Rabindranath Tagore was a Bengali polymath – poet, philosopher, novelist, Nobel Prize winner… and resident of our fair city. And now there’s a plaque marking his life. Dr Jeanne Openshaw looks back at his life and times
Commemoration of Rabindranath Tagore in our city has been a long time coming. To state the obvious, a plaque needs a wall, and searches in local street directories and Indian archives for the Tagores’ precise home address have long drawn a blank. The solution was to switch focus to the school he attended, aged 17, in Ship Street (now part of the Hotel du Vin).
Rabindranath Tagore was a world-renowned polymath – poet, philosopher, novelist, visual artist, composer and activist. Born into a talented and cultured upper-class family in Calcutta (now Kolkata), India, with extensive estates in what is now Bangladesh, he came to embrace humanism and universalism.
He transformed Bengali written and visual culture, and in 1913 became the first non-Westerner to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. He was knighted by George V for his services to literature, an honour he later repudiated, in protest at the Jallianwala Bagh massacre in Amritsar.
A strong advocate of freedom from British rule in India, he nevertheless argued: ‘Patriotism cannot be our final spiritual shelter; my refuge is humanity. I will not buy glass for the price of diamonds, and I will never allow patriotism to triumph over humanity, as long as I live.’
Much later, two independent nations, India and Bangladesh, were to select Tagore’s song lyrics as their national anthems.
When the plaque was finally unveiled on 28th October, 7 Ship Street was accordingly festooned with three flags, and the Salvation Army played three national anthems.
Over 200 people turned up to the unveiling. But not, unfortunately, the High Commissioners of India and Bangladesh. COP 26 had claimed their presence instead. So the event was quieter than expected, although the seagulls tried to make up for that. The weather smiled on us – wind and rain held off until the following day.
Tagore was one of the most travelled persons of his time. However, the first place he lived in outside India was Brighton and Hove. He later wrote:
One thing in the Brighton school seemed very wonderful: the other boys were not
at all rude to me. On the contrary they would often thrust oranges and apples into my pockets and run away. I can only ascribe this uncommon behaviour of theirs to my being a foreigner… (My reminiscences, translation from Bengali published in 1917).
On the day, Dr Kalyan Kundu, Tagore Centre UK, spoke about Tagore’s early schooling (or rather lack of it), and his first impressions of Britain.
Professor Shahaduz Zaman, University of Sussex, provided a Bangladeshi perspective. For Bangladeshis, Tagore is associated with the 1971 struggle for independence from Pakistan, and the new nation’s emphasis on Bengali language and culture.
Tagore’s descendants in India sent a touching email to all present.
A reception was held in the domed school room inside no.7 Ship Street, appropriately decorated with images of Tagore with various luminaries, as well as prints of his paintings, provided by the Tagore Centre UK. Songs by Rabindranath were performed by Mamata and Sunith Lahiri, also from the Tagore Centre.
Our neighbours, Vinod and Meena Mashru (of Bright News, Buckingham Road) provided vegetarian food and non-alcoholic champagne. Noori’s restaurant – across the road from the plaque – supplied the non-vegetarian Indian food. The Hotel du Vin provided ‘western’ food and drink (non-alcoholic on this occasion).
Credit is due to Brighton and Hove City Council, especially the Brighton and Hove Heritage Commission chair (also chair of the Brighton and Hove Commemorative Plaque Panel), Roger Amerena.