Unearthing Tagore’s Scottish connection

Unearthing Tagore’s Scottish connection

March 1, 2014

Lord Charles Bruce softly hummed ‘Auld Lang Syne’, trying to deduce the strong Scot-Tagore bonding. After all, it was this song that had inspired the poet to compose the timeless ‘Purano Shei Diner Katha’. Significantly, ‘Auld Lang Syne’ means ‘long, long ago’. Bruce’s Kolkata connection, too, dates back a long, long time when his great grandfather and grandfather, both viceroys in colonial India, lived here.

“I grew up in a house full of Kolkata, which was the crown of the British Empire and is now home to some of the finest colonial architecture in the world,” began Bruce. The 51-year-old chairman of the UK-based Kolkata Scottish Heritage Trust (KSHT) has been trying to revive the forgotten Scottish heritage in Kolkata, supervising the restoration of the Scottish cemetery in Karaya. Simultaneously – as patron of the Scottish Centre for Tagore Studies (ScoTs) at Edinburgh Napier University – he is trying to develop an institute as an international hub for Tagore studies.

Lord Charles Bruce

The project, so far costing £100,000, has been executed in phases since money came in spurts from a mix of corporates, private individuals and foundations. Bruce has almost single-handedly done the fundraising in his inordinate zeal to revive Kolkata’s built heritage. “Unlike the Danish project in Serampore, we didn’t get support from the Scottish government. I wish we did,” he said.

Shrouded in the twists and turns of Kolkata’s streets are the Scottish Cemetery, Scottish Church College, Jorabagan police station, which in its earlier avatar was Duff School, Hare School and Hare Memorial. St Andrew’s Church, which was started in 1815 and completed in 1818, is probably the city’s oldest Scottish institution.

Hare School

St Andrew's Church

Bruce explained the twin purposes of his visit. “It is possible to link the wider international understanding of Tagore as an original thinker and restoration of the Scottish cemetery. Established in 1820, the cemetery has 1,600 tombstones, some of which were crumbling until the KSHT came in.” The somewhat revived graveyard, which Bruce calls “a historical relic”, will provide an opportunity to bring standards of conservation methodology that can be useful for Kolkata, Asia’s first global city. It will also throw light on Kolkata’s Scottish history which is still relevant. “And this history wouldn’t be complete without Tagore.”

“The cemetery,” Bruce said, “is the window through which we can introduce the standards of conservation we have established in Scotland.” Along with the restoration, which is but a continuous endeavour, Bruce and his team have planned an interpretation centre that will explain to students and visitors the close human contact between Scots and prominent Indians, especially Rabindranath Tagore, during the colonial rule.

Scottish Cemetery

ScoTs will prepare this research capsule for the interpretation centre. The capsule would talk about Tagore’s friendship with Patrick Geddes, a Scottish architect who helped the Nobel laureate plan his global school, Shantiniketan. “Tagore struck up an incredible relationship with the urban planner. They exchanged correspondence for 17 long years, trying to evolve modern ways of teaching. Tagore’s deep-seated contempt for spoon-fed knowledge was portrayed in Totakahini (The Story of the Parrot). Do you know that he had dedicated Totakahini to Geddes?” quizzed Bruce.

Delving into the Tagore-Scotland bonding, he has found out about Scottish lawyer Robert Cutler Ferguson and his “friend-philosopher-guide” Dwarkanath Tagore (Rabindranath’s grandfather), who was the only Indian those days to have been given the honour of ‘Freedom of the City of Edinburgh’ . “A very distinguished person would be accorded the honour of ‘freedom of a city’,” explained Bruce. Rabindranath’s father, Debendranath’s Bramho Samaj, which was directly influenced by Scottish theology and the principles of Scotsman Alexander Duff, will also be appropriately referred to at the interpretation centre.

And then, the Scottish influence on Tagore’s creativity: “How he fell in love with the three daughters of the Scott family of England, and developed his songs…,” smiled Bruce.
Bruce, whose family has opened the Scottish Lime Centre in Edinburgh, stressed on the importance of using lime plaster for restoration and planned to reintroduce old skills by training artisans and masons. “This had been done in Venice. Like Venice, Kolkata could become an open laboratory for honing traditional skills,” he said.

Bruce’s father, the 90-year-old Andrew Bruce, is the 11th Earl of Elgin. “The next time I am here in Kolkata, I could come as the 12th Earl of Elgin,” Bruce said. Interestingly, the City of Joy has stuck to Elgin Road long after it was christened Lala Lajpat Rai Sarani.

First published in The Times of India, February 9, 2014

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Comments (1)
Tom Minogue Reply
June 28, 2014
The paradox whereby a man whose ancestor looted so many graves in Greece is looking to restore the graves of those who looted India is pretty strong. Perhaps it would be a good idea if he returned some of the Greek steles that adorn his family home, Broomhall, instead of pushing for his Lime Mortar product (heavily subsidised by the taxpayer) don't you think?
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