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Activist, Scholar, Dandy

Krishnalal Shridharani in the United States, 1934-1946
By Malathi Iyengar |
AUGUST 18, 2022
Dr. Krishnalal Shridharani. Photo courtesy of the Dr. Krishnalal Shridharani Facebook page managed by Shraddha Shridharani.
“A Worldly Man”

The middle column of the “And what’s more…” page in the September 1, 1942, issue of Vogue begins with a blurb about a new coat that is likely to become “one of the biggest fabric sellers in recent fashion history.” It ends with another blurb indicating that “Texas girls… seem to be right there, where the successes are,” as evidenced by some soon-to-be-released Vogue photographs of “models, actresses, and pretty girls galore” from the Lone Star State. Situated directly in the center of this column (just below an announcement about “the biggest-selling dresses in New York City”) is this breathless aside: “Krishnalal Shridharani, who wrote that best-seller last winter, My India, My America” is “living in New York” and “advocating the dangerous policy of immediate Indian independence.” The passage goes on to note that Shridharani had participated in the famous Salt March during his student years at “Gandhi’s university” and even “went to prison for it.”1 There’s a small photograph as well, the column’s only visual: a shadowy closeup of the writer in three-quarters profile, elegantly appareled in a well-fitting suit jacket, white shirt and dark necktie, grinning ever so slightly, a cigarette clasped jauntily in one side of his mouth.

Vogue Magazine blurb about Dr. Krishnalal Shridharani.

The image differs dramatically from a photo of Shridharani taken nine or ten years earlier. In this older photograph, we see a slim, solemn, large-eyed youth, clad in a simple white kurta (possibly khadi, as he had recently been a student at M.K. Gandhi’s Rashtriya Vidyapith, a participant in the Salt Satyagraha, and subsequently a political prisoner), staring pensively into the camera’s eye. The photo is of Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore with three residents of Shantiniketan. Krishnalal Shridharani, around twenty years of age and clearly the youngest of the group, is sitting politely by the left knee of the bearded philosopher-poet.2 Though undated, this photo must have been taken around 1932-1933 – that is, during the period Shridharani spent studying at Shantiniketan after being released from Nashik Jail.

Photograph of a young Krishnalal Shridharani (right) with Rabindranath Tagore (middle, seated) and others at Shantiniketan.

In the intervening years between these two very different photographs, Shridharani had sailed to New York with scholarship funding arranged by Tagore; earned master’s degrees in economics and sociology from NYU and a PhD from Columbia; published several books; contributed countless articles to various journals, magazines, and newspapers; campaigned tirelessly to raise support for the Indian independence movement; been surveilled by British intelligence agents operating internationally; challenged racial restrictions on U.S. immigration and naturalization; and become a sought-after public speaker in a dizzying array of venues, from high society soirees to academic conferences, church gatherings, pacifist meetings, hearings with elected officials, and activist events devoted to civil rights, labor rights, and the decolonization of Puerto Rico. He had also transformed himself from a slender, serious, khadi-clad Gandhian into a flamboyant man-about-town whose elegant wardrobe and witty personality attracted the attention of American gossip columnists.

My own interest in Shridharani came about as a result of my dissertation research in ethnic studies. I was examining the transnational currents of intellectual and political exchange that flourished between African American and Indian anticolonial activists, organizers, writers, and scholars during the first half of the twentieth century. During this era, as the historian Gerald Horne notes, a multivalent web of “richly braided relations” connected “the largest ‘minority’ in what was to become the world’s most powerful nation and the largest colony of the once potent British Empire.”3 In the heyday of violent “Anglo-Saxon” racial-imperial domination stretching across the Americas, Africa, Asia and Oceania, African American and South Asian thinkers collectively constructed an activist worldview that, as historian Nico Slate puts it, “transcended traditional racial distinctions, positioning Indians and African Americans together at the vanguard of the ‘darker races.’”4 This worldview gained expression via constellations of interpersonal friendships, organizational partnerships, textual circulations, and jointly-coordinated events through which African American and Indian anticolonial thinkers foregrounded the links between their (historically distinct yet structurally connected) struggles against white supremacy. Working together across national and imperial borders and boundaries, these activist-intellectuals fought for the freedom of the ‘colored world.’African American and Indian anticolonial thinkers foregrounded the links between their (historically distinct yet structurally connected) struggles against white supremacy. Working together across national and imperial borders and boundaries, these activist-intellectuals “fought for the freedom of the ‘colored world,’ even while calling into question the meanings of both color and freedom.”5

