ARTICLE
USING A POET’S ARCHIVE TO WRITE THE HISTORY OF A
UNIVERSITY: RABINDRANATH TAGORE AND VISVA-BHARATI
UMA DAS GUPTA*
he
T RT agoreabi n d w a s ra n p o etath e th
founder of an institution that
we know today as Visva-
Bharati University situated
in the twin towns of
Santiniketan and Sriniketan
in rural southern Bengal
about a hundred miles north
west of the city of Calcutta.
Starting
it
as
an
experimental school in 1901
he added an international
university and an institute of
rural reconstruction in 1921
and 1922. He named the
university Visva-Bharati,
world learning. The making
Fig. 1. Santiniketan Griha, c. 1864
of
this
cosmopolitan
institution was central to his national and international
belonged, but for all mankind. He hoped that an
concerns throughout his life. It was an experiment for an
understanding of this truth in a disinterested spirit would
education which sought to work for a common humanity,
teach us to respect all the differences in man that are real,
locally and globally. It was an experiment in founding a
and yet to remain conscious of a oneness. He wanted us
cultural space unhindered by the territorially bounded
to feel that perfection of unity is not in uniformity but in
model of the nation-state. His idea was to offer an
harmony.
opportunity for people to work together in a common
The ideas and effort that made this institution are a
pursuit of truth by sharing humanity’s common intellectual
relatively unexplored dimension of Rabindranath’s
heritage. He believed that artists and philosophers and
biography. He is celebrated as a literary genius but not
scientists in all parts of the world, even the saints, have
seriously remembered as an educationist and rural reformer
worked not merely for some particular race to which they
which he indeed was. By his own admisison the work he
*
National Fellow, Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Rashtrapati
did for education and rural reconstruction was vital to him
Nivas, Shimla 171 005. E-mail : udasgupta@gmail.com
even though it meant living with a lifelong struggle for a
266
SCIENCE AND CULTURE, JULY-AUGUST, 2013
cause that did not evoke much interest nationally, then and
were only a “poet’s fancy”. But not so to Gandhi and
now. He took up the work when he was about forty years
Nehru who greatly valued his contributions, and were
of age, till which time he had only been following his
influenced by his ideas for India‘s democratic future.
literary pursuits. He believed he had no gift for practical
Rabindranath addressed three issues in pursing his
work and acknowledged he was no leader of men nor moral
project for an alternative education. Firstly, he was
preceptor. Why then did he do it? Because, as he himeself
distressed that the colonial education prevailing in modern
wrote, he believed firmly that his country’s overwhelming
India was disassociated with the life of the people. It was
problems could be solved by education, whether of race
applied merely to turning out clerks, lawyers, doctors,
or ignorance, poverty or pestilence, industrial backwardness
magistrates, munsiffs and policemen which in turn became
or communalism. But to his nationalist contemporaries his
the favourite professions of the gentle folk. This education
educational work and his goal of an inclusive nationalism
did not reach the majority of Indians like the farmer, the
oil-grinder, the potter. Secondly, he
regarded that the new Indian
universities to be like “parasites
feeding on foreign oaks”. He believed
that a university’s place is to produce
scholarship and to spread it for which
it was essential to bring together
intellectuals and scholars from
anywhere in the world who were
devoted to research and discovery and
creativity in their fields. He chose that
model
for
his
Visva-Bharati
international university. Thirdly, he
saw his educational experiment as an
opportunity for constructive work by
taking responsibility for one’s own
state and society so that change could
happen. He criticised the Indian
National Congress for their policy of
obtaining
favours
from
the
government instead of doing the work
that was for them to do for the
country. He condemned it as the
‘politics of begging’.
Rabindranath believed that all
these ideas were relevant to the
concerns of society and could pave the
way to an education that would
connect with the gateways of learning,
nationally and internationally. Even
with being a critic of imperialism and
the West’s display of greed and
violence, his criticism represented just
one aspect of a balanced appraisal of
Western civilization in which he found
much to admire. He was critical also
of some aspects of his own society
such as the hierarchical and static
elements of its culture. He was critical
Fig. 2. Deed of Trust for the Santiniketan Ashram, 1863.
