Over a century ago, Rabindranath Tagore, as a reaction to the colonial system of education realized the need for a non-conventional and an integrated system of education. He gave shape its two centres—Santiniketan and Sriniketan with different programmes. Focusing on the years 1901-41, this meticulously researched book narrates the evolution and initial days to its present status as one of the finest centres of learning in the country.
Ajit K. Neogy (b. 1937), emeritus professor of history, Visva-Bharati, has taught for more than three decades. Her has published numerous articles dealing with different aspect of Indo-British and Indo-French relations. His monograph include—The Paramount Power and the Princely States of India (1858-1881), Partition of Bengal and Decolonization of French India.
Education is imparted all over the world within the four walls of a school with the teacher as the vehicle of education. But Rabindranath Tagore, the greatest educator of the world, had, in his early life, developed an aversion for school and its method of teaching as mechanical, soulless and uninspiring. The teachers seemed to him robots insensitive to childhood feelings, fancies and frailties. The result was his saying good bye to school. He was sent abroad where his experience was not rosy either. But this did not stop his education. He was his own educator. His range of studies was vast and varied. His aversion for conventional schools, its sterile syllabi and its method of teaching induced him to formulate a new system of education rooted in the ancient tradition and culture of the country. In his school there was no class room, no bench, no table. Teaching was imparted under the shades of trees in the lap of the nature, under a wide and starry sky. Thus was born the Brahmacharyashram at Bhubandanga in the arid soil of the district of Birbhum in undivided Bengal. Although it was an experiment on a small scale with a simple boarding house, it soon became a pioneer movement in the field of education in many respects. The school went through many ups and downs since its foundation, but it withstood all the jerks and jolts and survived, ensuring the educational ideas of the poet.
Gradually the ideas that prompted the poet to set up Brahmacharya Ashram changed. He intended to give it a wider shape and scope so that students from all corners of the country could come to Santiniketan and get an education capable of confronting the challenges of the modern world. He did not want the students of the Bolpur Ashram school to live in any medieval system of monastic seclusion. He wanted his students to come out into the modern world. Soon the orthodox character of the school disappeared and its name was changed into Ashram Vidyalaya.
The poet very correctly understood the real meaning of education in the context of the needs of the country as a whole. The country, rich in humanistic studies, lagged far behind in the study of different branches of natural science in which Europe was making steady progress. He realised the importance of the study of science and its pragmatic application in all walks of life. He did not expect much from the colonial government and this was evident from the terrible constraints under which the colleges and universities had been functioning. He founded the Visva-Bharati to make it the cultural confluence of the East and the West. While European scholars would come here to study Indian languages, literature, poetry and philosophy, Indian scholars would receive the gifts of science and manufacturing art of Europe. He candidly admitted "that modern science is the great gift of Europe to mankind. We people of India, we must seek it and gratefully receive it from her hand to avoid the error of having to run after it. If we procrastinate, we will not profit from the harvest." His dream became a reality. Thus was built a bridge of cultural union between Europe and Asia. In fact, Santiniketan became "the guest house of Europe" for the dilettantes of the world.
While writing the book I kept in mind that Visva-Bharati reached the apogee of its glory during the first twenty years of its foundation in spite of a host of difficulties. It was during this period that eminent scholars of Asia and Europe had visited Santiniketan and extended their co-operation in fulfilling the poet's dream of making Santiniketan the centre of Asian culture. A judicious attempt has been made to highlight their activities. Situated as it was in a village, Rabindranath Tagore did not forget to bring about a change in the village life - a programme of rural reconstruction which he had taken up in his estate in Eastern Bengal. This prompted him to set up Sriniketan. It was by no means an easy task. Due focus has been given to the role played by L.K.Elmhirst and the team the poet had selected for working in the surrounding villages. In fact, during the forty years many people had responded to his call in various ways. Many names have been mentioned and many more missed. This is not deliberate. I crave their indulgence for not being able to include their names in the text of the book.
In writing this book I entirely depended on the Rabindra Bhavana Library and Rabindra Bhavana Archives of Visva-Bharati. The old volumes of Visva~Bharati News and the Visva Bharati Bulletin supplied the bulk of the information. In the Rabindra Bhavana Archives are preserved the unpublished letters and correspondence between the poet and the contemporary eminent persons at home and abroad. I have used the letters the poet had written to persons who had anything to do with the Ashram Vidyalaya and the Visva- Bharati. A careful study of these letters has enabled me to get a glimpse of the poet's thinking on Santiniketan and Sriniketan. Again, while writing the book I kept in mind the request of some enlightened non-Bengali audience who were present at a talk delivered by me at Pondicherry a few years ago on the Santiniketan school. Many of them were unaware of Tagore's ideas on education and the village reconstruction programme of Sriniketan. They were particularly eager to know about Tagore's school and the teaching method which, according to them, has a great relevance to-day in the background of the heavy pressure of studies their sons and daughters are obliged to undergo. The world is changing and in this age of globalisation new branches of studies are coming up for keeping pace with the changing world. But Tagore's thinking on education cannot be wholly dismissed. I do not claim this book has dealt with every aspect of Tagore's ideas and ideals on education. But I hope the non-Bengali readers will get some inklings of Tagore' s thinking on education.
