Remembering Tomitaro Hara

— Satyasri Ukil

‘Kiyo-san’, brush and ink sketch by Mukul Dey, done at Tomitaro Hara’s Sankeien, 1916.
Photo: Mukul Dey Archives
An Art Lover Extraordinaire of Meiji Japan

A successful silk merchant named Tomitaro Hara built a mansion by the sea in Honmoku. He bought exquisite teahouses and other ancient structures in Kyoto and elsewhere and had them dismantled and rebuilt in his garden. Hara named his garden Sankeien, for it was blessed with three glens, one of which opened out to a small beach and a view of the bay”

So wrote Kunio Francis Tanabe in his article Memories of Old Honmoku in The Japan Times of May 19, 1999.

The story of Tomitaro Hara (1869-1939) may sound like a fairy-tale…a tale of a man’s inherent business sense and deep love for his country’s art and cultural heritage.

Tomitaro Hara (original name Tomitaro Aoki), a young man who specialized in the study of Chinese classics, was adopted into the family of wealthy Yokohama silk merchant Zenzaburo Hara when he married Zenzaburo’s granddaughter Yasu. Tomitaro was not only adopted into the Hara family; he was selected as the heir to the vast Hara Shoten business empire, dealing in export of Japanese raw silk during late 19th and early 20th century.

Mukul Dey, Kiyo-san and Rabindrath Tagore at Tomitaro Hara’s Samkeien. August 1916
Photo: Mukul Dey Archives
Today Tomitaro Hara is best remembered for his Sankeien Garden at Honmoku, Yokohama. Sankeien was originally Hara’s family estate…an exquisite sprawling landscape, complete with pine-clad cliffs and a fabulous view of Tokyo Bay. Tomitaro’s estate comprised of various types of Japanese garden, lotus and lily ponds, historic teahouses, various examples of traditional Ishidoro (Japanese stone lanterns) and scores of other ancient monuments, which seldom one comes across elsewhere in Japan these days.

About hundred years ago, in 1906 to be precise, Tomitaro opened the gates of his Sankeien free of charge to the citizens of Yokohama. Common people were welcome to spend their day at this garden. In fact Tomitaro would provide the picnickers with firewood, potable water and good stoves to cook food.

In 1916, from about mid-June till August end, Tomitaro at the request of very famous Japanese artist Yokoyama Taikan (1868-1958) provided hospitality to British-Indian poet Sir Rabindranath Tagore and his companions Charles Freer Andrews, William Winstanley Pearson and Mukul Dey.

Tagore had learnt a lot of things from Tomitaro and his Sankeien. Especially his deep appreciation for traditional Japanese architecture and landscaping was to remain with him till his very last. In fact, the very existence of a number of unique houses (Udayan, Konarka, Shyamali, Punashcha, Udichi and Chitrabhanu) in Rabindranath’s residential complex at Santiniketan could be the result of his fairly long stay at Sankeien. For example, at the backyard of Tagore’s Uttarayan in Santiniketan, is located a large lily pond, complete with an artificial island, weeping willows and a Japanese lantern. However, unlike Tomitaro’s garden, Tagore’s is not open for the common man.

Rabindranath Tagore at Tomitaro Hara’s Sankeien, Yokohama 1916
Photo: Mukul Dey Archives
While in Japan and on the way back from USA Mukul Dey was provided with singular honour of Tomitaro’s patronage, who ardently hoped that he would stay back in Japan on Tomitaro Hara’s scholarship to learn under such masters as Yokoyama Taikan and Shimomura Kanzan (1873-1930). It was Rabindranath Tagore’s vehement opposition that failed Hara’s dream on this young Indian art student.

From Japan in 1916 Mukul Dey wrote regularly to his parents, who were ever eager for his letters from the Land of the Rising Sun. Till now we have found about 56 of these letters in his papers at Chitralekha, which are preserved at Mukul Dey Archives. They illuminate Tagore’s 1916-17 trip to Japan and USA from an entirely new angle.

Reproduced here is a small facsimile of one such letter (in Bengali script), dated June 19, 1916 sent from Tomitaro’s Sankeien. A larger image could not be reproduced as the original letter, written on a long scroll of Japanese kozo-shi (handmade mulberry paper) measures 137cm high by 19cm wide. Mukul Dey had used a traditional Japanese writing-brush (fude) and had ground solid ink-stick on a grinding-stone (suzuri) to create this document.

An English translation is also included, which may provide a general idea about the content of the original letter.

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