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Tagore & the Geheebs

This book is a study of the Indo-German cultural exchange in the early 20th century that was initiated by three educators and their pedagogical vision… A review.


Martin Kampchen, the literature scholar, author, translator and journalist who has been residing in Santiniketan for more than 30 years, really needs no introduction. His work focuses on German-Indian cultural exchange and his books – Rabindranath Tagore and Germany: A Documentation (1991), Herman Hesse and Kalidas Nag: A Friendship (1994), Rabindranath Tagore in Germany: Four Responses to a Cultural Icon (1999) – and his edited volume along with Imre Banga, Rabindranath Tagore: One Hundred Years of Global Reception (2014), have been well-received. Now, after several years of painstaking archival research, a new book authored by him called Indo-German Exchanges in Education: Rabindranath Tagore Meets Paul and Edith Geheeb has been published recently.

One is well aware that apart from being a poet, Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941) was also an educator and he founded the Brahmacharya Ashram in Santiniketan in 1901. It emerged from the desire to give an alternative to the British school system and was a vision nourished by the ancient narratives of ashram life in our epics. At the same time, it was a protest against foreign cultural and political hegemony. For Tagore, education was part of a holistic vision of how mankind should relate to the outside world, which included society, nature, the cosmos and transcendence.

Paul Geheeb (1870-1961) and Edith Geheeb (1885-1982) founded the Odenwaldschule in Germany in 1910. From the beginning Paul Geheeb was an educator and he never attempted to be anything else. As a backlash to industrialisation and urbanisation, the New School Movement to which he belonged believed in a return to a natural environment and simplicity, primary and direct experience. During the Nazi regime, the Geheebs emigrated to Switzerland in 1934 and the school was first started inside the Institut Monnier in the mountains above Geneva. Later, it moved into its own buildings and was given the name Ecole d’Humanité. Since 1946 till now, it has been situated in Switzerland’s Hasliberg Goldern.

Against the background of these two pioneering educational institutions, a remarkable chapter of an Indo-German encounter unfolded. Paul Geheeb, a name familiar in Germany and Switzerland for his contribution to the New Education Movement, however, has not really been recognised in India as a European personality close to Tagore, either in spirit or action. That is despite their having met each other in Germany in 1930 and maintained contact for a decade. Also, the affinity of their educational visions has never been elaborated in Tagore studies.

Indo-German Exchanges in Education ventures to do exactly so. Looking at these two systems, each of which grew and was shaped in their separate historical and geographical contexts, Kämpchen explains that phenomenologically they have a great deal in common. In them, one witnesses a transnational trend towards liberating children from the cage of strict formal rules of conduct and adult domination. They are attempts to understand the natural progress of a child from children’s viewpoint, not from the expectations and more evolved mental outlook of the adult.

A pantheistic religious faith and a deep nature consciousness were apparently Geheeb’s main sources of strength, which could fill him with satisfaction and allow him to bear the difficulties of life and complexities of his personality. Those were the features that gave strength and consolation to Tagore as well. In 1943 during World War II, Geheeb held a lecture in which he alluded to the striking similarity of the two schools. They had been founded only nine years apart and had evolved totally unknown to each other and within very different historical and social contexts, and yet happened to be so eminently comparable.

Geheeb stated, “Psychologically, it is certainly interesting that Santiniketan and the Odenwaldschule developed totally independent from each other, not knowing of each other for many years, until gradually numerous students and friends of Tagore stayed with us in the Odenwald and praised our school as the Santiniketan of the Occident. When, finally, in the summer of 1930, Rabindranath Tagore spent a few days with me, he declared that the atmosphere of the school made him feel quite at home.”

Similarly, in a letter to Geheeb, Tagore had written, “The only hope of saving civilisation is through ‘enlightened’ education, and organisations like your Institut Monnier and my Santiniketan have indeed a great role to play.”
The Geheebs and Tagore saw themselves as deeply committed educators. Their respective school projects were at the heart of their creative lives and became the receptacle of their national and international contacts. Several other Indian figures, who were closely related to the three deeply committed educators, are also mentioned in the book.

The one Indian intellectual and associate of Tagore who dominated this web of contacts was Aurobindo Mohan Bose, a nephew of Jagadish Chandra Bose, the famous botanist. Aurobindo was among the very early students of Tagore’s school in Santiniketan and he later went on to study at Cambridge and then in Germany. It was he who suggested and organised Tagore’s visit to Geheeb’s Odenwaldschule in Germany in 1930. After World War II, he made the Ecole d’Humanité in Switzerland his home, where he died in 1977.

Another important contact was Venkatesh Narayana Sharma and his wife Ellen Teichmuller, who fled from Nazi Germany after four years of teaching at Geheebs’ school and settled in Madras, where in 1937 they founded the Children’s Garden School, following models of the Odenwaldschule and Tagore’s Brahmacharya Ashram. Incidentally, Children’s Garden still runs under the stewardship of Sharma’s two daughters. Though the link between the school in Chennai and Santiniketan is not active, what is fundamentally similar, or in fact identical, in those schools is their emphasis on inclusiveness and appreciation of individual freedom.

Another string of contacts developed between Tagore’s grand-nephew Saumyendranath Tagore and his wife Shrimati Tagore (nee Hutheesing), who was in Europe with her husband and maintained years of contact with Edith Geheeb and hosted her in Calcutta during her maiden visit to India in 1965-66. Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi (who sent her two sons to study at the Ecole for a brief period in 1952) and Edith Geheeb’s association in the early 1930s with two monks of the Ramakrishna Order, namely Swami Yatiswarananda and Swami Nikhilananda, enhanced her spiritual leaning towards India.
Another Indian visitor who arrived in the summer of 1931 and kept a steady contact with the Geheebs’ school was Anath Nath Basu, who was a teacher at Santiniketan. Similarly, Premchand Lal, involved in the rural reconstruction work at Sriniketan, also kept in touch with them.

The similarity between Odenwaldschule-Ecole d’Humanité and Brahmacharya Ashram is a recurring theme of this book. But it also explores the period between the two World Wars when the lives of the Geheebs and Rabindranath Tagore, and their respective circles, overlap. Rather than being a biography, a history, or a comprehensive description, this study is a comparison of Tagore and the Geheebs and their schools. Making use of the repository of unpublished correspondence available at the Ecole’s archive, Kämpchen studies the Indo-German cultural exchange in the early 20th century that was initiated by the three educators and their pedagogical vision.
Histories of the Geheebs’ schools and the New Education Movement have been written mostly in German and very little information is available in English. Also, information in English on Paul and Edith Geheeb’s lives, on their circle of associates, and on their pedagogical lifework is extremely limited. In this context, this book is a valuable contribution by Kämpchen who, as a German himself, could access and evaluate all documents easily.

Here one must also mention the manner in which the author has provided all the original German letters and other documents as footnotes to the translations he made into English. This meticulousness to ensure that nothing is lost in translation is commendable and a chief characteristic of this book, whose appeal is also enhanced by the inclusion of several black and white archival photographs from private collections.

The reviewer is a former professor of English, Visva-Bharati, Santiniketan