“Tagore’s University in progressive decline!”
“Please do something to save the institution!”
Visiting Calcutta and Santiniketan After 20 long years!
The plane approaches Dum Dum almost without any sign of the great city down below. Once you are out of the airport, you notice again all the relics of a bygone era, the dust-laden grime, the red brick walls of a completely hopeless existence of factories and poor people crowded everywhere. In fact, we were greeted by a begging soul!
Dust and dirt is what makes your entry into an unsuspected city of such huge heritage and a forgotten imperial past. West Bengal and Calcutta always exert a special appeal to visitors with a discerning taste for learning and culture. The State had been home of the establishment of the British Empire, Calcutta having emerged the imperial capital. Then, came the famous Bengal Renaissance.
Even for me who had lived there as a student long ago, this time, this visit didn’t disappoint but had a more intense appeal. Though as a grown-up, with so much of the real world lived by and with so much accumulated experience and certain wisdom, I should say I rejoiced and also felt sad. For Bengal had much to offer and also what Bengal had lost by way of opportunities. So, this piece will have more to disappoint the weak-minded, so I hope it would lead to do much introspection of what needs to be done, in the State as well as at Santiniketan, Tagore’s university.
There is so much of the past to look into and so much of the present, arts and culture, literature and politics that gives the city a vibrant character. Our visit to Tagore’s two universities, the Rabindra Bharati University at Jorasnako in the city and Visva Bharati, 120 km away, at Santiniketan was an eye-opener. A brief account.
I visited calcutta and Santiniketan after nearly 20 odd years of a very long interval! It was almost a new world for me! I had studied at Santiniketan for four years since 1955 to 1959.The first journey I made to Bolpur from Calcutta I still recall with some intense emotion and much excitement! Yes, I was the young innocent boy of hardly 22 and I came from a region in Tamil Nadu that was living almost in another century and culture. No one in my part of the country then knew where Santiniketan was and what it was capable of providing by way of education except every school boy in my time had heard of the place as the one founded by Rabindranath Tagore who was the first Indian to have won the Nobel Prize. But I was the one who ventured to go there for education. So, it was a daring act.
Since then when I left for Oxford straight from Santiniketan in the year 1959, I had returned to the place a number of times. Now, this is my fourth of fifth visit as I had once came here to visit the place just to study whether I can admit my son here. It is now established by scratching my memory I decided not to put my son here but instead I sent him to Delhi University.
So, after my last and well-documented visit in the year 1985 when I did a book on the Santiniketan artist from my own district of Coimbatore (C.N.Vasudevan: The Tamil Dancer and Tagore, Vikas, 1985) I now came here after this long gap. Though I have been in touch with my old Santiniketan friends who also visit me now and then to my home, in Coimbatore and Bangalore, this visit by my entire family truly gave me a long-felt mental fulfillment I was seeking for.
The day we arrived at Kolkatta from Bangalore was a very interesting timing. The next day, August 7th, when we visited the Jorasanko Takurbari, Tagore’s ancestral home in north Calcutta, was the day of the passing away of the poet and commemorated as a memorial day of prayers and flower offerings. As the day was a holiday, I couldn’t see much and so we came back the next day also.
Jorasanko, Tagore’s ancestral home
The next day at the Jorasnako, there was of course beautiful Rabindra Sangeeth rendered by the students and the hall was full and we also participated in the event and paid our respects to the memory of India’s great son and poet. Then we visited the different rooms where the Tagore family lived. What an experience! It was very moving and very insightful, the experience of how a great Indian family lived and made history and become in the course of its history became part of the Bengal Renaissance movement.
The first floor building is known as the Maharishi Bhavan and the rooms are full of Tagore memoroblia, the room Tagore was born, the room where he breathed his last. The spot was decorated by white lotus flowers and the piece of poetical lines from Geetanjali deeply moved us, even brought tears when one reads them.
