A week before I was to visit Santiniketan for the first time, I was working in the archives in Delhi, where I came across a letter written to Mahatma Gandhi by Tagore’s English associate, W.W. Pearson. “Your big family has arrived here... all very well and happy last Saturday,” wrote Pearson, “Ram Das has become quite stout and strong and has lost that look of delicacy he had when I saw him at Phoenix. Mani Lal too is looking very well and Dev Das has quite a lot of health in his cheeks.”
The letter was written from Santiniketan on November 12, 1914. Gandhi was then in England, on his way home after 20 years in South Africa. He had not yet met Tagore, but through Pearson and C.F. Andrews, had heard a great deal about him. So he sent a party of boys from Phoenix Ashram to visit Santiniketan, among them three of his own sons. Soon after they arrived in Bolpur, these boys set to work on a barren field, ploughing it up in preparation for cultivation. Watching them at work, Pearson was visibly impressed. As he wrote to Gandhi: “I am sure that the influence of the Phoenix boys has already begun to make itself felt and will more and more do so as other boys in [Santiniketan] follow their example in this manner of hard manual work and simple food.”
I lived in Calcutta for much of the Eighties, but never visited Santiniketan. I cannot say exactly why — it may have been a prejudice against Rabindrasangeet (acquired early, while living among Bengalis in my hometown, Dehra Dun); or a hangover from the radical Marxism that I then professed. Fortunately, by the time I came to visit Santiniketan I had come to read, and appreciate, a great deal of Tagore. His oeuvre is huge, and my reading was selective, but I had read enough to have a sense of his genius and versatility. The collection, Three Companions, translated by Sujit Mukherjee, showed him to be a master of that very difficult form, the novella (as well as a prescient critic of the hubris of modern science). One has to read a poet in his own language, but still, some of Tagore’s verses in William Radice’s English renditions were very fine indeed. Above all, I had been deeply influenced by his book, Nationalism, which of course Tagore wrote directly in English. There, Tagore had offered a non-parochial, outward-looking, and world-embracing patriotism that had come to be adopted by Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru as their own political credo.
Had I visited Santiniketan when I was twenty I would have had little sense of what I was seeing. Fortunately, I came at the age of fifty, after having come to know something (I was going to say “enough”, but with this prodigiously productive man, how much is ‘enough’?) about Tagore’s greatness. No sooner had I reached Bolpur that I was made to feel at home, by the call overhead of the brainfever bird, also a ubiquitous hot-weather presence in my native Doon. The welcome was reinforced when I visited the library, at whose entrance hung a huge, and hugely moving, portrait of an old teacher of my college. This was C.F. Andrews, whose goodness and kindliness had here been finely captured by an anonymous photographer.
In my time in Santiniketan I had some superb vegetarian meals (my hosts having ascertained my preferences beforehand). The food was not simple, and I saw no sign of students labouring in the fields either. The influence of the Phoenix boys, if any, had been ephemeral. It could not have been otherwise. For, as the anthropologist and former Visva Bharati vice-chancellor, Surajit Sinha, once remarked, the difference between modern India’s two greatest sons was that whereas Gandhi wanted every Indian to be (in the best sense) a Sudra, Tagore wanted every Indian to be (also in the best sense) a Brahmin. If Gandhi wished, as it were, to make his colleagues and disciples come down to earth, Tagore wanted them to reach for the sky — or, to vary the metaphor, strike out across the oceans. Both paths were necessary, but they were relevant to different kinds of Indians. Santiniketan could not, should not, have become merely a Bengali version of the ashram at Phoenix or Sabarmati.
That said, how far is Santiniketan today from its original, Tagorean ideals? The poet had indicated, by his very choice of name, that this would be a world university. There was a time when it was at least genuinely all-Indian. But in the past few decades it has become steadily parochialized. Much of the faculty and almost all the students come from Bengal. One man I met even claimed that they are mostly from the districts of Birbhum and Bardhaman.
The Bengali bhadraloks of Calcutta now send their sons and daughters to England and America to study, rather than to Santiniketan. But for reasons of sentiment and status they still seek to retain a connection with the place. Once, the university was surrounded by miles and miles of field and forest. Now that land has been carved out into housing colonies. The gentry of Calcutta have weekend homes in Bolpur — so, apparently, do an ever larger number of US-based Bengalis. To sustain their vanities there are four trains a day running between Calcutta and Bolpur, dozens of new hotels in Bolpur itself, a booming construction industry, and many new shops. As a scientist friend remarked, Tagore had created more jobs for Bengalis than all the celebrated development economists of Bengal combined.
A creeping insularity is one of Santiniketan’s problems. Another is a visible disrepair. The buildings in the campus could do with a coat of paint. In a physical as well as cultural sense, the place is not as it was in its Tagore’s day. But one must not get too despairing. I met people who know and understand Tagore far better than, say, the current caretakers of museums in New Delhi that carry the names of Gandhi and Nehru. (I was particularly enchanted, and educated, by my conversations with the dapper director of Rabindra Bhavana, Swapan Majumdar). And the place still speaks, and occasionally sings, with the memory of its founders, among whom Tagore was merely primus inter pares. One can still see the mark of Ram Kinkar Baij in Kala Bhavan, for example.
There is a proposal afloat in the neighbouring state of Bihar to build a new Nalanda university. When it comes up, I doubt that it will be anything like the place from which it takes its name. For the Bihari (and Indian) connection with the Buddhist scholars of Nalanda is lost in the shrouds of time. I wish the new university well, but trust that the political and entrepreneurial leaders of Bengal will be challenged to launch a comparable initiative to restore Santiniketan to something like its former glory. They can take as their blueprint a thoughtful and wide-ranging report prepared by a committee which was chaired by Gopalkrishna Gandhi, and whose members included André Béteille, Amlan Datta, and Romila Thapar. This report explains how the university campus can regain its physical and ecological integrity. It outlines detailed recommendations, Bhavan by Bhavan. It offers, in sum, a charter of renewal that, if put into operation, can facilitate the re-emergence of Visva Bharati as a centre of cosmopolitan creativity and educational excellence.
In Santiniketan, unlike in Nalanda, there is a living link between the founders and the present. Tagore’s presence still inhabits many buildings; the keepers of which buildings are often knowledgeable (and passionate) about his legacy. But the place needs to be de-parochialized — to make it once more inclusively Indian, once more ready, as Tagore said, to rejoice in the illumination of every candle lit in any corner of the world.