World Congress of Faiths, 1936: (from left to right) Kedar Nath Das Gupta, initiator of the Congress; Sir Francis E. Younghusband, British army officer, explorer, mystic and early advocate for Tibet; and Charles Frederick Weller, Chicago-based American peace activist.
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An unsung hero of the Hindu renaissance, Kedar Nath Das Gupta raised the status of India and Hinduism in the eyes of the West



ON DECEMBER 7, 1942, THE NEW YORK Times reported the death of Kedar Nath Das Gupta (1878-1942), a New Yorker whose cultural and interfaith activities were known on both sides of the Atlantic. An early force in the Hindu renaissance, he was directly linked to Indian leaders such as Gandhi and Rabindranath Tagore. Today, in the space of less than 75 years, his name has vanished from public memory.

Beginnings in Bengal and London

Kedar Nath Das Gupta—or KNDG, as he was wont to abbreviate his name—hailed from Chittagong in East Bengal (now Bangladesh). As a youth he was deeply involved in the activism of Indian nationalism. To promote swaraj (national or self-rule) and swadeshi (indigenous goods made in India), he managed a swadeshi store in Calcutta, the Lakshmir Bhandar, that also sold goods made by impoverished Bengali widows. Through connections with Rabindranath Tagore, he became Secretary of Industrial Exhibits in Calcutta, where each year he showcased goods made in India. He also ran the powerful Bengali nationalist newspaper Bharati. Both enterprises were linked with progressive women from the Tagore family.

Emboldened by his stint as a political and social activist, he sailed to London in 1907 to further the sale of Indian goods and, following Gandhi’s example, to study English law. He enrolled as a law student in Lincoln’s Inn.

Cultural Ambassador

Before long, KNDG entered London’s theatrical world and set up a new organization, the Indian Art and Dramatic Society, which in 1912 he renamed as the Union of East and West. This shift into Britain’s cultural arena might seem puzzling; even today, ethnic arts in the UK struggle to find a place in the mainstream. But it was a wise move. British authorities were cracking down on Indian nationalist activism in the UK, especially after the 1909 murder of a high-ranking British official by an Indian militant. Yet, in the cultural sphere Britain’s perception of India was improving.

In early 1909 a band of eminent English writers and artists from diverse fields established the India Society, led by English artist William Rothenstein (a friend and admirer of Tagore) and his friend and copyist Lady Christiana Herringham. Its aim was to correct the negative Western projection and perception of India. As explained in a letter to the London Times of June 11, 1910, “The society desires to promote the study and appreciation of Indian culture, architecture and painting, as well as Indian literature and music. There is a vast unexplored field, the investigation of which will bring about better understanding of Indian ideals and aspirations.”

The time was ripe for KNDG to make a move. In a later interview he explained, “First of all I joined my countrymen in the fight for svaraj, or self-rule. We saw we couldn’t get rid of British rule until we got rid of our economic slavery. So, in 1902 we strove for svadeshi, or home industry. I even sailed to London to establish a market for our goods. But I was young and inexperienced. The big British capitalists soon killed my little business. I began to give lectures on India and present our classic dramas. Here was a chance for me to help India. So I founded my Indian Art and Drama Society. I laid down the rule that all controversy, whether political or religious, must be avoided.”

Sanskrit Plays

KNDG was the top impressario for Indian drama in the UK from 1912 to 1920. His English adaptations of classical Sanskrit plays opened Britain’s eyes to India’s ancient dramatic treasures and the profundity of its culture. In 1913 William Rothenstein wrote to Tagore in India, “The irrepressible Das Gupta is putting on Sakuntala at the Royal Albert Hall!” That play, written by Kalidasa, India’s foremost Sanskrit dramatist and poet, ran five times that year. During this eight-year period, KNDG put on 12 major productions, including pieces by Tagore, thus helping move his friend’s work into the limelight.

His most ambitious project, one that demonstrated his uncanny ability to build multicultural collaboration, was his 1919 production of Sakuntala at London’s Winter Garden Theatre. Its cast comprised a galaxy of artists whose names read like a Who’s Who of the early 1900s. The producer was British actor and theatre director Lewis (later Sir Lewis) Casson. The title role was played by Casson’s talented wife, Sybil (later Dame Sybil) Thorndike. The male protagonist, Raja Dushyanta, was played by Arthur (later Sir Arthur) Wontner, who would later immortalize himself by his portrayal of Sherlock Holmes in English films of the 1930s. KNDG himself wrote the English adaptation of Shakuntala, then had it checked and finalized by Laurence Binyon, an Oxford-educated poet and oriental art expert and scholar.

Even today it would be a prodigious challenge and achievement to bring together and work successfully with such a powerful and diverse team. It is all the more amazing, then, that KNDG accomplished this feat in the early 1900s, in the heart of the proud and mighty British Empire, as an immigrant from a mere colony!

The Maharani of Arakan, 1916: Kedar Nath Das Gupta’s stage debut at the London Coliseum, with KNDG and Margaret G. Mitchell at right and Ronald Colman, a future Academy Best Actor winner, at far left.
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On to America

KNDG’s heart and mind remained fixed on higher goals than theatrical arts. On the last page of his adaptation of Sakuntala, he wrote, “The main object of the Union of East and West is to establish a meeting for the East and West in the field of Art, Philosophy, Literature, Music and the Drama.” He exhorted Britons to join non-Westerners in peacetime pursuits, just as India had joined England to fight the First World War: “The East has met the West on the field of Battle; will you meet us on the field of art, literature, philosophy, and drama, by joining the Society?”