“I have got my leave. Bid me farewell, my brother! I bow to you all and take my departure. Here I give back the keys of my door-and I give up all claims to my house. I only ask for last kind words from you. At this time of my parting, wish me good luck, my friends! The sky is flushed with the dawn and my path lies beautiful. When I go from hence let this be my parting word, that what I have seen is unsurpassable. I had tasted the hidden honey of this lotus that expands on the ocean of light, and thus am I blessed-let this is my parting world. In this playhouse of infinite forms I have had my play and there I have caught sight of him that is formless. My whole body and my limbs have thrilled with his touch who is beyond touch; and if the end comes here, let it come-let this be my parting world”.
I didn’t know how long I was caught by the lines as I read them inscribed on the walls where the poet breathed his last. The whole room, the whole environment and the very moment seemed, to use Tagore own imaginative verse lines, did seem endless…! May be it was a pilgrimage, a journey that was waiting for long to happen.
I was glad that I brought along with me my whole family, my small grand daughter I wanted to imbibe this spirit at the very early age and grow up with this new kind of a unique culture and experience, as we walked through the various rooms there. I was very much thrilled afresh as I read those lines from Gitanjali once again, as W.B.Yeats was when he wrote the introduction in those far off times. Didn’t he say, “I have carried the manuscript of these translations about with me for days, reading it in railway trains, or on the top of omnibuses and in restaurants, and I have often had to close it lest some stranger would see how much it moved me.”
For a whole day that day in Kolkatta, those lines came haunting me as the experience of the visit to Jorasanko when my own life dramatic turns and twists and changed me now into a different person. And yet, when I came back to my roots, to the Bengal of a golden period in my growing up years, I got back to my cultural roots and got back my original spirit of spontaneity and I felt young enough to live the rest of my years with the same enthusiasm and commitment.
We saw the rooms used by the poet and his wife and there were many family used articles. The dining hall, kitchen and the store room. What is often interesting for the visitors is the famous Vichitra Hall, where from 1887 onwards the poet and the family members used to stage their creative arts, plays, poetry reading and music singing. The much written about Vichitra Club evolved and the poet’s famous, Dakghar(Post Office)play was enacted. It was one of the famous plays of the poet, other plays followed there. The poet’s wife, Mrinalini Devi, died in this room in 1902.Besides in a room the Tagore family tree is drawn elaborately for the visitors’ benefit.
The second floor of the Maharishi Bhavan contains portraits of all the great men of the times, the times that is known as the Bengal Renaissance, are hung up. Rammohan Roy, Keshab Chandra Sen, Vidya Sagar, Vivekananda, Bankim Chandra Chatoopadyaya, Michael Madhusudhan are all there. Those who know something of Tagore life and times know these names and their achievements. All the personal effects used by the family members, the cots, beds, the clothes and the very many other such personal memorablia are all there displayed with care. The Jorasnako buildings were constructed in as early as 1784.
Robert Clive captures Bengal
The battle of Plessey in 1757 led to the founding of the city as British Empire’s capital. With political power and trade, the city emerged as the imperial capital; the great buildings of the British high noon transformed the city into an Indian Renaissance city.
Again, those who also know something of the history of Calcutta city and West Bengal history know that the city was the imperial capital of the British empire till 1911.Even after the capital was shifted to Delhi, the city continued to flourish as the British industry and trade continued to expand .The city saw the rise of a new aristocratic class of zamindars and the merchant princes. In fact, the latter made more money and spent more ostentatiously and we see even today some of these old houses, called rightly the palaces, all huge big constructions, as big as any you can find in Europe! So, the city today gives us an idea of what the wealth and prosperity of the city gave rise to, a wealthy aristocratic class and an equally highly educated middle and the professional class, highly cultured and highly accomplished artists, writers and intellectuals who all went on to give rise to the Bengal Renaissance.
The crumbling urban palaces and mansions!
Calcutta perhaps is the only city in India with so much of built heritage site! All the imaginable classical and modern European architectural styles had found a furious outlet among the competing rich and the ambitious of the past! To place the Tagore family in the historic context we have to see these other palaces. We visited for the second day the Marble Palace to get a more indepth idea of these big houses, the occupants of these palaces were all called Rajas and Princes, the title of Rajas and Rai Bhahadur were conferred on these rich by the British authorities.
