The Butterfly and the Banyan
In Santiniketan Rabindranath Tagore visualised a nest for enquiring minds. Rukmini Devi founded the Kalakshetra to train the youth in art, craft and tradition.
IT WAS almost 100 years ago that Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore started an experimental school, Brahmacharyashram, with five students, at Santiniketan. The genesis was his reaction to the joyless, mechanical system of education then prevailing in the country.
For Gurudev, sympathy was more important than geography and symphony more than history. By sympathy, Gurudev meant understanding among human beings, evolving into community living and world peace. By symphony, he meant living in communion with Nature so that Nature's bounty without being ravaged, could be unlocked.
Gurudev admired the Western civilisation for harnessing Nature and allowing it to blossom.
He was particularly impressed with what he witnessed during his railway journey across Europe, from Brindisi to Calais. At the same time, he could not admire the conflicting attitudes engendered by the commercial sense and the Christian religion of the West. To Europeans religion, imported from the East, was alien and the European race was trying to come to terms with it.
Tagore also felt that the climate of the West allowed a lot of leisure which enabled the people to take on life with vigour. He felt Europeans maligned Nature and always attempted to overpower it. This was in contrast to the lifestyle of the people of the East in tropical climates.
The modern educational dispensation flowing out of Western culture is not creative but competitive. Tagore debunked it. The imported educational model provided buildings and books but also burdened and suppressed the mind. Such education, Gurudev thought, treated the mind like a library shelf, solidly made of wood, to be loaded with leather bound volumes of second hand information. Tongue in cheek, he observed, "... To seek the best products of the Indian mind, we now have to cross the sea and knock at the doors of France and Germany.
Educational institutions in our country are India's alms-bowl of knowledge; they lower our intellectual self-respect; they encourage us to make a foolish display of decorations composed of borrowed feathers.''
True to being a creative artiste who abhorred commerce, Tagore wrote, "The silkworm seems to have a cash value credited in its favour somewhere in Nature's accounting department... But the butterfly is irresponsible. The significance which it may possess has neither weight nor use and is lightly carried on its pair of dancing wings. Perhaps it pleases someone in the heart of the sunlight, the Lord Treasurer of colours, who has nothing to do with the account book and has a perfect mastery in the great art of wastefulness." So, Santiniketan was born.
Gurudev was greatly impressed by the Tapovana way of teaching where seers and students lived as community seeking Truth. The poet thought that the forest schools married economic life with education and enabled understanding of Nature. There the masters and students gathered fruit and fuel, grazed their cattle and played in the lap of Nature.
Such ancient Indian education not only catered for the intellect but expanded the spiritual self. In keeping with this, Gurudev designed his School and University, where the students cooperated with the villagers surrounding Santiniketan, who were cultivating land, breeding cattle, labouring at the oil mill and spinning cloth.
Along with these avenues for the productive self, Tagore attempted to provide for the creative self. Here he was greatly impressed with the folk education of India, which was woven into everyday life. Tagore thought of this as the irrigation of culture. He noted, "The mode of instruction includes the recitation of epics, expounding of the scriptures, reading from the Puranas, which are the classical records of old history, performance of plays founded upon early myths and legends, dramatic narration of the lives of ancient heroes, and the singing in chorus of songs from religious literature. Evidently, in this system, education enables us realise that to live life as a man is great, requiring profound philosophy for its ideal, poetry for
its expression and heroism in its conduct. Owing to this, common people of India, though technically illiterate, were made conscious of the sanctity of social relationship entailing constant sacrifice and self-control, urged and supported by ideals of dharma. In other words, Tagore had the twin objective of pursuit of truth and practice of love as the production of education.
In establishing Santiniketan, the poet was creating a nest for enquiring minds. He wanted education to engender a programme of adventure in life instead of incarceration of the mind in a painful hospital. The poet was sure that children have that active sub-conscious mind which, like the tree, has the power to gather its food from the surrounding atmosphere.
The Brahmacharyashram and the International Institute of Rural Reconstruction attracted many Western scholars such as C. F. Andrews, W. W. Pearson, Leonard K. Elmhirst. Even Gandhiji arrived at Santiniketan with a set of students from Phoenix. In course of time, Santiniketan became Visva Bharati with several institutions such as Kala Bhavan, Sangeet Bhavan, Silpa Bhavan, Hindi Bhavan and Cheen Bhavan. According to Tagore, the West had come to the East in the past because the East was a storehouse of gems and gold.
In modern times, East continued to be the treasury of wisdom and could beckon the West. Tagore's vision was not constricted by the geography of India and he wanted to carry the torch of Asia to the West from Visva Bharati.
While Tagore was experimenting with education in Santiniketan to evolve a universal man, full of truth and love, creativity and productivity, spirituality and scientific success, there emerged a star in the South with the name of Rukmini and with similar ideals.
Hailing from a village in Thanjavur District in Tamil Nadu, Rukmini, who belonged to a conservative Brahmin family, was exposed to the beauties of Theosophy and to brilliant minds like Annie Besant, Eleanor Elder.
In course of time, she created a flutter by marrying a Theosophist by name George Arundale, who became a guiding star in her mission. With his help, she started an international school with just two students where teaching of art and craft became the focus.
Like Tagore, Rukmini also believed in the benign shade of a Banyan Tree to train the young minds in art, craft, music and dance along with geography and history, nationalism and tradition.
Rukmini Devi learnt Bharatnatyam very late in life but ultimately became its agent of change. She stylised the dance and enriched it with the themes from our epics and Puranas. Like Tagore, she produced many a dance drama and performed it in several parts of the globe to gather resources for her Kalakshetra.
She liberated dance from the Devadasis and popularised it among the middle class. Today, Bharatanatyam has so blossomed as to become the face of Indian culture.
Rukmini Devi designed costumes, jewellery and even the stage to perform the dance. Her Kalakshetra became the Temple of Arts where weaving and printing of saris flourished. Sari designs of the bygone days were retrieved from the temples and stored at Kalakshetra for release to the weavers.
Like Santiniketan, Kalakshetra also attracted several dedicated artistes, scholars and philosophers who rendered service out of commitment to the cause rather than monetary considerations. Gurudev visited and Gandhiji blessed Kalakshetra.
Are the visions of Rabindranath Tagore and Rukini Devi any more valid and are they pursued in Visva Bharati and Kalakshetra? With the emergence of the substantial middle class and with the arrival of the days of disinvestments, can these institutions be denationalised and demitted to the cohorts of the visionaries?
Should there be a public debate about the genesis and the present day functioning of these institutions so that the memories of the visionaries are honoured? Let us give it a thought on the birth anniversary of Rukmini Devi.
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