Krishnalal Shridharani was both a product of such transnational organizing and a contributor to it. Born in Gujarat in 1911 and educated in anticolonial schools from the age of eleven onward, he came into contact with African American texts and ideas during the 1920s and early 1930s. Indian anticolonialists of that period took an avid interest in African American intellectual currents and educational practices. W.E.B. Du Bois, for example, was a particularly well-known voice in India; he corresponded with numerous Indian anticolonial scholars and activists, and his books and edited volumes were much read and admired on the subcontinent. Indeed, it is possible to speculatively track the influence of Du Bois though some of Shridharani’s work. This influence travelled full circle when Shridharani’s writings were enthusiastically taken up by a new generation of young African American scholar-activists during the 1940s.

While the 1942 Vogue blurb with which this essay begins mentions only My India, My America (“that best-seller last winter”), Shridharani’s African American counterparts were much more interested in some of his other books – particularly War Without Violence (1939), an analysis of nonviolent civil disobedience as a strategy within mass movements, focusing on satyagraha in the Indian independence struggle but also examining real and potential applications of similar methods in other contexts. This book of Shridharani’s is mentioned with surprising frequency in histories and memoirs of the civil rights activities carried out by African American organizers and interracial allies during the 1940s. I say “surprising” because War Without Violence was not the only satyagraha-related book available to U.S. readers at the time. The well-known white American social philosopher Richard Gregg had written several books on the subject, including the highly publicized Gandhiji’s Satyagraha or Non-violent Resistance (1930) and The Power of Non-Violence (1935). Haridas Muzumdar, a middle-aged Gandhian living in New York, had written Gandhi Versus the Empire in 1932. But none of these books are mentioned nearly as often or as passionately as War Without Violence in firsthand accounts of the civil rights activities of the 1940s.

Cover of Saturday Review, Nov. 1, 1941

In the words of celebrated African American civil rights activist Bayard Rustin, “Shridharani’s book became our gospel, our bible” during the 1940s.6 Bernice Fisher, a white member of the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR) in Chicago and founding member of the Congress of Racial Equality, recalled that the students in her FOR “cell” in the early forties “studied and debated, chapter by chapter, Shridharani’s War Without Violence.”7 Fisher used Shridharani’s book to create a list of instructions and guidelines for anti-segregation sit-ins.8 The list was often distributed to demonstrators in the form of a handbill. A group of prominent activists and organizers in New York, including A. Philip Randolph of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, formed a reading circle specifically to discuss War Without Violence “and its possible application to the racial conditions in the United States.”9 As historian Jervis Anderson notes, Randolph’s 1941 mobilization for a mass march on Washington – which successfully pressured FDR into creating the Fair Employment Practices Commission – was “influenced greatly by the exegesis… in Shridharani’s War Without Violence.”10 Invited to speak at multiple conferences devoted to themes of racial justice, Shridharani’s name appears and re-appears in the NAACP journal The Crisis, edited by Du Bois.