Thus, we learnt from Dr.Mullick who actually lives in the Marble Palace complex, that the founder Rajendra Mullick and his family were gold merchants, received the title of rajah in 1878 by Lord Lytton for his philanthropy during the 1865-66 Bengal famine. The approach to Jorasnacho as well as to Marble Palace and even other such big houses(I read about them all in the latest book, Forgotten Places of Calcutta by Joanne Taylor, 2006) like the ones called the Laha family Great House, the Guptoos, the Nabakrishna Deb Rajabati and others are all now surrounded by many encroachments, and slums have sprung up everywhere.
Calcutta city and life is engrossing!
Calcutta city is engrossing. The tourist literature describes as ‘the city of love, city of many faces, hidden secrets, old and young, smiling and pulsating and others like Rajiv Gandhi it is not a dying city nor as it is now simply a city of joy the new pressures that are visible by a series of developments, new bridges like Vidyasagar Sethu and the flyovers, the Metro is a great hit. It is as good as in London or New York. The Chief Minister Buddadeb Bhattacharjee had almost turned the fortunes of the city and the state by his radical approach to economic reforms.
It is the other side that interested me. They say the young in Bengal are Indian and the old are the British. Yes, there is so much of the past that interested me more than the present! There is an old world charm in the lifestyle of the old rich and the cultured families and the individuals. They are hidden in so many ways and you have to strive to identify them. The so many institutions, the so many old and crumbling structures contain so much of the past glory. How can Indians forget the Asiatic Society,No1,Park Street. The society now presents a picture of sleepy existence but once you know its history the inside excites you. It discovered India’s past, India’s identity and India’s unique great civilization. As I climbed the stairs I encountered kindred souls, Sir William Jones. Pirncep, Wilson, then the great Warren Hastings, all who promoted Indian learning and they did so much that deeply affected me, moved me beyond words.
Life in the city has many layers. The crowded lanes, the even big roads are choked with traffic, the yellow ambassadors, the man-pulled hand-rickshaws, the quaint trams and the ultra-modern Metro give a confusing picture of decay and vibrancy! The Chowringhee mansions and the life below can be very stimulating to the senses and the spirits. There is an increasing bustle in the Chowringhee passage, the crowd is so thick that I couldn’t manage my way from Grand hotel towards the Metro cinema. Simply I gave up and walked back! But then Chowringhee is the very nerve of Calcutta bustle and would remain the Piccadilly, the Champs Elysees for Indians! Nowhere else in any other Indian cities, you can say that! Yes, the old British time grand mansions are crumblings, some had gone, and others stand in such neglect. But the same atmosphere, won the long old grand Chowringhee, the fashionable Park Street, the surrounding streets bring back the old times, old memories. The many restaurants, Flureys in particular, maintain their aura and old world flair!
The Bengali middle class or classes themselves comprise many layers, many social classes within themselves. There are many generations of the same family having attained much education, culture and also professional attainments. Tagore the Nobel Prize winner is an aristocrat; on the other hand Amartya Sen, another Nobel Laureate is a quintessential Bengali enlightened middle class or upper middle class phenomenon. It all depends upon how you define the class, more so the middle class attainments gained over generations of education and culture.
Only in Bengal homes you will find everyone, the husband and the wife and even the sons and daughters writing books and aspiring artists, musicians and painters and also engaged in typical professions like teaching and government service. Calcutta is no doubt still the intellectual and cultural capital of India. There is so much art, literature and music. Though it is not a city that is yet home to the new economy industries, IT, ITes and BPO. It however looks there is change in the air. The Communists with their old mindset seem to be losing out to the new thrust at the CM’s level. The educated young generation had voted for the Left government with the hope they will get a new higher level of life they envy in the IT capital, Bangalore.
