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Tagore had the answer to rural poverty, education. The blueprint’s still in Santiniketan

To introduce Tagore's ideas on these issues, one needs to translate his works into other Indian languages. But very little progress has been made in 80 years.

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In the remote villages of West Bengal, and perhaps Bangladesh too, someone is singing a familiar song, reciting a riveting poem about the oneness of all living beings. Someone’s enacting, putting into life, the words that the ‘kobiguru’ wrote in his room overlooking the lush fields of Santiniketan. Someone has rented out a room to hang the paintings—Dancing Girl, Dancing Woman, faces emerging out of hues of pale strokes. They’re celebrating Rabindranath Tagore—the man—and life, as what he stood for. But the philosopher-poet, as described by Krishna Dutta and W. Andrew Robinson in their book Rabindranath Tagore: The Myriad-minded Man, possessed many other talents. On his birth anniversary, it’s important to take note of his experiments with an alternate model of education, which he thought would be able to replace the colonial model.

At Santiniketan, the poet devoted 40 years of his life to building an education system that would be more open to ideas from both East and West. In 1922, at Sriniketan, a few miles from Santiniketan, Tagore formed the Institute of Rural Reconstruction with the active participation of Leonard Elmhirst, an agronomist and social worker. The institute empowered villagers to collectively battle poverty. He devoted the last 20 years of his life to village reconstruction.

Yet, Tagore’s ideas on education and rural reconstruction are seldom brought out into the open.

Being selective

Most of Tagore’s philosophy came out in the Bengali language. Earlier, Visva-Bharati University, founded by Tagore, had the sole proprietary right to his books. After the lapse of the copyright, a number of private publishers brought out his books on various topics. Yet, a cursory look at Kolkata’s College Street area, the centre of the city’s publication world, shows that his essays on education and rural reconstruction do not have any demand in the local market. Some are included in the syllabi of Calcutta University, Jadavpur University, Visva-Bharati University, Rabindra Bharati University and other state-run institutions. But instead of the original texts, most students prefer to depend on annotated books of selected articles that are usually taught in classes. To cater to this growing demand, a good number of cheaper publications are now made available.

According to sources close to Visva Bharati Granthan Vibhag (the publication department of the university), the most sought-after books by Tagore are Geetabitan (collection of his songs), Swarabitan (the notation sheets of those songs) and Sanchayita (selected poems). These books are being reprinted regularly. Novels such as Gora, Noukadubi, Sesher Kabita, Chokher Bali also sell, but Tagore’s books that comprise serious essays on social issues and education hardly do. College Street’s publishing is proof.

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Looking into the future — from the past

Amartya Sen has pointed out that Tagore identified the lack of basic education as the fundamental cause of many of India’s social and economic afflictions. In Letters from Russia, Tagore observed: “In my view, the imposing tower of misery, which today rests on the heart of India, has its sole foundation in the absence of education. Caste divisions, religious conflicts, aversion to work, precarious economic conditions—all centre on the single factor.”

In Tagore and His India, Sen admits that he is “partial to seeing Tagore as an educator, having, been educated at Santiniketan. The school was unusual in many different ways, such as the oddity that classes, except those requiring a laboratory, were held outdoors (whenever the weather permitted). Academically, our school was not particularly exacting… and it could not, by the usual standards, compete with some of the better schools in Calcutta. But there was something remarkable about the ease with which class discussions could move from Indian traditional literature to contemporary as well as Western classical thought, and then to the culture of China or Japan or elsewhere. The school’s celebration of variety was also in sharp contrast with the cultural conservatism and separatism that has tended to grip India from time to time.”

He also drew attention to an interview that Satyajit Ray had given to The Guardian on 1 August 1991, where Ray acknowledged Santiniketan’s influence on his creative work: “I consider the three years I spent in Santiniketan as the most fruitful of my life…Santiniketan opened my eyes for the first time to the splendours of Indian and Far Eastern art. Until then, I was completely under the sway of Western art, music and literature. Santiniketan made me the combined product of East and West that I am.”

Unfortunately, after Independence, despite Tagore’s relentless effort to present an alternative model of education (of which Amartya Sen, Satyajit Ray and many other luminaries were alumni), India embraced the British colonial model of education that wasn’t inherently linked to the country’s social reality.

Today, the result is a mixed one. If Tagore was alive, he would be surprised to see that the colonial model has muted into a tuition system that runs parallel to the school system and often supersedes it by luring a possible bright career against a hefty fee, thereby creating a great divide in the people. Interestingly, M.K. Gandhi had also tried to propose a model of national education and established Gujarat Vidyapith for that purpose. Yet, both Visva Bharati and Gujarat Vidyapith were dismissed and were allowed to function under the aegis of the Union government as museum pieces, where relics of the past were allowed to be kept to showcase the product of the two great minds.

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Uplifting rural poor

Tagore’s attempts to draw our attention to the faultlines in our rural development planning were also not taken into consideration. Instead, then-Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, a great admirer of the poet, turned to the Ford Foundation of the US for rural reconstruction. With the $50 million and experts coming in from the Foundation, 55 community development projects, each with 300 villages and a total of 11 million people, were started. But after some years, the project was abandoned without it having reached the avowed goal. In his various writings on this topic—including Palli Seva, Desher Kaaj, Pallir Unnati, Bharatbarshe Samavayers Bishistata—Tagore had warned that the ‘top down’ model was bound to fail. He stressed the need for a ‘bottom up’ model that would encourage the rural poor to form a samavay (cooperative) to find a way out of poverty. He abhorred the idea that the State would continue to support them financially, which would make them dependent on external help. Instead, he felt that the rural poor needed to form a collective to move out of poverty. (Pallir Unnati)

For Tagore, the need for proper education and rural development go hand-in-hand—they are complimentary. The adjacency of his institutions at Santiniketan and Sriniketan is symbolic of that idea. India has certainly taken a stride ahead since Tagore’s time—the Right to Education, initiatives like Sarva Shiksha Aviyan, mid-day meal schemes, the Right to Work implemented in the form of the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, free rations to the poor, three-tier Panchayat system, and Atmanirbhar Bharat Abhiyan are proud achievements. However, the growing indebtedness of the farmers and rural people, the number of dropouts from schools, marginalisation of the Dalit and oppressed castes are issues that still plague the country. Tagore would have felt that India, after all, cornered his ideas on education and nation-building into the farthest corners of history.

Throughout his life, Rabindranath Tagore was committed to freedom of mind and speech. Today, seeing the all-pervading fear in society, where the sedition law, the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, and other draconian laws are hanging over the people’s heads like Damocles’ sword, he would have wondered if this is the same country, for which he wrote the words: “Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high…Where knowledge is free…Where the world has not been broken up into fragments.”

The author is a journalist and political analyst. Views are personal.

(Edited by Humra Laeeq)

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