Heritage: The Hampstead years of Rabindranath Tagore - first Indian writer to become Nobel Laureate

A portrait of Rabindranath Tagore, 1930. Picture: PA Archive

A portrait of Rabindranath Tagore, 1930. Picture: PA Archive - Credit: PA Archive/Press Association Images

In the latest in our series exploring the lives of people commemorated with blue plaques, Adam Sonin looks at the life of India’s first Nobel Laureate, Rabindranath Tagore, who lived in Hampstead in the early 1900s

Blue plaque to Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore in The Vale of Health. Picture: Nigel Sutton

Blue plaque to Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore in The Vale of Health. Picture: Nigel Sutton - Credit: Nigel Sutton

Rabindranath Tagore was the first Indian writer to become world-famous.

When Albert Einstein welcomed him into his home, the two men proceeded to have one of the most fascinating and stimulating conversations in history – Einstein even nicknamed Tagore “Rabbi”.

The political father of modern India, Mahatma Gandhi, was also Tagore’s devoted friend and he met with such diverse individuals as HG Wells and Benito Mussolini. However, had it not been for some good fortune and a key encounter in Hampstead, Tagore’s thoughts and words may not have reached a global audience.

Instantly recognisable with his flowing locks, beard and baggy robes, the poet, writer, playwright, musician, painter and educationalist, Rabindranath Tagore (1861–1941) was born in Calcutta, Bengal, India. He was the 14th child and eighth son of one of the most distinguished families of the city, who derived their wealth from the flamboyant entrepreneurial endeavours of Tagore’s grandfather.

Tagore was raised in a mansion at Jorasanko in north Calcutta, which occupied a central position in the city’s burgeoning literary, artistic, dramatic, musical and journalistic culture.

Short-lived attempts to send him to a number of schools put him off conventional schooling for life and became the basis of his own experiments as an educator. Aided by talented family members and private tutors he learned and developed a thorough understanding of Sanskrit, English and music.

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As a young writer it was Tagore’s sister-in-law who became a great source of encouragement and offered friendly criticism. Her unexplained suicide when he was 22 was devastating and marked the first in a series of bereavements so ruthless that Tagore was forced, as he put it “to make Death a friend”.

As a Bengali writer, Tagore’s output was impressive and constant. From his first (anonymous) published poem Abhilash (Desire) in a journal in 1874 when he was 13, right up to the poems dictated on his deathbed that were included in the posthumous collection Shesh lekha (Last writings, 1941).

But it was in Calcutta in February 1911 where Tagore first met the English artist William Rothenstein. Rothenstein had been to the Jorasanko mansion to visit Tagore’s painter nephew and ran into Tagore. The two men forged a friendship and began to correspond.

A year later, and after a brief period of recuperation from an illness, Tagore decided to visit England. During this break he translated parts of his religious songs and lyrics into biblical English prose, using his trademark exercise book.

Once Tagore had set sail for England he spent much of his time aboard the City of Glasgow reclined on a deckchair, busily translating further works. He managed to fill an entire exercise book and started on a second.

In London, travelling on the Underground, Tagore temporarily lost one of his precious volumes. Fortunately it was handed in and found its way to the Lost Property Office at Baker Street station.

By the time Tagore met with Rothenstein at the artist’s Hampstead house, he had recovered the copy and showed it to his friend. On reading the translated works, Rothenstein immediately had three copies typed up and passed them over to literary scholar Andrew Cecil Bradley, writer Stopford Brooke and poet WB Yeats.

Rothenstein, who lived at 11 Oak Hill Park, Hampstead (since demolished), was able to find Tagore temporary lodgings at Number 3 Villas on the Heath, Hampstead. The poet made this address his home for a few months in the summer of 1912 where he continued to work on his translations.

On July 7, 1912 the translations were read out by Yeats to a gathering at Rothenstein’s house. Those in attendance included writers Evelyn Underhill, Ernest Rhys and Alice Meynell, and musicologist Arthur Fox Strangways. The readings were an immediate hit, making a great impression on the gathered audience. Tagore told a friend: “People here have taken to my work with such excessive enthusiasm that I cannot really accept it.”

Rhys later wrote: “Nothing could exceed the simplicity and unpretentiousness of this visitor from an older world. He was content to take things as he found them, and did not expect one to discourse all day on philosophy... and he could on rarer occasions be prevailed upon to sing his songs to the veritable wild and beautiful Indian melodies out of which they were born.”

Rhys added: “At other times, if the English sun was only good enough to shine, it was pleasure enough for him to sit on the grass in a Hampstead garden and listen to the noises of the town carried over the roofs and treetops. His understanding of life, his acceptance of its cares, his delight in its common occurrences, were not those we had hitherto associated with the notion of an Indian ascetic.”

A few days later at a reception party at The Trocadero Restaurant, in London, Yeats read more of Tagore’s translated verse.

Later that year on November 1, Gitanjali, as the collection of 103 translations is known (Song-offering), was published in a limited run of 750 copies by the India Society of London. The introduction was written by Yeats and in 1913 it was printed again, by Macmillan, while Tagore was travelling in America.

That year Tagore’s play Post Office joined the Irish National Theatre’s repertoire as recommended by Yeats, who also delivered a lecture on Tagore in Dublin.

As a result of this series of events Tagore’s name was proposed to the Nobel prize committee by the writer Thomas Sturge Moore. As a result of strong support from the Swedish poet Verner von Heidenstam, who was awarded the prize in 1916, Tagore was nominated. News of the honour reached him by telegram in India on November 16, 1913. The date also coincided with the arrival of Edward Thompson, Tagore’s first serious foreign biographer and critic.

The entry in Thompson’s journal account states that Tagore’s first comment, on hearing the news, was, “I shall get no peace now, Mr Thompson”. The prize totally altered his life and turned him into the world’s first intercontinental literary star.

In 1932 Tagore wrote to Rothenstein: “It was not at all necessary for my own reputation that I should find my place in the history of your literature. It was an accident for which you were also responsible and possibly most of all was Yeats.”

Best remembered for his poetry and his sensitive plea for multiculturalism, Tagore was knighted in 1915 but later renounced the honour in protest at the Amritsar massacre of 1919.

However, it wasn’t until he was in his 70s that Tagore’s talent as an artist and painter emerged. He had developed his works from the scribblings on the borders of his manuscripts.

In 1961, when a plaque commemorating Tagore was unveiled at 3 Villas on the Heath, it was an Indian flag, and not a Union Jack, that was used to mark the occasion.

In 2011, Prince Charles unveiled a bust of the Nobel Laureate’s head at The Tagore Centre UK in Golden Square, London. His music and lyrics have also been used by two countries – India and Bangladesh – as their national anthems.