The young, queer Black scholar-activist Pauli Murray read War Without Violence shortly after its publication in 1939 and “pondered the possibility of applying the technique [of satyagraha] to the racial struggle in the United States.”11 In 1940, Murray and fellow activist Adelene McBean found themselves in jail after refusing to “move back” on an interstate bus. Decades later, in discussing the bus incident, the two friends’ subsequent imprisonment, and their nonviolent resistance activities while in prison, Pauli Murray would note that they had been influenced by the writings of “not so much Gandhi, but one of his young followers, Krishna Shridharani.” 12

The published and unpublished writings of CORE co-founder James Farmer, best remembered today for his role as CORE’s National Director during the 1961 Freedom Rides, contain multiple references to the friend whom he affectionately called “Shrid.” Farmer studied War Without Violence closely and used it as a reference-point for much of his organizing during the 1940s. In 1943, Farmer invited Shridharani to appear as the featured guest speaker for CORE’s first national conference. Recalling this conference in his 1985 memoir Lay Bare the Heart, Farmer noted that if participants were expecting the author of War Without Violence to be a “Gandhiesque” individual – someone “ascetic, bony, waiflike” – they were surprised: as Farmer still remembered more than forty years after the event, Shrid showed up for his lecture wearing a ruby ring and a star sapphire, smoking a cigar, and looking “meticulous in a three-piece Brooks Brothers suit, lavender silk shirt, and impeccably shined shoes.” Shridharani was, Farmer wrote, “a worldly man.”13

Dr. Krishnalal Shridharani. Photo courtesy of the Dr. Krishnalal Shridharani Facebook page managed by Shraddha Shridharani.

Kaleidescopic Sojourn

Krishnalal Shridharani spent twelve years in the United States. He arrived in New York in 1934 and departed in 1946 for an India on the threshold of independence. Despite his significant presence across multiple social and political circles during those years in the U.S., the contemporary scholarly literature in South Asian American studies offers little discussion of Shridharani’s life and work. He is more widely remembered today in India, and particularly in Gujarat, where his Gujarati-language poems and plays are well-known classics. But scholars of Gujarati literature have been more interested in studying Shridharani’s Gujarati literary oeuvre itself than in delving into the details of his time in the United States.

I am currently writing a book that focuses on how Shridharani was both influenced by the Black radical intellectual tradition and subsequently became an influence for multiple African American scholar-activists during the 1940s. This is just one approach to conceptualizing this fascinatingly multidimensional individual. For scholars and students of South Asian American studies, Krishnalal Shridharani represents an intriguing prism though which to examine multiple facets of South Asian America and its history. His academic, political, and popular writings over the course of his twelve years in the U.S., together with other people’s discussions of these works (and, in many cases, of the author’s colorful social persona!) in their own publications, memoirs, and archives, constitute an extraordinary kaleidoscope that is only now being held up to the light.

Shridharani arrived in the United States at a time when South Asians were designated by law as “aliens ineligible for citizenship” based on the nation’s racially restrictive criteria for naturalization. The Naturalization Act of 1790 had established that only “free white persons” could become citizens of the growing U.S. settler state. Since whiteness is not a biological feature of bodies, but rather a status category – in other words, a social and legal construct – it had fallen to the courts to decide who qualified as “white” and who did not. The Supreme Court had ruled that the populations today described as “South Asian” did not. Furthermore, the Immigration Act of 1917 proscribed immigration from any place falling within a sweeping span of territory denominated the “Asiatic Barred Zone,” which included most of the Middle East, stretched across West Asia and parts of Russia, encompassed all of South Asia and most of East Asia, and extended into the Pacific. “Natives” of the Indian subcontinent, then, were most definitely banned – not only from naturalizing as U.S. citizens, but from immigrating to the United States at all. In general terms, this meant that South Asians could not enter the country. Exceptions were made, however, for individuals who were seen as temporary visitors. Upper-class tourists qualified for such exceptions, as did graduate students like Shridharani.

Landing in mid-1930s New York, the 22-year-old Shridharani entered a world of bizarre contradictions: an American socio-cultural-political milieu defined both by the paranoid racism of the Asiatic Barred Zone Act and by a commercial circus-scape of popular Orientalism revolving around fetishized notions of a mystical, exotic, and often freakshow-like “India.” As Seema Sohi demonstrates in Echoes of Mutiny: Race, Surveillance, and Indian Anticolonialism in North America, the 1917 passage of the Asiatic Barred Zone Act was motivated not only by anti-Asian racism, but also by fear and loathing of the Indian independence movement. In the years leading up to 1917, politicians like John Lawson Burnett and John Raker warned of a dangerous “Hindu menace” that represented a radical political threat, to be expelled and expunged from the United States with all due speed.14

From left to right, Smt. Sundari Shridharani, Pt. Jawaharlal Nehru, and Dr. Krishnalal Shridharani, as an officer on special duty with Nehru. Photo courtesy of the Dr. Krishnalal Shridharani Facebook page managed by Shraddha Shridharani.

