October 04, 2006

Tagore-free Shantiniketan

An oxymoron is a figure of speech that combines two normally contradictory terms, which generally make semantic and syntactic sense but sometimes could add up to what is truly impossible -- like the "horns of the hare" or the "child of a barren woman". Looking at the title of this post, the reader, may be led to believe that the the author is exploring oxymorons of the latter variety. But nothing could be further from the truth. Having spent a week in Birbhum, where Santiniketan happens to be, I have come to the conclusion that a Tagore-free Shantiniketan is not only possible but perhaps could be very desirable as well.

But before I begin let me admit upfront that I do know very well that unsolicitated advice is extremely irritating and it becomes even more intolerable when the advice is (a) unequivocally correct and -- this is worse -- (b) is directed towards individuals ( or groups) who steadfastly claim to be know-alls and hence by extrapolation do not need advice of any kind. For the author, me, the source of this advice, this is hardly important. Thanks to this blog, I have a medium to broadcast my thoughts to the world ... so let me make full use of the same.

Enough of beating about the bush, let us come to the point.

Anyone who has been to Bolpur, Prantik and all that lies in between, that is Shantiniketan, should be getting of sick of Tagore and Tagoreana. Tagore songs are derigeur on each and every occasion and everyone lives, breathes the spirit of Tagore ( or at least pretends to do so). This is rather claustrophobic, to say the least. Not that I have anything against Tagore -- I have no hesitation in stating that Tagore is one of the most outstanding intellectuals (scholar, sage, litterateur and what not) that India has had the privilege to give birth .. but the operative phrase is "one of the .." not the "ONLY" one ... and when we tend to forget this little distinction, we sow the seeds of a cultural disaster. In fact, this disaster in Shantiniketan is far deeper and more profound.

When Tagore created Vishwabharati at Shantiniketan it was unique, a one of a kind institution that had no parallels in the world .. but that was then, this is now. Has this university lived up to its pretentions of leading the world in thought ? Certainly not. Today it is just another obscure, me-too institution, perpetually harking back to its glorious past ( and until recently funded largely by Tagore's copyright income). What is new ? What is bold ? What is daring ? Where are the new frontiers that it seeks to explore ? Nothing, a big zilch.

What is even worse is the incestuos vortex into which it revels to splash around. Most of the faculty are alumnus of the Vishwabharati university. Most of the students of the university are residents of Shantiniketan and most likely to be children of either the faculty or at least the alumni of Vishwabharati. Even the school system that feeds students into Vishwabharati is specific to the locality, not the usual State school board or the national boards like ICSE or CBSE. And the teachers who teach in the schools are once again products of the same school system and the same university. [ Obviously there are some exceptions to this very sweeping statement, but then these exceptions plus a few Chinese looking girls in Ratanpalli, rarely prove the rule.]

What this means that there is no likelihood of any breath of fresh air, or a new idea to make it past the thought sentries at the portal and into the claustrophobic cloisters of this particular thoughtshop. To mix metaphors, the winds of change get stopped by the dreary sands dunes of long dead habit [ see, variations are indeed possible !]

There have been outsiders who have tried to change things but the system will, and actually does, get them. Either they too are converted into the same sloth and swept downward into the vicious vortex or they are pushed out, either politely, or even with some degree of (shantiniketanesque) hostility. Obviously the system is too well fortified against external ideas and action so any attempt to do a DesertStorm ( however correct that may be) will land us in the equivalent of the quicksands of the Tigris !

Any change that can happen, can only happen from inside, like the glasnost and perestroika of Gorbachov, that brought down the mighty Soviet Union. So what would a Gorbachov have done under the Chatimtala of Vishwabharati ? I am no Gorbachov but let me suggest one approach ...

Why not ban Tagore ( and all Tagoreana) for three years in Shantiniketan ? No program, no event shall use anything created by Tagore nor will any speech refer to that saint. Let the Ashramites learn to live with the fact that there can be world beyond Tagore ... and that world can be as rich as they want it to be. The first year will be painful, the withdrawal symptoms will be tremendous ... how can there be an event in Shantiniketan without Tagore .. but the year will pass and the world will not come to an end. From the second year onward, new streams of thought, new and creative well springs will emerge and in the third year great strides into new frontiers will become highly probable.

Having discovered a whole new world that had so far been hidden from them by the cloudscapes of Tagoreana, people of Shantiniketan will revel at their new found freedom ... and at that point, we should introduce Tagore back into the system ( as he is found in any other university or town in the country ) making him an option ( and a very good option, at that ) but not a necessity for the survival of this society.

Is there a Gorbachov in Vishwbharati who can make this happen ? I bow my head to him in anticipation.