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Tagore's Ruined Garden

Santiniketan, the poet-philosopher's own idyllic campus, sinks in a mire of vices

Tagore's Ruined Garden
Tagore's Ruined Garden

The 22nd day of Shravan, which fell on August 8 this year, is usually a solemn day at Santiniketan. Rabindranath Tagore's death anniversary is marked by prayers, devotional songs and muted cultural programmes. This year, the occasion was drowned in liquor, loud music and rowdy revelry. Drunk hostellers at Visva-Bharati, the university founded by Tagore, danced semi-nude in a courtyard, shouting out obscenities in the dead of night.

The shameful incident exemplifies how far the reality of Visva-Bharati is from the university of Tagore's dreams. He created an institution with an internationalist outlook but a refined, ashram-like ambience, which had simplicity, honesty and harmony with nature as its core values. It was a living museum of the best of Indian art, tradition, culture and philosophy and aspired to attract the best that the world had to offer. It was the university where Gandhi's close associate C.F. Andrews, artist Nandalal Bose, sculptor and painter Ramkinkar Baij and Tibetologist Guiseppe Tucci taught, where Indira Gandhi was sent by her parents to study.

Far from reaching out to the world, or even the rest of India, Visva-Bharati today is a very local university, mainly serving the interests of a cabal of students, teachers, ex-students, employees and residents of Santiniketan. It is a victim of constant political interference by the ruling CPI(M) on a range of matters, including student admissions and the recruitment of teachers. The university, which once attracted litterateurs, thinkers, philosophers, economists and artists from all over the country and abroad now rarely draws teachers of repute, even as visiting faculty.

Artists K.G. Subramanyam and Jogen Choudhury, who lived and worked here, have left in disgust, as it has slid deeper into indiscipline, academic decline, corruption and nepotism. Choudhury wrote to President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam last year to complain about irregularities in the appointment of teachers at Kala Bhawan, the art college at Visva-Bharati. To add to its problems, Visva-Bharati is also facing an existential crisis of sorts, not knowing how to move ahead, not sure what it should give up or add to remain relevant.

The university has lurched from scandal to scandal. The arrest of a former vice-chancellor, Dilip Kumar Sinha, in June '04 over the appointment of a teacher during his tenure from '95 to '01 showed how deep the rot was. Sinha attested her false certificates, knowing fully well they were false. Last week, a new scandal erupted, with an Austrian teacher at the Centre for Buddhist & Tibetan Studies lodging a police complaint against two of her colleagues. Andrea Loseris, 45, said in her complaint that two other teachers—T. Namgyal and Prakriti Chakraborty—abused her in front of staff and students, branding her "a thief and a whore", and assaulted her. The trouble is said to have erupted because Loseris, who was recently appointed head of the centre, was trying to introduce discipline and make teachers more accountable.

Indiscipline is, of course, rife, at Visva-Bharati. Recently, with support from the student's union and the employees' council, seven students of Patha Bhavan, a campus school affiliated to Visva-Bharati, arm-twisted the V-C into admitting them into the university's plus 2 course, in open violation of university rules—by threatening to disrupt the university's functioning.

Spiritual and academic decline finds a physical echo. Tagore's 'abode of peace' is now cacophonous, crowded, polluted and ugly, with hideous mansions and condominiums mushrooming all over the once-lush countryside. Santiniketan residents, including writer Mahasweta Devi, have gone to court against the Santiniketan-Sriniketan Development Authority (SSDA), headed by CPI(M) leader and Lok Sabha Speaker Somnath Chatterjee, for allowing private promoters to build row houses and apartment blocks at Khowai—an integral part of Santiniketan's landscape, and one of Tagore's favourite haunts. Visva-Bharati is also full of noisy tourists, smoke-belching vehicles blaring Hindi film songs, illegally built fast-food stalls and shops selling fake curios, overflowing drains and sewers, mounds of used plastic bags and rotting garbage. Even Tagore's own residential complex, Uttarayan, hasn't been spared the invasion of kitsch: garish colours and tasteless tiles have been used in recent renovations.

Visva-Bharati's students are unfazed by accusations of indiscipline. "University authorities can't control us because they have no moral authority—they're corrupt and unscrupulous themselves," Bhramor Bhandari, secretary, Chattra Sammilani (students' union), told Outlook.

The university employees, also accused of indiscipline, have their own grievances. "There's a lack of transparency in the university's functioning. Irregularities occur and when we protest, we're branded as indisciplined," says Debabrata Hazra, secretary, Karmi Sabha (employees' council).

Everyone, including successive V-Cs, have interpreted Tagore's vision and philosophy to suit their own agenda. Thus, while Sinha, who was the V-C from June '95 to June '01, construed Tagore's vision to grant affiliation to scores of private management institutes (a disastrous step that was later retracted), his successor Sujit Basu, who was the V-C from '01 to June this year, introduced courses like nanotechnology. Rajat Kanta Ray, the current incumbent, wants to roll all that back to focus only on arts, including fine and performing arts.

"The ashram character of the university has to be restored," says economist Bhabotosh Datta, who taught at Visva-Bharati for many years. "Visva-Bharati has become an unwieldy institution. It has to remain small if Tagore's ideals have to be upheld and furthered," agrees Tagore's descendant, Supriyo Thakur, who also taught here. All agree that critical to Visva-Bharati's revival is restoring the residential character of the varsity, which has gradually been eroded.

There is, however, little hope of Visva-Bharati regaining its lost glory, even though committee after committee has been appointed to resuscitate it (the latest being the one appointed by President Kalam, with Bengal Governor Gopalkrishna Gandhi and eminent educationists Amlan Dutta, Romila Thapar and Andre Beteille). "Visva-Bharati," wrote Tagore, "is like a vessel which is carrying the cargo of my life's best treasures and I hope it may claim special care from my countrymen for its preservation." The vessel, unfortunately, is sinking.

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