Sunday, November 16, 2003

Down memory lane
Learning a lesson called life in a poet’s school
Sumangal Roy

In Santiniketan the highest regard is reserved for nature
In Santiniketan the highest regard is reserved for nature

Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high.
T seems that Rabindranath Tagore had the vision of Santiniketan in his mind when he composed these lines. For he created in Santiniketan and Visva Bharati University a sanctuary of freedom and promised its students freedom from fear and fanaticism, from the ugliness of heart and mind. The poet believed that the ancient Indian culture developed not in the city but in the serene surroundings of the forest where deep thoughts rose spontaneously. He chose Santiniketan, his father’s estate near Bolpur, to establish his ashram. Here, nature was at its rich abundance and the red earth celebrated the innocence and vigour of the Santhals. Primary classes that were started in 1901 and soon a school was set up, it became a college and full-fledged university —the Visva Bharati University.

When I joined Santiniketan as a student of sculpture, it was 85 long years after its foundation. In Santiniketan the highest regard is reserved for nature. Even those who have never been to santiniketan know of its open classrooms under the trees. This is no myth. More than hundred years ago, when preservation of environment was not a well-known concept, Tagore realised the importance of environmental education.

The ancient Vata-vriksha cast its shade over us. Rows of tall palm trees stood guard over the serenity of the area. We roamed about in the groves of amrakunja, jaamboni and saalboni (saal tree forest). The old trees provided the perfect set-up for looking within and beyond and for discussions on philosophy and astronomy. The firey red palash filled out hearts with the joy of being young and alive. In laal deeghi, a vast lake, red lotus and red water lilies grew abundantly. Besides the clear water of haathi-pukur — a small pond, the elephant sculpture by Ram Kinker Baij stood in all its majesty among the mango trees. Wild flowers swayed in gentle moist air waves, to the drone of bees and silent fluttering of the dragonflies, splashes of fish playing in the water only intensified the silent still summer afternoon.

It was here that boys and girls learnt the sublime spirit of love and expressed their intimate emotions for the first time, not through some crude actions but very subtly perhaps by reciting a line or two from the numerous love poems of the poet. The groves, the lakes, the muddy red earth, the blue sky — colours of nature were bright and pure, fresh and unpolluted.

For us these were not just landscapes but important destinations on the topography of Santiniketan. We learnt to regard nature not as a silent backdrop but a dynamic and living force, as a close and intimately.

The relationship between teachers and pupils was unique. I have never witnessed elsewhere. We were always under constant supervision of our teachers. But it was entirely unobtrusive. We could go to our teachers whenever we felt like and not only with our academic problems. They were there to solve all our problems. We felt secure to open our bosoms and discuss whatever was troubling us, which was quite often, considering the fragile state of our youthful minds.

Visits to the teacher’s house were so frequent that in most cases strong bonds developed with the family members of the teacher as well. We become the extended family of our teachers. They became our mentors, role models and guardians.

It could not have been otherwise. Most teachers were towering personalities in their own right. They were highly evolved individuals, confident of their merit, and therefore could easily contribute towards creating a non-threat environment. I learnt so many things from my teachers just by being with them, watching them work, listening to their views on myriad topics, observing them in different situations. I learnt much more than, I would have through formal methods.

Tagore’s abhorrence of learning by rote is well known. All students were allotted studios. Teachers also had their own studios. Material was provided by the university. We were free to work whenever we wished, at all hours. Our teachers regularly visited our studios and provided guidance. We also visited our teachers’ studios. Some of the great masterpieces by our famed artist-teachers were created in front of our eyes. It was a great learning experience.

We were never taught but were rigorously trained to learn things by ourselves. Our observation skills were sharpened, our senses made acute, our minds were made to grasp the gist and our hands were made to practice until perfection was achieved. The teacher’s job was done. The living learner was respected.

An inter-disciplinary approach was encouraged. The teachers from other departments or Bhavans too were much inclined to help and guide us. We always had teachers and students from all corners of India and also from several countries. Understanding other cultures and tolerance towards diversity was appreciated. Wards of foreign ambassadors posted at India studied in our class alongwith students from the Santhal tribe.

The level of exposure at Santiniketan was very high. Several learned personalities from India and abroad visited the campus either as visiting professors or as guests. A close interaction with them motivated us to strive towards perfection.

There was no time to brood. During the annual function of my department Kala Bhavan, our works were exhibited along with our teachers’ creations. There were discussions, workshops and lectures. There were numerous occasions to celebrate — seasons, life, nature, festivals. Girls wore freshly starched white cotton saris and decked themselves with flowers. Boys wore kurta/pyjamas or dhoti and angavastram. There was only music, colours and fragrance all around. No disharmony, vulgarity or ugliness could be detected in any word or action.

We always felt ourselves to be the carriers of a rich legacy. The thought that we are dwelling on the same campus where once legendary figures breathed and worked was enough to thrill our hearts. I was allotted the studio which once belonged to the great Ram Kinker Baij. My studio was a sacred place for me. This thrill, however, was never free from the sweet burden that we carried as inheritors of their treasures. The campus pulsated with a living dynamism.

In A Poet’s School Tagore writes, "Children have their active subconscious mind which, like the trees, has the power to draw its food from the surrounding atmosphere. For them atmosphere is a great deal more important than rules, methods, equipments, text books and lessons. I tried to create an atmosphere in my school".

He did create the atmosphere and such vital was his creation that we experienced it there even after more than 85 years later. The poet kept his word of giving undiluted joy to his pupils, he also fulfilled his promise of freedom for each student through all these hundred years. Whether we, students have been able to keep ours or not — is the question, now, I must ponder upon.