At the same time, even as “Indians” were portrayed as a political, cultural, and racial pollutant from which the purity of the nation had to be protected through immigration restrictions, Americans had an insatiable appetite for consuming an exotic “India.” It was not unusual to find white Americans taking on the imagined personae of the very “Indians” whose entry into the U.S. had been banned. White men like William Walker Atkinson (a.k.a. “Swami Panchadasi” or “Yogi Ramacharaka”) adopted “Hindu” pseudonyms to sell books and other products and services based on “Indian” themes, ranging from the “Hindu-yogi science of breath” to fortune-telling and mind-control.15 A nationally-syndicated radio drama featured a white American character named Frank Chandler who went by the name of “Chandu the Magician”; each episode gave listeners a dramatic adventure in which Chandu/Chandler, “armed with astral projections and a crystal ball,” used the “mystical powers he had learned from India to fight evil.”16 In 1934, the year of Shridharani’s arrival in the U.S., the radio program was made into a twelve-episode fantasy film serial called The Return of Chandu, followed in 1935 by Chandu on the Magic Island, a sixty-five-minute feature film depicting even more of Chandu-Chandler’s supernatural exploits.

Even as Shridharani remained a racially-barred “alien ineligible for citizenship,” his experiences in New York were inescapably shaped by white America’s voracious consumption of “Oriental” India. During his first summer in the city, Shridharani was invited for a weekend yacht cruise on Long Island Sound. Although the invitation was oddly accompanied by a statement that the hostess was interested in the “mysticism of the East,” he was not prepared for what ensued:

All through dinner I encountered unnerving glances from the men and giggles from the ladies…. When we withdrew to the drawing room for brandy and coffee, I casually noticed that a huge coil of rope was placed in the center of the circle drawn by comfortably cushioned chairs and lounges. My first thought was that perhaps it had a peculiar decorative significance for nautical-minded wealthy Americans.… Then I saw the substantial figure of my hostess rising, and silence crept over the group. She bowed slightly and said in a solemn tone, as if the main event of the evening were being announced, ‘And now, our distinguished guest from India, that land of mystery, will perform the rope trick.’17

This anecdote, recounted in Shridharani’s autobiographical My India, My America, is just one in a long series of encounters in which the bewildered graduate student finds himself called upon to serve up assorted exotica to Americans. On a visit to Rhode Island, he is expected to deliver a lecture on “meditation, proper breathing, and ‘yoga in general’” to an eager group of wealthy ladies.18 Invited to dinner at the Rainbow Room, he is followed onto the dance floor by two society reporters, finds himself being “shot at by flashing cameras,” and is asked, “Chief, what are you Maharaja of?”19

In 1942, S. Chandrashekhar asked M.K. Gandhi whether he ever intended to visit the United States. Gandhi’s response revealed his awareness of the America Shridharani describes: “I don’t think the American people are interested in me as a symbol of India’s struggle for Freedom, not even as an exponent of nonviolence. I think the average American is interested in me as a social curiosity – my loincloth and my goat’s milk and things like that. That’s why I don’t think I will ever visit the United States.”20

Gandhi understood that the mainstream U.S. public would largely regard him as a spectacle, instead of seriously engaging his political message. Shridharani, too, understood that many of the Americans he encountered regarded him as part of an Oriental menagerie. Unlike Gandhi, however, he did not turn away from the American arena; rather, he turned the tables on his would-be audience by taking on the persona of the “dandy.” The figure of the dandy is itself a kind of spectacle, and the “racialized dandy” particularly disruptive. In Monica Miller’s description, he is an “outsider broadcasting his alien status by clothing his dark body in a good suit.”21 Shridharani disrupted his American interlocutors’ presuppositions and expectations in both word and dress; his storytelling and banter threw them off-kilter, and, before they could regain their balance, he artfully tossed his political message in their direction.

