Book Review: Sriniketan- A Centenary Account

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Rabindranath and rural reconstruction

A History of Sriniketan: Rabindranath Tagore’s Pioneering Work in Rural Reconstruction,
Uma Das Gupta, 
Niyogi Books, 
New Delhi 2022, 
Pages 234 
Price: Rs 450/-

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This is a centenary history of the Institute of Rural Reconstruction which Rabindranath Tagore later named Sriniketan (originally known by the name Surul, a village in which the campus was located). In 1922, Leonard Knight Elmhirst went up from Santiniketan to Surul at Rabindranath’s request to initiate the actual work of the newly founded Institute of Rural Reconstruction. This was an institute of Visva Bharati, an international university which had started work the previous year. Elmhirst was an enthusiastic young Englishman and an American-trained agricultural expert. He volunteered to work as the first Director of the Institute. He worked without a salary and was instrumental in mobilizing the fund for the Institute by means of an annual grant from the American millionaire Dorothy Strait (later his wife). Till Indian Independence, Sriniketan lived on this grant.

The idea of Sriniketan originated with Rabindranath taking charge of his family estate in East Bengal (1889). He thus came into touch with the poverty and illiteracy of his village-bound tenants. He then saw that his task would be to rescue the Saikhs (Muslim tenant caste) from the Sahas (Hindu money-lending caste). Eventually he did so in his own personal estate of Kaligram by founding the Patisar Agricultural Bank, which lent money to peasants at the fair rate of 12 per cent and forced the moneylenders to cease their loan operations at around the usual rate of 36 per cent. Slowly the poet came round to the wider idea that India’s delivery would not come through narrow nationalism, but only through rural reconstruction coupled with a humane internationalism. The idea took a long time to materialise. From his first exposure to rural problems upon his journey to Shilaidaha (the estate headquarters on the spot) to the arrival of Elmhurst at the Surul Kuthibari (originally built by the British engineer who laid the railway track through the district in the 1860’s), no less than 33 years had gone by (1889-1922). 

Rabindranath Tagore and Sriniketan
Rabindranath Tagore at Sriniketan.

A full length monograph on this project of rural reconstruction was long awaited from Professor Uma Das Gupta who recovered the records from Sriniketan and stored them properly in the Rabindra Bhavan archives. Way back in 1977, she had written an introductory booklet on the history of Santiniketan and Sriniketan, and followed this up in a couple of years with a bibliographic guide to the Sriniketan records (1921-1941). As the years flew by, she edited the life of Rabindranath in his own words, the correspondence between Rabindranath Tagore and Edward Thompson and the epistolary exchange between C. F. Andrews, R. N. Tagore and M.K. Gandhi. This formidable academic record was matched by her administrative association with Visva Bharati in her capacity as the first and most distinguished Special Officer of Rabindra Bhavana and later as adviser to the High Level Committee on Visva Bharati chaired by His Excellency Shri Gopalkrishna Gandhi. And now at length her monograph on Sriniketan has come out, a hundred years after the start of the Institute of Rural Reconstruction. It is based on the Sriniketan records and the Leonard Elmhurst Papers (Dartington Hall). This is a definitive work, and eminently readable. The readers’ pleasure will be enhanced by the tapping of another important source, i.e. the extensive and deeply absorbing correspondence of Rabindranath with a variety of persons.

A full length monograph on this project of rural reconstruction was long awaited from Professor Uma Das Gupta who recovered the records from Sriniketan and stored them properly in the Rabindra Bhavan archives. Way back in 1977, she had written an introductory booklet on the history of Santiniketan and Sriniketan, and followed this up in a couple of years with a bibliographic guide to the Sriniketan records (1921-1941).

In a letter to Elmhirst in 1937, he explains how and why he had increasingly lost faith in the Santiniketan experiment but still entertained high hopes of the Sriniketan programme. The Santiniketan school and college was every day becoming more and more like so many other schools and colleges in the country, but the Sriniketan school for the poor had significant educational possibilities yet. This understanding was based on the distinction he made between ‘the Bhadralok class’ proud of their barren education and the obscure multitude who are too poor to afford even such meagre education.

Tagore and Elmhirst
Tagore and Elmhirst

The Sriniketan records reveal that while the poet lived, Sriniketan did have considerable success in the direction he desired. The Institute imparted useful training to the villagers, including the untouchable castes, in a variety of crafts, such as weaving, tannery, Lacquer work, pottery and embroidery. The Shilpa Bhavana which went in for such training and also marketing of the artisans’ products showed an all-round profit in all these departments a year before the Poet’s death.

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Also read: Rabindranath Tagore’s Challenging Ideas for World Change

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In Das Gupta’s assessment, Sriniketan became a successful business proposition for the time being. The Institute lost steam gradually after the poet’s death. Professor Das Gupta reaches a two-fold conclusion in retrospect. First, as regards the extent to which Rabindranth’s aim was fulfilled, she cites a sociological and statistical survey into the matter by Sugata Dasgupta in the late 1950’s. The enquiry compared the state of the Sriniketan reconstructed villages with the neighbouring villages where the Institute did not carry out any reform. In the villages of the first category, the percentage of literacy had shot up to 80 per cent amidst the sea of largely illiterate and unreformed villages. Per capita income in the selected villages was Rs 35, as against Rs. 16 in the neighbouring villages. In one successful experiment, (in a village named Laldaha) every person was employed, the population was 100% literate and per capita income had increased a thousand fold in 20 years. And visually, in the favoured villages, people came to have more clothes, more articles of furniture, and in a snake-infested area, more torches; between 1939 and 1959 a transformation occurred. It remains for us to comment that the unassisted villages remained sunk in their poverty, with perhaps a marginal increase of consumption over time. Obviously, the reach of Sriniketan remained limited to the chosen villages.

The second conclusion by Professor Das Gupta concerns the reasons for the limited achievement of the experiment. She hints at a dual problem in administration. First, she hints delicately, at the somewhat personalized administration of Visva Bharati and a certain amount of distrust in the highest quarter about the reliability of the departmental heads. She also draws our attention to the personality clashes and factional rivalries at all levels. She may be right. But a mechanized administration seems to have done no better after Visva Bharati became a central university. In fact, things appear to have become worse.

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Images courtesy: Twitter

The book is now available for sale at Amazon & Flipkart

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