The Tagore family, leaders of Bengal’s intelligentsia and high society, was one of the pioneers of new age technology, which included motoring in the early 20th century. Their role in popularising the use of cars was considerable
Beginning with the greatest of the Tagores, Rabindranath Tagore (1861–1941) blazed a trail in the field of art, literature, music, education and rural awakening, which built a whole cosmos of culture that shaped the entity of Bengal, and for that matter, of India as a whole. Interestingly, he was committed to motoring. Rabindranath himself used a British Wolseley for most of his life and later migrated to a 1933 make Humber sedan, gifted by his son. “Gurudeb used during the last few years of his life, when he was unable to walk much, to move in and around the campus” according to biographer Prabhat Mukhopadhyay. Rabindranath loved the car so much that he even customised it by fixing sitalpati (handmade mats) to the interiors, to keep it cool. This car can be seen in a sorry state at Uttarayan complex of Visva-Bharti University, Shantiniketan. Both marques were preferred by Bengali bhadraloks much like their counterparts, the English gentry overseas.
Gurudev’s own son Rathindranath (1888-1960) was overall a more colourful user. He was highly educated and conversant in the field of agriculture, carpentry, architecture apart from being a writer, painter, and teacher of genetics at Visva-Bharati (and later its first vice-chancellor). It is said that the Humber used by Rabindranath was bought by Rathindranath in 1938, after returning from the US. In fact he bought a pair of Humber – 1933s from HH Lilley, Rootes Ltd., which was the only Humber dealer in the whole of India. He himself started off with a mid-sized American Studebaker and an Overland which reflected his fondness for American make automobiles but later migrated to an Italian Fiat.
His nephew Abanindranath (1871–1951) was the founder of the ‘Indian Society of Oriental Art’ and creator of the ‘Bengal School of Art’, which tried to rediscover the traditional forms of paintings in contrast to the prevailing urge of imitation of European forms. Popularly known as ‘Aban Thakur’ he was a great writer of tales and stories for children. A man of refined taste, he had first used an upmarket Belgian car made by Minerva and thereafter migrated to a more mainstream American Overland.
Other famous Tagores
Dwijendranath (1840–1926) was a poet, song composer, philosopher, mathematician, and a pioneer of Bengali shorthand and musical notation. A simple man, he used a small British made Ford. The famous artist Gaganendranath (1867–1938) invested in a very powerful and exclusive French car called Mors. It appears he did not own a second car.
Surendranath Tagore (1872-1940) translated a number of early works of Gurudev into English. He had two Fords – a smaller British make and a larger American make. He later bought a mid sized sedan by Austin of Britain.
It is thus evident that the lives of the Tagores were intertwined with their fetish for motoring and collection of imported cars. The large number of brands used by this eminent family reflects the diverse options available for cars and garages, in those days. While car ownership was limited to affluent Indians only, the Tagores were among the first few families to use cars in Kolkata.