Tagore resisted walls of the mind with his deep humanism and sense of the inherent dignity of all people that led him to question the primacy or superiority of any culture over another. At Santiniketan, he wanted to dissolve the walls between the inside and the outside where connections were made possible between the curious creative mind and the world at large negating the very concept of holding anyone as an ‘outsider’ by virtue of his idea of India as an all-embracing culture and society, writes BASHABI FRASER.
Rabindranath Tagore, with Gandhiji was one of India’s greatest nation builders. He believed in and strove for social justice and social inclusion as evident in his writing and various pragmatic projects. For him, India was a nation which was noted for her hospitality and every wave of invading/migrating group has been, as Tagore states, welcomed through India’s inherent spirit of ‘accommodation1’ and ‘adjustment2’. Rabindranath did not believe in any Indian as an ‘outsider’ and with his internationalist outlook, he welcomed the Western and Far Eastern visitor as well at Santiniketan as a valued guest. The concept of anyone being an ‘outsider’ negates Rabindranath’s very idea of India as an all-embracing culture and society, detracting from his intrinsic liberal humanism which is valued by those who accept and uphold Rabindranath’s legacy and continuing relevance in our times.
And Rabindranath hated walls. In My Reminiscences (1912), Tagore recounts how he and his brothers were placed under the authoritarian rule of what he called a ‘Servocracy’ in his family home, Jorasanko. One of the servants, Shyam ‘would put me in a selected spot and, tracing a chalk line all round, warn me with solemn face and uplifted finger of the perils of transgressing the ring3‘. The perils of transgressing the magic chalk circle was not lost on Rabindranath’s young mind which was well versed in Sita’s fate when she overstepped the boundaries set for her. In fact, Tagore’s childhood memories were of constricted movement and a curbing of the will to freedom. He recalls, ‘Going out of the house was forbidden to us, in fact we had not even the freedom of all its parts. We perforce took our peeps at nature from behind the barriers…. [And while] the Outside… was free and I was bound – there was no way of meeting. So the attraction was all the stronger. The chalk line has been wiped away to-day….4’. It is this outside that signifies the playground for man’s imaginative endeavours, his contact zone for interaction with others, which Rabindranath strove to enact through his various educational and nation building projects.
Illustration done by GOPI GHOSH. He has been an agro economist having worked with the United Nations, and served as former Dy. Chief Director at the Ministry of Agriculture, Govt. Of India and as Director at the National Cooperative Development Corporation. His passion for painting and singing Rabindrasangeet fulfils the time of his retired life. He can be connnected via Facebook .
As a boy he studied at various leading schools in Calcutta, the unimaginative method of rote learning and the feeling of prison walls of classroom closing in on him, remained a stifling memory even after he became a school drop-out. This is what he endeavoured to resist in Shantiniketan where he set up his school in 1901 and where he did not want the students and teachers to feel constricted by imprisoning walls. At Santiniketan, he wanted to wipe away that chalk circle, dissolving the walls between the inside and the outside where connections were made possible between the curious creative mind and the world at large. This was his great achievement, the creation of a paribesh, an ‘atmosphere5’ of freedom and connectivity in an institution in touch with the surrounding hinterland and its people, something he strove diligently to maintain and which we need to cherish and retain.
The links with his rural compatriots were made possible by Rabindranath’s father, Maharshi Debendranath’s decision in November 1889 to entrust the supervision of the Tagore family’s landed estates in and around Shelidah in what is now Bangladesh, to Rabi. It was a perceptive move on the part of the Jorasanko patriarch who must have noted a reliability and responsibility in his youngest dreaming poet son under whose creative, constructive landlordship, the estates continued to thrive. It was here that Rabindranath was shocked to encounter the apathy of the village folks and set about building cooperatives and implementing schools and roads and various schemes for rural resuscitation and uplift to dissipate the sense of hopelessness, and bring back some hope and instil self-reliance (atmashakti) and restore dignity amongst his people. The experience of his Shelidah days would lead to his writing of many of short stories which reflected the lives of common folk in the many forgotten villages of Bengal, using conversational Bengali, taking him closer to the social milieu. Rabindranath’s interest in the lives of India’s rural inhabitants remained with him, deepened by his humanist compassion and love for his countrymen6.
