'She is beautiful but she is Indian': The student who became a Welsh bard at 19

Image source, Sheela Bonarjee

An Indian student won acclaim in Wales as a bard and became the first woman to get a law degree from University College London. And although racial prejudice brought a heartbreaking end to a three-year relationship she never went home, writes Andrew Whitehead.

Dorothy Bonarjee was Indian by birth, English by upbringing, French by marriage - and Welsh at heart.

To put it another way, she was the perpetual outsider, sometimes by chance, and at other times by choice. Even the moment of her greatest achievement in 1914 - winning one of Wales's most prestigious cultural prizes while still a teenager - is notable above all because she was so obviously not Welsh.

In India, Dorothy Bonarjee and her family stood apart, by class, culture and religion. They were upper-caste Bengali brahmins, but Dorothy spent her childhood living a simple life on the family estate hundreds of miles away from Bengal in Rampur, near India's border with Nepal. They were also Christians - her grandfather served as a Scottish pastor in Calcutta (now Kolkata) after being converted by celebrated Scottish missionary Alexander Duff.

Dorothy's life changed utterly in 1904 when - along with her brothers, Bertie and Neil - she was sent to London for her schooling. She was just 10 years old.

Dorothy's parents - both of whom had spent time in Britain - wanted their children to be, like them, part of the "England returned" who were increasingly running India on behalf of the imperial power.

Image source, Sheela Bonarjee
Image caption,
Dorothy with Neil and Bertie, in about 1904

Among the Indian elite, this British experience had "something of the snob value of a peerage in Great Britain," one of the Bonarjee clan remarked.

A photograph survives of the three young Bonarjees at about the time they arrived in London. Dorothy looks demure in a white dress with a black ribbon in her hair. Bertie, her older brother, is in a suit and tie. It's a statement of how English they had become - even though the world around would always see them as Indian.

Dorothy's father was a barrister as well as a landowner. She was probably closer to her mother, who was a strong advocate of girls' education. Both daughter and mother were active supporters in Britain of votes for women. And thanks to her mother, Dorothy had a privilege rare in either Britain or India a century ago - she was going to get an education just as good as her brothers.

"At the time of the First World War, there were about a thousand Indian students at British universities," says Dr Sumita Mukherjee at the University of Bristol, who has written a book about "England returned" Indians. "Around 50 to 70 of these would have been women."

In 1912, Dorothy Bonarjee joined this select group. The family had expected Dorothy to go to the University of London. But according to family folklore, she found London too "snobbish" and so opted instead for the University College of Wales in the largely Welsh-speaking seaside town of Aberystwyth.

"Where the hell is that?!" her father is said to have exclaimed. But Dorothy got her way. And her brother Bertie also enrolled there - in part to serve as his sister's chaperone.

Dorothy's decision may well have been shaped by the progressive reputation of the college. "A major foundational principle for the establishment of the University College at Aberystwyth was that all religious persuasions and cultural backgrounds were welcome," says Dr Susan Davies, an archivist and historian at what is now Aberystwyth University.

Image source, University of Aberystwyth
Image caption,
Students at the University College of Wales - Dorothy seated second from right

And the college, the oldest of three forming the University of Wales at that time, also had an impressive record in gender equality. By the time Dorothy arrived there, approaching half the students were women, a much higher proportion than at most British universities at this time. By the time of her graduation ceremony in 1916 - when many of the men were fighting in Flanders and France - women were in a clear majority.

Dorothy was clearly a popular student, taking a prominent role in the literary and debating society and helping edit the college journal. Her big moment came in February 1914 at the college's annual Eisteddfod, a pageant and celebration of Welsh culture in which writers and musicians competed for prizes. While this was not as prestigious as the national Eisteddfod, it was a major cultural event in the country's Welsh-speaking heartlands.

Entrants for the main competition, poetry in the traditional Welsh style, had a chance to win an imposing hand-carved oak chair. All poems were submitted under pseudonyms. A Welsh newspaper, the Cambria Daily Leader, reported on its front page under the headline Hindu Lady Chaired the "remarkable" scenes when the winner was announced:

The highest place was awarded to 'Shita', for an ode written in English, and described as an excellent and highly dramatic treatment of the subject... Miss Bonarjee received a deafening ovation when she stood up and revealed herself as 'Shita'. She was led up to the throne... The 'chairing' ceremony then proceeded amidst great enthusiasm.

Image source, University of Aberystwyth
Image caption,
Dorothy Bonarjee, in the striped blouse, with fellow students

Dorothy's parents were present to see their 19-year-old daughter's success. Her father was prevailed upon to address the crowd, thanking them for the way they had "received a successful competitor of a different race and country". If India had given birth to a poet, he declared, Wales had educated her and given her an opportunity to develop her poetic instincts.

