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Mainstream, Vol XLVII, No 44, October 17, 2009

Tagore and Victoria Ocampo

Saturday 17 October 2009, by K. Natwar Singh


Earlier in the week The Asian Age carried a news item about a film being made on the Rabindranath Tagore-Victoria Ocampo friendship. I doubt if the name Ocampo is known to many in India today. Tagore too is a distant memory.

The film, Thinking of Him, is to be a joint Indian-Argentinian venture about the ‘Tagore-Ocampo Love Story’. It is to be directed by the Argentine film director, Pablo Cesar, who will be in India next week. He is coming with the Argentinian President, Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner.

Rabindranath Tagore (winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1913) was a restless and indefatigable globe-trotter. There is no doubt that he was a genius. Nirad C. Chaudhuri places him alongside Goethe and Victor Hugo. No ordinary praise.

In November 1924 he arrived in Buenos Aires. He was well known in South America. He was widely read, not only in academic and scholarly circles, but also by many other Argentinians.

Tagore spent November, December (1924) and part of January 1925 in Buenos Aires. Taken ill on the voyage, he was being ‘nursed’ by his English friend, Leonard Elmhirst, who had relieved Tagore of his financial worries. Soon after his arrival he met a 34-year-old ravishing beauty, Victoria Ocampo. In her case beauty was dove-tailed with immense wealth. She had serious literary interests and had read Andre Gide’s French translation of Gitanjali. She was bowled over—“But the Gitanjali over which I was weeping will remain.”

When she learnt of Tagore’s illness, she went to the hotel in which the poet and Elmhirst were staying. She invited them to move to her palatial villa, Miralrio San Isidro. Elmhirst was not comfortable at San Isidro and wrote scathingly about the beautiful and somewhat over-possessive lady.

Besides having a keen intellectual understanding of his (Tagore’s) books, she was in love with him —but instead of being content to build a friendship on the basis of intellect, she was in a hurry to establish that kind of proprietary right over him which he absolutely would not brook.

But we must not take this harsh assault at its face value. Elmhirst was severe on Tagore too.

Our hostess was quite—next to the poet himself—the most difficult person I have ever came across—I felt now and then as if I was incharge of a mad house……

This is an uncharitable view and is not shared by Ocampo’s biographer, Doris Meyer, who wrote that Victoria at that time was deeply in love with a lawyer and not with Tagore or two other mentors of hers, the Spaniard Jose Ortega Y. Gasset, best known for his book, The Revolt of the Masses. The other was Count Hermann Keyserling. He was a German aristocrat, whose Dairy of a Philosopher was widely read. He had met Tagore at Santineketan. At the same time we must always remember that each one of us leads an undisclosed secret life which is never revealed.

Krishna Kripalani, Tagore’s Indian biographer, saw nothing sordid in the Tagore-Ocampo relationship. He wrote in his biography of Tagore:

The poet was very content and happy to watch the river from the balcony of the villa and be looked after by so charming and devoted a hostess. It was real devotion, the devotion of a young and ardent spirit to its ideal and not the fussing of a society lady eager to capture a lion.

Kripalani continues:

Even God is moved by such devotion—so the saints assure us. Tagore was only human. He was deeply touched and grateful.

I knew Krishna Kripalani well. He had taught in Santineketan from 1933 to 1941. Just before his death, Krishna gave me an autographed photo of Tagore and an etching by the poet. I would rather believe Krishna Kripalani on Tagore than anyone else.


It is no secret that Tagore enjoyed Victoria’s company. He named her Vijaya and dedicated the poems he wrote in Argentina to Victoria Ocampo under the title Purabi, “which is the name of a lovely evening mode of Indian classical music”.

Tagore was 63 (Ocampo’s father’s age). His control over the erotic and the sensual was extraordinary. He was very attracted by Victoria. His poems in Argentina are a testimony to that. Yet I am convinced that theirs was a chaste and platonic relationship.

The two met six years later in Paris where Victoria found a gallery to display Tagore’s paintings. In the photograph taken at the opening of the exhibition, Tagore looks splendid in white robes. Victoria sits demurely next to him on a chair. In a photograph taken in 1924 at San Isidro she is sitting at his feet.

Victoria Ocampo had deep knowledge of India. She greatly admired Gandhi whom she got to know through Romain Rolland’s biography of the Mahatma in 1925. Jawaharlal Nehru she met twice. During the dictatorial regime of President Juan Peron, Victoria Ocampo was imprisoned for a short while in 1953. Nehru at the time was the Prime Minister. He had a hand in getting her released.

In 1968, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was on a state visit to Argentina. As the Chancellor of Vishvabharati she conferred on Victoria Ocampo an honorary degree. I had accompanied Mrs Gandhi and was thrilled to see an ageing Victoria Ocampo in her stately home—San Isidro. The villa had lost some of its sheen and was not frequently used by the owner. In her bedroom was kept an autographed photograph of Rabindranath Tagore and all his books. It was an occasion to remember.

Let me end this by reproducing Tagore’s poem about his affection for Victoria:

I can but litter your life with the torn shreds of my pain, and keep you awake at night with the moan of my lonely dreams,

It is better that I remain speechless and help you to forget me.

Rabindranath Tagore died in 1941 at the age of 80. Victoria Ocampo, in 1979 in her 90th year.

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