La Voz De La India by Dr. Krishnalal Shridharani.

Harlem and the Ashram

To be clear, Orientalist fantasies of the exotic East were also found in African American communities. But African American interest in Orientalized magic and mysticism could be distinct from white Orientalism – as, for example, when “Hindu spirit guides” and “[m]agical supplies made by Hindu people or via Hindu method” were incorporated into the uniquely African American magical/spiritual tradition known as Hoodoo.22 In addition, while white Americans went faux-“Hindu” for recreation or profit, Black Americans occasionally presented themselves as Indian for other reasons; despite the anti-Asian racism of the era, it was generally safer to be mistaken for a Maharaja than racialized as a “Negro.” At the same time, African Americans could consume Orientalist imagery in much the same manner as white audiences. Sometimes African Americans, like white Americans and South Asians themselves, took on “Hindu” or “Oriental” personas for entrepreneurial purposes. A 1937 article in the New York Amsterdam News, the city’s major African American newspaper, complained that the streets of Harlem were full of “fakers” with their “heads wrapped in turbans,” some wearing “snakes around their shoulders,” peddling everything from incense to psychic predictions.23

That said, if Shridharani, who spent a fair amount of time in Harlem, ever had any significant interactions with African American entrepreneurs masquerading as “Hindus,” those encounters are not documented in any of the archives I’ve come across in my research. The African Americans of Shridharani’s acquaintance were not “fakers,” but transnationally-oriented scholar-activists. They actively supported the Indian anticolonial movement, and they sought the support of Indian activists like Shridharani in their own battle against American white supremacy. Black activist-intellectuals including James Farmer, Pauli Murray, and Bayard Rustin made a point of situating their civil rights work within the conceptual framework of a transnational and global struggle against white supremacy, and they made it clear that they regarded the movement in India as a key element of that global struggle.

For example, when Pauli Murray served as a delegate from Howard University Law School to the 1941 International Student Assembly in Washington, D.C., she and a group of other delegates not only circulated a statement “calling for the destruction of the doctrine of race supremacy” in the United States and other “democratic” nations; they also specifically forwarded a strong critique of British colonialism in India.24 Murray’s group pressed the Assembly to adopt a resolution that called for the release of Indian anticolonialists from British prisons. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, in attendance at the Assembly, cornered Murray in between sessions and sternly explained that the resolution on India might cause the British delegates to walk out of the Assembly, thereby offending a key U.S. ally. Roosevelt urged Murray to withdraw the resolution on India. The young law student stood firmly by her anticolonial position and continued to fight for this resolution in subsequent sessions. Ultimately, a version of the resolution was passed.

Transnationally-oriented antiracist activists of the era frequently made these types of interventions. In My India, My America, Shridharani recalls the 1939 World Youth Congress at Vassar, where “a pious resolution… condemned the Nazi ferocity and set relief work in motion”; the Indian students at the conference supported the resolution, but “wanted it to go further”:

To the westerners the suffering figure of the Jew was in a class by itself, a logical category. But to the Hindu delegates, the afflicted Jew was important because he was a part of a larger category of the persecuted minorities all over the world. Efforts were therefore made unofficially to include in that resolution cases of Negroes in the United States, untouchables in India, Indians in South Africa, and minorities all over the world. One of the Indian delegates… suggested there should be common cause among all persecuted minorities irrespective of creed or color… 25

The “westerners” who were rightly appalled at the violence inflicted upon European Jews were unconcerned when the targets of mass violence were nonwhite – particularly in cases where the root cause of systematic violence was white supremacy itself. African American and South Asian thinkers – sometimes in coordination, and sometimes simply using each other’s causes as cases-in-point – regularly called attention to the hypocrisy of this double-standard.