While at Shelidah, Rabindranath taught his children himself, but he knew this wasn’t enough. His experience of the mind-numbing rote method in the schools he had attended had convinced him that learning needed to be creative, imaginative and inspirational, encouraging curiosity and debate. So in December 1901, he moved with his family to Santiniketan and started his school in December with 5 boys, one of them being his son, Rathindranath.
Initially the school was named Bramhacharya Ashram following the Upanishadic tradition, but true to Rabindranath’s own ideal of freedom, it was imbued with what came to be known as the Rabindric spirit, free from orthodoxy and religious constraints. He imbibed the traditional Indian guru-shishya – teacher-disciple – tradition, where the teacher took the full responsibility of providing for his disciples/pupils in a live experience of holistic learning.
In ‘A Poet’s School’ (1926) Rabindranath describes how he has given his students ‘an opportunity to find their freedom in nature by being able to love it…’ as he ‘tied to develop in the children… their feeling for Nature as also a sensitiveness for their surroundings7’. Thus they ‘take great pleasure in cooking, weaving, gardening, improving their surroundings, and in rendering services to other boys, very often secretly, lest they should feel embarrassed.’ He says, ‘Their classwork has not been separated from their normal activities but forms a part of their daily current of life8’. Rathindranath, his son, speaks of the sense of camaraderie that existed as ‘joys and sorrows’ which were shared by teachers and pupils, an ‘essentially happy lot’. He also speaks of his father’s presence and participation when he was there, as he never felt tired of composing songs and poems and singing/reciting them, rehearsing and directing his plays, recounting stories from the Mahabharata, taking classes and playing indoor games with the boys. This is the ‘presence’ I have felt whenever I have stayed in Santiniketan, flowing through its unhindered fields and blending with the villages beyond and the neighbourhoods that have come up with the idea of staying close to and reflecting Gurudev’s expansive spirit of social inclusion.
The school at Santiniketan began with meagre resources. Weather permitting, the classes were held under the trees, where students and teachers were close to nature in these classrooms without walls. The love of nature, the close association with one’s environment were nurtured here, and simplicity (not by virtue of poverty) was adopted as a way of life for building character. Rabindranath remembered his own experience of his schooldays and ‘the fact that they did not have the completeness of the world’ which was what strengthened his assertion that, ‘children are in love with life, and it is their first love’. This was the ‘nest’ he built first for boys, and then for girls from all sorts of backgrounds who came to study in a residential school, which became the indicator for his campus university. The classes in Patha Bhavan (Rabindranath’s ashram) have continued under the trees on dry days, and students who have passed out from the institution have competed successfully across India and the globe and succeeded, having benefitted from Rabindranath’s legacy of holistic learning.
In Sadhana, The Realisation of Life (1913), Rabindranath Tagore speaks about walls that man has constructed through time. He goes back to classical Greece, to the time of city states, and says, ‘The civilization of Ancient Greece was nurtured within city walls.’ He goes on to reflect, ‘In fact, all modern civilizations have their cradles of brick and mortars’. Tagore is suspicious of walls and the message they carry to those they keep in or out and those they separate, ‘These walls leave their mark deep in the minds of men. They set up a principle of ‘divide and rule’ in our mental outlook, which begets in us a habit of securing all our conquests by fortifying them and separating them from one another. We divide nation and nation, knowledge and knowledge, man and nature9‘. It is this divisive nature of walls and the obstacles they create for the enquiring mind that he writes about in his poem, ‘Where the Mind is without Fear’, seeking for that space.
Where knowledge is free
Where the world has not been broken up into fragments
By narrow domestic walls (1912)10
In ‘The Centre of Indian Culture’ Rabindranath states, ‘We require openings in walls more than the walls themselves11‘. This is what he sought to achieve at his school at Santiniketan, holding classes under trees, pointing out that ‘trees and rivers, and blue skies and beautiful views are just as necessary as blackboards, books and examinations12‘.
The image of the wall is continuously challenged by Rabindranath through his writing, and the wall can be real, conjured or metaphoric. Looking at the Indian context, Tagore notes how when the Aryans arrived in India, the various tribes ‘settled in the different forest tracks which had some special advantage of natural protection, and food and water in plenty13‘. The forest domain became the place where the forest hermitage grew and prospered, known as the Tapovana, the seat of education. As Rabindranath explains, ‘The gurus of ancient India, so tradition says, lived in hermitages… the guru was a family man and his pupils lived with him as members of the household14’. Pupils learnt amidst the freedom of nature, with no impeding walls containing them or interrupting their vision. This is what Tagore tried to restore at Santiniketan, while he allowed the traditional and modern arts and sciences to flourish in a landscape where students felt rooted to the earth that nurtured them and were cognisant of their surrounding world. Tagore willed knowledge to be gained in an atmosphere of freedom. ‘So let the children play under the open sky which is the playground of sunlight and clouds. Let them not be taken away from Bhuma, the Supreme Spirit. Freedom is essential to the mind in the period of growth, and it is richly provided by nature15‘.