VOL. 79, NOS. 7–8
267
not just of the cultural
domination that grew out of
colonial hegemony but
frankly spoke out also about
the domination that evolved
from his country’s own past.
He was anxious that the
problem of domination was
getting worse in early
modern India due to the
growing divide between city
and and village. English
education had given impetus
to a somewhat dehumanised
Indian professional class. A
true
Indian
education,
Rabindranath explained,
must implement its acquired
knowledge of economics,
agriculture, health and all
other everyday sciences in
Fig. 3. The Santiniketan School, founded 1901.
the surrounding villages;
then alone can that education become the centre of the
relatively easy. This land and the house that was built on
country’s ‘way of living’. The Santiniketan education was
it, named Santiniketan Griha (Fig. 1.), became the core of
conceived to understand this essential need and thus to
Rabindranath’s Santiniketan school, founded in 1901. He
bridge the gap. He wanted the new education to combine
later dedicated it as an ashram or a retreat for spiritually
local knowledge with global knowledge from which both
minded householders to spend some time in prayer and
sections of Indian society could learn and progress. Visva-
peace away from their household responsibilities. They
Bharati’s ‘mission of rural construction’, he wrote, was to
could be from any religious faith provided they did not
‘retard’ the process of ‘racial suicide’.
practice the worship of idols. The place Santiniketan, as
It would be useful here to go over an outline of the
we know it today, took its name from the house.
history of this institution. As a place or a location
In the year 1863 Maharshi finalised the trust deed
Santiniketan was discovered by Debendranath Tagore,
for an Ashram in Santiniketan. Arrangements were made
Rabindranath’s father. Debendranath was known to have
to appoint a local resident as manager of the Ashram.
travelled frequently for seeking out quiet and lonely places
Aghornath Chattopadhyay, a Brahmo resident of Bolpur,
for spiritual retreat. In the year Rabindranath was born,
was appointed manager by Maharshi. He moved with his
1861, his father Maharshi Debendranath visited the
family to Santiniketan and became Santiniketan’s first
Birbhum village of Raipur, not far from Calcutta and stayed
ashramdhari . Santiniketan’s ashram identity goes back to
in the house of his friend and fellow zamindar,
those times. The text of the transfer deed (Fig. 2.) was
Bhubanmohan Sinha. Enchanted by the vast emptiness of
like this:
the place he bought twenty bighas of land in Bhubandanga
With the objective of establishing an Ashram for
village from Bhubanmohan’s elder son, Pratapnarayan
the worship of non-idolatrous Brahma and to
Sinha. In those times this stretch of land was absolutely
complete other tasks written here in the Trust Deed,
barren with only a pair of chhatim trees standing in the
I bestow upon you my estate named Santiniketan,
midst of a desolate field. He apparently liked to meditate
all its movable and immovable assets - the estimated
sitting under those chhatim trees. It is on record in the
total value of which will be Rs. 5000/-, my rights
Tagore Estate Papers that besides going to the Himalayas
and claims relating to them and assign you as
as he often did, Maharshi also travelled to the nearby parts
Trustee [...]
of rural Bengal and set up tents for his retreat particularly
on this favourite stretch of land. The Bolpur railway
The Trust prohibited non-vegetarian food in the
connection made his travel from Calcutta to these parts
ashram. The Trust provided annual funds for the ashram
268
SCIENCE AND CULTURE, JULY-AUGUST, 2013
and for an annual fair for villagers to market their ware,
what we know today as the famously popular Pous Mela.
Provision was also made in the Trust for a future school.
This was the school Maharshi’s youngest son Rabindranath
began in 1901 as an experiment in ‘constructive’ swadeshi
to which was added Visva-Bharati international university
in 1921. In some of his early letters Rabindranath referred
to the school as a ‘divine’ task and to the students as
‘companions for his highest mission’.
Away from the colonial class rooms to which the
newly English-educated Indian elite sent their children, the
Santiniketan school (Fig. 3.), at the beginning, was
conceived as an ashram vidyalaya or brahmacharyasram
for young novices in the tradition of an ancient hermitage
or gurukul. Rabindranath started the school with his own
meagre funds and, at the outset, took no fees from the
students on the model of the ancient guru-siswa hermitages.
