Visva-Bharati: A Civil Public Space for All Ages
All of us are products of our times – but while most of us are carried on time's shoulders only a few are able to carry time on theirs. Rabindranath Tagore can be counted among those few. He continues to attract our attention, admiration and reverence endlessly – and in trying to explain this phenomenon, our words tumble out and our thoughts jostle with each other. Some of us are deeply moved by his songs; others by his poetry, still others by his novels and plays – he is for sure a wordsmith par excellence. But are we not equally moved and awakened by the untiring ways in which he gave shape to his ideas and dreams? Apart from the literary treasure trove of his legacy there is an equally important and abiding legacy of all that he did in manifesting his ideas that arose from his philosophical cogitation and cognitions about the meanings of human life, and from his weaving of varied social fabrics, in order to add to the fulfillment and perfection of human society. There will only be a handful of people of Tagore's age who thought as carefully as he did about the creation of an environment that would foster creativity, joy of learning and the wish to do things, and extend the self to include others as parts of the community to which she/he belongs.
I see Visva-Bharati with its twin campuses of Santiniketan and Sriniketan as the creation of a civil public space where one does not have to follow rules other than that of engaging with the space and discovering one's area of interest. It is a public space that asks for nothing more than maintaining dignity of the self and respect for others and allows one to express oneself in multiple ways. It is a space that is non-invasive and unobtrusive; it is up to the individual to make a choice to be a part of it or stay away from it.
In the early days of the Santiniketan Ashrama, as it was then called, historical accounts and anecdotes suggest that there were strict rules of decorum and discipline, albeit tempered by faith in democratic processes through which these were imposed or applied on the inmates. However, as the ashrama evolved and transformed into a Visva-Vidyalaya the goal-posts shifted to focus on the synthesis of knowledge of the east and west; it altered also to open the doors to those who believed in alternate paths to education or its ends; it focused now on giving expression in as creative ways as possible to dissent; and it strove to find ways through which traditions could be built without the shackles of religion and superstitious beliefs that spawned only social distance and conflict in the subcontinent. This space also created an ambience in which the secular life of the scholar and the householder could be accommodated side-by-side, or almost cheek-by-jowl with each other, so as to radiate its light to even the benighted rural areas surrounding the university.
Physically, the campuses are almost oases in dry and arid Birbhum – its lush green foliage and its flowering trees reflect the colors and scents of the various seasons experienced so intensely here; its buildings embrace nature; it is as if the subtle beautification of the open spaces and the intermingling of spaces have been used variedly. While Santiniketan is lush and its effect more intellectually nuanced, Sriniketan is comparatively shy, simple and stark - a reminder of what rural life experiences could be without the benefits of education and other services, and an example of how rural life can be made meaningful by engaging people in inclusive and evolving development programmes through creating a level playing field for all. Sriniketan seeks out the strengths of villages and village life – its music, craft, customs and lore aim at revival and resuscitation of the local heritage and its components. Its intrusion into village life is non-invasive and gradual – tempered by a sense of respect for the people and their ways.
At the social and cultural levels, Visva-Bharati has carved for itself by now a secure niche and space arousing curiosity and eagerness among diverse people from all over the world. Its ceremonies and rituals have assumed a timeless quality and have set a standard for all that is believed to stand for Tagoreana. Even in the present age, Visva-Bharati uses natural props of flowers and leaves for decorating its cultural function venues. It is a reminder of how during Tagore's time, artists like Nandalal Bose and others seriously engaged in set and costume design with very little resources at their command and yet caught the attention of audiences. How much care went in the design of the invitation cards for special occasions that are still followed today!
There is an important by-product of the existence and continuation of Visva-Bharati perceptible in the generation of a local and extra-local economy involving a fairly large number of people apart from those employed directly by the university. Birbhum as a district does not fare well in socio-economic markers and offers a striking contrast to Bolpur and its surrounding areas that appear to be thriving because of entrepreneurship and individual initiative. Some of the villages around the campus too appear to be progressive, sensitive to the cultural ambience of the university and with aspirations that are laudable. Certainly, Visva-Bharati does not have any resemblance to ivory towers and does not display the snobbery one associates with the intelligentsia. In this special space everybody feels that they have their roles as stakeholders in things that concern the university.
There are of course neighborhoods that are (un)occupied by the non-resident population – mostly from Kolkata but also from other places from around the country and world. For many it is a get-away, but for many, on the other hand, it is a place they would much rather be in than any other place. Santiniketan is strategically placed near Kolkata and well-connected by train and road. Life here is relatively comfortable and negotiable and there is no absolute reason for residents to own a motorized vehicle though they now are increasingly visible here nowadays. But most importantly, Santiniketan is a place where you have definitely the chance of encountering the 'world in a single nest' (Tagore's motto for Visva-Bharati).
Rabindranath straddled epochs of time – the ancient, the contemporary and the modern in all that he did and Visva-Bharati is a living testimony of his position in this respect.
The author is a Professor, Department of Social Work, Visva-Bharati.