World now knows what we always did
If you ask Bengalis to name an iconic seat of Bengali culture, nine out of 10 would say Santiniketan. All Bengalis should therefore rejoice that Santiniketan has been declared a Unesco World Heritage site.
Santiniketan and Visva-Bharati are commonly confused. Santiniketan is the place, Visva-Bharati the centre of learning located there. Rabindranath Tagore’s father Debendranath discovered the place on his travels. In 1863, when Rabindranath was not quite two, Debendranath bought land there, named the place ‘the home of peace’, and made it his spiritual retreat. He would meditate under the chhatim trees, and later built an imposing glass chapel.
Santiniketan thus predates Visva-Bharati by nearly 60 years. In 1901, Rabindranath set up an ashram school here on markedly Brahmanical lines. His educational ideology gradually underwent a sea-change, culminating in the foundation of Visva-Bharati in 1921. In the 20 remaining years of Tagore’s life, Santiniketan became a uniquely inclusive centre of learning, from languages to science to music and art to rural reconstruction. It fostered learning and culture in a setting of nature. It advanced women’s freedom. And it attracted a host of faculty and visitors from across India and the world that any university might envy, though its somewhat reluctant moves towards university status were officially sealed only in 1951, 10 years after Rabindranath’s death.
In sheer academic terms, Visva-Bharati has consistently yielded to institutions of more restrictive excellence. It currently ranks 97th among universities in the National Institutional Ranking Framework. It has recently seen much disaffection. But its distinctive vein of liberal learning, imbued with the poet’s own ethos, is still a presence to engage with.
Everything in Santiniketan claims identity from the poet, and cannot quite deny his impregnating presence. This has made for a rare melding of cultural forces with economic and demographic ones. The Tagore link is Santiniketan’s USP vis-à-vis other settlements of West Bengal’s Birbhum district. This has predictably boosted tourism. Less predictable was Santiniketan’s burgeoning into a teeming market town. Nowhere in the world has the long shadow of a poet so transformed an obscure village.
All this is part of Rabindranath’s extended legacy. The Unesco award is based on its criteria (iv) and (vi): that is, the distinctive architecture of the place and its ‘living traditions,.. ideas [and] artistic and literary works of outstanding universal significance’. Of course Santiniketan has all these. Its architecture, born of the innovative genius of Surendranath Kar, is an understated but rich and subtle amalgam of various Indian and other Asian traditions. Some distance away is the rural development centre of Sriniketan, now a faded afterglow of Rabindranath’s never-quite-realised dream.
Understandably, the award makes no mention of Sriniketan; nor, more surprisingly, of Santiniketan’s intangible heritage. It infuses what remains of Tagore’s pedagogic ideal, as externally apparent even today in classes (at least some) held under trees. We may deplore the commodification of Tagore’s legacy. We may equally wonder and be thankful that this trend is activated by a collective recall of a celebrated poet and not a less edifying source, and that the same recall infuses a common cultural practice across Bengal.
Unesco has ratified a heritage we abundantly recognise, even if our familiarity sometimes breeds contempt. It’s good to know the world now knows what we always knew.
— The writer is Professor Emeritus, Department of English, Jadavpur University
India’s invitation to the world
Yatra visvam bhavatyekanidam (Where the world meets in one nest). With this motto, Rabindranath Tagore dedicated Visva-Bharati in 1921 to the world, shaken by the aftershocks of World War I. During the war, Tagore had started thinking about setting up an international university to “concentrate in this institution the different cultures of the East and West, especially those that have taken their birth in India, or found shelter in her house... It has been said in our scriptures ‘Atithi Devo Bhava’, asking us to realise that the Divine comes to us as our guest, claiming our homage. All that is great and true in humanity is ever waiting at our gate to be invited... Visva-Bharati is India’s invitation to the world, her offer of sacrifice to the highest truth of man”.
Santiniketan aspired to heal humanity’s wounds inflicted by the war of exclusivist nationalisms. Tagore’s friendship with Mahatma Gandhi, Romain Rolland, Albert Einstein and other luminaries strengthened his resolve to promote understanding between nations through education and cultural dialogue at Santiniketan. In Tagore’s vision, expressed in his seminal poem, ‘Bharat Tirtha’, and the essay, ‘Bharatbarsher Itihaas’, ancient India offered a home to all who came here to trade, rule, teach, preach, or seek refuge. This idea of India was to become the ideal of Visva-Bharati and Santiniketan. Scholars and artists from around the world were invited to live and teach here.
Santiniketan created a unique style of architecture and spatial organisation to reflect the loftiest ideals of Visva-Bharati. The structures that grew out of the rugged, dry, red earth were not monumental or imposing; they were intimate and simple, blending with the natural surroundings, while subtly combining architectural motifs and symbolisms from various cultures and historical periods: ancient India, local rural communities, Southeast Asia, West Asia, Japan and China.
