The battle for the soul of Santiniketan


The old Santiniketan way has come under fire recently. But many in the community are still striving to maintain Tagore’s original vision of openness and inclusivity



As the principal of Santiniketan Sishutirtha School, a Tagore-family founded school—only the third such after Rabindranath Tagore started Santiniketan’s Patha Bhavan and Siksha Satra over a century ago—Sudripta Tagore, 58, teaches the primary schoolchildren, among other things, how to climb trees.

While Sudripta stands guard, he also goads and guides students of the English-medium co-educational school up the trees on the campus in a forested part of Santiniketan town, in West Bengal’s Birbhum district. He instructs them on grip and toehold, to hug and hold. To form lifelong bonds with the trees and bees. With nature and environment. By extension, with Rabindranath Tagore and all that the poet laureate and pioneering educationist stood for in the university town he created, Santiniketan, and its ashram-school, Patha Bhavan, and Visva-Bharati University, that he established in 1901 and 1921, respectively. By teaching students organic farming, Sishutirtha connects to Sriniketan village, about 3km from the main Visva-Bharati campus, where Tagore based his innovative scientific experiments in rural reconstruction and sustainable agriculture.

Sudripta’s father, and founder of Sishutirtha, Supriya, 84, is the fifth generation of Tagore’s elder brother Satyendranath’s family. Shadowed by the heft of his surname, Rabindranath Tagore is a “burden”, Sudripta says, that he has happily carried. “Rabindranath is an idea. He needs to be given a chance,” he says.

The school is the chance Sudripta has. After his father took premature retirement as the principal of Patha Bhavan, the father-son duo started Sishutirtha in the 1990s, borrowing heavily from Tagore’s ideas on education, including crafts and vocational training for children, freedom of expression where children are allowed to scribble on walls, nurturing close bonds between teachers and students; building large-windowed airy classrooms that approximate Tagore’s open-air schooling system; and growing organic vegetables on the campus.

Sudripta’s attachment with all that is Tagore forms part of a continuum of Tagore-allegiance in Santiniketan—people who have moulded their work, life and worldview according to the visionary polymath.

The continuity can be felt in the bouquet of social initiatives involving not just art and aesthetics, for which Santiniketan is regarded as a global hub, but in those involving the wider community outside the Visva-Bharati precincts. Over the years, scores of individuals and institutions have carried the flame with their activities in tribal education, women’s empowerment, eco-friendly enterprises, sustainable farming models, and forming networks of self-help groups and cooperative societies of rural craftsmen with market linkages. The trail, most often, goes back to Tagore and his panoramic approach to human development.

“Our education,” Tagore stated in his lecture, “The Centre of Indian Culture”, delivered in 1919 in Madras (now Chennai), “should be in full touch with our complete life, economical, intellectual, aesthetic, social and spiritual; and our educational institutions should be in the very heart of our society, connected with it by the living bonds of varied co-operations. For true education is to realise at every step how our training and knowledge have organic connection with our surroundings.”

Attestation for Tagore’s roadmap for Visva-Bharati as a place “where the world finds a nest” came on 17 September from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (Unesco), which included Tagore’s Santiniketan in its prestigious World Heritage Site list. The official Unesco document mentions: “Santiniketan was an experimental settlement in education and communal life in a rural setting. The community was in many ways meant to represent a uniquely Indian example of a ‘total work of art’ (Gesamtkunstwerk) where life, learning, work and art along with the local and the global intertwined seamlessly.”

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Having shifted from Kolkata to a village on the outskirts of Santiniketan three years ago, I have constantly been made aware of a percolation and iteration of Tagorean ideas and thoughts deep inside communities within the Visva-Bharati hinterland. The Santhali vlogger from my village who runs the popular Indian Tribe Food page on Facebook and YouTube is named Rabindranath. Last winter, when 20-odd musician friends jammed at my place for three nights, their Jimi Hendrix and David Gilmour covers blasting through cranked-up Marshall amplifiers till 6am, neighbours complained only on the third day, wondering, if there has to be live music at dawn, why not Rabindrasangeet?

At his home in Birbhum district’s Dwaronda village, about 13km from Santiniketan, theatre director Partha Gupta says he’s a direct beneficiary of Tagore and Visva-Bharati’s community outreach and idealistic largesse. A village teenager with no training or lineage in the fine arts, yet harbouring a passion for painting, Gupta failed to crack the entrance test to Kala Bhavan, Visva-Bharati’s renowned centre for visual art practice, but found a seat as a graduate student in the university’s drama and theatre arts course. In 2004, on seeing photographs of Manipuri thespian Ratan Thiyam’s big canvas productions at a café in Aurosree Market area in Santiniketan, Gupta found a link between painting and theatre. Intrigued and curious to learn more, Gupta recalls how the then vice-chancellor of Visva-Bharati, Sujit Kumar Basu, personally sponsored Gupta’s educational trip to Manipur to meet Thiyam.

An artisan at the Santiniketan Poush Mela, which has not been held since the pandemic. Courtesy Arnab Ghoshal

“My artistic base and aesthetic spirit has been completely defined by the time I spent in those days with students and teachers of Kala Bhavan,” says Gupta. “Unlike now, back then even a non-student could spend hours sipping tea and listening to animated discussions on art every evening. The doors of the university welcomed all.”

