Celebrating Tagore at Shakespeare’s Birthplace

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In early May every year we gather in the garden of Shakespeare’s birthplace to honour the birthday of another great poet, Rabindranath Tagore, whose bust sits proudly in the corner of the garden.  This tradition has been kept alive by Jayanta and Obhi Chatterjee accompanied by Kaberi Chatterjee.  This year we were marking the 100th anniversary of the publication of Tagore’s great masterpiece, Gitanjali. Tagore received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1913 in large part as a result of the English publication of this work.  Thanks to Jayanta and Ohbi Chatterjee we learnt how this all came about: what follows is an edited extract from their script without the verse and musical accompaniments.
“On November 14th, 1913, Rabindranath Tagore was in Santiniketan, the small village in Bengal where he had founded a school a few years earlier.  He received a telegram from a fellow Bengali poet, Satyendranath Dutta. The telegram said Tagore had just been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, mainly for his collection of poetry called Gitanjali, or ʻsong offeringsʼ.  It was the first time a non-European had been awarded a Nobel Prize.


But how did it happen?  That is the story we are here to tell you: The Story of Gitanjali.

Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high;
Where knowledge is free:
Where the world has not been broken up into fragments
by narrow domestic walls;
Where words come out from the depth of truth;
Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards
Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way
into the dreary desert sand of dead habit;
Where the mind is led forward by thee into ever-widening
thought and action –
Into that heaven of freedom, my father, let my country


In September 1910 the Bengali Gitanjali was published.  The poems reflected the poetʼs mood in different periods – he began with poems which could be interpreted either as love poems or devotional poems, then came a few poems about the seasons.  Some of the later poems showed his anguish at the failings of his countrymen and at the injustices in society.  However, the underlying thread was always devotion and wonder at Godʼs creation.


In 1912 Tagore and his family travelled to London. On the way he had translated into English 53 poems from the Bengali Gitanjali and a further 50 from other poetry collections he had written.  Soon after their arrival, on their way to their hotel in Bloomsbury, they left the attaché case containing the only manuscript of Gitanjali on the Underground train from Charing Cross.  They did not notice it was missing until the following day.  It was eventually recovered from the Lost Property office of the London Underground!


Rothenstein, Tagore’s friend and patron, had the poems typed and sent off copies to several of his friends, including the Irish poet WB Yeats.  On 27 June 1912, Tagore and Yeats met for the first time over dinner hosted by Rothenstein.  On 7 July, Rothenstein held a soirée where Yeats read a few verses from Gitanjali.  Several such gatherings followed.


Many leading members of the English literary world were enthralled when they heard the poems.  C F Andrews wrote: “We spent the long summer evening listening to Yeats reading Tagoreʼs poems to us one after another, like someone in a trance. When the time came to leave, my mind was full of indescribable bliss.”


On 10 July, the India Society gave a dinner in Rabindranath Tagoreʼs honour at the Trocadero Restaurant.  Yeats proposed the toast and read three verses from Gitanjali.  There were about 70 people present including Ralph Vaughan Williams, H G Wells and Cecil Sharp.


Yeats arranged the poems for the English Gitanjali and wrote a foreword for it:

“I have carried the manuscript of these translations about with me for days, reading it on railway trains, on the top of omnibuses and in restaurants, and I have often had to close it lest some stranger would see how much it moved me.”


The Gitanjali was first published by the India Society of London in November 1912. In March 1913, Macmillans brought out their first edition.  By November 1913, Macmillans had already made 10 reprints.


Many famous people of that period like Ezra Pound, Poet Laureate Robert Bridges, André Gide, Paul Nash,
Wilfred Owen, Pablo Neruda and Robert Frost were deeply moved by his poems and by his thoughts.  Seven of his poems were included in the Oxford Book of Modern Verse, 1892-1935.  The poet Thomas Sturge Moore nominated Tagore for the Nobel Prize for Literature in the same year that Thomas Hardy was also nominated.  On November 13th, 1913, Tagore was awarded the Nobel Prize.  At the age of 52, the English Gitanjali and the Nobel Prize brought worldwide attention to him and his poetry.  It allowed him to expand his school at Santiniketan into the Visva- Bharati University which still exists today.


Several years later, in August 1920, while Tagore was visiting England, he received a letter from Susan Owen, the mother of Wilfred Owen, who had died in the First World War, only a week before the Armistice.  She wrote:
“It is nearly two years ago that my dear eldest son went out to the War for the last time.  The day he said Goodbye to me, we were looking together across the sun-glorified sea, looking towards France with breaking hearts, when he, my poet son, said those wonderful words of yours, beginning at “When I go from hence, let this be my parting word”.  And when his pocket book came back to me, I found these words written in his dear writing with your name beneath.”

When I go from hence
let this be my parting word,
that what I have seen is unsurpassable.
I have tasted of the hidden honey of this lotus
that expands on the ocean of light,
and thus am I blessed
—let this be my parting word.
In this playhouse of infinite forms
I have had my play
and here have I caught sight of him that is formless.
My whole body and my limbs
have thrilled with his touch who is beyond touch;
and if the end comes here, let it come
—let this be my parting word.


Extracts from performance to celebrate Tagore’s birthday written by Jayanta and Ohbi Chatterjee, May 2012.






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  • Paul O’Mahony

    What a lovely introduction to a poet I don’t know – I’ll now go read a lot more.  Reading it aloud as I read the blogpost…

  • J M Leitch

    Great blog! We look forward to reading more in the future. 

  • http://www.kaberi.eu/ Kaberi

    Thank you very much for giving us the opportunity. We look forward to the occasion every year. As we were able to do the performance outdoors, it reminded me of the atmosphere in Santiniketan.

    Even the weather seemed to be following the script! We had clouds with the poem/song ‘Clouds heap upon clouds and it darkens. Ah, love, why dost thou let me wait outside at the door all alone?’Then the sun came out just before the poem/song ‘Light, my light, the world-filling light, the eye-kissing light, heart-sweetening light!’

  • http://www.obhi.eu/ Obhi

    Many thanks – and congratulations on your first blog post!

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