A photographic glimpse into family history

In my last post, I wrote about a 1905 photograph that moved me. Seeing a young girl sitting on a rock in the Thousand Islands, along a path I have often trod, I felt the continuity of the human experience, and the power of images to convey our cultural, spiritual and social heritage.

Interestingly, I recently happened to open a box containing a few photographic mementoes of one of my great aunts. There were pictures of family homes in Boston and Halifax, pictures of a cousin in Manchester in the 1920s wearing pleated pants and round glasses. Half way through the three dozen photos, I found a familiar image of an Indian man in long flowing robes standing next to an American woman; it is Rabindranath Tagore! Immediately I set about trying to discover why my great aunt held in her possession a personal photograph of the mystical poet and Nobel Laureate. So far, I have discovered that the woman in the photograph is Mary Woolley, long time President of Mount Holyoke College, the oldest women-only university in the United States. It turns out that Tagore gave a poetry reading there in 1930, when my great aunt would have been a student.

It is difficult to explain in few words why this discovery was both astonishing and yet not implausible; why it is a symbol for me of my family’s tortuous spiritual history.

I grew up as a third generation agnostic. Not only my parents, but both sets of their parents were so-called non-believers. It was not until my twenties that I discovered I had two great aunts on my father’s maternal side who were both extremely active ‘karma yogis’, one deeply involved in the Service wing of the Quakers for over sixty years. It was about then also that my intellectual agnosticism and my poetic sense of the mystical, which had co-existed in me untroubled for about ten years as parallel pieces of myself, collided. I embarked on the path of meditation, and it was as natural as taking a deep breath, reading an ecstatic poem, looking at a still lake at dusk.

Seeing this photograph brought together two worlds – those of spirituality and poetry.  I realized my parents and grandparents did not necessarily abandon their inner faith, only Christian theology. They had simply shifted their search for meaning away from the Church and towards literature, and the expression of mystical experience in literature. My father’s aunt on the paternal side having attended a poetry reading with an Indian mystic brought sides of the family together, and re-forged for me a very palpable connection between ecstatic poetry and explicit spiritual practice, whether it be faith-fueled service, the adoration of nature or the sublime.


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copyright Chetana Panwar 2010

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