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Meeting with Mussolini. Tagore’s Tours in Italy, 1925 and 1926

Kalyan Kundu

New Delhi, Oxford University Press, 2015, 280 pp., £ 25,99 2016

This is an interesting and useful book, which presents a detailed account of the two visits of the Indian poet and Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore to Italy in 1925 and 1926, the second of which included two personal meetings with Mussolini. Tagore first visited Italy in January 1925 at the invitation of professor of Sanskrit, Carlo Formichi, touring Genoa, Milan and Venice. The visit was sponsored by Tommaso Gallarati Scotti, and, although Tagore insisted he visited as «nothing better than a poet» (p. 21), some contemporary newspapers interpreted parts of the sole speech Tagore gave during his stay – comments on industrial and material progress and on humanism – as critical of fascism. The poet returned for a more extensive tour of Italy the following year, also to personally thank Mussolini for his «generous gift» of numerous volumes on Italian art, literature and history to Tagore’s university, Visva-Bharati in West Bengal. This second visit was officially sponsored and Tagore spoke publicly, gave press interviews, met with Luigi Luzzatti and Benedetto Croce, and had two audiences with Mussolini and one with King Vittorio Emanuele III. This time, the fascist newspapers reported Tagore’s visit favourably and presented him – as did many international reports – as having «changed his opinion regarding Fascism and its leader”» (p. 159). The evidence collated is not clear-cut as to Tagore’s true impressions of fascism and of Mussolini. What is certain is that after his visit, Tagore was lobbied by anti-fascist friends and acquaintances, including Romain Rolland and Giacinta Salvadori, wife of exiled professor Guglielmo Salvadori. As a result, Tagore wrote a letter, published in the «Manchester Guardian», which, whilst acknowledging Mussolini as «a man of personality» (p. 187), recognised that his encounter with Italy had been filtered through the lens of a fascist state visit and sought to repudiate any admiration «for a political idea which openly declares its loyalty to brute force as the motive power of civilisation» (p. 184). The value of this work is two-fold. First, it provides an exhaustive collation of primary source material (reproduced in full, in English) relating to Tagore’s tours from multiple sources including the correspondence of Tagore, Formichi and others and newspaper articles covering the visit. Second, it reconstructs the tours in minute detail, noting Tagore’s itinerary, the impressions made on Tagore, his circle and the Italians with whom he interacted. Kundu’s text stays very close to the primary sources, focusing on the role of individuals, the logistics and content of the tours. This reduces the scope for wider analysis and contextualisation. Indeed, the chapter that does seek to contextualise Mussolini’s rise to power is partial and flawed; it makes no mention of the «biennio rosso» or of political violence before the March on Rome. Instead, scholars of fascism may value the book for its comprehensive introduction to, and as a documentary repository of, a relatively understudied encounter of the mid 1920s.


Kate Ferris