Dorothy Bonarjee was the first foreign student and the first woman to triumph at the college Eisteddfod. This was a landmark achievement - the first woman to win the chair at the national Eisteddfod came as recently as 2001.

Emboldened by her success, she contributed poems to journals including The Welsh Outlook, a monthly magazine reflecting and encouraging Welsh cultural nationalism. Even after she left Wales, she continued to publish there.

"She loved the Welsh," says her niece Sheela Bonarjee. "She couldn't speak Welsh - so she was always an outsider in that sense. But they did accept her."

However, Dorothy endured heartbreak at Aberystwyth as well as acclaim. Sheela Bonarjee still has the battered black exercise book in which her aunt collated her verse. Alongside one of the poems, Dorothy jotted down a note: "Written at the age of 22 when a Welsh student after 3 years of secret engagement dropped me because his parents said 'She is very beautiful and intelligent but she is Indian.'"

"It destroyed her. She was distraught," Sheela says, recalling the confidences her aunt shared about that failed romance. "There's a poem of hers that shows the loss of that boyfriend." That poem is called Renunciation:

So I must give thee up - not with the glow

Of those who losing much yet rather gain.

But losing all. Did never martyr go

Along the bleeding road of useless pain?

Did never one held prisoner by a creed,

Obsessed by stern heroic ghosts, made dumb

By those who answered duty to his need,

With faithless loathing feet to his fate come?

Dorothy had got used to being the outsider but there could be a painful price to pay for being different.

Her younger brother, Neil, later studied at Oxford - and came across a wall of prejudice there. "Indians in general, it must be said, along with other coloured races were not popular in the University," he wrote. His English fellow students "had something which I had not, namely an Empire. They possessed, while I only belonged."

Dorothy was undaunted. From Aberystwyth, she and Bertie returned to London where both took a second degree course. Again, she was a trailblazer - the first woman student at University College London to be awarded a law degree. The family then expected the youngsters to return and make their lives and careers in India. Her brothers dutifully got on the boat. Dorothy rebelled.

She was caught between different cultures and social values. She was free-spirited and committed to women's equality - not someone who would easily consent to a marriage arranged by her family in India. So she eloped with a French artist, Paul Surtel.

Image caption,
Portrait of Dorothy Bonarjee by her husband, Paul Surtel

Her father was furious; her mother seems to have been more understanding. The couple married in 1921, and settled in the south of France. While Surtel gained distinction as a painter, his wife largely retreated from public view. They had two children, one of whom died in infancy, but by the mid-1930s the marriage was over. "Nothing is more wearing morally," Dorothy commented, "than a weak husband."

Image source, Sheela Bonarjee
Image source, Sheela Bonarjee
Image caption,
Dorothy Bonarjee with her son, Denis, who died in infancy - her daughter, Claire Aruna Surtel, worked as a journalist in Marseilles

Her family pleaded with her to return to India. Once again she refused - a decision she seems later to have regretted. Her father eventually bought her a small vineyard at Gonferon in Provence to serve as both home and livelihood. Money was tight. This was not the life of ease she might have hoped for. She never remarried.

Sheela Bonarjee followed in her aunt's footsteps from India to London in the 1950s, and made several visits to the south of France. She remembers her "Auntie Dorf" as elegant, confident and unconventional. In some ways she was very French, Sheela recalls. "She had wine with every meal, which for me as an Indian was very strange and at times I wondered why I was so sleepy all day." But she spoke French with a pronounced accent.

Image source, Sheela Bonarjee
Image caption,
Dorothy Bonarjee in a sari

Dorothy Bonarjee kept in touch with her Welsh friends all her life. In her old age, she paid a pilgrimage to her old university. "I went with her to Aberystwyth - that must have been in her 80s," Sheela Bonarjee recalls of a trip more than 40 years ago. "It was an important visit for her - to have her memories."

She now has the distinction of a place in the Dictionary of Welsh Biography, the only person of Indian origin among almost 5,000 entries. It's written by Dr Beth Jenkins of the University of Essex. "Dorothy certainly embraced Welsh national culture," she argues, "and contributed significantly to it during her time in Aberystwyth."

Dorothy lived to almost 90. But she never set foot in India again after leaving as a young girl. The Indian side of her remained important, though. On high days and holidays she would delight her French neighbours by dressing up in a sari. But she was in many ways more French, more English, perhaps even more Welsh, than she was Indian. And everywhere, she was always the outsider.

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