memoir Reviews

‘Amader Shantiniketan’ review: Songs of freedom in the classroom at Tagore’s Santiniketan

For some time now students and the management of Visva Bharati University have been at loggerheads. In early September the Calcutta High Court stepped in, directing students not to protest within 50 metres of academic buildings. This is a far cry from the spirit in which the institution was founded by Rabindranath Tagore in 1921, as Hindi writer Shivani recalls in her charming little memoir, Amader Shantiniketan [Our Santiniketan], translated into English by her daughter Ira Pande.

It was written by Shivani sometime in the 1960s, and chronicles her stay at Santiniketan from 1935-1944. “Visva-Bharati was Gurudev’s [Tagore’s] ultimate sanctuary and retreat: a place where a prince sat on the same wooden bench as an ordinary student at mealtimes and under the canopy of the same trees while learning a lesson,” says Shivani.

Breaking free

As a child, Tagore had felt his school was like a jail and, therefore, at Santiniketan, he “tried to rectify all the wrongs that appeared to him as blights from his own schooldays.” Thus, every student was free to study (or not) any subject, were never burdened with “heavy courses”; classes were held in the open, and no child was reprimanded for following the flight of a bird or the dance of a squirrel; if fingers ached, they could put down the pen and stroll away to hear Santhal tribals sing.

Tagore was very fond of outdoor celebrations, Shivani recalls. “A full moon, especially in spring… was like a personal invitation from Mother Nature” to the students to gather at night, sing songs and walk in a procession towards Uttarayan, where the poet would be waiting for them. Interestingly, Shivani believes that the freedom bred in each of them a sense of self-control: “Our freedom actually disciplined our minds.”

She first met Tagore in 1935, the youngest of three siblings from Almora who had been sent to study at this unique gurukul. At their very first meeting, Tagore smiled and asked gently, “Are you very homesick?”, imploring her to learn Bangla. Tagore taught her the alphabet himself from Sahaj Path, the primer, written by him and illustrated by Nandalal Bose.

Tagore and his nephew Abanindranath told stories to children and the sessions drew all the older students as well. Songs written by Tagore were sung by students with full-throated ease, including Amar Sonar Bangla, later adopted by Bangladesh as the national anthem. Filled with wonderful anecdotes on teaching, the student-teacher relationship, the right to dissent, and life, it makes you yearn for an education system not skewed towards putting unimaginable pressure on children and only testing them on marks.

Decoding Keats

Once her English teacher, Alex Aronson, asked the class to do a critical appraisal of a Keats poem, and she sought Tagore’s help. Unable to say no to her, he dictated some lines. Imagine her horror when she got back her paper, with a 4 on 10 and a comment, “Too elusive.” She ran straight to Tagore bitterly complaining about a foreigner’s marks for a Nobel laureate; he laughed and told her: “Don’t tell anyone I wrote it.”

The book also has wonderful tributes to her contemporaries like Satyajit Ray, who believed the Ashram taught him a lot. The most important learning, however, is on education, and how Tagore breathed fresh life into it. In her introduction, Ira Pande says that “by creating... a cosmopolitan culture where students came not just from the four corners of India but from China, Japan, Ceylon and even Java and Sumatra, Tagore opened minds and hearts in a way that is so vital for embedding messages of harmony and love in young minds.” Shivani like many others was anxious about the future of Santiniketan in the absence of its inspiring founder, and the reason for the concern is unfolding in various ways, not least the disconnect between students and the administration.

Amader Shantiniketan; Shivani, translated by Ira Pande, Vintage/PRH, ₹499.

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Printable version | Jan 24, 2022 3:09:24 AM |

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