KNDG as Dalia with Margaret Mitchell as Amina in the same play
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After eight remarkable years of success in London, KNDG suddenly left the UK. He later recounted, “In 1920, I met Tagore in London. He told me America was wonderful and urged me to go there with him. I scraped up all my money and went.”

The America of the “Roaring 20s” was characterized by affluence, rampant consumerism, urban transformation, social ferment and the vigorous questioning of values. This provided an ideal atmosphere for KNDG’s creative activities. Wasting no time, he rented New York’s Garrick Theatre. By December 1920, within one year of his arrival, the New York Times reported that he had staged two Tagore plays at the Garrick: Sacrifice, considered Tagore’s finest play, and The Post Office.

From Stage to Interfaith

In 1924 KNDG met American social worker Charles Frederick Weller, of New Jersey’s League of Neighborhood, in 1924. Having witnessed the ravages of the World War I, both men were determined to build consciousness of the unity of all human beings irrespective of their race, ethnicity, nationality, background, faith, color or any other differences that seemed to divide them. The two men developed a fruitful partnership, and KNDG metamorphosed once again, becoming an advocate of theater as a tool to spread ancient India’s message of universalism and the brotherhood of man. KNDG wrote, “Weller and I decided to join our two movements and also create a third—the Fellowship of Faiths­­—based on a principle too seldom put into practice, the principle of appreciation. Brotherhood is more than mere peace or tolerance, and in my opinion it can be encouraged best by art, by sacred songs, dancers and the drama.”

They named their new initiative the Threefold Movement. It amalgamated KNDG’s Union of East and West, Weller’s League of Neighborhood and their newly founded Fellowship of Faiths. Organized systematically on a democratic basis, its membership encompassed people from all the major faiths and from diverse backgrounds. Well-known members included Theosophist Annie Besant, Spiritualist and writer Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, philosopher and psychologist Professor John Dewey and royals like the Maharajas of Baroda and Burdwan.

Collaborating with sages: Paramahansa Yogananda (left) in London with Kedar Nath Das Gupta during the 1936 World Congress of Faiths
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Headquartered in New York under KNDG and Mr. and Mrs. Weller, the Movement had representatives or “Committees of One Hundred” in fourteen cities of nine countries, spread over three continents. According to a contemporary description, “In four years, meetings have been held on an average of about one a day, with a total of about 100,000 participants. These include select dinners, mass meetings, festivals, lectures…”

The Movement published newspaper articles, magazines like Appreciation and Calamus and books like The Fellowship of Faiths. They read and staged Oriental plays, held exhibitions of Eastern arts, crafts and music, organized an annual “Peace Week” and did practical social work. They held events where people came together to learn of each other’s faith, pray and worship in various ways and realize the commonalities that united them. In his book Hinduism Invades America (1930), Dr. Wendell Thomas writes, “Perhaps the most impressive form of cultural Hinduism in America at present is the Threefold Movement.”

World Congress of Faiths

In 1933, KNDG and Weller organized a World Congress of Faiths (WCF) in Chicago and New York, coinciding with Chicago’s World Fair and echoing the First World Parliament of Religions held in Chicago in 1893, when Swami Vivekananda had electrified Western audiences with his powerful addresses on Hinduism.

KNDG described the aim of the WCF: “Building bridges of understanding across the chasms of prejudice; enabling mankind to realize a united and fraternal world life; seeking a new spiritual consciousness competent to master and reform the world; cultivating appreciation between people of all creeds, classes, colors and convictions; uniting the inspiration of all faiths for the solution of such world problems as war, persecution, prejudice, super-nationalism, economic conditions, ignorance, intolerance, hatred, fear; helping men and women to develop their own character by broader and inner culture.”

The WCF was a huge success. Over 80 meetings were attended by 44,000 people; and a National Committee of 300 members was established. Bishop McConnell, one of the top officers, claimed that the 1933 event was “an advance” on the 1893 Parliament. “The first difference is that instead of a comparative parade of rival religions, all faiths are challenged to manifest or apply their religion by helping to solve the urgent problems which impede man’s progress. The second difference is that the word faiths is understood to include, not only all religions, but all types of spiritual consciousness or convictions which are determining the actual lives of significant groups of people. Educational, philanthropic, social, economic, national and political ‘faiths’ are thus included.”

The London WCF, 1936

A second WCF was held in 1936 at University College, London. Organized by Colonel Francis Younghusband, who had attended the 1933 WCF and was encouraged by KNDG. It drew eminent religious scholars from all over the world, including Dr S. Radhakrishnan, Professor Mahendranath Sircar and Professor S. N. Das Gupta on Hinduism, Sir Abdul Qadir and Salim Yusuf Ali on Islam, Professor Malasekara from Sri Lanka on Buddhism, Professor Nicolas Berdiaeff on Christianity and Dr. Suzuki on Zen Buddhism, The London Congress saw limited success, as few actual religious leaders chose to attend. Undaunted, however, the organizers held several more conferences—at Oxford (1937), Cambridge (1938) and Paris (1939).

A Trail-Blazer to Emulate

The interfaith initiative sparked by Kedar Nath Das Gupta has yet to gather force and blaze forth in its potential glory as a powerful international movement, but the story of KNDG’s remarkable life and achievements must be resuscitated. This indefatigable soul, on fire with the Hindu ideal of Vasu­dhaiva Kutumbakam (the universe is one big family), provided an example that has the power to inspire generations to come.

Kusum Pant Joshi, 60, is a social historian, writer and editor. She is chief researcher for the South Asian Cinema Foundation, London.