To paraphrase Marcellus’ observation in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Something is rotten in the town of Santiniketan.
The Vice-Chancellor of Visva-Bharati University, Professor Bidyut Chakraborty, used the Upasana (traditionally a Brahmo ceremony to celebrate the day when Maharishi Debendranath Tagore and twenty others became Brahmo in 1843 – the 7th day of the Poush month in 1250, according to the Bengali calendar) to highlight his frustration with the state of affairs he has found himself dealing with in Santiniketan. He particularly pointed to the politics he has encountered since his appointment a year ago. You can hear his full remarks (in Bengali) below.
Professor Chakraborty also spoke that afternoon at the annual programme of the Santiniketan Asramik Sangha (organised by current/former students and teachers at Visva-Bharati). Alo Roy, now in her eighties, began by recalling a story from her time as a student at Visva-Bharati. She concluded by referring to the comments of Professor Chakraborty at the Upasana.
She observed that a lot had changed since her student days in the late 1940s, such as rules and the sense of community. She noted that the Upasana ceremony that morning had been more about problems than Upasana.
She added that she agreed with Professor Chakraborty that Tagore had said that changes to tradition were inevitable. However, she underlined that these changes needed to match the creative endeavour of the original. Only then would the changes be justified.
She agreed with the Vice-Chancellor that politics had harmed Santiniketan. She suggested that 15-20 years of politics had been leading Santiniketan to the edge of disaster. This is why the Vice-Chancellor’s call for the politics to be brought under control was understandable.
In his speech, the Vice-Chancellor said that he had spoken from the heart in the morning and that his interest in attending the Asramik Sangha event was that he wanted to seek the blessing and support of its senior members to help him use the remaining four years of his mandate to restore Santiniketan to its former glory. When he had been appointed as Vice-Chancellor, former President Pronob Mukherjee had told him that it was no longer Visva-Bharati (a global village providing an education that was deeply rooted in its immediate surroundings but connected to the cultures of the wider world, for which Tagore had chosen the Sanskrit motto Yatra visvam bhavatyekanidam – “where the whole world can find a nest”) but Bhubandanga-Bharati (Bhubandanga being the former name of the area, after a robber called Bhuban Dakat).
The Poush Mela itself became the subject of controversy earlier this year. The paper The endangered status of traditional Poush Mela in Santiniketan by Srija Mandal (which was published in Endangered Cultures and Languages in India in 2015) highlighted the cultural significance of the Poush Mela and noted that its original focus on rural arts and crafts has been overtaken by the presence of commercial stalls.
In June 2019, Visva-Bharati announced that it could not take responsibility for the Poush Mela and that it would not be held this year. In particular, the Vice-Chancellor had responded to criticism from the National Green Tribunal for failing to ensure that the Mela ended after four days and had not cleaned up the litter left behind after the Mela. The situation was only resolved in November after the intervention of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who is the Chancellor of Visva-Bharati.
The Poush Mela was first held in Santiniketan in 1894, as part of the fourth annual celebration of a Brahmo mandir being established in Santiniketan on the 7th day of Poush. The underlying philosophy of this mela, according to Debendranath Tagore and Rabindranath Tagore, was to create a platform for the rural community to interact with the predominantly well-educated followers of Brahmoism and people of all religions.
In the first Poush Mela, Rabindranath Tagore sang the mangal geet (welfare song) while walking around the Mandir. Food and clothes were distributed to the poor and needy after the main upasana (prayer) on the first day of Poush Mela. Rural people were allowed to sell their products and the Mela authorities provided entertainment in the form of fireworks. Jatra Palas (open air theatre) and folk music were performed, bringing together the rural community and tribal people from the area around Santiniketan.
Originally, the Poush Mela was held in the field to the North of the Brahmo mandir. As it grew in size, it was moved to a field in Purbapalli in 1962, where it is held today.
In recent years, the Poush Mela has increased considerably in size, attracting arts and crafts stalls from far and wide, rather than the immediate vicinity of Santiniketan. Tens of thousands descend on Santiniketan to visit the Mela.
Unfortunately, the changes made to the organisation of the Mela (including insisting on online registration by stallholders and increasing the rental from Rs500 per day to Rs10,000 per day) seem to have changed the character of the Mela. We saw fewer local arts and crafts than in previous years while traffic controls prevented the “totos” (electric rickshaws) and cycle rickshaws from getting close to the Mela or to local shops.
