this correspondence between Alex Aronson and myself.

While celebrating the life and work of Alex Aronson in his centenary year, I wish – as a conclusion – to look at this Jewish refugee from Germany in Santiniketan in a broader perspective. I wonder, what were the traces he left in Santiniketan and Tagore Studies? Inhowfar has his path-breaking book Rabindranath through Western Eyes been emulated, imitated or taken up as a challenge in other parts of the globe? Rabindranath through Japanese eyes, Chinese, Latin American or Middle-East eyes?

My presentation has made it clear that Alex Aronson had a well-defined contribution to Santiniketan, as a teacher, and to Tagore Studies as an author and critic. What were, by comparison, the contributions of other long-term European and American guests to Santiniketan and Tagore studies? Here I think of the early foreign visitors like Elmhirst, Pearson, Winternitz, but also of the second generation visitors, particularly C.F.Andrews? There has also been another important German visitor to Santiniketan in Tagore’s life-time, namely Brahmachari Govinda who much later became world-famous as a Buddhist preceptor under the name Lama Anagarika Govinda.

The answers to these questions would put Alex Aronson’s life and achievements among us into a proper context and provide a perspective for a sober and scholarly evaluation, beyond fond memories and grateful celebrations. This is a task for the future.

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