In his many essays on education and culture Tagore repeatedly lamented that young learners were being strait-jacketed within a fixed curriculum that dulled the inquisitiveness of the students who learnt to memorize texts without comprehending their specific nuances. Tagore’s institutions in Bolpur, West Bengal, Patha Bhavan, Visva Bharati and Sri Niketan focussed on imparting education that was holistic, recognizing the intersectionality that defined varied cultures, supporting Inclusive education and performance studies.
The introduction of performing arts in his institutions underscored the uniqueness of Tagore’s theory of education and its path-breaking effectiveness in praxis. Tagore’s concepts of education contrasted the trajectory of the parrot’s tragic traditional training as a scholar to the exhilarating freedom of experiential learning at Santiniketan. In his oft-cited and widely discussed essay on education in Bengal during the colonial times, titled Shikshar Herpher (Manipulations of Education) Tagore stated, “From childhood, instead of focussing on the power of memory, equal weightage must be accorded to independent application of the power of thinking and the power of the imagination.”
Elaborating further on this argument, Tagore observed, “We enter from childhood to adolescence, from adolescence to youth just carrying the burden of some statements. In the regime of Saraswati, the Goddess of Learning, we spend our days like labourers; our backbones get bent and the full blossoming of the human spirit is deterred.” In the 27 essays written in Bengali, in volume 11 of Rabindra Rachanabali we find Tagore not merely playing the role of a mentor but as a cultural activist he makes an unambiguous bid to create awareness about the need to sustain and enhance indigenous literature and culture. He seems to anticipate Franz Fanon’s arguments regarding the need to reject cultural colonization and emerge as independent thinkers, extolling the merits of native arts, fine arts and craft.
Tagore had executed brilliant plans of education and employment for the disadvantaged rural people of Birbhum. So, just outside the village of Surul on a farm that the poet had purchased, he founded the Visva Bharati Institute of Rural Reconstruction. It was named Sriniketan. The poet had structured plans for his Sriniketan project. He wrote, “The object of Sriniketan is to bring back life in its completeness into the villages making them self-reliant and selfrespectful, acquainted with the cultural tradition of their own country, and competent to make an efficient use of the modern resources for the improvement of their physical, intellectual and economic condition.”
In 1921, Tagore was aware that he required international recognition of Visva Bharati’s alternative education project so that with the nod from the world, he would be able to counter the criticism at home, which was inevitable. So, in his much-delayed Nobel acceptance speech delivered at Stockholm on 26 May 1921 Tagore cordially invited the cultured intelligentsia of the world to visit Visva Bharati in Santiniketan in rural Bolpur, showcasing the need for holistic experiential education.
He stated: “That is the reason, and that led me to the determination to establish an international institution where the Western and Eastern students could meet and share the common feast of spiritual food. And this I am proud to say that your awarding me the prize had made some contribution to this great object which I had in mind. I have come to ask you, to invite you to the feast which is waiting for you in the far east. I hope my invitation will not be rejected.”
The Constitution of the VisvaBharati University designated VisvaBharati as an Indian, Eastern and Global cultural centre whose goals were: 1. To study the mind of Man in its realisation of different aspects of truth from diverse points of view. 2. To bring into more intimate relation with one another through patient study and research, the different cultures of the East on the basis of their underlying unity. 3. To approach the West from the standpoint of such a unity of the life and thought of Asia. 4. To seek to realise in a common fellowship of study the meeting of East and West and thus ultimately to strengthen the fundamental conditions of world peace through the free communication 5.
And with such ideals in view to provide at Santiniketan a centre of culture where research into the study of the religion, literature, history, science and art of Hindu, Buddhist, Jain, Zoroastrian, Islamic, Sikh, Christian and other civilizations may be pursued along with the culture of the West, with that simplicity of externals which is necessary for true spiritual realisation, in amity, good-fellowship and co-operation between the thinkers and scholars of both Eastern and Western countries, free from all antagonisms of race, nationality, creed or caste and in the name of the One Supreme Being who is Shantam, Shivam, Advaitam.
