This charming turn of the century beaux arts townhouse was briefly home to the India Centre, the brainchild of India Society of America founder Hari G. Govil.
Govil created the India Society in 1924 in order to enhance American understanding of India and its culture. Although the organization largely focused on promoting Indian art and music, Govil certainly intended for it to serve a political purpose as well. An Indian nationalist who corresponded with Gandhi, Govil created the India Society at a particularly fraught time. In India, British authorities had just released Gandhi from prison after his earlier civil disobedience campaign. In the United States, the Supreme Court had the year before barred Indians (on racial grounds) from becoming naturalized American citizens. Under these circumstances, Govil likely hoped that the India Society would improve the image of India in the United States in a manner beneficial to both Indian immigrants and Indian independence.
Govil believed not just in Indian nationalism, but also in interracial anti-colonialism, as this letter to W.E.B. DuBois suggests. But he appears to have put most of his faith in his educational crusade.
When Govil launched his campaign to build the India Centre in February 1929, he told a New York Times reporter that he hoped the combined museum, temple, theater, and cultural forum would be “a medium for harmonizing the deeper values of the Oriental and Occidental civilizations.” Govil and his supporters, many of them Columbia University scholars, selected the townhouse at 334 Riverside Drive for the Centre’s home.
Unfortunately, the Depression intervened. Although the India Society purchased 334 Riverside, the group quickly lost the building because of failure to pay for it. The Society persevered, holding events in other venues, but it never found a home of its own. Govil himself returned to India in 1939, but after serving in prison for his political activities, he came back to the United States, where he died in 1956.
Sources for this post include The New York Times and Sarah A. Fedirka, “Towards a Locational Modernism: Little Magazines and the Modernist Geographical Imagination” (Ph.D. diss., Arizona State University, 2008).