He soon realized that the most difficult problem was to
find teachers and students for such an idealistic school.
The early aspiration of establishing this school is best
represented in Rabindranath’s own long statement of how
he arrived at this goal. He wrote,
In the modern time my turn has also come to dream
of that age towering above all ages of the subsequent
Fig. 4. Newspaper clips from Rabindranath’s visit to America, 1916.
history in the greatness of its simplicity and wisdom
The emphasis on Indian tradition in the Santiniketan
of pure life. While spending a great part of my youth
school was now gearing up to explore a wider historical
in the riverside solitude of the sandbanks of the
connection beyond the boundaries of Santiniketan. In an
Padma a time came when I woke up to the call of
essay that followed in 1908, ‘East and West’, he wrote,
the spirit of my country and felt impelled to dedicate
my life in furthering the purpose that lies in the
The whole world is becoming one country through
heart of her history […]
scientific facility. And the moment is arriving when
we must also find a basis of unity which is not
But Rabindranath’s ideas were never static. He soon
political. If India can offer to the world her solution,
found the inflexible rules of a brahmacharyasram unsuited
it will be a contribution to humanity.
to his ideas of children learning their lessons joyfully and
assimilating their learning joyfully. It became obvious that
Rabindranath became a world traveller with his award
the Santiniketan school was meant to grow into something
of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1913. It is worthy of
fundamentally broader and dynamic. A foreign student was
mention that his trips abroad were every time by ship
invited there as early as in 1902, within one year of the
except on his last international travel when he went to
founding of the school. This was Shitoku Hori from Japan
Persia and Iraq in 1932. Then the Reza Shah Pehlavi had
who was sent by the Japanese intellectual Okakura Tenshin,
sent an aeroplane for him. Travelling by ship meant that it
a friend of the Tagore family and an activist for Asian
took him weeks and weeks of being seaborne. He went
unity. Shitoku Hori was a student of Sanskrit who was
several times to England and to continental Europe, to the
coming to India to study more Sanskrit. His coming to the
United States of America and Japan, three times to Ceylon
Santiniketan school so delighted Rabindranath that between
and twice to China. He went to Burma, to Argentina, to
him, and his close friend the scientist Jagadish Chandra
Russia, and to the States of South East Asia. There were
Bose, they thought of a project for Hori to copy the lost
many practical and pressing reasons for him to travel so
Buddhist texts in Sanskrit from the temples of China and
much besides the ‘philosophical’. The reasons were his
Japan and bring copies to the Indian libraries.
need to break out of the isolation of being a mere provincial
Rabindranath wrote, “ […] the growth of the school was
of British India and his longing to reach out to a larger
the growth of my life”.
humanity with his poetry which transformed him into a
VOL. 79, NOS. 7–8
269
global citizen. There was his
growing concern over war
and conflict, his strong urge
to condemn the destructive
nature of territorial and
militant nationalism which is
the “altruism” that this
headline in the New York
Sun is addressing (Fig. 4.).
The last though not the least
reason for his travels was
his deep-seated conviction
for the idea of an institution
where the world could be
brought closer by studying
each other’s histories and
cultures, thus enabling a
spiritual
and
cultural
meeting of the world’s races
Fig. 5. Rabindranath with the Sriniketan faculty and village workers.
which led to his founding of
Visva-Bharati. As he travelled he invited all to his
‘where the world meets in one nest’. In 1921 Rabindranath
Santiniketan, the ‘Guest house of India’, all who felt
wrote,
attracted to the idea.
I have taken courage to invite Europe to the fields
His successive tours in the aftermath of the first World
of Bolpur. There will be a meeting of truths here. I
War convinced him of the necessity of a civilisational
feel confident that they shall accept our invitation.
meeting of the races to avoid war and conflict. Europe
What we have to ensure is that their hearts are not
was in turmoil, its old ideals shaken. He travelled to 30
starved when they are with us.
countries in 5 continents during the years 1916 to 1932.