The Maidan is truly exhilarating. The vast greenery has no parallel in any other Indian city. To drive around the maidan is a real joy and so too the areas around the more traditional wealthy areas like Park Street and the nearby streets and lanes. Park Street was our haunt for most of our time, the street is dotted with all the favourite eating places. We visited the Flureys, the once five-generation Swiss-owned cake and tea rooms many times. Fluereys was my old haunt when I was a student at Santiniketan, where I had met so many of my Bengali friends. So the coming back to the spot evoked untold joys and emotions inside me. So too the other names, Magnolia, Trincas, Moulin Rouge and the many other names that all brought home to me those old and forgotten days. Russell Street also has many restaurants. I visited the famous Komala Vilas, on the Rashbehari Avenue in South Calcutta, where I was put up for the day when I first landed in Calcutta as a student from Chennai in 1955!
What is Santiniketan like today?
Totally reglided Prime Minister as chancellor doest help anymore! Urgent reforms are overdue! Where time stands still at Tagore’s university, the once famous Visva Bharati! The abode of peace seems to have been frozen in time. That may be a poor consolation. The harsh reality is that the university seems to have gone into irretrievable decay! Then, I heard some of the old students I met and talked to in Calcutta and at Santiniketan, who seem to be saying to be: “Oh let that be as it is!” I thought that this way of explaining away the helplessness more an admission of nerves than any genuine concern for such a beautiful conception. As an education concept and as an education experiment.
This is a Central University, declared by Parliament as an institution of national importance in 1951 and after some years of promise under Nehru’s personal care and attention, things seem to have gone out of control It had now seriously fallen into disarray. May be, it has already reached a stage from where any recovery or reform is nearly impossible. That is the impression I got when I visited my alma mater after a long gap of twenty years. This visit is my fourth since I left the institution in 1959.The whole place seems to have been abandoned! No one seems to be in charge. The successive Vice-Chancellors seemed to have failed. The Chancellors, the incumbent Prime Minister of India haven’t done their part of the job. The President of India is a visitor and in spite of all such high personages associated with Tagore’s dream university, there is a palpable sense of hopelessness all around. I found myself in wilderness, literally and metaphorically! As I walked through the past paths where I grew up into manhood, this time, after a life of some considerable mental maturity and material attainments, I felt suddenly so hopeless and helpless! One can only cry in such moments silently inside oneself! What else is there to do?
Tagore’s dream education centre
Where nothing seems to be growing Not even the old trees and shrubs! Each one which I had known so intimately, each I had touched literally and embraced with so much emotion and love! Under the shadows of which I had spent some of my best carefree days of my youth, full of dreams and romance, so much of excitement in knowledge in so many spheres, where we lived like a close-knit family, every student’s face, teacher’s face were so familiar and so intimate, where we learnt to sing the Rabindra Sangeeth, learnt to paint, play the many musical instruments, the very many languages, Chinese, Japanese, French and Bengali I eagerly sought to master and oh, life was simply an unsurpassable joy and contemplation of beauty and much else. And that was Tagore’s dream education, culture and much else, patriotism we imbibed enough and so too the spirit of internationalism. After all, what is the meaning of Visva Bharati, the world as a kudumbam etc. And see what a pool of talent that barren landscape in my time attracted! It would be simply a who’s who of the world of learning, from across the globe. So many nationalities, Westerners in good number, there were so many from Asian countries, Chinese in good number. There was the famous Cheena Bhavan(of which I was a member),Japanese, Indonesian, Laos and Cambodia, there was a Russian girl with a long pony tail. There was an Egyptian couple (who were my friends).The list could virtually embrace every country on the earth! That was Visva Bharati that was the Central Univeristy with an international presence and international impact. But alas! All these seem to be in the past. Today even the very trees and shrubs haven’t grown any further since my time, some 50 years ago!
Nor the buildings seem to have got a new coat of wash either! They all stand, in various stages of neglect and disrepair since I left. The proud central library building which I had frequented so many times, where I remember one day I found the great scientist, the then VC, Prof.S.N.Bose suddenly entered my reading room and sat near me! Only such things can happen in a free atmosphere liberal university of Visva Bharatii type. The only one type that Indian was proud of. About its unique character Pandit Nehru used to remind us every year when he visited us and when he himself seemed to have imbibed the very spirit of dreaming for an India with a distinctive image in the commitee of nations.
