Shantiniketan was never really the abode of peace that Tagore aimed for. The poet, who had utilised the Nobel purse for setting up the university, was forced to traverse the country with a begging bowl for funds till he died in 1941. But while prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru and his education minister Maulana Abdul Kalam Azad pushed through a bill in 1951, making Visva Bharati a central university, the institution rarely lived up to the ideals of its founder. “The institution was plagued with internal politics, frequent agitations by students and teachers and unpleasant disputes at the meetings of the highest statutory bodies,” records the lavishly produced book on the three chancellors (by virtue of being prime ministers): Nehru, Indira and Rajiv. The other chancellors were possibly left out because their engagement with Visva Bharati has been less than intense.
The fascinating correspondence between Jawaharlal Nehru and Tagore, many written by hand and some in the form of telegrams, forms the major part of the book, embellished by several unpublished and rare photographs. It shows a surprising degree of intimacy between the Nobel laureate and Nehru, who was 28 years younger. He valued the idea of the university serving as a single nest for scholars of all nationalities with the emphasis on fine arts, and it was on Nehru’s insistence that a teenaged Indira Gandhi spent a year at Shantiniketan. Alarmed by reports of the spartan life at Visva Bharati, Indira innocently asks Nehru if she could have a domestic help for herself and is rewarded with a spanking reply: “I dislike very much the idea of your keeping apart from the common herd and requiring all manners of special attention—this seems to me to savour of vulgarity and snobbery.”
Alarmed by reports of a spartan life, Indira innocently asks if she can have a maid, getting a stinging reply from Nehru.
On her arrival at Shantiniketan, Indira assures Nehru that her previous apprehensions were misplaced. She does complain, however, of a boring professor of logic and having to eat puri and dal for breakfast at 6 am. She enjoyed an outing and the chance to swim in the river, complained that the science lab was too small and professors “not up to much”. She also led the students to boycott classes of a professor who refused to take off his shoes, as was the custom, before entering the classroom. As chancellor, Indira did her bit but admitted it never quite took off as an academic institution. Rajiv Gandhi, born three years after Tagore’s death, visited Visva Bharati five times in four years as chancellor and was instrumental in introducing a fast train between Howrah and Bolpur. When Nemai Sadhan Bose, who was then the V-C, suggested that the train be named after Tagore, the then PM joked that it would not be nice if passengers started saying ‘Tagore is late’. There are other nuggets, like when Nehru communicated the desire of Frontier Gandhi, Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, to send his 20-year-old son Ghani to Shantiniketan. “In the alternative, he (Frontier Gandhi) has suggested that I should take Ghani to jail with me,” wrote Nehru.
The daunting bulk and price will unfortunately keep the book beyond the reach of most people. That’s a pity, because it manages to encapsulate much that was right and a lot more that went wrong in Visva Bharati in a 70-year span.