“During our time, it was a freer and more transparent space and scholars from all over the world were welcome to come without notice,” says K.S. Radhakrishnan, one of India’s finest sculptors who studied at Kala Bhavan between 1973-81. “Today, it seems that nobody really has an idea of Tagore’s philosophy,” Radhakrishnan says over the phone from Delhi, where he is showing a retrospective of 50 years of his work. He was one of the key people behind the setting up of the art space Arthshila Santiniketan.

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Much of Visva-Bharati and Santiniketan’s recent troubles, it is widely felt, start at the door of the Central university’s former vice-chancellor, Bidyut Chakrabarty. His five-year tenure, which ended on 8 November, has been as much about public spats, suspension and termination of staff and students, political posturing, scores of police and court cases and violence, as it has been about shutting doors on community organisations and events. He shut down women-centric ashramik organisations like Alapini Mohila Samiti, and Karusangha, an organisation of women artists-alumni started by pioneering Indian artist Nandalal Bose in 1930 as a space for young graduate artists to make and sell their art.

Among the cancelled events was Poush Mela, a crafts fair held every year in late December since 1895 after Tagore’s father, Debendranath, set up the Santiniketan Trust, which was vital to the local economy. Initially cancelled because of the pandemic in 2020, it has not been held since.

Perhaps the worst cut came from the university’s decision to no longer organise events like spring’s Basanta Utsav, peak winter’s Poush Mela and late winter’s Magh Mela—festivals and fairs that celebrated nature and its seasons but as importantly for Tagore, had a public interface.

Poush Mela, especially, was Tagore’s idea of connecting with the rural hinterland of Visva-Bharati, a fair as a sales pitch for art and crafts, artefacts and knick-knacks, food and music from both rural and students communities. It had become a gargantuan assembly of commerce, making an estimated 100-crore business, according to an Indian Express report from 2020, involving thousands of stalls and traders, and hundreds of thousands of visitors, including domestic and foreign tourists.

A Japanese house-cum-creative-workshop built in Santiniketan to commemorate in 2016 the centenary of Tagore’s first visit to Japan. Photo by Samir Jana/Hindustan Times

A Japanese house-cum-creative-workshop built in Santiniketan to commemorate in 2016 the centenary of Tagore’s first visit to Japan. Photo by Samir Jana/Hindustan Times

The principal of Kala Bhavan, Prof. Sanjoy Kumar Mallik, who took over as interim VC, had initially agreed to organise the Poush Mela this year. The decision was subsequently reversed, citing constraints. Now the state government will organise the fair with the help of Visva-Bharati and Santiniketan Trust. The five-day fair will begin on 24 December at the university’s Purba Palli grounds.

Another contentious issue during Chakrabarty’s tenure was the decision to construct walls and fences around and inside the campus. On 17 August 2020, a mob broke down parts of a wall built around Poush Mela grounds. The trend of walling off university areas, it was contended, went against the very ideals of openness and inclusivity that Tagore envisaged at Santiniketan.

In his memoir, Tagore, one of the world’s most famous school dropouts, had written about feeling suffocated within the four walls of his Kolkata school, and while in Santiniketan, he contemplated a space where classes would be held under trees, possibly one of the world’s first exponents of outdoor schooling. “If an ideal school has to be set up, it can only be done in a place faraway from settlement, amidst quietness and solitude, under the open sky and under trees beyond which stretches the horizon,” he wrote in an essay in 1906, published in Siksha Samasya.

“The walls that the (former) vice-chancellor built goes against the very spirit of Santiniketan and Rabindranath,” says Rajya Sabha member Jawhar Sircar, who, as secretary at the Union ministry of culture (2008-12), was a key person in pushing Santiniketan’s case at Unesco. “The World Heritage tag will stop unnecessary construction there,” he adds.

Chakrabarty also courted controversy when he installed plaques announcing the Unesco heritage site status with his name and that of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the chancellor of the university, on it. Missing were the names of Santiniketan and Rabindranath Tagore. This decision has been reversed since and the new plaques follow the Unesco template, omitting the names of the VC and the chancellor.

With the Central government deciding not to extend Chakrabarty’s tenure, there is palpable relief and cautious optimism in Santiniketan. A Visva-Bharati old-timer, who did not want to be named, says the apprehension remains that the next full-time VC could be another political appointee rather than an academic one. But hope remains that Visva-Bharati will return to its inclusive ways.

Much will have to be done now to restore the ethos of Santiniketan, say stakeholders.

Responding to text messages, the interim VC refused to answer specific questions, citing his “restricted powers” and the “critical transition period”.

“Though diluted badly”, the idea of Santiniketan, where Tagore offered the concept of an alternative civilisation with an accent on the Oriental and non-materialistic forms, is too big for an individual to change, says Sircar, in response to the recent upheavals.

“Despite many changes, we need to remember what Tagore left behind,” says Sircar. “His legacy makes Santiniketan survive as an epicentre of fine arts, music, drama and literature. The culture component could not be killed and will last several vice-chancellors and governments. The Eastern community, Rabindranath would often reiterate, is the only insurance against Western-driven mechanical individualism. It is this legacy that Santiniketan continues to carry.”

Shamik Bag is a Santiniketan-based writer.

 

 

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