This non-descript grave amid the wilderness of St Mary's cemetery in Chennai is the resting place of Laurence Hope, a popular poet who wrote on Indian themes 120 years or so ago. I put the flowers there myself. She deserves remembering.
I say 'she' because Laurence Hope was the nom de plume of Adela Florence (also known as Violet) Nicolson. Her most famous poem, Kashmiri Song, was set to music, and indeed when I was young I can remember my father singing, more to himself than anyone else, 'beside the Shalimar'.
The song has disappeared almost without a trace, but for the curious, this is it (with thanks to 'kbio1200' who both sings and plays piano on this short video he posted on YouTube):
And you can hear Rudolph Valentino's 1923 rendition of Kashmiri Song here.
The words of the poem (the song has slightly different lyrics) are striking - but then so is the story of Laurence Hope:
Poem: Kashmiri Song
Pale hands I loved beside the Shalimar,
Where are you now? Who lies beneath your spell?
Whom do you lead on Rapture's roadway, far,
Before you agonise them in farewell?
Oh, pale dispensers of my Joys and Pains,
Holding the doors of Heaven and of Hell,
How the hot blood rushed wildly through the veins
Beneath your touch, until you waved farewell.
Pale hands, pink tipped, like Lotus buds that float
On those cool waters where we used to dwell,
I would have rather felt you round my throat,
Crushing out life, than waving me farewell!
The Shalimar Garden - or Shalimar Bagh - is one of the magical Mughal gardens dating back 400 years and facing Dal Lake in Srinagar. There's also a Shalimar Garden in Lahore - 'shalimar' apparently means 'abode of love' in Sanskrit.
Adela's (or Violet's or Laurence's) father, Arthur Cory, was an army officer who became the editor of the Civil and Military Gazette in Lahore, the paper that Rudyard Kipling worked for. Adela was born and brought up in England but at the age of about sixteen came out to Lahore, and eight years later she married an army officer almost as old as her father, Colonel Malcolm Nicolson of the Baluch Regiment.
The couple lived for about ten years in Mhow in what is now Madhya Pradesh. Nicolson was an Indophile and a linguist, and they shared a deep attachment to India and its culture. Adela began writing poetry, often suffused with an erotic tinge. Her first volume, The Garden of Kama also titled India's Love Lyrics, appeared in 1901. The book was in the name of Laurence Hope and was purported to be translations of Indian Sufi poetry. In fact, it was all Adela's own work.
Adela's poetry found an audience. Thomas Hardy was an admirer, though by and large the literary establishment was disapproving. When Amy Woodforde-Finden set several of the poems to music, they became celebrated songs - in vogue until the Second World War.
Nicolson ended his career in the Indian army as a general and, with his wife and son, returned to England. But the couple couldn't easily make the adjustment, Leaving their son behind, Malcolm and Adela returned to India, establishing their home near Calicut in Kerala.
I, who of lighter love wrote many a verse,
Made public never words inspired by thee,
Lest strangers' lips should carelessly rehearse
Things that were sacred and too dear to me.
Thy soul was noble; through these fifteen years
Mine eyes familiar, found no fleck nor flaw,
Stern to thyself, thy comrades' faults and fears
Proved generosity thine only law.
Small joy was I to thee; before we met
Sorrow had left thee all too sad to save.
Useless my love----as vain as this regret
That pours my hopeless life across thy grave.
Her suicide was clearly not a hastily conceived act. The couple lie together at St Mary's cemetery in the Island district of what has become Chennai.
An article about Laurence Hope in Madras Musings - which I have drawn on for this blog - says that Adela Nicolson was regarded by many of the English in India as an eccentric. She dressed in the Indian style and spoke fluent Urdu. It also repeats suggestions that her love life was adventurous.
It seems that a Somerset Maugham short story, The Colonel's Lady, was written with Adela in mind: the officer is concerned that his wife may have had an affair, but decides to do nothing about it because he too has had an extra-marital romance.
Adela had quite an after life. In 1914, a new and sumptuous edition of The Garden of Kama was published with illustrations by Byam Shaw. Her son oversaw the publication of Laurence Hope's Selected Poems in 1922. Her life and work inspired films, dance, novels and biography.
By the 1940s, her work had been largely eclipsed. As India gained independence, the writing of an Indianist from an early, distinctly imperial, era sounded discordant. But she was clearly a talented and complex woman, with a deep love for an engagement with India.
My thanks to Ramya Sriram's post on the Madras Local History Group Facebook page which alerted me that Adela Nicolson is buried in Chennai and indicated the location of the grave.
In St Mary's cemetery, if you head for the Commonwealth War Grave plots, the Nicolsons are buried close to but outside the WW1 plot a little towards the main part of the cemetery.
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