Book review

Book Review: Uma Das Gupta's 'A History of Sriniketan' documents Rabindranath Tagore’s abode of beauty

Print edition : May 20, 2022

Rabindranath Tagore with the first Director of Sriniketan Institute, L.K. Elmhirst, who had responded to Tagore’s invitation to come and work in the villages surrounding Santiniketan. Photo: Photographs: From artwork of book under review, courtesy Niyogi Books.

Mahatma Gandhi at Sriniketan in 1941. The murals depicting “Halakarshana” (ploughing) were by Nandalal Bose.

Artisans and trainees working on Sriniketan’s power looms, 1936.

Dorothy Elmhirst, whose generous endowment helped to get the Sriniketan work going. Tagore’s dedication message to her in a book of essays acknowledged the debt; she, he said, had “made Sriniketan possible”.

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 specifics 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 fulfils 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 flowing 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 reflect a mood of renunciation and “a total retreat from a life of action, conflict 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 defining 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.

Competing identities?

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 prolific output of essays, poems, plays, and most remarkably, short stories. Not only did he give modern Bengali literature its first 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-phrases-rhymes that a child might first see, read or hear. These last would slow-cook 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 speculates 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 find 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.

Culture and agriculture

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 more 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 first 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. Andrews: “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.”

The motivation

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, Visva-Bharati 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 confidence, 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.)

The programme

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; fire 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.

Cottage industry

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 reflected 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 defining 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 flowers. 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 its biological destiny.

The book under review notes how Tagore “never lost an opportunity to encourage the village reconstruction team [at Sriniketan] to find 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.