Yes this time, this visit the very first impressions gave me a picture of the whole university campus in a state of decline and decay! It doesn’t give any pleasure to make this observation and why I want to give vent to my feelings about my alma mater is for the simple fact that I want my countrymen to know what went wrong with such a great institution.
First, the place is not at all visitor-friendly. There is no road sign or any signpost to indicate the existence of a university. There is no direction or any information plaque, or any other sign to receive visitors or guide them. Thhole campus looked deserted. Of course it was a weekly holiday, being Wednesday. But then there must have been some building, some security at the entrance. No such indications. You could walk in and walk out with total abandon. So many little indications of petty-minded administration were some ugly fencing, each old monument was locked with a chain around! Artist and sculptor, the internationally acclaimed Ram Kinkar’s statues stand in total abandon, except some ugly structures covering the statues as protection.
Surely, some other, more beautiful and innovative design might have added to the aesthetics of the spot. Of course my eyes wandered far and wide and searched for the familiar sights. The great paths, still they remain mud paths, where the great souls, Nandalal Bose and many other artists walked past, the very same modest cottages stand still. All my friends in Calcutta as well as in Santiniketan told me that both the President of India ,Abdul Kalam and the Governor of West Bengal, Gopalkrishna Gandhi are very concerned about the Tagore’s dream institution and want to make several improvements. That was the only good news I had heard. The university, Visva Bharati, has as its chancellor ,none other than the Prime Minister of India. Even I didn’t hear the name of Dr.Manmohan Singh mentioned even once during the day when I was there.
Nehru the romanticist
I want to just note that Visva Bharati is a Central university since 1951 and when I studied there(1955-1959) Pandit Nehru was the chancellor. I remember well that Nehru had a passion for the institution, he was a romanticist and he was so much influenced by his personal contact with the poet and so he sent his daughter there for education. So, he visited the campus every year, during the convocation, and we were the privileged generation to have come into contact, so much close contact with Nehru whenever he came there. We would sit at his feet and Panditji used to feel so relaxed in the ashram environment and he would let himself go! Such was the total freedom that prevailed in Tagore’s abode of peace!
The golden age fades with Nehru
Today I was told there is so much concern about security and the chancellor flies in a helicopter and then flies out in just a matter of few hours. Also, I can say the golden age of Santiniketan was when Panditji was the chancellor. That was till he was alive. Afterwards, though Indira Gandhi became the chancellor, the helicopter hopping started even in her time and after a brief spell under Rajiv Gandhi, it was all just helicopter-hopping for the chancellors and there was no involvement in any depth.
I remember when Rajiv Gandhi was the chancellor I wrote him a long letter about the state of affairs at Santiniketan. The young man was so sensitive and he directed his assistant, Mani Shankar Aiyer to write back a detailed reply to my letter. It was so nice of him also to take his job seriously that the then VC, Nemaisadhan Bose, was making brave attempts to put the university on some rational path. I myself remember when I once visited Santiniketan in 1975,I visited the then VC, the famous economist(who examined me for my M.A.thesis in 1959)Amlan Datta. Datta himself was narrating to me about the difficulties he encountered to reform the university.
Just for record, I like to note that even in my times there was problem. Our own VCS, after the more genial scholar P.C. Bagchi, Nehru got the famous scientist, S.N.Bose(of the Bose-Einstein theory of statistics)as the VC. He was not only a great visionary, he was also an erratic genius. So, we students went on a strike and brought the university affairs to a halt. I remember Nehru sending Anil Chanda, his Deputy Minister, an old Santiniketan hand, to mediate and he failed. And Nehru made a hurried visit and as soon as he reached Uttarayan, he sent for us, the striking students (Bose called us in a letter as “you recalcitrant students!”) and he advised us to behave. We did!