I have been working at the Rabindra Bhavana Library and Rabindra Bhavana Archives for the last few years in connection with the book. I am grateful to the Rabindra Bhavana authorities for this. I thankfully acknowledge the kind help and co-operation I have received from Sri Ashish Hazra and Sri Ukil Roy, both staff of the Library and Sri Tushar Singha and Sri Utpal Mitra of the Archives. I am deeply thankful to Professor Jeyaseela Stephen, Professor V.c. Jha of Visva-Bharati and Professor Indivar Kamtekar of Jawaharlal Nehru University for kindly going through the manuscript and offering me suggestions for its betterment. I have, as far as possible, tried to incorporate them in the manuscript. The manuscript was first keyboarded by Vivekananda Majhi of Bolpur, but the final shape was given by my niece Miss Sudeshna Neogy. I myself am personally responsible for errors, if any, crept in the book.
The movement for westernisation in the field of education which began in the early part of the 19th century owed its origin to Raja Rammohan Roy. A strong protagonist of western education he considered it as a vehicle for the dissemination of western knowledge which would free his countrymen from the age-old superstition and blind faith and bring about a moral and cultural regeneration. Macaulay's Minute on education gave an official seal of approval to the cause of western education. This opened the door for the spread of western education in India. During the following decades new universities and colleges were founded which churned out a large number of B.A.s and M.A.s without any guarantee of jobs. Scope for vocational and technical education was virtually absent. This system of education only produced a class of educated young men suitable for running an administrative machinery which was colonial in character. The defects of this education was glaring and it needed thorough overhauling to give it an Indian identity. Indian public opinion on the education policy of the country hardly mattered. Private efforts and enterprises, although admirable, were few and far between and were unable to meet the growing demands of the young men of the country. What Sir Syed Ahmad Khan did at Aligarh was almost a replication of the system current in the country. In the teaching programme of Aligarh western science and humanistic studies were incorporated. Islamic theological studies were given due importance. No doubt he attempted to reconcile eastern and western values by interpreting Islam in the light of western knowledge, but it could not stem the existing stagnancy in the domain of education.
Moreover, new universities and colleges which proliferated in the presidency towns were essentially campus universities and colleges - teaching was bookish and scope for the dissemination of knowledge in its true sense was narrow. Such education did not have any direct relation with the social and economic problems of the country. These centres of education were like islands separated from the mainland. In The Problem of Education Rabindranath Tagore said
[ ... ] school in our country, far from being integrated to society, are imposed on it from outside. The courses they teach are dull and dry, painful to learn and useless when learnt. There is nothing in common between the lessons the pupils cram up from ten to four o'clock and the country where they live; no agreement, but only disagreements, between what they learn at school and what their parents and relatives talk about at home. The schools are little better than factories for turning out robots.
In fact, the educational system of the whole of the 19th century was visionless and stereotype in character. This had no relevance with the social and economical problems of the country. The students of the Anglicised higher centres of education picked up the language of English with remarkable zeal and showed equal taste for science, philosophy, history and political ideas. Unfortunately these talented youths had no place in the British administrative structure in India. The effect was depressing - educated youths armed with university degrees and diplomas soon realised that they had before them limited opportunities and disillusionment overtook them. Degrees and diplomas became irrelevant. The elitist system of education pathetically failed to wake up all their dormant mental faculties. Denied of a berth in the administration and deprived of vocational or technical education they almost became social anomalies. Their inner potential strength remained untapped and unutilised and consequently they failed to eke out a decent living. If this was the condition of education in urban centres one can imagine the gloomy picture of education in the countryside. General education in Indian villages was almost non-existent. There was no provision for agricultural and industrial education, no arrangement for vocational and technical training. Agriculture suffered and village industries disappeared. Rabindranath, who had intimately studied the condition of Bengal villages while managing the affairs of his family estates in eastern Bengal districts, had before his eyes the dismal scenario of the alien system of education in the country - a system of education which was dull and uninspiring, which failed to hone and harness the latent talents and mental faculties of the youth, which failed to secure a job for them and a system of education which was lopsided keeping knowledge of the socio-economic condition of the country out of university and college syllabi. The education which failed to meet social and cultural demands, which failed to impart knowledge of agriculture and village welfare of the country seemed useless to him. Dismayed over the seamy side of the colonial system of education Rabindranath, the poet-patriot of India, formulated a system of education at Santiniketan - from the school level to higher learning - which was Indian in character and contents enriched by western knowledge from arts to agriculture with emphasis on the studies of humanities and science, music and paintings as well as agricultural and artisanal studies. In The Centre of Indian Culture he said.
Our centre of culture should not only be the centre of intellectual life of India, but the centre of her economic life as well. It must cultivate land, breed cattle, to feed itself and its students; it must produce all necessaries, devising the best means and using the best materials, calling science to its aid. Its very success would depend on the success of its industrial ventures carried out on the co-operative principle, which will unite the teachers and students in a living and active bond of necessity. This will also give us a practical, industrial training, whose motive is not profit.
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