Shridharani’s critical attention to the dynamics between minoritized peoples and hegemonic majorities is clearly evident in War Without Violence. He vigorously rejected the idea – frequently articulated by white liberals of the era - that direct action (nonviolent or otherwise) was “unnecessary” in the U.S. because “America is a democracy.” This line was regularly used to shut down critical conversations about racism, as African Americans were told that they should feel grateful to be “living in a democracy” rather than in Nazi Germany. War Without Violence critically interrupts the trope of “democracy” as a panacea for every kind of oppression. As Shridharani pointed out, the “mere existence of a democratic form of government does not solve” issues of inter-group conflict; more specifically, it does not inherently protect minoritized groups from systematic oppression by a powerful majority population.26 American “democracy” had never protected Black communities from white oppression, and it showed no signs of doing so in the near future. Shridharani’s critique, though framed in general theoretical terms rather than as a specific discussion of African American issues, applied directly to racial oppression in the United States.

Photograph of a young Dr. Krishnalal Shridharani. Photo courtesy of the Dr. Krishnalal Shridharani Facebook page managed by Shraddha Shridharani.

War Without Violence found a particularly avid and well-connected audience at the Harlem Ashram, a frequent meeting place for African American activist-intellectuals and Indian anticolonialists in New York during the 1940s. This eight-room brownstone on Fifth Avenue near 125th Street, close to Harlem’s Mt. Morris Park, was an intentionally political setting, where participants in anti-imperialist and racial justice movements could meet, learn from each other, organize together, and offer mutual support. It was also a residential space, where activists lived inexpensively as part of a pacifist community. Many historical accounts of the Harlem Ashram attribute its founding to Jay Holmes Smith, a white Protestant minister who had spent many years working in India but was forced to leave the country due to his support of the anticolonial movement. Smith himself gave credit to “Indians in [the United States] like Krishnalal Shridharani and Haridas Muzumdar” for bringing the ashram concept to the U.S.

The Harlem Ashram was, as historian Nishani Frazier notes, a remarkable “site of cross-pollination” between and among multiple liberation movements – particularly movements for African American civil rights, Indian independence, and Puerto Rican decolonization.27 Shridharani knew and influenced all of the individuals and organizations that found their way to and through the ashram, including the Congress of Racial Equality, the India League of America, the March on Washington Movement, the American League for Puerto Rico’s Independence, and the Harlem Christian Youth Conference. In addition to his impactful personal presence as a visitor and lecturer at the Ashram, Shridharani was always present through his writings, particularly War Without Violence. This book was a regular topic of discussion in formal and informal meetings, and Shridharani’s elaboration of satyagraha in particular was used as the basis for trainings in nonviolent direct action. “Satyagraha,” Shridharani writes in War Without Violence, “is not Aladdin’s Lamp. It cannot win victories by itself. Like war, it is only a technique…. No social end is gained by simply waving the magic wand of either Satyagraha or war. It rests upon the men [sic] who have to fight, violently or nonviolently.”28

Shridharani’s framing of satyagraha as a method and approach to social change, rather than a moral imperative, particularly resonated with James Farmer. When taking steps to establish the Congress of Racial Equality, Farmer faced opposition from A.J. Muste of the Fellowship Of Reconciliation who skeptically demanded to know how Farmer would “maintain a pacifist emphasis” in the new organization.29 But Farmer did not seek to “maintain a pacifist emphasis”; as he explained to Muste, “CORE should not be a pacifist organization, but rather, it should bring pacifists and nonpacifists together under a commitment to nonviolence as a tactic, a device for fighting racism.”30 The new organization did just that. By the early 1960s, CORE was spearheading some of the most dramatic civil rights actions of the era, with members from a broad array of religious backgrounds and ideological orientations working together on concerted campaigns of nonviolent direct action against racial segregation and other manifestations of American white supremacy.

