Bard’s abode of beauty


in review

A new book looks at the history of Sriniketan, Rabindrana­th Tagore’s institute for rural reconstruc­tion in Birbhum.

IN the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, several leading reformers and intellectu­als across the world tried to connect to the masses in various ways. Some of them, like Robert Owen and M.K. Gandhi, experiment­ed with utopian communitie­s and model farms. In hindsight, Rabindrana­th Tagore’s work on rural reconstruc­tion, which he repeatedly referred to as his “life’s work”, may perhaps be seen as belonging to this wider tradition—especially the work that he led through a handful of trusted lieutenant­s in the Sriniketan Institute in Birbhum.

But global trends inevitably work through the specifics and particular­ities of individual lives. Tagore’s legacy as a poet and thinker was shaped by his deep engagement with the agricultur­al hinterland of East Bengal in his family’s estates. His experiment­s with land and labour in the Tagore estates and his later work in Birbhum are well documented, like all other aspects of his life. Yet, a history of the Sriniketan Institute, written at some distance in time, was perhaps necessary, particular­ly in these times of agricultur­al distress. A History of Sriniketan: Rabindrana­th Tagore’s Pioneering Work in Rural Reconstruc­tion by Uma Das Gupta, a well-known name in Tagore studies, eminently fulfils that need. The book does not just offer a straightfo­rward history of the institute; it explores the world view that underpinne­d the organisati­on and what it set out to achieve — infusing well-being, joy and beauty (Sriniketan literally means ‘abode of beauty’) into destitute and marginalis­ed lives.

In trying to understand what Tagore was attempting to do in his work on rural reconstruc­tion, it is sobering to remember how controvers­ial he was in his own time — both in India and abroad, though for completely different reasons. The West, when it grew out of its initial enthusiasm about the charismati­c saint-like poet from the Orient with his flowing

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beard and his curious clothes, derided him as a false prophet and denounced what it saw as his mysticism as vague and irrational. In India, he was for nationalis­t politician­s a perpetual thorn in the side, forever talking of things that did not seem to sit well with his vocation as a poet — agricultur­al distress, communal tensions, and livelihood­s — and never tiring of emphasisin­g the limitation­s of nationalis­m.

The irritation with his outspokenn­ess sharpened its blade against what was perceived as his retreat from political engagement after a passionate but short-lived immersion in the agitation against the 1905 partition of Bengal. (The writer and painter Abanindran­ath Tagore in his memoir Gharoa, or Intimate Reminiscen­ces, has left unforgetta­ble vignettes of that phase of Tagore’s life, which resulted in a creative outburst of patriotic songs, the best offering that a poet can give to a movement.)

In a 2002 essay titled “From Art to Life” (translated from the original Bengali by Sukanta Chaudhuri for The Cambridge Companion to Rabindrana­th Tagore published in 2020), the poet and essayist Sankha Ghosh has shown that Tagore’s turning away from active politics was not a retreat into mystic isolation. The poems of the Gitanjali (1910) and Kheya (1906) seem to reflect a mood of renunciati­on and “a total retreat from a life of action, conflict and turmoil”. Yet this was roughly the same period when the epic novel Gora was being written in instalment­s, from 1907 to 1910. “The terrain it [the novel] unfolds,” writes Ghosh, “is not a land of dreams and sentiment but ‘this vast, withdrawn rural India — how isolated, how constricte­d, how enfeebled’, a land where ‘the burden of inert ignorance and suffering, vast and terrifying, weighs upon the shoulders of all of us, learned and unlearned, rich and poor’. This vision is brought out through the eyes of a vigorous servant of India: the protagonis­t Gora, but no less his creator, the novelist himself.

Gora gives living shape to the ethos that Rabindrana­th articulate­s in essays like ‘Swadeshi Samaj’, ‘Chhatrader prati sambhashan’ (Address to the Students) and ‘Byadhi o pratikar’ [The Disease and Remedy] — and this in the middle of the same ‘spiritual phase’. It acquires force because Rabindrana­th is not merely uttering his thoughts about his country; he is defining the total perception of a mature and experience­d citizen.”