6.The objectives of the University shall also include harmonizing the cultures of India, the East and the West by, among other things, the admission of students and appointment of adhyapakas from various regions of India and various countries of the world and by providing incentive thereof. As stated earlier, Tagore was always skeptical about the fragmented education churned out by British-administered Indian universities. In his essay “the Centre of Indian Culture” Tagore outlined his understanding of what he considered to be a complete education -”.
Our education should be in full touch with our complete life, economical, intellectual, aesthetic, social and spiritual; connected with it by the living bonds of varied co-operations. For true education is to realize at every step how our training and knowledge have an organic connection with our surroundings.” Therefore, for Tagore complete education would be possible when there was a need to bring together all cultures, races, gender irrespective of geographical locations. Visva Bharati university would be able to provide this sort of inclusive education according to Tagore.
He stated without ambiguity, “So, in our centre of learning, we must provide for the coordinated study of all these cultures-the Vedic, the Puranic, the Buddhist, the Jain, the Islamic, the Sikh and the Zoroastrian. And side by side with them the European- for only then shall we be able to assimilate the last.” In order to decolonize the hegemony of western knowledge paradigms in the Global South, specifically India, Tagore’s overt agenda regarding an alternative education system can be used to formulate interdisciplinary studies, cross-cultural studies, transdisciplinary studies intersectionality studies and critical diversity studies leading to an inclusive approach enabling fortification of knowledge systems often disturbed by systemic fissures and ruptures.
As is obvious it is through cross-cultural comparativist engagements that binaries and monoliths that consolidate canons can be replaced by inclusive knowledge paradigms and policy. If such initiatives are not taken, the horrifying end result of our rote learning will destroy creative freedom, creative imagination and leadership in the world of ideas. Tagore describes in graphic detail the tragic consequence as the end result of such myopic education in his wellknown fable, “The Parrot’s Training” (Tota Kahini). The parrot which flew and sang all day was thrust into a golden cage, encapsulated platitudes of the past were thrust into its throat and its wings clipped. The narrative reads like a Spielberg movie script, grotesque and sarcastic, animated further by Tagore’s signature poetic insight.
The nephew said, “Your Majesty, the bird’s education is now complete.’’ The King asked, “Does it still jump?’’ The nephew said, “God forbid.’’ “Does it still fly?’’ “No.’’ “Does it sing anymore?’’ “No.’’ “Does it scream if it doesn’t get food?’’ “No.’’ The King said, “Bring the bird in. I would like to see it.’’ The bird was brought in. With it came the administrator, the guards, the horsemen. The King felt the bird. It didn’t open its mouth and didn’t utter a word. Only the pages of books, stuffed inside its stomach, raised a ruffling sound. Therefore, without embarrassment about breaking free from normative practices defining the purpose of education, such as being job-oriented skill-developers linked to the corporate industries, the Prospectus of Tagore’s Visva Bharati university of 2019, states with confidence that “VisvaBharati is a pilgrimage for education and culture.
It reflects the Tagorean ethos of making a complete human being. It is a hallowed place of learning cradled in a serene environment in the lap of Nature.” Intellectual and cultural freedom were the overt agenda of Tagore’s formulation of an alternative system of education free of pedagogic shibboleth and intellectual myopia, as defined repeatedly in his many essays on education practices, also addressed in his literary texts. Tagore’s Visva Bharati university, through his education policies, directly made a bid to push against the boundaries by reaching towards cultural and intellectual de-territorialization and complete critical and creative freedom.
It is Tagore’s model of holistic education that the world and the home should consider implementing in the 21st century, so that the millennial generations and Generation Z can be nurtured in an environment of inclusiveness, respecting diversity of races, languages, cultures and their respective belief systems.
(The writer is former Professor, Dept. of English, Calcutta University)