A pioneer's dream
By Preethi Ann Thomas | Published: 09th September 2013 12:00 AM |
What is now a UNESCO World Heritage Centre and University was started as Patha-Bhavana in 1905 with five students under a tree in an effort to help them receive holistic instruction. The man behind this, Rabindranath Tagore, was more than just a poet/artist. He was a game changer, a reformer, and a visionary. Through unconventional ideas, he developed a university that brought dignity to agriculture, mingled freely with nature and went beyond boundaries for cultural and literary exchanges — all keeping in mind a key concept, simplicity. The school and its curriculum went against every norm in the book. Students began their first lessons with nature and they shared an integral socio-cultural life with teachers. Classes for music, painting, sculpture, dramatics, languages and other subjects were held under trees.
Originally built as an ashram in the Birbhum District of Bengal where anyone, irrespective of caste or creed, could come and meditate, by Debendranath Tagore, Rabindranath’s father, it was in due course of time established as Visva Bharati, a central university in 1951 by an Act of the Parliament. Tagore developed a concept called rural reconstruction — to take the ideas developed on campus to rural areas and to bring those from rural areas to mainstream society and aid in nation-building. “He thought of holistic development, rural reconstruction, skills development and empowerment of rural artisans back then. Now we are all accustomed to community colleges and skill development centres. Tagore’s ideas were one-of-a-kind. So life at Santiniketan is also drastically different from what you would find anywhere else — the Tagorean ethos is reflected in everything here,” begins D Gunasekaran, registrar of Visva-Bharati.
Tagore’s Nobel Prize in 1913 and his exposure to the world is something he brought back to Santiniketan. The institution’s motto, Yatra visvam bhavtyekanidam, meaning, ‘where the world makes a home in a single nest’ should give you a clear idea of what it’s like at Bolpur.
Established in 1922 as the Department of Higher Studies, aka Uttara Vibhaga, it was renamed Vidya-Bhavana in 1926. It teaches Hindu philosophy, medieval mysticism, Islamic culture, Zoroastrian philosophy, Bengali literature and history, Hindustani literature, Vedic and Classical Sanskrit, Pali, Prakrit, Chinese, Tibetan, Persian, Arabic, German, Latin and Hindi at all levels, from UG-PhD. In an attempt to enable mingling of cultures from the East and West, and house a community of scholars, several centres were established. In 1937, Cheena-Bhavana, the department of Sino-Indian studies was established, and even today it remains a remarkable symbol of cultural collaboration. In 1938, the Hindi-Bhavana was founded. Kala-Bhavana, which was originally the institute for both fine arts and music, came into existence in 1921 but in 1934, it branched off into two independent institutions, Kala-Bhavana and Sangit-Bhavana, each with distinct identities. This helped in creating a more informed and cultured interest in our country.
The Institute of Rural Reconstruction was founded in 1922 at Surul at a distance of about three kilometres from Santiniketan, which came to be known as Sriniketan (Abode of Welfare). Rabindra-Bhavana was added after his death in 1941, along with Vinaya Bhavana for teacher training.
Bhasha-Bhavana teaches and researches languages, literature and culture. It houses departments like English and Sanskrit, Odia, Hindi, Bengali, Marathi, Chinese, Japanese, Indo-Tibetan, Arabic and Persian. BA, BA (hons), MA, certificate courses, diplomas and advanced certificate courses can be pursued along with research.
Vidya-Bhavana, the institute of humanities and social sciences, has eight major departments that offer UG and PG courses and also an archaeological museum. A one-year integrated course on Indian Culture and Civilisation is also offered to foreign students. Prof Shivkumar of the Arts History department came to study in 1974. He says, “People came here from around the world for the exchange of ideas facilitated. Art was used as a medium to inculcate a different culture. All the festivals are secular and we cultivate human values. It used to be a smaller community. But as the institution grew, to maintain the original flavour while catering to the demands of the Centre, UG, etc, has become challenging.”
Tagore studies are compulsory in the undergraduate level. The pride and possessiveness over Tagore by those at Santiniketan — students to hawkers — is one that cannot be described. They teach everything from museology to media studies, culture to wood craft, literary theory, history, linguistics, design, batik, crafts, pottery, leather making, embroidery, etc, and many of these skills are taught at their workshops in Sriniketan to be applied in small scale industries.
Moving from Santiniketan to Sriniketan, one is exposed to vast lands dotted with tribal dwellings in kuccha houses, many of them are involved in commercialisation of skills. Shiksha Satra was started at Sriniketan to educate students from a rural background. Tagore acquired many pockets of land as a zamindar would in those days, but used it for the benefit of his people.