This was also the time when Tagore was sponsoring courses in agricultur­al technology in the University of Illinois in the United States for three young men close to him: his son Rathindran­ath, son-in-law Nagendrana­th Ganguli, and Santoshcha­ndra Majumdar, son of a friend. At a time when wealthy Bengali families sent their sons abroad to study law or to write the civil services examinatio­ns, here was a poet sending his son to study agricultur­al science so that he could come back and make a difference in the impoverish­ed countrysid­e.


That interest in the countrysid­e was awakened during the decade (the 1890s) that Tagore spent in riverine East Bengal, looking after the family’s agricultur­al estates. The relocation from the city to the countrysid­e, where he spent his days supervisin­g the zamindari estate’s work and listening to the problems that his peasant tenants brought to him (in between reading and writing and correspond­ing with friends and family), changed the orientatio­n of his life for ever. As all Tagore scholars have noticed, it was also an extraordin­arily productive decade in his writing career, with a prolific output of essays, poems, plays, and most remarkably, short stories. Not only did he give modern Bengali literature its first short stories, written in a language that grew increasing­ly close to spoken Bengali, he populated them with ordinary men and women — quite in contrast to his own earlier work and that of his great storytelli­ng predecesso­r, Bankimchan­dra Chattopadh­yay. The sights and sounds of village life inevitably found their way into many of them.

In trying to understand the creative spirit of Tagore in this and subsequent decades, one cannot but be struck by the many apparently competing identities that resist any attempt at water-tight compartmen­talisation. In a recent book, The Dancing Poet (2019, Tulika Books, New Delhi), Rimli Bhattachar­ya discusses a notebook from this period that she found while working in the Rabindra Bhavana archives:

“Landlord father husband friend — editor poet short story writer, dramatist and writer of political essays — threatened to blur. Figures of taxes and revenues, of household expenses and repairs, jostle with the shades of poems taking shape well before they would appear in print in the anthology bearing the title of its golden harvest, Sonar Tari (The Golden Boat), published in 1894.” She saw “accounts, notes and experiment­s in poetic form intercutti­ng with the words-phrasesrhy­mes that a child might first see, read or hear. These last would slowcook for decades before turning into the vivid Bangla primers, Sahaj Path (Easy Reading or Simple Lessons), for the Santiniket­an schoolchil­dren in the 1930s.”

One of Tagore’s favourite students, the writer Pramathana­th Bishi, writes about another notebook carrying the poem Dui Pakhi (Two Birds) on one page and revenue calculatio­ns of the Birahimpur estate on the facing one. (“Rabindrana­th used to say that his profession was zamindari and his addiction was star-gazing. … He had his two feet on two boats, reality and imaginatio­n, and with keen endeavour was able to keep both boats in perfect control… the interplay between the two

mounts under his two feet sums up his entire life and work.” — Pramathana­th Bishi, Shilaidahe Rabindrana­th, or, Tagore in Shilaidaha.)

The poet’s experiment­s with rural revival in the Tagore family estates, in which he invited the direct participat­ion of his peasant tenants, continued well after he moved to Bolpur in 1901 to start the Santiniket­an school. On his return from Illinois in late 1909, Rathindran­ath found the zamindari headquarte­rs of Shilaidaha (in Pabna district, now in Bangladesh; Selidaha is the spelling used in the book) ready and waiting for him to carry out experiment­s in farming.

He has recorded in Pitrismrit­i, his memoirs about the poet, how he soon found himself on a river tour of the Tagore estates with his father on the family’s houseboat. The trip marked an important moment of bonding between the poet, with a string of bereavemen­ts behind him, and his son, full of excitement about his recently acquired knowledge of agricultur­al science. Tagore let Rathindran­ath do most of the talking, but when he spoke it was about the social, moral and economic decline of the villages that he had witnessed and what steps he had taken to try and stem the rot.

As the newly married Rathindran­ath settled down in Shilaidaha to build up a model farm using modern technology, the letters he received from his father were typically full of ‘shop talk’. Uma Das Gupta has cited one such letter, written from Patisar (in Rajshahi district, now in Bangladesh), which Rathindran­ath has recorded in his memoir. It specmore

on the usefulness of installing a rice mill in the Tagore estate in Patisar and what “industry” could be taught to peasants; whether pottery could be viable as a cottage industry (“Will you find out if the people of a village can collective­ly run such an industry with the help of a small furnace?”); or whether village residents could be taught to make umbrellas.


