Rabindranath Tagore once said, “You cannot cross the sea merely by standing and staring at the water”. Tagore was not only a man of words but also a man of action, who put his theory of education into practice by starting an Ashram school in 1901 at Shantiniketan. Twenty years later, he founded the Visva-Bharati. It became a central university in 1951 with the prime minister as its Chancellor.
Visva-Bharati means the communion of the world with India. Tagore wanted his students’ view of society to be informed by internationalism, humanism and universal brotherhood. He viewed the traditional school, bounded by its four walls and weighed down by a rigid curriculum, as a prison. At Shantiniketan, classes are held in open air. The idea is to be close to nature, where students could define their boundaries of knowledge.
An extension of Tagore’s concept of fusion of education with life is Shantiniketan’s spring festival, Basanta Utsav. The Poush Utsav, celebrated during winter at Visva-Bharati, is also inspired by this ethos. The poet often said that the purpose of this annual fair was to encourage interaction — economic, cultural and social — between the varsity and its neighbouring villages.
The Poush Mela has been a site for social and cultural interaction for decades. It also attracts thousands of visitors from across the globe, including former students eager to return “home” to pay homage to Gurudev.
Take out the Basanta Utsav and Poush Mela from Visva-Bharati, and it will become unrecognisable. The university’s current Vice-Chancellor Bidyut Chakrabarty is attempting to bring about such an “ideational change”. He believes that such a change is essential to improve the institution’s health.
Visva-Bharati’s motto, “Where the world makes a home in a single nest”, indicates its inclusive, secular and international character. Till now, the University has functioned on UGC grants and other public funds. The VC’s appeal to the corporate houses to contribute money to build the University’s corpus fund signals a departure that is anathema to Tagore’s idea of an educational institution based on co-operation, rather than a profit motive.
Similarly, the move to build a tall concrete wall around the university campus, segregating it from the neighbouring residential colonies, goes against Visva-Bharati’s ethos.
The University’s executive council has decided to cancel the Poush Mela and the Basanta Utsav — “Basanta Tandav” according to the VC. He says that the university is “ill-equipped” to hold these festivals. The Poush Mela has been discontinued without consulting the Shantiniketan Trust, the body officially authorised to organise the fair.
The VC maintains that the campus is incapable of holding this event because of its inaccessibility. He also contends that the Mela leads to over-crowding and pollution. However, the Poush Mela’s more than 100-year-old history is a testament to the organising committee’s acumen in resolving such problems. More importantly, these decisions seem part of a broader agenda. It’s no coincidence that the Visva-Bharati’s traditions are being undermined at a time when the RSS-affiliated Shiksha Sanskriti Utthan Nyas headed by Dinanath Batra has publicly demanded that Tagore’s thoughts — particularly those related to nationalism, the divide between religion and humanity and the limits to patriotism — be expunged from NCERT textbooks. The outfit reportedly has taken umbrage at the poet’s downplaying of patriotism — “patriotism cannot be our final spiritual shelter. My refuge is humanity,” he said.
The year-long centenary celebrations of Visva-Bharati are slated to begin from the third week of December. This is the time when the Poush Mela would usually have been held at Shantiniketan. There seems to be a concerted move to strip the centenary celebrations of Tagore’s spirit of inclusiveness. Hence, the decision to ban the Poush Mela and Basanta Utsav.
The writer is a lawyer and human rights activist