Celebrated French Opera singer, born in a poor family of South France. A celebrity by dint of talent and perseverance. First meeting with Swamiji at Chicago perhaps some time in 1894. Swamiji assuaged her grief for her only daughter who had been burned to death. She met him the second time at Chicago on 28.11.1899 and later at Paris in 1900. Mme Calve was also learned in philosophical and religious literature. Swamiji said of her, “Calve’s genius coupled with learning is unique” (Life of Swami Vivekananda, Vol. 2, p. 552). Travelled to Egypt with Swamiji, who was her guest, and some others across south-west Europe and via Constantinople. In Egypt Swamiji suddenly decided to return to India and forecast to Emma the date of his own death and the imminent death of Captain Sevier. Emma, who addressed him as “Mon pere”, helped him to return home. She came to India in November 1910. She was felicitated at the Grand Hotel by Purnachandra Ghosh, the Master’s lay disciple, and other distinguished persons on behalf of Vivekananda Society and presented with portraits of Sri Ramakrishna and Swami Vivekananda. On December 2 she was taken to Belur Math by Swamiji’s mother and in the shrine she sang two French songs at the request of Swamiji’s disciple Sharatchandra Chakravarty, creating an awesome atmosphere. Her reminiscences of Swamiji in Chapter 22 of her autobiography, headed “The Vedantist Sannyasin”, was partly translated into English and published in the comprehensive biography of Swamiji. The entire book was translated into English by Rosamond Gilder, titled My Life (New York, 1922). Excerpts from it published in the Prabuddha Bharata (November 1922) were later incorporated in Reminiscences of Swami Vivekananda, 1961. Brahmachari Barun’s Bengali translation of this appeared in the Udbodhan (64.1. 15-19), an earlier Bengali version having also been published by the same journal (44.5. 235-38). Swamiji alludes to Emma in his writings (?). Bhupatimohan Mukherjee’s article “Swamiji-Shishya Emma Calve” appeared in the Vishwavani (40.1.27-33). An article by Sankari Prasad Basu on her life appeared in the “Vinodan” number of the Desh (1976), titled “Swanrityer Urvashi” and was later incorporated in his book Vivekananda-Sharane Videshini (1991).
While performing in Chicago, Calvé’s only daughter died in a fire accident. This tragic incident had a serious mental toll on her. It was in this period of intense grief that she met Swami Vivekananda, who prevented her from committing suicide and restored her back to her former cheerful form. Calvé had accompanied Vivekananda as his partner along with Miss Josephine MacLeod, Sir Francis Jules Bois and his wife and Sarah Bernhard while they travelled through Europe and Egypt from 1899 to 1901.
Calvé wrote of Swami Vivekananda in her autobiography: “[He] truly walked with God, a noble being, a saint, a philosopher and a true friend. His influence upon my spiritual life was profound … my soul will bear him eternal gratitude”.
She also visited Belur Math, Swami Vivekananda’s tribute to his guru Ramakrishna Paramahansa. She said of this visit and her association with the monks there: “The hours that I spent with these gentle philosophers have remained in my memory as a time apart. These beings – pure, beautiful and remote seemed to belong to another universe, a better and wiser world”
Swami Vivekananda wrote of Calvé:
She was born poor but by her innate talents, prodigious labour and diligence, and after wrestling against much hardship, she is now enormously rich and commands respect from kings and emperors. … The rare combination of beauty, youth, talents, and “divine” voice has assigned Calve the highest place among the singers of the West. There is, indeed, no better teacher than misery and poverty. That constant fight against the dire poverty, misery, and hardship of the days of her girlhood, which has led to her present triumph over them, has brought into her life a unique sympathy and a depth of thought with a wide outlook.
FIRST MEETING WITH MADAME EMMA CALVE
(New Discoveries, Vol. 1, pp. 484-86.)
[The story of the first meeting of Swami Vivekananda and Madame Emma Calvé, as told in Calvé’s autobiography, My Life]
. . . [Swami Vivekananda] was lecturing in Chicago one year when I was there; and as I was at that time greatly depressed in mind and body, I decided to go to him.
. . . Before going I had been told not to speak until he addressed me. When I entered the room, I stood before him in silence for a moment. He was seated in a noble attitude of meditation, his robe of saffron yellow falling in straight lines to the floor, his head swathed in a turban bent forward, his eyes on the ground. After a pause he spoke without looking up.
“My child”, he said, “what a troubled atmosphere you have about you. Be calm. It is essential”.
Then in a quiet voice, untroubled and aloof, this man who did not even know my name talked to me of my secret problems and anxieties. He spoke of things that I thought were unknown even to my nearest friends. It seemed miraculous, supernatural.
“How do you know all this?” I asked at last. “Who has talked of me to you?”
He looked at me with his quiet smile as though I were a child who had asked a foolish question.
“No one has talked to me”, he answered gently. “Do you think that it is necessary? I read in you as in an open book.”
Finally it was time for me to leave.
“You must forget”, he said as I rose. “Become gay and happy again. Build up your health. Do not dwell in silence upon your sorrows. Transmute your emotions into some form of external expression. Your spiritual health requires it. Your art demands it.”
I left him deeply impressed by his words and his personality. He seemed to have emptied my brain of all its feverish complexities and placed there instead his clear and calming thoughts. I became once again vivacious and cheerful, thanks to the effect of his powerful will. He did not use any of the hypnotic or mesmeric influences. It was the strength of his character, the purity and intensity of his purpose that carried conviction. It seemed to me, when I came to know him better, that he lulled one’s chaotic thoughts into a state of peaceful acquiescence, so that one could give complete and undivided attention to his words.