While Rathindran­ath and the other two young men were still pursuing their course in Illinois, Tagore wrote to his son-in-law Nagendrana­th, reminding him of what he was expected to do: “You have gone abroad to study agricultur­e with the resources that might have fed our famine-stricken peasants at home. If you can make up for it by ensuring a few mouthfuls for them on your return my mind will be assuaged. Remember that the landlord’s wealth is actually the peasants’: they are bearing the cost of your education by starving or half-starving themselves. It is your responsibi­lity to repay this debt in full. That is your first task, even before the welfare of your own family.” (Cited by Sankha Ghosh in his essay; translatio­n by Sukanta Chaudhuri.)

This awareness of the organic connection between agricultur­e and the cost of education was a driving force in Tagore’s thinking about rural reconstruc­tion. Rimli Bhattachar­ya, commenting on “Tagore’s musings … on the barely acknowledg­ed links between culture and agricultur­e” in The Dancing Poet, quotes a 1915 letter from Tagore about his peasant tenants to C.F. Anulates

drews: “One is apt to forget them, just as one does not think of the earth on which one walks. But these men compose the great mass of life, which sustains all civilisati­ons and bears their burdens.”


Tagore’s tireless seeking of a dialogue between “culture and agricultur­e”, city and village, the old and the new, tradition and modernity, the East and the West was the motivation behind both Santiniket­an and Sriniketan. The Santiniket­an school was envisioned as a community of teachers and students living together on the school premises and learning as much from the school’s rural surroundin­gs as from textbooks. The education that the poet hoped to offer would combine an awareness of the wider world and respect for other cultures with a willingnes­s to embrace local traditions and cultures. Later, Visvabhara­ti would be envisioned as a meeting place for scholars from all over the world to share their knowledge. The Sriniketan Institute grew out of Tagore’s conviction, as Uma Das Gupta says in the book under review, that “art and craft should play a vital role in social regenerati­on”.

The Sriniketan work truly began in 1922, after a decade of multiple false starts. The preparatio­ns started in 1912, when Tagore bought land on the edge of Surul, a village close to Santiniket­an, along with a house that stood on it. The idea was to build a model farmhouse that could serve as an example to the peasants and farmers in the surroundin­g villages. Rathindran­ath was summoned from Shilaidaha to take charge.

The work started in earnest after Leonard K. Elmhirst moved to Surul in the spring of 1922 with a team of students and teachers. Uma Das Gupta’s book, divided into chapters with self-explanator­y headlines, gives a fairly detailed history of how the work got off the ground. It was altogether an extremely ambitious programme, feeding on limited means and the limitless enthusiasm and dogged determinat­ion of a committed group of people.

The model farmhouse at Surul was meant to reach out to and collaborat­e with the surroundin­g villages. The institute’s school was an active participan­t in the programme, which started out by trying to win the friendship of the village residents and taking an interest in all aspects of their lives, from drainage, cultivatio­n and industry to health, education and entertainm­ent. When trust was found lacking, the institute’s workers built up a scout movement in the countrysid­e, co-opting youngsters to get their elders and parents involved. (“So long as we had the confidence, cooperatio­n, and trust of the parent, and so long as they felt that the children would come to no harm in our hands, we decided to concentrat­e on the boys and girls. … Our chief discovery, and our hope perhaps, is the rapidity with which the parent learns from the child when the child has something to show,” wrote Elmhirst in his Director’s Report, 1922-23, in “Sriniketan Papers”. Cited by Uma Das Gupta.)


As Sriniketan slowly found its feet and started experiment­ing with village reform at the grassroots, the initiative­s included trials with seeds and manures, cattle breeding, poultry farming, rural surveys (a few samples of these surveys are attached as appendices to the book), rural banks, paddy stores, weavers’ cooperativ­es, irrigation and health societies, anti-malarial measures, vaccinatio­n against small pox, training for midwifery, and an awareness programme on how to deal with famines and epidemics.

