Tagore’s Visva-Bharati dream now in tatters

His face with that flowing beard is as easily recognised as Mahatma Gandhi's is. His poems are widely quoted; a genre of music is named after him—Rabindro Sangeet—and he was the first Indian to have won a Nobel. Recently, the country commemorated the 150th anniversary of Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore, also the founder of Visva-Bharati.

Visva-Bharati, patiently and laboriously built by Tagore, however, seems to be in the doldrums. Barun Roy, in his Asia File column in the Business Standard, has explained its current state of being. From what he says, it is nowhere to being what Tagore had conceived of and has become just one of those institutions that has "lost its direction".

Rabindranath Tagore. Image courtesy Centralasia

It is now a "government-supported university, offering recognised academic courses, much easier to cope with than running a visionary centre of excellence dedicated to the world. Over time, the blinkered thinking became a mundane habit too entrenched to discard".

"It's now not even a meeting place of ideas, where alumni could rub their minds off visiting scholars and intellectuals. No schools of thought come to contend at Visva-Bharati; no new concepts emanate from its classrooms," he lamented and urged that a fitting person to help revive it would be Amatyta Sen. It would be "a duty" to save it.

As Roy says, Tagore worried about the future of his brainchild and had asked Mahatma Gandhi to be its mentor, and when the latter interceded with Jawaharlal Nehru, the Visva-Bharati Act was adopted in 1951, making it a Central university and an institution of national importance. A letter which Tagore had written in 1933 showed that he was quite anguished about the "diminished means" at his command to even run it.

This two-page letter, dated 20 November 1933, was sent to K Tatachari, a lawyer-patriot in Hyderbabad who was waging his battles for freedom from the Nizam's rule and had been externed to Kurnool across the Tungabhadra River, the border between Rayalseema and the then Hyderabad State. Late Tatachari's family had been in its possession till some 30 years back.

Tagore wrote, "I can assure my countrymen that I have done all that has lain in my power to do and therefore have the right to claim help from them by relieving me from a burden that is daily growing to be painful for me to bear. Year after year am called upon to meet large deficits from my nearly exhausted resources, supplemented by casual donations."

These, he pointed out, were "collected at the risk of my health, and of utter neglect of my vocation as a literary man. At last we are driven to curtail the expenditure of our Institution almost to the verge of mutilating some of its important features". He wanted to be "relieved of the anxiety and unhappiness caused by such dismemberment of my work" and he was happy some friends had "undertaken to realise funds on behalf of the Institution".

Since it is no more—and has not been since the 1951 Act—an institution dependent only on the strained resources of its founder-president, lack of funds is not the cause of its stagnation or even decline but lack of imagination and commitment is. His dream of Visva-Bharati being a "meeting place of races cultural co-operation" and aspirations to be "an intellectual and spiritual guest-house of India" to cultures of all countries and India now is in worse than tatters.

Tagore gave his all, as is known to his followers and historians, and now buttressed by the content of this letter but as Roy says, what was conceived by him and achieved, and what was sought to be protected by Gandhi's intervention and Nehru’s enactment of the Act, and what is currently its state are miles apart. Probably the intent and the reality bear no resemblance.

It is now a university, but for its past, which has formal courses, when Tagore wanted "call them (students) away from the dead enclosure of classes into a sympathetic relationship with nature and life, to help them grow in an atmosphere of creative and social activity and discipline them by the responsibility of freedom". Roy confirms that while the institution Tagore built remains in its charter and buildings, his noble aspiration has been buried. Tagore does not deserve this.

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