The point is that Visva Bharati today no more even has the pretence of a university, let alone functions as a Central university of such great prestige and fame. First, the very place is not visitor-friendly! There is not even a sign to indicate that you have reached the place! You drive in as if you are driving into a semi-deserted forest terrain. The whole approach road is encroached, so dusty and dirty and very primitive surroundings. For visitors like us, the place gives a picture utter poverty and destitution. There is no place where you feel like stopping and having a cup of tea! So poor the environment, so uninviting. The campus, once so serene, even now yes, it is serene but in today’s so much modern development, the NH-2 which we traveled from Calcutta is so modern, even much well-maintained than what we see in TN and elsewhere, you realise that you are now living in a new India of Western-type modern highways and cities of flyovers, so much of modern infrastructure, Santiniketan seems to have been left to itself to decline and die! I am sorry to make such rather harsh, even unkind remark but this is the truth I want readers to know.
I don’t know how far such well-intentioned persons like President Kalam and Governor Gandhi, holding such high Constitutional offices, can do in improving Santiniketan. Reform of Santiniketan and the Visva Bharati Central University, given the long period of neglect and decay, is not an easy task. Nor do I see in any quick way, what do such reforms entail, given the complexity of the situation. All I can do here is to indicate what is in my mind, my own inner feelings as an insider and as an observer of the institution all my life.
Redical Changes needed
These are some of the radical changes Santiniketan and Visva Bharati university need if it is to recapture past glory and make itself relevant to India of today.
First, there must be a reform to make the Central University to admit only students on an all India basis. It must be a Central university for the whole of India and admissions must be strictly regulated on the basis of students from each state of the Indian Union. Now, it had declined, as told to me by several inmates there, just a local university, a university for students of the Bhirbhum district. That is a tragedy! This decline has to be reversed. Yes, there is so much local politics there, so much partisan politics, and for every small things, from admissions to high school to getting jobs there is so much interference from the local elements themselves.
Second, the University must become an exclusive arts and humanities university. May be some social sciences like economics, sociology, even management. But the University must become exclusive for these courses in which it had attained so much past glory. We have to recapture that past fame again. I am having in mind the past associations of names like the great minds, P.C.Mahalanobis, the long time associate of Tagore and Nehru and the founder of the Indian Statistical Institute and the framer of the Second Five Year Plan. Of course Prof.Amartya Sen is the latest great glory of the institution, where Sen Family had long associations with the poet himself and even today Sen maintains his family. I visited his home, he was away in America and yet my own past visit to the residence, his dear mother Amita Sen passed away only recently and I enjoyed so much friendship and hospitality from the family. So any new reforms will have the support of Amartya Sen, I am sure.
Call for Sen’s help
The Government of India can seek the guidance of Prof.Sen in its efforts to make the basic changes and I am sure Sen will suitably respond.
Third, there must be special new courses, short-term courses in some chosen arts courses, like music, arts and sculpture and foreign and Indian languages. Santiniketan’s Kala Bhavan and Sangeeth Bhavan were justly famous. So many great names are associated with them. So, these short-term courses must be high profile and must be conducted or directed by all Indian names. Even international names in these areas.
To attract students on an all India basis ,the courses have to be high profile and must be directed by really first class minds. With suitable funding, such high talents can be attracted for short-terms. So, funding for these courses can come from several sources, ICCR, HRD Ministry, foreign funding from Ford and Rockefeller are all possible.
Fourth, foreign collaborations with international universities like Harvard and Oxford for courses like economics or sociology, management and other courses, for some radical reforms in the very courses and degrees(as it is already happening in the private sector elsewhere in India) is one more reform that would really lift the Visva Bharati university to all India attention and fame.
Finally, there must be large scale infrastructure development, new and modern type buildings are a must. Roads must be laid, new facilities like modern communications, even a prestigious course in information technology can be housed in a separate campus-like environment. Along with these IT courses, must be ITes, BPO jobs and a cluster of the IT Park can be ideally thought of for location in the campus. As things seem to me, the life now there seems to be very primitive, no new roads had been laid in the entire past half a century! I walked through the old haunts, the sal beethi, the Mandir, the Chatim tola, Ghanta tola, the Central library building seems to have been left forgotten! Everything remains the same, except they are left to fend for themselves! I felt so sad and so let down by the so many high personages who had come there as chancellors and others.
