A sketch made by Schlomith Flaum during her stay at Santiniketan
Israeli author, researcher and artist Shimon Lev’s latest book From Lithuania to Santiniketan – Schlomith Flaum & Rabindranath Tagore is a rare attempt, where the disciple’s spiritual moorings and her love for the mentor take centre stage while the poet himself looms large in the backdrop. The book, published by the Embassy of Lithuania, explores the complexities of such unconventional friendships.
Lev’s fascination with India began two decades ago when he came here as a backpacker after having served in the Israel army. He has been coming back to India ever since. When he earned his doctorate from the University of Jerusalem in 2016, he wrote his dissertation on the cultural and political similarities between India’s freedom struggle and the Zionist movement. His earlier work Soulmates: The Story of Mahatma Gandhi and Hermann Kallenbach probed the unconventional relationship the Father of the Nation shared with the Jewish architect during his time in South Africa.
In Schlomith Flaum & Rabindranath Tagore, Lev also offers a peek into the political upheaval and nationalistic movements their countries were engulfed in. Schlomith Frieda Flaum was born in Kaunas, Lithuania, in 1893, and showed streaks of rebellion early on. As a child, she secretly participated in a protest gathering during the Russian Revolution in 1905. Her parents packed her off to Germany fearing she would be influenced by the socialist ideology. Later, she would become committed to the Zionist cause and against her mother’s wishes, migrated to Palestine in 1911. Flaum breathed life to a kindergarten in Palestine with her modern educational methods. What brought her to India was a spiritual pull she experienced after her first meeting with Rabindranath Tagore at a Jewish Synangogue in New York, in 1921.
Lev says Flaum’s story is an important one in terms of Lithuania-India-Israel relationship. “Her two-year stay in India made her an informal ambassador of Tagore, Santiniketan, Gandhi and every other aspect connected to India back in Palestine/Israel,” he says. Flaum was 29 when she landed in India and worked as a teacher of German language in Santiniketan. She was rechristened Santi by Tagore.
During her stay, she experienced first-hand the many facets of the poet’s personality through the various celebratory events at Visva Bharati. Despite her devotion to Tagore, she looked at his creations with a critical eye. About Tagore’s plays, Flaum writes: “Tagore’s dramatic plays are laden with too much philosophy, acumen and depth, so much so that the viewers cannot understand him and the idea inherent in the play. It is better to read his works than to see them on stage.”
Even after her stint at Santiniketan was over, Flaum met the poet during his foreign tours and helped promote his work. As for Tagore, he would confide in Flaum about how the duties of being a public figure at an old age was taking a toll on him. She died in Israel in 1963 at the age of 70, and as Lev says, was “lonely, miserable, penniless, and forgotten”.