The final experiments at Visva-Bharati took shape in
The enthusiasm with which his messages of international
1922 with the establishment of an Institute of Rural
cooperation were received convinced him of the need for
Reconstruction named Sriniketan, abode of wellbeing.
a wider educational venture and an international centre for
Rabindranath insisted from the outset that an Indian
the study of each other’s histories and cultures. And where
education would be incomplete without a relationship with
else could that be but at his Santiniketan school? In 1916
the village because, as both he and Gandhi emphasised,
he wrote to his son Rathindranath from America,
the majority of Indians lived in the villages. Yet the villages
The Santiniketan school must be made the thread
had been kept out of the mainstream of Indian life and cut
linking India with the world. We must establish there
off from the advancement of knowledge where they needed
a centre for humanistic research concerned with all
it most. Application of scientific agriculture and an all-
the world’s peoples. The age of narrow chauvinism
round reconstruction of the neglected village were
is coming to an end for the sake of the future, the
fundamental to his goals of Visva-Bharati. Figure 5
first steps towards this great meeting of world
represents a photograph of Rabindranath with the Sriniketan
humanity will be taken on those very fields of
faculty and village workers.
Bolpur.
Rabindranath invited Leonard Elmhirst from England
Preparations began for adding a Centre of Indian
to lead the Institute of Rural Reconstruction. Elmhirst was
Culture at Santiniketan in 1918. This was a centre for the
an agricultural expert and an idealist whom Rabindranath
coordinated study of the various cultural streams of Indian
met on his travels in America during 1920-21. Rabindranath
History — Vedic, Puranic, Buddhist, Jain, Islamic, Sikh,
had two objectives in his village work, to educate the
Christian and Zoroastrian – and their manifestation in the
villager in self-reliance and to bring back ‘life in its
areas of philosophy, literature, art, and music. This Centre
completeness’ to the villages with music and readings from
was the gateway to Visva-Bharati which followed for which
the epics as in the past even if that could be done
he chose the Vedic logo yatra viswam bhabate ekanidam ,
successfully even in ‘one or two villages’ only. Being a
270
SCIENCE AND CULTURE, JULY-AUGUST, 2013
realist he know that he alone may not be able to do much
student who was the central concern, in all the felicitous
more. He hoped the work would become an ideal for the
conditions of his or her daily life and social surroundings.
whole country and spread its wings.
That lay at the root of the history of his institution. The
Given the problems of over three hundred million
lesson he derived from his understanding of India’s History
people he hoped he could at least touch the hearts of his
was that politics must not be allowed to divert education
village neighbours at Santiniketan. He wrote,
from its true course. That true course was to enable
education to produce humanists whose learning would
We have started in India, in connection with our
enhance their ability to be humane. All else would follow
Visva-Bharati, work of village reconstruction, the
from that.
mission of which is to retard the process of race
suicide […] Our object is to try to flood the choked
The idea of Visva-Bharati was to create a space for
bed of village life with the stream of happiness. For
the meeting of the races through creative and scholarly
this the scholars, the poets, the musicians, the artists,
activity without opposing interests. In Rabindranath’s poetic
have to collaborate, to offer their contributions.
words Visva-Bharati would be a “pilgrimage” to “behold
Otherwise they must live like parasites, sucking life
the universe” away from “narrow domestic walls”. It was
from the people and giving nothing back to them.
hoped that these alternative values would help to build a
Such exploitation gradually exhausts the soil of life,
new Indian personality free from the conflict of
which needs constant replenishing, by the return to
communities and capable of appreciating the many currents
it of life, through the completion of the cycle of
of the Indian cultural tradition combined with the
receiving and giving back.
humanistic and liberal ideals of the West. The new Indian
personality would belong neither to the East nor to the
Rabindranath was anxious and keen for the educated
West, but be a reconciler of both. The idea was that Visva-
middle class in India to share the moral responsibility of
Bharati would nurture such a personality with its school in
their country’s rural reconstruction. To Rabindranath that
Santiniketan and its rural work in Sriniketan by an
was more urgent than political freedom. He argued that
education that was an endeavour to integrate the city and
even though the social stratification of caste was a means
the village for the attainment of a comprehensive Indian
by which races with widely different cultures, and religious
culture and its heritage of unity in diversity. It was hoped
ideals to live side by side, this compromise of settling down
that a new Indian personality would give enlightened
with the differences had cost the common man his
leadership to a people divided and demoralised from
manhood. He wrote,
ancient times by caste and creed, and divided further in
Whenever I realize the hypnotic hold which this
the modern age by a colonial English education which did
gigantic system of cold-blooded repression has taken
not reach the village where the majority of Indians lived.
