“ Shantiniketan ..Abode of learning ”
in the year 1862, Maharishi Debendranath Tagore .. father of Rabindranath .. was taking a boat ride through Birbhum, the westernmost corner of Bengal, when he came across a landscape that struck him as the perfect place for meditation.
Captivated by the kaleidoscopic beauty of the luxuriantly canopied chhatim trees and palm groves that offered shade in the rugged, red coloured terrain, he bought the large tract of land that had charmed him, built a small house and planted some saplings around it.
At that time, the area was called “ Bhubandanga ” after a local dacoit named Bhuban Dakat, but Debendranath Tagore decided to call the place “ Shantiniketan”, or the “ Abode of peace ”, because of the serenity it brought to his soul.
In the year 1863, he turned it into a spiritual centre where people from all religions, castes and creeds came and participated in meditation.
In the years that followed, Debendranath’s son Rabindranath went on to become one of the most formidable literary forces India has ever produced. As one of the earliest educators to think in terms of the global village, he envisioned an education that was deeply rooted in one’s immediate surroundings but connected to the cultures of the wider world.
With this in mind, on 22nd December, 1901, Rabindranath Tagore established an experimental school at Shantiniketan with five students and an equal number of teachers. He originally named it “ Brahmacharya Ashram ”, in the tradition of ancient forest hermitages called “ Tapoban ”.
The guiding principle of this little school is best described in Tagore’s own words : “ The highest education is that which does not merely give us information but makes our life in harmony with all existence.”
Located in the heart of nature, the school aimed to combine education with a sense of obligation towards the larger civic community. Blending the best of
western and traditional eastern systems of education, the curriculum revolved organically around nature with classes being held in the open air.
Tagore wanted his students to feel free despite being in the formal learning environment of a school, because he himself had dropped out of school when he found himself unable to think and felt claustrophobic within the four walls of a classroom.
At “Patha Bhavan” .. as the school later came to be known .. children sat on hand-woven mats beneath trees that they were allowed to climb and run beneath during breaks.
Nature walks and excursions were a part of the curriculum, special attention was paid to natural phenomena and students were encouraged to follow the life cycles of insects, birds and plants. Other than such everyday subjects, emphasis was also given to vocational education. Flexible class schedules allowed for shifts in the weather and the seasonal festivals Tagore created for the children.
In an attempt to help with rural reconstruction, Tagore also sought to expand the school’s relationship with the neighbouring villages of the Santhal tribal community. Thanks to his efforts, Shantiniketan has today become the largest centre for educated Santhals in West-Bengal. Many of them have become teachers, several serving in “Vishva Bharati” itself, while others have become social workers.
In the year 1913, Tagore was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature for his book of poems “ Gitanjali ”. The award enhanced the prestige of Shantiniketan and in the year 1921, Tagore converted the little school into a university called the “Vishva Bharati”. The motto that Tagore chose for the “Vishva Bharati University”, Yatra vishvam bhavatyekanidam ( where the whole world can find a nest ), reflected his aspirations for the institution.
The University offers courses in humanities, social science, science, fine arts, music, performing arts, education, agricultural science, and rural reconstruction. Its art college, “Kala Bhavan”, is widely considered to be one of the best art colleges in the world.
Tagore was one of the first to support and bring together different forms of arts at Shantiniketan. He invited artists and scholars from other parts of India and all over the world to live together at Shantiniketan on a daily basis and share their cultures with the students of Vishva Bharati. He once wrote :
“Without music and the fine arts, a nation lacks its highest means of national self-expression and the people remain inarticulate.” Tagore encouraged artists such as “ Nandalal Bose ” to take up residence at Shantiniketan and devote themselves full-time to promoting a national form of art. He helped revive folk dances and introduced dance forms from other parts of India, such as Manipuri, Kathak and Kathakali, at Shantiniketan. He also supported modern dance and was one of the first to recognise the talents of “ Uday Shankar ”, who was invited to perform at Shantiniketan.
At Tagore’s behest, annual festivals such as “ Basant Utsav ” and “ Poush Utsav ” became important cultural events, with students and teachers of Shantiniketan playing an active role.
The grand Poush Utsav is celebrated on the Foundation Day of the University, while the colourful Basant Utsav is celebrated on the occasion of Holi. The Nandan Mela, which was originally started to raise money for a poor student who needed money for treatment, is today an event where university students display and sell their art. Other events like the Sarodotsav ( Autumn Festival ), Maghotsav ( Founding Day of the Sriniketan campus ) and Brikhsharopan Utsav ( Tree Planting Festival ) are also celebrated with great pomp and fervour.
On all these occasions, the entire campus has a festive atmosphere, with baul ( traditional wandering minstrels of Bengal ) songs, tribal dances, and other cultural performances being organized throughout the township.
Another unique feature of Shantiniketan is its lush greenery and aesthetically laid out campus, which stands testimony to Tagore’s belief that the close connect between man and nature should be the founding principle of education.
The mud buildings, the frescoes and tree-lined avenues have a distinct architectural style, the hallmark of which is a dynamic simplicity.