While this reduced congestion and encouraged walking, the strong police and army presence changed the atmosphere. The repeated announcements on the public address system on the last day of the Mela threatening to withhold the security deposits of stallholders who overstay did not help.
Another traditional event during the Poush Mela is the Christo Utsav (Festival of Christ), which is held on Christmas Day in the Brahmo mandir. This year, it became a solo performance by the Bengali singer Srikanto Acharya (who moved one of the Brahmo lecterns to make room for his two harmoniums) with some Christmas carols and rousing Tagore songs at the end. Tagore’s reason for launching this annual ceremony seems to have been forgotten.
Fortunately, the author Basumitra Majumdar (one of my cousins) was prompted to research Tagore’s thoughts on Christianity after attending the Christo Utsav a couple of years ago. He wondered why Tagore had wanted to celebrate Christmas in Santiniketan, especially in the Brahmo mandir, which is a temple for worship. He has kindly given me permission to reproduce the paper he had written (in Bengali) based on his research.
In 1909, Tagore had decided that there should be a celebration in Santiniketan of the birth or death of the “High Priest” of each major religion. The purpose was to capture the humanity in their character and in their advice.
The Christo Utsav was the first of these. There were also festivals of Shri Krishna Chaitanya Mahaprabhu (chief proponent of the Gaudiya Vaishnavism tradition within Hinduism) and Kabir (the 15th century mystic poet and saint, who was brought up by a Muslim family, studied Hinduism under Ramananda and whose verses are found in Sikhism’s scripture, Guru Granth Sahib). These festivals were created by Tagore with the intention that people should know and understand the humanity of these great men.
Rabindanath Tagore appears to have planned these festivals since the partition of Bengal along religious lines in 1905 by Lord Curzon, the Viceroy of India. Tagore himself took part in the protests against partition and his song Amar sonar Bangla (My golden Bengal) became a rallying cry for those opposed to partition of Bengal.
The partition of Bengal was eventually reversed in 1911 by the British Raj, which moved its administrative capital from Kolkata to Delhi.
In view of all this, it would appear that the original intentions behind the Upsana, Poush Mela, Christo Utsav and indeed Visva-Bharati itself have been forgotten. Similarly, our own experience of the dance form created by Tagore has been that it too is in danger of being forgotten, in favour of contemporary or purely classical interpretations.
Tagore had created Visva-Bharati as a pioneering educational establishment. Sadly, precisely at a time when educational experts all over the world are looking for a holistic approach to education, entrusting Visva-Bharati to the University Grants Commission has proved to be a mixed blessing. On one hand, Visva-Bharati staff are now properly remunerated. On the other, the tradition of passing skills and knowledge from teachers to students, who in turn become teachers, has been disrupted.
Instead of learning from the educational model developed by Tagore at Visva-Bharati, it seems that Visva-Bharati is well on its way to being turned by the University Grants Committee into a run-of-the-mill university of precisely the type which Tagore rejected. At a wider level, the increasing prevalence of the discredited STEM approach to education has a negative impact on businesses, the values of society and democracy.
If the world class reputation of Santiniketan, Visva-Bharati and Tagore are to be restored, the Vice-Chancellor could take inspiration from the governance model of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust – the independent charity established by an Act of Parliament to care for “the world’s greatest Shakespeare heritage sites in Stratford-upon-Avon [UK], and promotes the enjoyment and understanding of his works, life and times all over the world.”
Following a review by the UK Charities Commission, the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust set up a consultative Council (of which I was honoured to become a member earlier this year). The aim of the Council is “to contribute to the organisation’s long term vision.
“The Council will complement, support and challenge the Board, and provide a forum for, and act as sounding board for, discussion of high-level strategy. Council members with relevant skills/expertise/experience may be asked to join SBT committees/working groups as co-opted members or to act as SBT ambassadors/spokespeople on specific matters.”
Since the Vice-Chancellor was asking members of the Asramik Sangha to “take ownership” of restoring the fortunes of Santiniketan, perhaps the creation of a similar consultative council could help guide the Trustees of the Santiniketan Trust (which organises the Poush Mela) and the Visva-Bharati administration. This could draw from the experience of former students, teachers and others to restore the traditions of Santiniketan with appropriate adaptation to the modern era.
At least the tradition of decorating Chhatim Tala with candles on the evening of the 7th day of Poush remains intact.