The walls of the buildings were decorated with murals and frescoes by artists of Santiniketan: Nandalal Bose, Benode Behari Mukhopadhyaya, and others. The school compound of Patha Bhavana has small buildings scattered between clusters of trees and shrubs named after them: Sal Bithi, Madhobi Bitan, Amro Kunjo, Bokul Bithi. Under the trees, classes are held, a novelty for tourists. But these trees, some old, some young, are living testimony to Tagore’s pedagogical philosophy: he allowed children during lessons to climb up the branches. Such freedom and intimacy with nature was not always appreciated and the poet often got into arguments with his teacher-colleagues.
Since Tagore opened his school in Santiniketan in 1901, people from all corners of India and the world have come to work here and settle down — like my grandfather Dhirananda Roy from Krishnanagar, and Kimtaro and Miki Kasahara from Nagasaki, parents of my grandmother Sagarika (Ituko Kasahara). My great-grandfather Kimtaro, invited by Tagore to Santiniketan in 1923, was responsible for many of the Japanese designs and motifs in Tagore’s house Udayan and the gardens at Uttarayan. He also built a famous tree house at Sriniketan for the poet.
My fondest memories of Santiniketan are of the late 1960s and early 1970s at my grandparents’ house near Sangit Bhavana. Santiniketan, the “Abode of Peace” with its tree-lined narrow red-earth walkways, evoked a sense of tranquility I have never experienced elsewhere.
The recognition by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) will hopefully ensure the conservation and a wider appreciation of the qualities of this unique institution.
— The writer is Associate Professor of German, Bhasha-Bhavana, Visva-Bharati
Economics of passing on skills, not money
Santiniketan was the name given by Debendranath Tagore to a village named Surul. Once he was going to Darjeeling when his train broke down near the village. Debendranath went around the village. He decided to buy land and in 1860s, an ashram, initially called Brahmcharya ashram, started taking shape. In 1901, it was renamed as Brahmcharya Vidyalaya and was transferred to Patha Bhavana, that exists to this day.
In 1921, Visva-Bharati came into being. In 1922, another campus was founded: Sriniketan, a centre for rural reconstruction about 3 km from Santiniketan. Most of the buildings at Santiniketan were built more than 100 years ago.
Santiniketan is known for its sangeet, arts and aesthetics, and language. One of the first departments to be established was of music as Tagore believed that learning music and/or dance gives happiness. He also realised that Indian art and aesthetics were losing importance. So, he tried to reinvigorate these. His vision was that by teaching arts, aesthetics and handicrafts, the impoverished villagers will be able to earn livelihood. For this project, Tagore adopted five villages. Today, the number of these villages is 60. Ten of these have been added in my tenure. These villages have been divided into clusters. Each cluster has got its own specialisation. There’s a cluster of weavers who make kantha stitch sarees, a specialisation of Santiniketan. Tagore’s eldest son was sent to the US to learn carpentry. After he came back, he taught these villagers the skill of carpentry.
Now teachers go to these villages and skill people. According to Tagore’s principle of economics, it was better to give/teach skills to the poor instead of giving them money.
— The writer is the Vice-Chancellor of Visva-Bharati, Santiniketan
Cargo of best treasure of Tagore’s life
I studied at Visva-Bharati for five years and taught there for about 35 years. Visva-Bharati, according to its founder Rabindranath Tagore, was the cargo of his life’s best treasure. Visva-Bharati is the nerve-centre for dissemination of his works.
In 1952, Jawaharlal Nehru concluded his convocation address as Chancellor with these words: “I am not enamoured of degrees and it was not for awarding degrees that Gurudev built this institution. He wanted to train students in an atmosphere of freedom and joy so that they might participate, in their later years, in the creative activity of a free India.”
Tagore’s educational philosophy is based on three forceful components: man, nature and education. He emphasised on three types of relationships: between man and nature, man and his social environment, and then, man and the ‘universal man’. He rationalised the unbound happiness of a child in his mother’s lap and applied the spontaneous interaction between man and nature to develop the personality of children. Tagore also used nature’s relation with man for developing rural science. He used the mechanics of science to remove many superstitions and to set free minds. To remove poverty, he founded the Institute of Rural Reconstruction at Sriniketan. Not many know that Tagore was the pioneer of the co-operative movement and rural banking in India.
He also founded the Loka Siksha Parishad, India’s first distant education programme.
For an all-round education, Tagore wanted a blend of science with humanities and if there ever was a place where this could easily be done, it was Visva-Bharati. It is the responsibility of the present generation to keep the heritage site in proper shape and maintain Tagore’s ethos and culture.
— The writer is ex-Director, National Library, Kolkata
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