Illustration by REBANTO GOSWAMI. He has served as a textile designer for 22 years with the Govt. of India and as an Assistant Professor of Graphic Design for 14 years at the Govt. Art College, Calcutta. He had been a member of the Board of Studies, Kala Bhavana, Santiniketan for 4 years. He is wellknown nationwide for his B/W works. He can be reached at email@example.com
On 22 December 1918, at a special meeting in Santiniktan, Rabindranath explained his idea of Visva-Bharati, his international university to his students, teachers and invited guests. It was to be an institution where differences of religion, caste, race and class would be smoothened through people from all backgrounds coming to study together and teach. It would be a cultural learning centre promoting cooperation and coordination between the East and the West while engaging in collaborative research. Its motto: yatra visham bhavati ekanidam – ‘where the world meets in one nest’ – embodies Rabindranath’s ideal of social inclusion, universal understanding and acceptance. Visva-Bharati was formally established three years later on the same date, 22 December in 192116. What was significant was that Rabindranath discussed his ideas of his international university with students, teachers and guests, the mark of his belief in a transparent policy for his institution where everyone would be consulted and be part of the planning process. When we move away from this democratic process, we flout the Rabindric spirit which flowed through this nation builder’s institution.
He wanted his university to be not only in touch with its surroundings, but a continuation of it, practising agriculture, gardening, weaving and dairy keeping, with students and teachers working with and learning from ordinary people in the neighbouring villages in an atmosphere of mutual appreciation, learning and exchange. In fact, ‘exchange’ was the keyword for Rabindranath’s ‘nest’. It would be a place which offered hospitality to guests and cultures, stretching to the neighbouring villages and town, across India and the globe, continuing the Indian tradition of hospitality and accommodation in an atmosphere, a paribesh of mutual understanding, respect and exchange.
From 1922, work began in earnest at the Rural Reconstruction centre at Surul that Rabindranath named Sriniketan, the Abode of Wellbeing, with the objective of bringing hope and self-dependency through participation in a revitalisation programme that encouraged and thrived on interdependecy and interchange between the institution and the surrounding villages17 under the impetus of the agricultural scientist, Leonard Elmhirst and in his absence, Arthur Geddes, the geographer whose PhD thesis was on the land of Tagore and who spent two years teaching at Santiniketan.
Rabindranath resisted walls of the mind. His deep humanism and his sense of the inherent dignity of all people, led him to question the primacy or superiority of any culture over another – urban or rural, folk or classical culture, Indian or foreign as he strove to bring about an intercultural exchange between India and the world meeting in his nest at Visva-Bharati. He had seen the dangers of a heady nationalism that created divisions in his own country and led to violence during the Swadeshi movement which he at first espoused and even led, but then turned away from, standing firmly apart when he witnessed the violence it generated and the threat it posed to fragment India from within. Rabindranath espoused non-violence as the only way forward for a nation. He was opposed to the divisive politics of extreme nationalism promoted by the state power, and turned to the efficacy of samaj/society/community which had existed in India for five thousand years in spite of wave on wave of invasions and empires, and which had kept the flame of civilization burning in India. He felt that this had been possible because, ‘Nations have grown with the power of truth, but not nationalism’. Rabindranath’s work in and around the villages at Shelidah and Santiniketan, demonstrated that if power comes with responsibility, it is ideal for meting out justice and development, as power without responsibility can degenerate into dominance without empathy. And empathy was the keyword for Rabindranath’s association with the Indian samaj, which confirms his aversion to the idea of the ‘Outsider’, the ‘Other’. For him, all were welcome in his ‘nest’ at Visva-Bharati where the whole world met.
In the current political climate, the ideas and thoughts of cosmopolitan writers like Rabindranath Tagore are more relevant than ever. Like Mahatma Gandhi, what Rabindranath saw as embodying the spirit of India were the tenets of truth and compassion, which he believed could guarantee her continuity and wellbeing and which she could share with the world as the only way for humanity to survive and thrive.
