By Amartya Banerjee
Legend has it that many years ago Maharshi Debendranath Tagore (father of Rabindranath and an eminent thinker and social reformer) was travelling through a dry and barren patch of land in Birbhum district. He liked the solitude of the place so much that he meditated there and later bought the area from the local Zamindars. This was the Genesis of the Shantiniketan experiment of Rabindranath which later blossomed into Visva Bharati University.
The unique element about this place was the air of freedom that the poet imbued. It was evident in the way that the classes took place in the lap of nature or the way the teachers were addressed by students as ‘Dada’ and ‘Didi’ (brother and sister) rather than ‘Sir’ and ‘Ma’am’. My father, a researcher on Brahmo ideas, told many a story on the place. My tryst with the place began in 2006.
The Department of Social Work in Shantiniketan had its roots in the rural reconstruction work undertaken by Rabindranath himself. Without going into the details, it consisted of partnering the villagers in identifying their own issues and then finding solutions with their help. The first ever farmers’ cooperative was founded way back in the 1920s through this. Though the department was formally founded in 1963, the place retained its old-world charm. I will never forget the classes which took place in a compound which was the farmhouse of an Indigo planter, John Cheap. The teachers encouraged the students to not go into the field with a superiority complex but rather to learn from them. The combination of classes and field was sometimes exhausting but a wonderful learning curve.
The campus has some lively events, none more so than Vasant Utsav (Holi). The whole fraternity and others mingle in a whole cacophony of colours, soft music, guitar and cymballs with occasional cries of “Bura na maano, Holi hai” (don’t mind, it’s just Holi). My favourite place was Aamrakunja (literally, the Garden of Mangoes) where one could find impromptu dance and song recitals breaking in, joined by young and old alike. Love and friendships blossomed whose stories are told till today.
The occasion of Christmas was sought to be celebrated as Poush Utsav (Poush being a month of the Bengali calendar). Many stalls were put up by all departments and I remember staying at the stall site on the night of 25-26th December, 2006 as the temperatures plummeted (we had to guard the stall, after all!). The hot tea brought in the morning by seniors was a welcome relief. Our University had a lovely mix of many people from many areas, especially from the North East. One of my cherished memories was learning broken Nepali and Assamese from my friends as they hummed their tunes on the guitar on many a night after a tense examination. It enriched my limited worldview.
One may ask, how is this different from any other University story? Well, Visva Bharati University has a core belief in freedom of thought and expression in its ethos and practice. The way we could approach Professors who were old enough to be our grandfather/mother and engage them in conversations, one will seldom find anywhere. The way that boundaries of age, culture, gender dissolved in the midst of colours of Holi cannot be replicated. I know, having studied in many places after this and met many people from various parts of the country by virtue of my civil services training, I have not heard such stories anywhere.
It has made me who I am. Till date, I remember Prof. S. D. Kanungo (a very senior faculty) saying, “Remember always, that an average Joe knows more than you about problems that ail his community. You just have to aid him in this process. You’re not his overlord but his facilitator.” Much of the same argument I found in the course curriculum in civil services.
Today, the University has changed much and it pains me often to see it being in the news for all the wrong reasons. Yet, at its heart, it’s still the place where the spirit of Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore is visible to the clearest extent. The Ashram sangeet sums up the feelings, “She je shob hote aapon…Bhai er saathe bhai ke she je koreche ekmon, amader Santiniketan”. Put plainly, where two souls meet, that is my Santiniketan … dearest to my heart.
Amartya Banerjee is an Indian Railways Accounts Service (IRAS) officer of the 2016 batch. Previously he worked in the State Civil Services and in the development sector. He has an interest in the way that Railway finances are changing the way of mass transit systems in India. An academician and writer at heart, he has a lifelong passion to understand the way in which different cultures and values interact in our country.
Cafe Dissensus Everyday is the blog of Cafe Dissensus magazine, based in New York City and India. All materials on the site are protected under Creative Commons License.
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