The Uttarayan Complex in Shantiniketan holds five homes that Tagore lived in at various stages of his life. “ Konark ”, the first home to be built, was used as a venue for poetry recitations and play rehearsals, while “ Shyamali ” ( an ecofriendly mud house ) was an experiment by Tagore to see if a permanent mud roof could be built. The outer walls of the houses in the Uttarayan Complex are decorated with mud murals painted by students of Kala Bhavana in the year 1935 under the supervision of the famous painter Nandalal Bose.
The “ Uttarayan complex ” has also hosted many famous people, including Mahatma Gandhi, who stayed here in the year 1940.
While “ Chaitya ” is a small mud and coaltar house ( resembling atypical thatched Bengali hut ) that showcases art work by university students, “ Taladhwaj ” is a round mud hut, built around the trunk of a toddy palm, with palm leaves stretching out over its thatched roof.
Other than its vibrant festivals and eclectic architecture, what makes Shantiniketan really special is the fact that Vishva Bharati University gives complete artistic freedom to its students. In line with Tagore’s immortal words, “Where the head is held high, and knowledge is free ”, the college knows that freedom to acquire knowledge also means the freedom to work whenever a student feels like. This is why, at Shantiniketan, the studios are open 24×7 for students who want to work.
This ground-breaking outlook is also the reason why Shantiniketan has given India many luminaries like pioneering painter Nandalal Bose, famous sculptor Ramkinkar Baij, Nobel-winning economist Amartya Sen, globally renowned filmmaker Satyajit Ray, and the country’s leading art historian R. Siva Kumar.
The University also has several eminent international alumni that include Indonesian painter Affandi, Italian Asianist Giuseppe Tucci, Chinese historian Tan Chung, eminent Indologist Moriz Winternitz, and Sri Lankan artist Harold Peiris, among many others. Pouring his creative genius into his work, Tagore himself produced some of his best literary works, paintings and sketches at Shantiniketan.
The Nobel Laureate’s life, philosophy and literary works find their greatest reflection in Shantiniketan, where classes are still taught in the open, where nature and its seasons are still celebrated instead of religious festivals, where the graduation ceremony is marked by the gifting of a chhatim leaf, and where education is rooted in Tagore’s philosophy that “ the whole world can find a nest. ”
Falling way outside the strict definition of an academic university, Shantiniketan, an educational institution with a difference, is arguably Tagore’s greatest work and a legacy India has to live up to.
As Tagore wrote in his last letter to Mahatma Gandhi, “Vishva Bharati is like a vessel carrying the cargo of my life’s best treasure and I hope it may claim special care from my countrymen for its preservation.”
“ GITANJALI ”
Life of my life, I shall ever try to keep my body pure, knowing that thy living touch is upon all my limbs. I shall ever try to keep all untruths out from my thoughts, knowing that thou art that truth which has kindled the light of reason in my mind. I shall ever try to drive all evils away from my heart and keep my love in flower, knowing that thou hast thy seat in the inmost shrine of my heart. And, it shall be my endeavour to reveal thee in my actions, knowing it is thy power gives me strength to act. Leave this chanting and singing and telling of beads ! Whom dost thou worship in this lonely dark corner of a temple with doors all shut? Open thine eyes and see thy God is not before thee! He is there where the tiller is tilling the hard ground and where the path-maker is breaking stones. He is with them in Sun and in shower, and his garment is covered with dust. Put off thy holy mantle and even like him come down on the dusty soil! Deliverance? Where is this deliverance to be found? Our master himself has joyfully taken upon him the bonds of creation; he is bound with us all for ever. Come out of thy meditations
and leave aside thy flowers and incense! What harm is there if thy clothes become tattered and stained? Meet him and stand by him in toil and in sweat of thy brow.
I have had my invitation to this world’s festival, and thus my life has been blessed. My eyes have seen and my ears have heard. It was my part at this feast to play upon my instrument, and I have done all I could. Now, I ask, has the time come at last when I may go in and see thy face and offer thee my silent salutation ?
If thou speakest not, I will fill my heart with thy silence and endure it. I will keep still and wait like the night with starry vigil and its head bent low with patience. The morning will surely come, the darkness will vanish, and thy voice pour down in golden streams breaking through the sky. Then thy words will take wing in songs from every one of my birds’ nests, and thy melodies will break forth in flowers in all my forest groves.
He whom I enclose with my name is weeping in this dungeon. I am ever busy building this wall all around; and as this wall goes up into the sky day by day I lose sight of my true being in its dark shadow. I take pride in this great wall, and I plaster it with dust and sand lest a least hole should be left in this name; and for all the care I take I lose sight of my true being.
I came out alone on my way to my tryst. But who is this that follows me in the silent dark ? I move aside to avoid his presence but I escape him not. He makes the dust rise from the earth with his swagger ; he adds his loud voice to every word that I utter. He is my own little self, my lord, he knows no shame ; but I am ashamed to come to thy door in his company.
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 by narrow domestic walls ; Where words come out from the depth of truth ; Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection ; Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way into the dreary desert sand of dead habit ; Where the mind is led forward by thee into ever-widening thought and action – into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake.