There are some provocations for this month’s cover story. Some are personal and some are of great public interest. Some pleasant and some sad.
Santiniketan is invariably linked in my mind to the recent developments and hence the writeup.
Let me put them down in order of priority.
1. There is a letter lying in front of me for some months. This letter makes me sad. This letter is from a Santiniketan friend.
2. I read with interest about a recent Indian delegation to China.
3. V.S.Naipal wins the Nobel Prize for literature.
4. Amartya Sen visiting India reminded me of our days together in Santiniketan.
5. Mira Nair wins Golden Lion for her Monsoon Wedding, a honour got first by Satyajit Roy.
6. Last but not least is the BJP’s (more particularly RSS) Hindutva education agenda and the Ayodya issue which L.K.Advani says is an expression of cultural nationalism.
What all these things have to do with Santiniketan, readers might wonder.
Each one has made me to think of Santiniketan, Tagore, Visva Bharati university, the various institutions, Sangeet Bhavan, Kala Bhavan and my own days and the exerpieces, the personalities and the big picture, as it were!
Now, the letter before me. It reads: You will be surprised to receive this letter. I am Tan Chung’s younger sister, Chameli Ramachandran. I am writing this letter to convey my brother’s greetings and best wishes. My brother is almost settled in U.S.A. He was in India for a very short period and I was in Trivandrum when they left for USA and they have kept the key of their flat with us. When we saw the mail from you, I told my brother in the USA and that is how I have come to know your letter and its contents. My brother asked me to convey his greetings, hence this letter. I do not know whether you know that my elder sister Tan Wen passed away three years back in USA. Now all my five brothers are in North America. I am the only one left in India. But I too visit Canada occasionally to see my children who are also almost settled there”.
This letter contains a long story, a story as long and as important as the story of Santiniketan can be!
Tan Chung is my friend for almost half a century now and he is none other than the son of his famous father Prof. Tan Yun Shan, founder of the Cheena Bhavan in Santiniketan.
Prof. Tan was also my own teacher (I did a four year diploma course in Chinese language!) and I moved with the Tan family closely and I feel sad how the great vision and the fraternity of Tagore, Tan and many other great men and minds that gathered together to nurture Santiniketan and Visva Bharati truly, a world centre and a cultural renainsance centre of India and Asia and it has now been almost forgotten or relegated to the back of the minds of this generation leaders.
Tan was a contemporary of the great leaders of China Chiang Kaishek and Mao Tse-tung and Tan was a college mate of Mao!
It was in my time Chou En Lai visited India and visited Santiniketan and in fact Chou visited us, the students of Tan’s Chinese language class! It was the time of great friendship between the two countries. There is a photo somewhere in my photo album showing us, students with Chau shaking hands with him. Cheena Bhavan was conceived by Tan and Tagore to act as a bridge of friendship and understanding for promoting learning and cultures.
Alas! What a setback the institution went through and Tan died a man disheartened by his dreams shattered by the developments in the India-China relations. What makes me still more disappointed (shocked is the right word) is the fact that the current delegation, mostly military, strategy experts, now come back and say.
India should be on guard!
They warn us, Indians that we should not be lulled by the present tranquility and peace on the border and Line of Control! We are informed that China wants the supremacy of Asia is working furiously on its roads and railways in Tibet to challenge India as it thinks India is its only rival in Asia. Tibet they are subduing more furiously! My mind wandered back to those days and I recalled the faces of Pandit Nehru, Prof. Tan and the many Asian students from Vietnam, Cambodia, Tibet, China and Japan who were my friends. And still more back in time to the Tagore’s relentless travels and talks and dreams about uniting Asia, Japan and China, Tibet and other Asian neighbours, all united by the great religion of Gautama Buddha.
When the Nobel Prize for literature was announced this year for V.S.Naipal, I was so pleased. Here is the second Indian, after Tagore to win the literature prize. Again my mind wandered, my meeting with Naipal, not long ago in Bangalore my reading of his writings, mostly non-fiction and how the writer had understood and interpreted modern India for the Western readers and how the India of Tagore was seen in the west.
Here I want digress further except for the Western readers to note that I don’t share the Naipal critique of modern India and I have my own well-thought out views on the subject. Naipal’s is mostly a negative view, mine is quite the contrary. Also Naipal doesn’t go into the heart and soul of Indian thought and culture. For me these are very critical to give India any meaning or strength.
Amartya Sen came visiting again. Amartya was a Santiniketan product and the finest flower of the Santiniketan environment. I know the Sen family well, his ageing mother and sister and others are known to me closely. Amartya was in fact my inspiration for me to go later to Oxford.
Here again I don’t want to digress except to note that Amartya, a typical Bengali academic and thinker; the Bengalis are very good, very different from the rest of Indians in that they are given to much abstract thinking types and hence they have produced such great artists, writers, poets and other creative persons, including sciences. My time vice-chancellor was Prof. S.N.Bose of the Bose-Einstein fame for which this years Nobel Prizes for Physics was given!
But then here too I like to put down my feeling: Amartya, while I applaud his extraordinary achievements, is no Bertrand Russelle or for that matter a John Manyard Keynes. Sen makes wonderful lectures and that is all to that, I feel like saying.
Why? He doesn’t shake or move things in India. Particularly an institution like Santiniketan needs some strong dose of pushing to realise its original goal of the poet. And Amartya has all the prestige and power to do his bit. Santiniketan, for me is still, the cultural heartland of modern India. Right? Why then is it sliding back, into obscurity, into a sort of nondescript.
Provincial university? And do me realise the Prime Ministers are the chancellors of this great place and yet nothing happens!
I like to feel a bit elated when the recent Mira Nair film won the Golden Lion at the Venice film festival. This very same rare award was won first for India by Satyajit Roy, another great product of Santiniketan and exemplifies Santiniketan’s vitability.
I had studied during the time when Roy was struggling hard to make his first films, Pather Panchali and Aparjitho and other films. The first viewing of Pather Panchali I did was in the decrepit little wayside theatre just outside Santiniketan town of Bolpur. It was a small black and white film, shot on practically no funds whatever and when we, students went to see the film, it was mainly by the thought: one of our own old student of Kala Bhavan had shot a film! The heroince of the film, Karuna Bahnadopadyaya, recently passed away, one day walked past our classes under the trees and my class mates drew my attention and told in a low voice: “See, see that is Karuna Bhandopadyaua, the heroine of the Satyajit Roy film, you saw”. She went on to pass into a legend later!
Pather Panchali to Monsoon Weddings. One generation to a new generation. Mira Nair says she was influenced by masters like Roy and Kurushowa, I had seen all of Roy’s films and also Kurushowa’s Roshoman.
What I want to stress here, in the context of Santiniketan, is that Tagore’s culture and philosophy was steeped into Indian tradition, the robust Indian renaissance tradition of Raja Rammohan Roy and the Brahma Samaj.
Even Gandhiji couldn’t understand and appreciate Rammohan Roy’s contribution to the Indian renaissance culture and thought to the rise of modern India. Today’s halfbaked ideas and political pressures in the name of saving Hinduism and Indian patriotism must be seen in the light and perspective of the great awakening that took place in Bengal of the 19th century and the fall of the Moghul empire and the coming of the Western thoughts and values and of which Rammohan Roy was the chief exponent and syhthesiser.
The Tagore family, the coming of Swami Vivekananda and others have to be placed in the present context when we have the great responsibility of building a strong and prosperous and vibrant culture. Indian culture and arts have to be sustained and nurtured with the catholic vision that drove the Bengal renaissance.
Mira Nair brings a new and contemporary perspective to the growth of culture and arts and medium of cinema is as powerful as any other medium could be. The current middle class imagination is fired by the NRI mindset and the Monsoon weddings touches all the currents of the day, the youth’s fascination.
Meera Nair’s Monsoon Wedding
Mira Nair’s Monsoon Wedding and Satyajit Ray’s triology are a world apart and yet this cultural evolution over the two generations has placed India at the centre of world cinema and this is what I consider quite significant. Considering India’s cultural richness of the past and the richness of the Indian renaissance period, starting with Raja Rammohan Roy to Rabindranath Tagore, what we have achieved since Independence to the present day makes me say that there is a lively continuity that culminates in a significant sense with what Mira Nair has achieved.
Indian’s current cultural vitality, as I see it, is quite powerful, the vitality has a universal appeal now. Consider the number of new names, the new international prizes won so far, again culminating with the Nobel Prizes first for Amartya Sen for Economics and now for Naipal for Literature. In between we have Arundhathi Roy and Salman Rushdie and Vikram Seth, the Booker Prize winners and others winning prizes for literature, arts and music and even the new generation of leaders and activists in a wide variety of nobel causes and cultural fields.
Santiniketan started off as a cultural university only and it is only rather late in its history it had turned into a Central University and with that regimentation and bureaucratisation, its decline started, if at all.
Regimentation and bureaucratisation, its decline started, if at all. There had been a series of troubles there and many violent incidents cause quite a dismay for many sections of Indians who only know the noble visage of the poet and his soul stirring poetry and music.
No, Santiniketan had, really fallen on bad days and all the once tall figures in all branches of arts, music, literature and painting had faded away one by one. Some of the best names, Kanika Banerji, Rambindra Sangeet exponent passed away, so too the artists like Ramkinkar who excelled both in painting and sculpture. Among the new trall blazers is Ramachandran, a friend of mine and one who hailing from Kerala keeps the long tradition of Kerala artists and painters keeping up their Kerala links with Santiniketan.
Santiniketan always drawn talens from far and wide. There had always been an international audience, be it scholars and artists or students. So too there had always been a national, all India representation of students. There were in my time a large number of students from South Indian states, from Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and AP. Ramu from Maddhur in Karnataka was a good friend of mine and so too Ranga Rao, Raju and Chitra (at Kala Bhavan) from AP. AP’s most distinguished student was the late B.Gopal Reddy, Politician, CM and Governor who studied when the poet was alive.
In TN, there were many students, the one notable genius was C.N.Vasudevan, a dancer, painter, veena player and a composer as well.
Vasudevan was a student of Abanindranath Tagore, the poet’s uncle and later Vasudevan emerged as the poet’s indispensable dancer in some of the poet’s memorable dance-music plays (more about him in my full-fledged book).
Meera Nair’s films caught my attention particularly from the point of view of how Indian culture, Indian youth are affected by the Yankee culture Mira Nair film is a celebration of living. Her Missisipi Masala portrays the Indian youth in the grip of the American culture and so too some scenes in her latest film she captures the NRI families coming to grips with the growing American fascination for the Indian youth and, nay even with the rising affluence and not so affluent NRI families and our own new middle classes and their demonstrative showy life styles. May be in the time of Gandhi and Tagore, Indians didn’t have the material affluence, as they have today and hence, we didn’t anticipate the many new dimensions to the current consumerism-driven MTV, disco-visiting cultural variations.
But we have to come to terms with the new freedoms of the youth and their own impacts on the values, family values and their problems. Monsoon Weddings pictures all the morals and permissiveness that are becoming now part of the youth and the elders learning to live and to conform to a lifestyle of success, glamour and certainties and also doubts. AIDs and what have you.
And let us keep in mind the very essence of Santiniketan culture is about the aeasthetics and joys of living in freedom and creativity.
How to describe this new culture? Whatever might be our predilictions, be it post-modern or whatever, the fact remains India, Indian culture today is much more vibrant and lively and forward looking than ever it was possible in the past. This is the point.
Santiniketan changing fast
Today, Santiniketan seems changing fast in its own way, some old die hards might say in a decadent way with so many newly affluent Bengali families buying land and building new generation style homes and resorts type outings for weekenders from Kolkatta.
But we can’t always look for idyls in the past, can we? Time was when Santiniketan was an unadulterated rural idyl, with long expandes of open country, where we students go on long walks on barefoot. It was basically a pastoral we existence, all the urban luxury was confined to a cycle ricksaw ride to the Bolpur town, either for small purchases or for taking the train to Kolkatta once a while. It has Silicon Valley like clean environment and spartan human population. Now, it is all changed, I am told by friends.
But I for one has some positive faith in change, that too material change for good. After all we have to learn to live in moddern day comforts and lifestyles, this is after all an age of globalisation and Santiniketan is no stranger for cultures and influences from the far corners of the globe even from the very beginning.
Visva-Bharati overseas centres
Today, I read that Visva Bharati is planning to expand abroad. Fine. The university is planning to ‘globalise’ its brand, who else the poet and his works. Rabindranath Tagore and his worked, mostly his music would find new exposure thanks to the large number of Santiniketan students settled abroad. So says the present vice chancellor Dr. Sujit Kumar Basu.
It will open a campus each in Japan, France and the UK to spread Tagore’s heritage in the fields of art, literature and music. “This is how we plan to reach out to the world outside in the centenary year of Visva-Bharati” he says.
These centres will offer compact courses on Tagore studies and award degrees and diplomas to deserving candidates. “The emphasis will however be on Rabindrasangeet and dance, drama and art. Sangeet Bhavan and Kala Bhavan are still our forte”, Dr. Basu says.
Some Bangladeshi intellectuals have approached the university for a project on Patha Bhavan, the poet’s dream school and nucleus of Visva-Bharati. Experts will visit Bangladesh in January to study the project, Dr. Basu says.
The projects are non-governmental and are being planned now. “We aren’t going to ask for money from our own government or governments abroad. We will mainly depend on NGOs for funds”, he says.
The vice-chancellor said he had visited Tokyo recently and the response from Japan was quite encouraging. The campus project there will be implemented by the India-Japan Cultural Society and will be located in Ujiie, 120 miles from Tokyo. The Japan foundation, which funded Nippon Bhavan in Santiniketan in 1990, is likely to contribute in a big way in this project.
In the West, Paris has always been a popular destination for young Indian artists, many of them from Kala Bhavan. The UK has a high concentration of Rabindrasangeet artists, no less competent than the ones at home. Most of them received training at Kala Bhavan.
Dr. Basu said he was banking heavily on the Visva-Bharati alumni worldwide. “Co-operation from our students was never lacking. It is a matter of co-ordination – putting things together”, he said. The three campuses would be directly managed by the Visva Bharati and would not certainly become affiliates of the university.
India’s cultural vitality
In conclusion, I like to note that India’s great strength is its cultural variety and strength. And Santiniketan always symbolised this uniqueness. Today, the political establishment in Delhi is pursuing an education and a cultural agenda that is in my view at variance with India’s great tradition. We can’t shut our eyes to the Hindustani music, Moghul style of arts and architecture and our cuisine and dress and the contribution of Muslims in this cultural evolution. Nor our Hinduism is a narrow tunnel. Our various religious and cultural and literary movements have a strong modern a liberal and secular outlook about then.
Tagore personified this outlook.
So, even today, we have to pursue, expand out cultural richness by drawing the best of Western and Indian values.
Our cultural strength would grow only in a renaissance mode. We have to think big and execute projects on renassance scale. This is what matters. Santiniketan is a place, a cultural centre and a university where I had spent some of the happy years of my life. Santiniketan imbibed in me a variety of emotions and interests and transformed me into a person, an educated person of sorts, an education that is more than doing a course and getting a degree and then get stuck in some vocation or other.
Education for most of us defines our personality and our life’s goals. This is true for me too. But now looking back and also looking around and more importantly looking forward here I am and where do I fit in? Santiniketan is a well-known name for most Indians of the last generation, I believe but for this generation?
How far this generation, this generation that is variously described and tagged, the MTV generation, this post-modern generation, this generation that is supposed to indentify itself with the young, beautiful and the successful? Right, this description fits the dominant younger age groups? I am not sure.
Dr. Murali Manohar Joshi & Co. talk of “Indianising” education. Santiniketan had shown what it is all about. Surely Vidya Bharati is not Visva Bharati! Only a robust, modern minded Indian reality could provide surely us an Indian education. Hindutva is not Hinduism or of Vivekananda whose name these people invoke mischievously! Nor the cultural nationalism of L.K.Advani is turly a path to genuine patriotism. Culture should help to harmonise ethnic diversities into larger, universal forms. Cultural nationalism should not divide people, instigate violence either!