Conversing with faculty and students, I realised there was an ideal that they all believed in and came to Santiniketan for. Arpita Akhanda, a third-year BFA student, says, “We have creative freedom here. They look for innovation and give us complete freedom. The fee is `3,000 per semester and we are busy throughout the year, either creating works of art, displaying them or interacting with others through festivals.”
The All India Admission test is held for admission to the undergraduate courses. A detailed list of the courses can be found at www.visva-bharati.ac.in/CoursesOffered/Contents/courseContents.htm
The university awards scholarships on the basis of merit. Pre-degree, UG and PG students can avail stipends that are given on merit-cum-means basis. Different courses and schools may have government and private scholarships. Research fellowships are awarded by UGC, CSIR, ICAR, ICHR, DST, DAE, ICSSR and more in different fields. Earn-while-you-learn schemes have also been implemented to assist students.
Prof Amrit Sen, associate professor, department of English, opines that the course in comparative religion is very unique. “We also offer courses like journalism, mass communication, European languages and have broadened our horizons. My department is under the modern Europen language. Russian, French, Italian and German are also taught. Tagore’s interest in Buddhism led to the establishment of the Indo-Tibetan centre. This panoramic range of disciplines is what Tagore offered to the world and is what is carried out to this day.” Language and international studies are also now becoming more relevant with globalisation.
Students from abroad are also welcome on campus to pursue any of the courses offered. Gayatri Devi, Indira Gandhi, Satyajit Ray, Abdul Ghani Khan, Sukriti Chakraberti, and Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen are some very eminent personalities who studied at Visva Bharti.
Culture on campus
Tagore has always tried to foster a social life, which has a creative and participatory culture. This is reflected in the festivals around the year that celebrate different seasons and manifestations of nature. Dancing, singing and a strong link to agriculture can be witnessed at these events. Joyful but sensitising, these festivals bind Santiniketanis. Humanism and cultural interchange is essential to the identity of the place. Tagore’s vision of a place unfettered by religious and regional barriers is still kept at the heart of their goals.
On Wednesdays, they follow Upasana (meditation). The residents of Santiniketan wear white kurta pyjama’s worn and yellow sarees. Decorations and costumes for all their programmes are made from flowers and leaves, yet another example of going back to nature. They love making everything beautiful — aesthetics is a priority in Santiniketan.
Their campus has a green cover — something that was initiated by Rabindranath and his son, Rathindranath Tagore who even designed the gardens. Their library is well-equipped with 4,22,000 volumes, 6,400 print journals, more than 20,000 online journals and 74,000 e-books. This is apart from the sectional libraries. These books can also be loaned to other universities on request. While the residential character has changed in recent times, initiatives are being taken to restore it to its glory days. The university hospitals also provide free healthcare to students. The campus is replete with ATMs, banks, post offices and a railway booking counter.
Over a cup of black tea (a favourite in Bengal, I noted), Prof Tapti Mukherjee, director, culture and cultural relations, explains how Rabindra Bhavana came to be. It was established in 1942, Prof Mukherjee, says, “as a memorial museum and research centre for Tagore studies. The idea is to carry his legacy forward. Festivals that include planting saplings to ploughing are held to this day on our premises. Even our vice-chancellor takes part in ploughing the field. This keeps us grounded and reminds us of our link with nature.” Viswa Bharti boasts of novel concepts that have not lost their relevance till date. They have adopted 50 villages around to nurture growth and development.
One can witness exhibitions of paintings by Rabindranath and Rathindranath Tagore at the Rabindra Museum. They are also exhibited around the country. Many tourists come to Rabindra Bhavana to remember the phenomenon Tagore was. There is a huge body of scholars studying his work — his writings and paintings are archived. PhD in Tagore studies is also offered.
Some important places on campus are Santiniketan Griha, where he composed most poems of Gitanjali, Upasana Griha (a deityless Belgium glass temple for meditation) and the Amra Kunja (mangrove) where spring festivals are held. His birth anniversary is celebrated on Bengali New Year and saplings are planted on his death anniversary.
Most of their courses can be pursued anywhere, says Prof Mukherjee. “But the uniqueness of Visva Bharti lies in this, education from kindergarten to post-doctoral level under one umbrella happens nowhere else. This system was emphasised by Tagore. Children who come at a tender age can blossom in such an environment to grow up to be holistic individuals and good citizens, aware of their responsibilities and talents. He also wanted them to have a strong love for the motherland.”
At a time when India was under British subjugation and our ancestors were steeped in poverty and ignorance,
Tagore’s ideas were revolutionary.