Despite playing a major role in the effort to end the U.S. ban on Indian immigration and naturalization, Shridharani never sought to become a U.S. citizen himself and returned to India in 1946. His writings, however, continued to circulate influentially among U.S. activists long after his departure from the country. Martin Luther King, Jr., studied Shridharani’s book during the Montgomery bus boycott.31 In 1961, organizers with CORE, under the directorship of James Farmer, used War Without Violence as part of the educational preparation provided to participants in the Freedom Rides. Unfortunately, “Shrid” did not live to witness this most eventful era of CORE; he passed away in 1960, at the age of just forty-nine: a life cut short but lived to the fullest.

Dr. Krishnalal Shridharani with writer Pearl Buck. Photo courtesy of the Dr. Krishnalal Shridharani Facebook page managed by Shraddha Shridharani.

“A Great Guy”

In his monumental “King Era Trilogy” on the civil rights movement, Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Taylor Branch writes that James Farmer and Bayard Rustin “together sat at the feet of a traveling Gandhi disciple named Krishnalal Shridharani.”32 This metaphor of sitting-at-the-feet has been taken up rather too literally by subsequent historians, and with an enthusiasm strangely reminiscent of the Orientalist narratives that Shridharani encountered in the 1930s. One historian describes Shridharani as a “Guru-like advisor” to CORE.33 Reading Shridharani’s writings, however, it is clear that he did not present himself as an acharya dispensing wisdom to his acolyte-organizers. He would have laughed uproariously at the notion of anyone sitting at his feet!

While Shridharani’s work was profoundly influential, that influence traveled in both directions: he learned as much from his encounters with African American activists as they did from him. They were colleagues, comrades, and friends. In an interview catalogued in Dr. Branch’s papers, Bayard Rustin, after noting the importance of War Without Violence, describes the author this way: “Shridharani was a… cigar-smoking… drank like a fish… he was a great guy – I liked him!”34

In September 2021, I had the opportunity to interview Shridharani’s daughter, Kavita Mohindroo. Although she was only seven years old when her father died, Kavitaji had many vivid memories of him to share. “We did a lot of fun stuff,” she recalled, telling me about the stories her father would read to her, about his penchant for gardening, and about the family’s pet deer that had to be chased down the street whenever it escaped from the garden. “My friends’ families were very different,” she remarked. “When the father came home, you had to be quiet. For us, when my father came home or was finished with his work, we would jump on him!” Also, she recalled, “He would love to pull everyone’s leg. He once told us, ‘When I was in jail, my food had all kinds of rubbish in it. Half of my laddoo was made of mud!’ But… who would give him a laddoo in jail?!”

Laughing along as I listened to her stories, I felt as if I were a member of the family hearing tales about a favorite uncle – despite the fact that I am not related to Shridharani at all. But perhaps, as the daughter of a South Asian immigrant who came to the United States after the lifting of overt racial sanctions on immigration from the subcontinent, I might consider myself to be a sort of “political descendant” of activists like Krishnalal Shridharani. After all, without the political changes that such activists participated in bringing about, I would not exist.

Photograph of Dr. Shridharani and his wife, Sundari, at their daughter Kavita’s naming ceremony. Photo courtesy of the Dr. Krishnalal Shridharani Facebook page managed by Shraddha Shridharani.

Thinking about the many descriptions of Shridharani’s sartorial elegance during his U.S. years – his Brooks Brothers suits, Homberg hats, Chesterfield coat, “impeccably shined shoes,” and cigars that completed the look – I couldn’t resist asking his daughter: Did he continue dressing that way after he had returned to India? Kavitaji’s answer did not disappoint: “Oh my God, he always had to be dressed perfectly!” she exclaimed with affection. “He was always very well turned-out… He loved to wear his bowties and things like that.”

I asked whether she had any photographs I could see, and she said there were many. She had not, however, seen the photograph of the young Shridharani with Tagore at Shantiniketan in the early 1930s – the slim, solemn student whose American career as a bestselling author and flamboyant activist-dandy still lay in the future.

After the interview, I made a note to myself to send her a copy of that photograph.

