Shantiniketan- The Abode of Learning
“The highest education is that which does not merely give us information but makes our life in harmony with all existence.”
- Rabindranath Tagore
More than 100 years of excellence is no mean achievement. And when the field is education it is also a noble one. ‘Bolpur’, a small town in West Bengal, holds the unique distinction of having this university of excellence, called Visva Bharti University, giving India many luminaries.
It all started with the person who gave two nations, India and Bangladesh their national anthems. The person was the first Indian to become a Noble laureate; the person, whom Mahatma Gandhi gave the title of ‘Gurudev’- Kabiguru Rabindranath Tagore.
In 1862, when Maharishi Debendranath Tagore, father of Rabindranath, was taking a boat ride, he came across a landscape of red soil and lush green paddy fields. Rows of palm grove and chhatim trees charmed him. He built a small house there and planted some saplings. Then it was called Bhubandanga, named after a local dacoit called Bhuban Dakat. Debendranath Tagore decided to call this place Shantiniketan after the serenity it brought to his soul. He turned it into a spiritual centre where people from all religions, castes and creed came and participated in meditation. In the year 1863, Debendranath Tagore established an ‘Ashram’ at that place and he himself became the initiator for the Brahmo Samaj.
In the years to come Maharishi Debndranath’s son, Rabindranath went on to become one of the most formidable literary forces this nation had ever produced. However, Tagore was not content with his poetic and literary influence on this nation alone. He seriously wanted to nurture quality education for the people of India. For this noble purpose, he decided to open a school in 1901. He opened a school in Shantiniketan and called it Brahmachary Ashram. He gave an entirely new meaning to the word education. He took education system to the glorious old days of Gurukul system. The aim of this school was to blend the new Western and the traditional Eastern system of education.
In the words of Tagore, “Don`t limit a child to your own learning, for he was born in another time.” He believed that children’s minds are extremely sensitive to the influences of the world around them. Their minds are always imbibing some lessons and they actually realize the joy of knowing. He believed that children’s minds are absolutely malleable and so it is easy to infuse them with knowledge so that they can attain greater heights in their life. He believed that children should be surrounded with nature which has an educational value of its own. So he established a school where the students would be free in spite of being in a school.
In his school students were not only imparted the everyday subjects but emphasis was also given on vocational education. It prepared the students for what lay out there in the future outside the realms of the school. Tagore himself had dropped out from school as he felt claustrophobic in the enclosure of four walls. He found his mind getting stuck in them. In that era it was a path breaking step in the arena of education for a country which was slowly getting hitched to the European mode of education in closed classes, where knowledge was only textual and exam oriented.
In the year 1913, Tagore was presented with the Noble Prize for literature for his book of poems ‘Geetanjali’. It not only enhanced India’s position but also upped the prestige of Shantiniketan. After this, in 1921, he converted the little school into a university and called it Visva Bharti- where the world makes a home in a nest is how Tagore chose to define the institution. Whereas the university gives degree courses in humanities, science and the more regular streams of knowledge, it on the other hand hones the latent talents in their students. Its art college, Kala Bhavan, is considered to be one of the best art colleges in the world. Tagore believed that, “In Art, man reveals himself and not his objects.” Although it has adapted to the changing times, the essence and ambience of the University is still maintained as Gurudev wanted it to be. Visva Bharti is a true reflection of our cultural heritage and what wonders education can do to society if taken on the right path.
The greatness and diversity of this University can easily be understood if one looks at the alumni that this institution has produced. If we have on one hand the Nobel laureate Amartya Sen, then on the other hand it has given the nation a fiery Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi. Presumably the greatest film maker India ever produced and got an Academy for his lifelong works, Satyajit Ray was also a product of this institution. Other noted luminaries were Maharani Gayatri Devi, Abdul Ghani Khan. The notable painter Nandalal Bose was the principal of the Kala Bhavan.
Tagore was also very culturally inclined. He started the Basant Utsav and the Pous Utsav. The Pous Utsav is celebrated with the foundation day of the University when the entire campus breaks into a happy atmosphere of songs, tribal dances, baul performances etc. The Basant Utsav is celebrated on the occasion of Holi. The Holi of Shantiniketan is famous world over for its colourful mood and various cultural programmes. Other events like the Sarodotsav, Maghotsav and Brikhsharopan Utsav are also celebrated with pomp and fervour.
It was a stroke of brilliance on part of Gurudev to have come up with a concept of such a fine institution at a time when India was following the traditional bandwagon of education. In Shantiniketan, Gurudev not only gave the country some of the best talents, but he himself also revelled in their success. It is here that he produced some of his best literary works. Rabindranath Tagore dreamt of a unique system of education. He was a visionary who had the will power to translate them to reality. The University of Visva Bharati is a proof of it. Even in the 21st century, Shantiniketan has retained the sanctity of an ashram while being very much a part of the contemporary world. He said once, “I slept and dreamt that life was joy. I awoke and saw that life was service. I acted and behold, service was joy.”