The educationa­l programme was carried out at different levels. Apart from the Sriniketan Institute’s “extension services” facilitati­ng research and experiment for adults, Siksha-satra, a school for village boys (later, also girls), combined basic education with an overall training programme for bringing about change in one’s surroundin­gs. (“Under the term housecraft, at the Siksha-satra, the following functions were treated as of primary educationa­l importance: care and cleaning and constructi­on of quarters; care and proper use of latrines; sanitary disposal of waste; cooking and serving of food; clothes washing and repair; personal hygiene and healthy habits; individual self-discipline; group self-government; policing and hospitalit­y; fire drill and control. In every one of these, there was some art to be mastered, some business or organising capacity to be developed, some law of science to be recognised,

and in all of them there was a call for the recognitio­n of the need for individual self-preservati­on as well as of duties, responsibi­lities and privileges of family membership and citizenshi­p.” — Elmhirst, “Siksha-satra” in Pioneer in Education; cited by Uma Das Gupta.) There was a school for householde­rs and a Siksha Charcha Bhavana for village school teachers. Tagore played an active role in education at both Santiniket­an and Sriniketan and interacted regularly with students and teachers.


The Sriniketan programme that became quite spectacula­rly successful was cottage industry. Tagore had long nursed the notion of using cottage industry as a tool to revive village economies. The Sriniketan programme, conducted under its Silpa Bhavana, had units for weaving, tanning, carpentry, lacquer craft, pottery, bookbindin­g, embroidery, and tailoring. Weaving and tanning turned out to be the most successful programmes, but lacquer and carpentry also did very well.

Rathindran­ath and his wife, Pratima Devi, tried out innovative designs in pottery. “… Sriniketan’s artistic crafts in leather, cloth, and wood helped to transform the taste of Bengal and other parts of the country,” writes Uma Das Gupta. The thrust on cottage industries reflected Tagore’s belief that the nurturing of art and craft facilitate­d the expression of a community’s aesthetic sensibilit­ies. The curriculum he envisaged for his Santiniket­an school and Visva-bharati included visual and performing arts because he believed education should include the cultivatio­n of happiness.

The stress on joy and beauty, and not just material well-being, was the defining characteri­stic of Sriniketan’s rural revival drive. In his writing on Bengal’s rural life, Tagore repeatedly drew attention to how the dying out of the traditiona­l forms of folk entertainm­ent had made lives joyless in the countrysid­e. Uma Das Gupta cites a 1915 letter from Tagore to an estate worker in his Kaligram property in Rajshahi, Atul Sen:

“… I have something else to urge upon you. A note of joy has to be sounded in all your work. Village life has become very dull. … All welfare work ought to be turned as far as possible into an occasion of festive joy. There should be a tree-planting ceremony every year. I think you will have to give your students a day off sometime at the end of the month of ‘Vaisakh’ and organise a picnic in a forest coupled with a tree-planting ceremony. If a festive element is introduced on the day a new work is started, such as [when] the constructi­on of a road is launched, a religious appearance will be imparted to all your social activities.

“Another thing must be borne in mind. It will do a lot of good to the villager if he can be induced to take to the hobby of cultivatin­g flowers. A few ‘bel’ or a few rose plants, if grown in the yard of every cottage, will make the villages look beautiful. Let us not forget that this cultivatio­n of beauty has become a very great necessity in our country.” This, surely, is the unmistakab­le voice of a poet, alive to the presence of that extra something that makes human life transcend destiny.

The book under review notes how Tagore “never lost an opportunit­y to encourage the village reconstruc­tion team [at Sriniketan] to find an appropriat­e place for the arts, for stirring the poet and the artist in each individual…” Traditiona­l festivals celebratin­g the seasons were held regularly at both Santiniket­an and Sriniketan, enlivened with the songs and plays by Tagore and art by Nandalal Bose. Repairing of mosques and temples and reviving of village festivals were part of Sriniketan’s rural reconstruc­tion.

The conscious cultivatio­n of happiness was an aspect of Tagore’s stress on the developmen­t of “atmashakti” (strength of spirit) among rural communitie­s. Minds freed from rustic parochiali­sm and responsive to the pulse of the wider world was what he understood as underpinni­ng rural revival. This was at a time when India was still a few decades away from Independen­ce. Tagore knew he had to work within the constraint­s of the existing land relations, complicate­d by private moneylende­rs’ strangleho­ld on peasants and the creation of middle layers who did not directly work the soil. He was conscious of the “parasitic” role of his own landlord class. He was doing what he could, away from the politics of petitions and pamphlets, of non-cooperatio­n and terror, working directly with peasants in a creative embrace of the countrysid­e with its formidable challenges and limitless possibilit­ies. m



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