on the minds of our people whose social body it
He wrote,
has so completely entwined in its endless coils that
To India has been given her race problem from the
the free expression of manhood even under the direst
beginning of history – races ethnologically different
necessity has become almost an impossibility, the
have in this country come into close contact. This
only remedy that suggests itself to me and which
fact has been and still continues to be the most
even at the risk of uttering a truism I cannot but
important one in our history. It is our mission to
repeat, is – to educate them out of their trance.
face it and prove our humanity by dealing with it
Rabindranath turned his full attention to the
in fullest truth.
Santiniketan school after withdrawing from the Swadeshi
Rabindranath gave powerful expression to his critique
Movement of 1904-1905 in which he had taken a leading
of national chauvinism by his novel Gora which he wrote
role. Till that point of time he held his faith in the
and serialized during the years 1907-1909. The novel’s hero
traditional Hindu Samaj. What he innocently missed is that,
‘Gora’ was an orphan boy of Irish parents brought up by a
true to orthodoxy, the Hindu Samaj had not taken the
Brahmin family as their own child. He grew up to be a
Muslims into its fold. He learnt his lesson when the
fiercely patriotic young man and a defender of orthodox
Swadeshi Movement broke out into communal violence.
Hinduism. But when he finally discovered his foreign
He was shocked that the Muslims were being attacked in
origins he also discovered that he would be rejected by
the name of swadeshi. He decided to transcend the shock
orthodox Hindu society where he had invested his trust
not by ideology alone but by hands-on work with a
and his social commitment. That realisation brought him
humanistic education where it was not the system but the
to his senses about the urgency of being an Indian without
VOL. 79, NOS. 7–8
271
caste or creed. At the end of the novel we thus have ‘Gora’
as a creative artist, who necessarily must be solitary,
saying,
and that as an idealist who must realise himself
Today I am really an Indian! In me there is no
through works of a complex character needing a
longer any opposition between Hindu, Mussulman,
large field of collaboration with a large body of men
and Christian. Today every caste is my caste, the
[…] My conflict is within myself between the two
food of all is my food!
opposite forces in my character […] Both of the
contending forces being equally natural to me I
In fact it was in the middle of all this perplexity over
cannot with impunity get rid of one of them in order
the social and political problems of the day that
to simplify my life’s problem. I suppose a proper
Rabindranath turned to India’s history to find a central idea
rhythm is possible to be attained in which both may
for his country’s future. He gave expression to it in a song
be harmonised, and my work in the heart of the
of 1912 with these words, which says it all,
crowd may find its grace through the touch of the
Day and night, thy voice goes out from land to land,
breath that comes from the solitude of the creative
mind.
Calling Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs and Jains
Round thy throne
Expressing his dilemma more strongly in another letter
in 1921 he wrote,
And Parsees, Mussulmans and Christians.
Offerings are brought to thy shrine by
I know, as a poet, my work is not for achieving
immediate results in urgent human affairs. Even my
the East and the West
idea of the International University, growing into an
to be woven in a garland of love.
obsession, is hampering me in my life’s work. What
Thou bringest the hearts of all peoples
have I to do with establishing solid institutions, fixed
Into the harmony of one life,
and firm upon big funds and public approbation. I
Thou Dispenser of India’s destiny,
clearly feel that it is wasting my life setting up stone
idols on costly alters; some day they will all come
Victory, Victory, Victory to thee.
down with their own weight.
The meeting of a larger humanity thus became
But what he wrote to Mahatma Gandhi in a last letter
Rabindranath’s sadhana for Visva-Bharati. He wrote,
is probably what rings truest from him where Visva-Bharati
Visva-Bharati will not be a mere school; it will be
was concerned. In this letter that he put into Gandhiji’s
a pilgrimage. Let those coming to it say, oh what a
hands on 2 February 1940, just as they were parting
relief it is to be away from narrow domestic walls
company for the last time, Rabindranath wrote,
and to behold the universe.