I wondered ,as I was strolling through the very same old mud paths, deserted environs whether India didn’t have any persons, with any seriousness, anymore! We have had PMs, Presidents, Governors aplenty, we also have had men of so many talents, we have also won Nobel Prizes, we have had writers of international repute and yet why none of these great minds thought fit to connect themselves with so much of Tagore’s labours? Why we don’t have the will to dream or act to make India once again the great magnet as it was when Tagore lived and Gandhi and Nehru lived?
I can go on and on in the same refrain. For what end, I wondered almost recovered from a reveries of this sort as I came back and got into my car. That was a day of great joy for me, with my family and my small grand-daughter and the rest of them accompanying me gave me immense joy and fulfillment. And yet, there was this rankling, this pain and disappointment, about the downslide I saw so much in Tagore’s own abode. It is no more an abode of peace for me. It was an abode of surrendering our national commitment to our own past heritage. That was not a finale to a visit that was long overdue and now partially fulfilled.
On the fourth day of our stay in Calcutta we paid a visit to Santiniketan, some 200 km away from the city. We drove down the NH 2 towards Burdhwan, some 100 km distance, and then another 50 km the same road upto Panagarh and from there we took the road towards Suri, another 70km and there at the Bolpur diversion, the new road leads us straight into Santiniketan campus.
Hopes and Disappointments
Alas, he could have done much for Visva Bharati’s revival! But why he didn’t do a thing? As we drove past the Andrewspalli towards the home of our hostess, Ms.Reena Ganguly, we passed the gates of the home of Prof.Amartya Sen which still bears the name plate of his father, A.T.Sen. A.T.Sen was the son of Tagore’s associate, Pundit Kshitimohan Sen, a Sanskrit Pundit, A.T.Sen became a high official in the Government of India, and the last post he held, I think was as member of the Union Public Service Commission. I remember one day in Delhi Amartya Sen spotted me, when I was working at the AICC and he took me to his home where I met the senior Sen. As readers must know, I was at Santiniketan for four years, from 1955 to 1959 and it was when I was there I got to know the Sen Family. Whenever Amartya, as we used to call him then, came home from Cambridge for holidays we used to meet him and exchange greetings.
Once, he brought with him another of his Cambridge friend, one Jacques Sassoon and it was Sassoon who took me one day and introduced me to Amartya. That is how my acquaintance with him started. In fact, it was Amartya who put into my head the idea of going to Oxford. I remember Sassoon telling me one day:” If you go to Oxford then your life will start only from Oxford; everything else will not matter”. Those words took a deep root inside me. So, whenever Amartya was at home I invariably visited him. One day he gave suggestions about my getting admission into Cambridge or Oxford. I have narrated these efforts elsewhere. But the point is that thanks to Amartya I managed to get into Oxford, and that too into New College, the fourteenth century foundation that surprised even Amartya! Yes, in those days the admissions were very strict and you had to go through several processes and I hit the right chord, may be, when the Warden of New College, Sir William Good enough Hayter, a former Ambassador to Soviet Russia, thought fit to give a place. He wrote a nice letter admitting me with some conditions.
The first thing I did when I reached Oxford was to pay a visit to Amartya in Cambridge, he received me in his rooms at Trinity College and we spent the evening walking down the Cambridge roads and chatting about so many things. That was the last I saw him in England. It was very much later, in 1967 I met him again when he was teaching at the Delhi School of Economics.
We, I mean those of us who knew Amartya’s intellectual gifts, knew for long that he would one day win the Nobel Prize. That happened, it seems, after a long wait. I am glad that his dear mother saw that happen before she passed way. I knew Amitadiso well and so Mrs.Dutta, Amartya’s sister and I enjoyed their hospitality so liberally and so this time I wanted to pay a visit to the home.
Unfortunately, Amartya Sen was not at home, the caretaker told us that he was away in “Aamerika”! That was okey and I didn’t try to ascertain other details. I was told that Sen had set up a trust to do some field work. But I couldn’t see any trace of life in the surroundings and what little I could gather is that nothing seems to be happening. I was told that Amartya Sen visits his home often, these days more often without any announcement and that is fine. “Amartya comes but he never takes any interest in the affairs of the university. He never makes any comments or issues any statements on the goings-on here” said a friend there.