China and India, it becomes evident after all these years, are two very different countries and societies and political values. India is an open society, as open as any. While China is still a riddle, an odd man out. While India and Russia had lived to live in friendship, India and China have tensions of sorts. Tibet is very much about what we would do for Dalai Lama and his exile here. I read that many Chinese scholars are visiting India but what about Indian scholars? If any, the Chinese scholars could be made to relink with the Chenna Bhavan or other university departments with two of which (Delhi University and JNU) my dear friend Tan Chung was associated all his life. I feel ashamed to say that Indian Government couldn’t do anything to retain this great Chinese family which gave everything to India and gained nothing in return. Readers might not know that while the late Prof. Tan Yun Shan worked for Cheena Bhavan didn’t take a penny as salary from Tagore.
But anyway, I had written more than once elsewhere about Santiniketan and its various unique institutions and also about my years there during the late Fifties Santiniketan links with South India. Those who are really serious to know these details can refer to my autobiography of sort (Oxford and other Essays on Education and also one more book, C.N.Vasudevan, Tamil Dancer and Tagore (Vikas).
The book on Vasudevan would be particularly of interest for readers all over India and more so in the Southern States, TN, Kerala and Karnataka.
Some months ago there was a meet or an inauguration of a film on Visbharati and Tagore in Bangalore and the State’s culture Minister Mrs. Rani Sathish made a speech. As reported in the press the speakers made some cursory remarks about Tagore’s links with Karnataka. I was plainly disappointed and even a bit pained. Painded at the fact that Karnataka has a strong cultural bond with Santiniketan and Tagore. In fact, when I wrote the book, many years ago, I made a special visit to Bangalore to visit the Venkatappa Gallery to see Venkatappa’s paintings. The pioneer Karnataka artist had visited Santiniketan and if I remember right he met Nandalal Bose and had been greatly influenced by the Santiniketan School of Art.
Still more important for the people of Karnataka and what they could feel highly proud about, is the fact that one lady acquaintance of me for many years, the late Savithri Devi, was the one who met Tagore in Chennai when the poet visited and stayed at Adayar and where Savitri Devi and her sister were studying under Annie Besant and when she, as a young woman was introduced to the poet to sing some Karnatic music, the poet was so fascinated by the music, he persuaded her guardian to send her to Santiniketan to teach (in fact, to help him) Karnatic music at the famous Sangeeth Bhavan, School of music, there. As many way know, Tagore was trained in the classical Hindustani music at his home and he had a sound grounding in Hindustani ragas and musical compositions that when he came to evolve his own music, the Rabindra Sangeeth, it was an evolution of unmatching lyrical beauty and musical structure. Many may not know that Savitri Devi’s contribution to the evolution of Rabindra Sangeeth, for the blending of the Carnatic ragas with Tagore’s own evolution of new ragas and rythms is quite considerable. It is a pity that none in Karnataka, in the government and outside thought of writing about Venkatappa. Savitri Devi whom I know well. There was a time when I myself wanted specially about to write on these two artists of Karnataka and how they had helped to evolve Tagore’s own dynamic evolution as a painter, singer, musical composer etc. But time moved on!
The book on Vasudevan was about the Tamil Nadu’s dancer who played a very formative role in the evolution of Tagore’s plays, dance dramas in which he was the male dancer. It was a rare phenomenon that Vasudevan got the early attention of the poet who wanted to evolve his own creative dancing form, very much the form evolved later for much greater international acclaim by Udaya Shankar. There were many dancers from Kerala, Kathakali artists who went to Santiniketan.
Kerala’s own great poet Vallathol first sent Kunju Kurup from Kerala Kalamandalam which the Malayalam poet founded had the fortune to meet Jawaharlal when as a student from Santiniketan met him at his Kerala home. When Tagore saw the Kathakali, he was stunned and that is how the migration of a large number of Kerala artists took place. Painters like the late G.Aravindan later went on to make memorable Malayalam films and earned a name for Kerala Cinema in international forums.
Santiniketan’s links with the Southern States and the great many talents nurtured under the poet’s patronage are legion. Gandhigram’s founder G.Ramachandran, AP’s B.Gopal Reddy, TN’s Vasudevan, Karnataka’s Savitri Devi besides our living names are: Visvanathan, founder of Mitraniketan, Kerala, A.Ramachandra, K.G.Subramanyam, the renowned painters are some of the names that come immediately in mind.