And, now before you take your leave from
Given the boldness and emotional intensity of that
Santiniketan, I make my fervent appeal to you,
ideal, which was at the same time real and not a dream in
accept this institution under your protection giving
one’s sleep, how could he not have struggled over it? There
it an assurance of permanence if you consider it to
were various inevitable-s in that struggle. The institution
be a national asset. Visva-Bharati is like a vessel
was not financially viable, as he found throughout, and it
carrying the cargo of my life’s best treasure and I
did not sail with the nationalist and populist tide of the
hope it may claim special care from my countrymen
times. Moreover, it was not an education designed for the
for its preservation.
lure of jobs that colonial education could provide. As a
He was clearly worrying about Visva-Bharati as his
result there were very few takers for this alternative
end was drawing near. What could be more convincing
cosmopolitan education. Rabindranath knew this, of course,
that this work, this creation, was important to him despite
and worried about the institution’s survival.
the struggle? He did not give up because he believed it
But his struggle was also due to his own inner tension
was absolutely necessary. To him the school stood for Truth
over opposites in his personality, what he described as a
satyer swarup – it stood for Shantam, Sivam, Advaitam.
civil war in himself of wanting solitude for himself and
That is how he must have negotiated the struggle within .
also wanting keenly to reach out to people. Taking cue
Where he put his unfailing faith was not in any new
once again from his letters when he wrote, for instance,
institution, nor in a new system, but in “the individuals all
over the world who think clearly, feel nobly, and act rightly,
[…] I myself have a kind of civil war constantly
thus becoming the channels of moral truth”. He wrote,
going on in my own nature between my personality
272
SCIENCE AND CULTURE, JULY-AUGUST, 2013
wherever I go, I look not for patriots, but for
Amiya Chakravarty (ed.), A Tagore Reader , Beacon Press, Boston, 1966.
compatriots”.
Sisir Kumar Das (ed.), English Writings of Rabindranath Tagore ,
Volumes I-III, Sahitya Akademi, New Delhi, 1996 -2002.
Select Bibliography
Nityapriya Ghosh (ed.), English Writings of Rabindranath Tagore ,
Volume IV, Sahitya Akademi, New Delhi, 2009.
Rabindranath Tagore, The Twentieth Anniversary Celebration of the
Uma Das Gupta, An Illustrated Life of Rabibdranath Tagore , Oxford
Santiniketan Asram, Pamphlet, Bolpur, 1918.
University Press, New Delhi, 2013.
Rabindranath Tagore, Pashchatya Bhraman (Westward Voyage), Visva-
Uma Das Gupta (ed.), The Oxford India Tagore: Selected Writings on
Bharati, Calcutta, 1343(1936).
Education and Nationalism, Oxford University Press, New Delhi,
Rabindranath Tagore, Visva-Bharati , Santiniketan, 1929.
2010.
Rabindranath Tagore, Gora, Macmillan, London 1943.
Uma Das Gupta (ed.), Rabindranath Tagore: My Life in My Words ,
Rabindranath Tagore, Chitthi Patra (Letters) , IV, Visva-Bharati, Calcutta
Penguin Books, New Delhi, 2006 (Peperback edn., 2010).
1350(1943).
Uma Das Gupta , Rabindranath Tagore: A Biography , Modern Indian
Rabindranath Tagore, The Religion of Man , Unwin Books, London 1958.
Greats Series, Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2004.
Rabindranath Tagore, Palli Prakriti , Visva-Bharati, Calcutta 1962.
Uma Das Gupta (ed.), A Difficult Friendship: Letters of Edward
Thompson and Rabindranath Tagore 1913-1940, Oxford
Rabindranath Tagore, Atmaparichay , Visva-Bharati, Calcutta 1400 (1993).
University Press, New Delhi, 2003.
Rabindranath Tagore, Poems , poem no. 51, Visva-Bharati, Calcutta 2003.
Uma Das Gupta, Prasanta Chandra Mahalanobis and Rabindranath
Sabyasachi Bhattacharya (ed.), The Mahatma and the Poet , National
Tagore (in Bengali), Indian Statistical Institute and Ananda
Book Trust, New Delhi, 1997.
Publishers, Calcutta, 2002.
VOL. 79, NOS. 7–8
273