1. “People and Ideas: And What’s More…” Vogue 100.5 (Sept. 1, 1942), 94.
2. This photograph appears in: Krishnalal Shridharani, “TAGORE: prophet of the East,” Current History, 44(5) (1936), 76-81.
3. Gerald Horne, The End of Empires: African Americans and India (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2008), 1,4.
4. Nico Slate, Colored Cosmopolitanism: The Shared Struggle for Freedom in the United States and India. (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2012), 2.
5. Slate 2012, 2.
6. Qtd. in Jervis Anderson, Bayard Rustin: Troubles I’ve Seen: A Biography (New York: Harper Collins, 1997), 69.
7. Qtd. in Horne (2008), p. 138.
8. It was the renowned African American labor leader and civil rights activist Ernest Calloway who originally dubbed Fisher “godmother of the restaurant ‘sit-in’ technique.”
9. Qtd. in Anderson 1997, 69-70.
10. Anderson 1997, 84.
11. Pauli Murray, Pauli Murray: The Autobiography of a Black Activist, Feminist, Lawyer, Priest, and Poet. (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1987), 138.
12. Qtd. in Horne 2008, 141.
13. James Farmer, Lay Bare the Heart: An Autobiography of the Civil Rights Movement (New York: Arbor House, 1985), 112.
14. In the mainstream American discourse of the era, “Hindu” – also spelled “Hindoo” – functioned as a racializing term referring to all South Asians, rather than indexing any particular religious community.
15. Ibid., 16-17
16. Philip Deslippe, “The Hindu in Hoodoo: Fake Yogis, Pseudo-Swamis, and the Manufacture of African American Folk Magic,” Amerasia Journal, 40:1 (2014), 42.
17. Krishnalal Shridharani, My India, My America (New York: Duell, Sloan and Pearce, 1941), 92-93.
18. Ibid., 96.
19. Ibid., 99-100.
20. Qtd. in Penny M. Von Eschen, Race Against Empire: Black Americans and Anticolonialism, 1937-1957 (New York: Cornell University Press, 1997), 32.
21. Monica Miller, Slaves to Fashion: Black Dandyism and the Styling of Black Diasporic Identity (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2009), 11.
22. Philip Deslippe, “The Hindu in Hoodoo: Fake Yogis, Pseudo-Swamis, and the Manufacture of African American Folk Magic,” Amerasia Journal, 40:1 (2014).
23. Ken Jessamy, “Harlem’s Fakers: Streets Full of Turbaned ‘Wise Men’,” New York Amsterdam News, August 28, 1937, 11.
24. Pauli Murray, Pauli Murray: The Autobiography of a Black Activist, Feminist, Lawyer, Priest, and Poet. (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1987), 194
25. My India, My America, 269.
26. War Without Violence, 298.
27. A 1944 update submitted by Ashram residents to the FOR made specific reference to “the peoples of India and Puerto Rico struggling for freedom from imperialistic exploitation, and the Negro people of America striving to be free from that white domination which is akin to it.” See “The Work of the Harlem Ashram.” Harlem Ashram papers from the Fellowship of Reconciliation-USA, Section II, Series A, Subseries A-3, Box 13
28. War Without Violence, 320, 322.
29. Lay Bare the Heart, 111.
30. Ibid.
31. This is mentioned in multiple sources, including Mary King, A Quiet Revolution: The First Palestinian Intifada and Nonviolent Resistance (Nation Books, 2007), 23.
32. Taylor Branch, Parting the Waters: America in the King Years 1954-63 (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1989), 171.
33. Mark Kurlansky, Nonviolence: The History of a Dangerous Idea (New York: Random House, 2008), 153.
34. “TB Second interview with Bayard Rustin, Tuesday, Feb 21, NYC.” 5047. BRANCH, TAYLOR. Series 4, Subject Files. Folder 852. Taylor Branch papers, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Malathi M. Iyengar is an Associate Professor in the Department of Ethnic Studies at College of San Mateo, a public community college in the San Francisco Bay Area. She holds a PhD in Ethnic Studies from the University of California, San Diego.