Obviously, Amartya Sen knows much that might not be flattering to the university. There is an Ashramik Sangh, of the old students, in my time, Amitadi herself was an active member. Talk to any old ashramite, then you get a pouring out of so much frustration and anger at the state of affairs at Santiniketan. This ashramik sangh is now spread out all over the world and I got a letter recently from Canada asking me for a write-up on my own time there and my own later visits and what I think had gone wrong and what needs to be done. It looks the old students of the place are planning to bring out a book with such writings so that ,may be, the Indian Government and those who have some influence and stature might hope to introduce some urgent reforms. I am not sure.
But some thoughts refuse to go away from my mind! Can I take the freedom to give vent to what I feel that can be done? I feel that the one and only name that can have an impact on Santiniketan is none other than Prof.Amartya Sen himself. His is the tallest name today, he only can inspire some confidence if at all, if anything can be done for the revival and expansion of Visva Bharati into the new century.
He lives for the most part at Harvard and makes occasional visits. It is said he runs a trust for some research and other ends. But knowing well, as I do the India of today and doing very much the same sort of explaining and convincing and shaping public opinion in the agriculture and economic development issues, I am totally disillusioned by the academic community in the country for doing anything politically and economic development-wise to draw up workable policies.
W.Bengal : a backward state
The states, more so W.Bengal, are resistant to change to the new economic development paradigm shifts. W.Bengal, as far as I know, is considered as a backward state in terms of education, health and employment, governance standards. The World Bank’s many reports bear witness to that. No infrastructure in the forms of rural roads, electricity, drinking water and sanitation and the human development indicators tell the decline of the State. While we see other states like Karnataka and Andhra are making impressive progress in IT and ITes and BPO ‘new economy’ industries. E-governance is a concept seems to be unknown in Bengal. IT industry seems to have bypassed the state, as on date.
There is too much bureaucracy in the State, it seems. Hands-on decision making is really urgent! Privatisation of higher education is inevitable! As for higher education, the state is so pitiable. Again, the new trends in TN, Karnataka and Andhra by way of private self-financing engineering and medical colleges are still absent in Bengal. Even Kerala had to fall in line and today we see a new pace in the self-financing colleges in Kerala. I was appalled to see the so many advertisements in Calcutta Newspapers by institutions from TN offering so many professional education courses. This is a scandal, I thought. The most corrupt among the ones seem to be the most active ones to advertise and seek the gullible and unsuspected students! Better draw these education entrepreneurs to the state itself! So that they can be controlled and some transparency can be introduced. Unless W.Bengal wakes up sooner than later, it would be further pushed behind the times.
One silver linging is the Chief Minister’s change of heart. He now openly says Capitalism is the way out! There is now an unsaid truth and wisdom, it seems, among the State’s elite, I hope also among the garrulous ageing Leftist parties of various hues, that their game is up and finally over! Yes, we have to follow the “best practices” in the governance of the State. There has to be a clear realisation, that FDI and other investments are now forthcoming if only you create the conducive climate. It is to the credit of Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee that he had crossed the Rubicon! One hopes, the State truly utilises the services of its tallest leaders, Prof.Amartya Sen, Somnath Chatterjee and others to transform Bengal and in the process Santiniketan into a 20th century miracle.
Just after this was written I watched Amartya Sen’s interview on the Independence Day on NDTV about what he had got to say on Indian democracy’s future and its contribution to economic development. Sen is at his usual best, in articulating some precise insights. But then he is at best a great intellectual who articulates some rare insights but not for any immediate big new policy or policy innovations. That very morning I also listened to Prime Minister’s Red Fort speech. There again I saw an academic articulating, this time his articulations for taking the economy forward more unsure, the same old platitudes, no inspiration, no fire at all. The Hindu wrote in its editorial as a conclusion: “It is clear that reality testing from the ramparts of the Red Fort has its limits”. There doesn’t seem to be much hope for anyone taking the bold step to call for an overdue reform of Tagore’s great university! May be someone could call for Sen’s articulation of what can be done to change things there. That is a minimum programme we can think of at this point of time.