What Rabindranath possessed was ‘A cosmopolitan openness to the world’ which sees the world [and India with her rich diversity] as an interconnected community, believing in ‘coexistence, conversation and association17’ which Rabindranath sought to promote amongst his countrymen through his creative work and pragmatic projects and encourage in the world through his lectures, essays and letters. He embodied ‘a strand of cosmopolitanism: the recognition that human beings are different and that we can learn from each other’s differences18’.
In many of Tagore’s songs,, there is this heady demand to break all barriers and set the flood waters of freedom free, e.g., in ‘Bhango! Bandh bhenge dao, banndh bhenge dao‘ from his dance drama Tasher Desh (Card Country) which urges the breaking of all dams in order to discard the old and usher in the new with the unknown. Thus meaningless and stifling rules and regulations are swept away by this desire to embrace life in all its fullness.
Interestingly, Rabindranath described his institution as a place of pilgrimage in the new age, where there would be a confluence, ‘a meeting of truths’. Today Shantiniketan, the school and the university and Sriniketan, remain a place of cultural pilgrimage in India, which many Indians and foreigners make their sought out destination, some drawn to it from curiosity and many with the sense of paying homage to India’s myriad-minded man in the nest he built where the world could meet. Rabindranath had no inclination to perceive any human being as an outsider. And walls were anathema to his idea of nation building. To lose the Rabindric spirit amounts to the loss of the very spirit of India, which, if we are not careful, may become irretrievable.
Sisir Kumar Das, ed., The English Writings of Rabindranath Tagore, 1996), vol 2.
Bashabi Fraser, Rabindranath Tagore (London: Reaktion Books, Critical Lives Series; Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2019).
Humayun Kabir, ed., Towards Universal Man (London: Asia Publishing House, 1961).
Rabindranath Tagore, Gitanjali (1912) (Kolkata: Shishu Sahitya, a facsimile edition, 2009).
Rabindranath Tagore, My Reminiscences (1912, Madras: Macmillan India, 1917), rpt. 1987.
1. Rabindranath Tagore, ‘Nationalism in the West’ in in Sisir Kumar Das, ed., The English Writings of Rabindranath Tagore, 1996), vol 2, p. 420.
2. Rabindranath Tagore, ‘Nationalism in India’, Ibid., p. 453.
3. Rabindranath Tagore, My Reminiscences (1912, Madras: Macmillan India, 1917), rpt. 1987, p. 10.
4. Ibid., pp. 13-14.
5. Rabindranath Tagore, ‘A Poet’s School’ in Humayun Kabir, ed., Towards Universal Man (London: Asia Publishing House, 1961), p. 300.
6. See Bashabi Fraser, Rabindranath Tagore (London: Reaktion Books, Critical Lives Series; Chicago: Chicago University Press), 2019, p. 88.
7. Rabindranath Tagore, ‘A Poet’s School’ in Humayun Kabir, ed., Towards Universal Man (London: Asia Publishing House, 1961), p. 296.
8. Ibid., p. 298.
9. Rabindranath Tagore, Sadhana, The Realization of Life (1913) in Sisir Kumar Das, ed., The English Writings of Rabindranath Tagore, 1996), vol 2, p. 281.
10. Rabindranath Tagore, Gitanjali (1912) (Kolkata: Shishu Sahitya, a facsimile edition, 2009), 72.
11. Rabindranath Tagore, ‘The Centre of Indian Culture in (in Humayun Kabir, ed., Towards Universal Man, 1961) p. 206)
12. Rabindranath Tagore, ‘The Problem in Education’, in Kabir, ed., 1961, p. 73
13. Rabindranath Tagore, Sadhana in Das, ed., 1996, p. 281.
14. Rabindranath Tagore, ‘The Problem in Education’, Kabir, ed., 1961, p. 70)
15. Rabindranath Tagore,’The Problem in Education’, Kabir, ed. 1961, p. 74.
16. Fraser, 2019, pp. 145-146.
17. Ibid., p. 158.
BASHABI FRASER is Professor Emerita, Director, Scottish Centre of Tagore Studies (ScoTs) Edinburgh Napier University (www.scotstagore.org) and ICCR Senior International Fellow (2017-2016). She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Opinions expressed in this article are of the author’s and do not represent the policy of The Edition. The writers are solely responsible for any claim arising out of the contents of their articles.
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