Alfred Georg Wurfel is widely known for his contributions towards promotion of cultural relations and friendship between India and Germany.
Born on November 26, 1911 in Dresden, Germany, Shri Wurfel developed keen interest in India and its culture in his boyhood itself through avid reading of literature on India. During his studies at the University of Dresden, he met Uday Shankar and his whole ensemble in 1932 and arranged shows for them in various cities in Germany. In the same year, he came in contact with netaji Subhash Chandra Bose. In the year 1935, after his graduation from the University of Dresden, he succeeded in fulfilling his long-cherished wish to come to India and study Sanskrit in Benares Hindu University, where he also conducted German language courses for the benefit of its students at the request of its Founder Vice Chancellor, Shri Madan Mohan Malaviya.
Having come into contact with national leaders, who were guiding the country’s freedom movement, he was also drawn into it. He thus earned the wrath of the British Government and at the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939, he was interned by the British Government for seven years. But even the trying conditions of his seven long years of imprisonment at Ahmedagar, Deolali and finally at Dehra Dun did not prevent him from continuing his study of Indian Philosophy and delving ever deeper into the rich-mine of India’s traditions and culture.
In 1951, he joined the Cultural Section of the German Consulate-General in Bombay. In 1953, he was transferred to the Cultural Department of the German Embassy in Delhi and retired as its Head in 1976. Even after his retirement he continues to devote himself, as he has done before, towards promoting cultural relations and friendship between Indian and the country of his birth. His home in Delhi is still a meeting place for eminent scholars, artists, scientists and friends of India.
I first came to India in 1964 for the International Congress of Orientalists in New Delhi which I attended as an Indologist. I had studied Sanskrit at German universities for many years and felt a keen desire to see the homeland of this perfect language. There I met Alfred Georg Wurfel whose rapport with India had begun decades earlier. I was deeply impressed by his intimate knowledge of India which he passed on with gentle charm, and ever since, I gained a great deal from his friendly support.
Wurfel grew up in poor circumstances and the portrayal of his family, especially of his caring mother, is quite a touching read. The conditions around him were anything but promising, but he and his two sisters received excellent education and got their degrees. He grew up in Dresden, a city with a great royal heritage and a multi-faceted cultural life. Amazingly, right from his childhood, Wurfel had a preference for anything connected with India: at first the exotic appeal of the zoo, then the fascination of books on India and close contacts with Indian students and visitors, the most famous being Uday Shankar. Such an early instinctive devotion to India is unparalleled and this spontaneous affection can only be explained by a term which shows up in the title: Karma.
Given this it is small wonder that he made every effort to get to India. He came to Varanasi in 1935 to teach at the Benares Hindu University. Encounters with Gandhi and Tagore made a deep impact on him. With his lady-friend Alice Boner, he travelled to many places, and as in Varanasi, he felt immediately at home everywhere in India. Therefore he endured the hardship of seven years’ internment (due to World War II) with greater ease than his fellow internees. His account of the Camp at Dehra Dun – written with great fair-mindedness – is an important contribution to the still unwritten history of this episode.
When he as finally released in 1946 his repatriation to Germany was a great shock for him because he had to leave Mother India. After his disembarkation in Hamburg he did everything in his power to return to India. As in 1935 he, the Dresden graduate, gave up a permanent appointment in Germany, but this time he even risked his life as he had to travel with the proof of an Anglo-Indian identity. His reminiscences of this darling escape back to India are a compelling story.
With the help of his Indian friends he quickly settled in the new Indian Republic. From 1953 to 1976 he belonged to the staff of the German Embassy in New Delhi and devoted all his energies to promote cultural relations between India and Germany. Numerous Germans took his advice, and many Indians became fond of him for his modest manner and deep affection for their country. He loves India, and so India loves him. In 1992 the Padma Shri was conferred upon him.
Since his first years in India, Wurfel has written with empathy on Indian art and spirituality, and no his encounters with Alice Boner, Stella Kramrisch, C.G. Jung and others (see parts II and III of this volume). He also built up a reputation as photographer, and his Delhi exhibition “The Face of India” was on display in Munich 1998-2000, titled “Indische Gesichter”. Being a generous benefactor he has committed himself to work for charity and takes an active role in an aid programme for lepers in south India.
Many Germans felt drawn towards India, but I have not come across a quainter story as is Sri Wurfel’s autobiography. In his portrait of Pratap Singh, the Raja of Kuchaman (see part II) he contemplates the karmic cause of his everlasting attachment to India. I well remember the Indian interior of the house in New Delhi where Wurfel lives today. There he told me not long ago: “I know that I shall be reborn in India, and look, then you will join me again.” With great happiness I am looking forward to this punardarshan.
I am recounting my life’s journey in this small book-a journey that brought me at a very early age to India, which has been my home now for nearly seventy years.
Many friends have helped me to find my way and supported me when the going was a little rough. India and my Indian friend welcomed me with open arms and continue to treat me as one of their own.
First of all I must thank my parents and my sisters for their understanding of my dreams, quite unusual at that time in the 1920s. Particularly my mother Klara Wurfel sustained me in my endeavour, in spite of being very attached to her only son.
I reached Banaras in 1935 and was warmly received by professors and students of Benares Hindu University. I had the good fortune to find a learned friend in Alice Boner, the Swiss artist, who introduced me to many aspects of Indian art and culture.
Internment for seven years during World War II was painful in many ways, but it did give me an opportunity to read and absorb knowledge about Indian literature and philosophy.
In 1946 I was repatriated to Germany against my wishes by the British. My special thanks go to the memory of my friend Shantilal Shah who rescued me from my enforced exile in Germany, helped me to return to India in 1947 and to survive as a refuge in Bombay.
I owe a deep gratitude to the late Ambassador Dr. Herbert Richter who as Consul-General in Bombay employed me at the re-opened German Mission in 1950; from there I moved to Delhi in 1953 to join the new German Embassy. I worked in the Cultural Department of the Embassy for 25 years, during an important period when Indo-German relations were institutionalized. I cannot list the many colleagues with whom it was a great pleasure to work with, but I must mention one colleague, who stood by me through thick and thin and remained a loyal friend after retirement: Magdalene Duckwitz.
I warmly thank Dr. Dagmar Bernstorff for her editorial advice on this book and Allied Publishers for all their work.
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