(after W.H Auden's 'Funeral Blues'/'Stop all the Clocks')
Prune down the angels to the wick
Snuff out all candles, unbake all bread
Spoil all trenches with a slick
Ferry the living to the dead
Where blows a lover, deal
A fatal flaw to all that call
Mar all saviours with a weal
Slash the cinema seats and stalls.
They were the shivers of the silver screen
Where their blood flows, the curtain thralls
Retire all vision to the dumb
For now no good may come of all.
Lash the usherette to the sedge
Unravel torches down the hill:
Crash the armies through pithead
Mess the crowd till life lies still
Where crows a regime's alms,
Dash the lights and kill the spiels
Where glows a face of calm,
Gnash each drama round the keels.
They were all we owned
Where they lie dead, there may be none
Embalm the filmic gods with bones
For now all love is done.
Jim Bellamy was born in a storm in 1972. He studied hard and sat entrance exams for Oxford University. Jim has a fine frenzy for poetry and has written in excess of 22,000 poems. Jim adores the art of poetry. He lives for prosody.
PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL
Across from the Char Minar
You see how one butterfly
left us a trace of its colour,
before killing itself
on this busy street.
Here one thousand people,
one then the other
crossed and walked on
without even looking.
Any afternoon, when the sun
smiles like a white flower
on the head of the Char Minar,
just walk straight into his look.
It’s not so hard
to pour one look into
an ever-burning oven,
a house of molten sights.
Here where the butterfly forgot
its colour and flew off into the dark,
stay and stare straight into life.
Tell me how it looks.
The thousand people who walked,
limped, and ran by this road
told me at least a thousand lies
but in innocent tongues.
At the end of crying out,
my word is a dwarf.
How long can I live on a dwarf?
The tear that sang before my beginning
never leaves me a gasp of shore.
I can’t become your sea or sky.
I am just a tearlet
beneath your eye.
that can swallow a desert.
In the Middle of the Poem
The line gasps, interrupted.
Quick gulp of silence.
Someone pants at the rear.
The road flies back.
A scene flits past,
along with the footsteps.
Silence has so many faces.
Someone walks on either side,
Someone sighs behind the shoulder.
The poem stops.
A Rain Lost in Hyderabad
Since there is nothing like evening here,
I just dream an evening
in every bit of my sleep.
When the trees erase their shades,
when the sky dries out its final sunshine,
a cold wave scoops me.
I rush to my nest and hide in its wings
before the dark night takes me.
Never know if this was raining since morning
or just began this noon.
The lives that unfurl in the noons
don’t know morning breezes.
Getting up past noon,
I realise the alarm was tired
of alarming me and sighed itself off.
I am best at reading time
I am the crooked one
who is born when all the rains and winters
lose their hope of moving.
Hyderabad is my altered self —
a dreamless sleep,
a sleepless dream,
awaking slipped under a nap.
(Excerpted from Evening with a Sufi: Selected Poems by Afsar Mohammad, translated from the Telugu by Afsar Mohammad & Shamala Gallagher. Published by Red River, 2022)
About the book
Evening with a Sufi: Selected Poems volume brings together, for the first time in English translation (translated by the poet in collaboration with Shamala Gallagher) the selected, and often groundbreaking poetry of the celebrated Telugu poet Afsar Mohammad, known for his trendsetting poetry and literary criticism in the post-1980s Telugu literary culture. Beside an erudite translator’s note from Gallagher, Evening with a Sufi also contains two in-depth essays on Afsar Mohammad’s poetry by David Shulman and Cheran Rudhramoorthy, plus an interview with the poet by poet and translator Rohith.
About the Author
Born in a small village in the South Indian state of Telangana, Afsar Mohammad now teaches South Asian Studies at the University of Pennsylvania. Known as a trendsetting poet and literary critic in the post-1980s Telugu literary culture, Afsar has published five volumes of poetry, one collection of short stories and two volumes of literary theory essays. Afsar is also a distinguished scholar of Indian studies and has published extensively with various international presses, including Oxford and Cambridge. He is now working on a translation of Sufi poetry from Telugu to English. He can be reached at email@example.com
About the translator
Shamala Gallagher is a mixed-race Indian American writer, community college teacher, and mother to a preschooler. She is the author of a poetry collection, Late Morning When the World Burns (The Cultural Society, 2019), and her writing has been published in several literary journals, including Poetry, Gulf Coast, Black Warrior Review, and the Missouri Review. She lives in a hundred-year-old house in Athens, Georgia, USA with her family and cats.
Anthony Sattin, an award winning journalist and travel writer in conversation about Nomads: The Wanderers Who Shaped our World, his recent book published by Hachette, India.
A breath-taking narrative that travels with the freedom of nomads, drawing from folklore, history and modern movements to give voice to an idea that might help move towards a more progressive and hopeful future — Anthony Sattin has achieved all this in a single book called Nomads: The Wanderers Who Shaped our World, a non-fiction that touches the heart with the concept of unifying humanity beyond the borders of ‘isms’ drawn over time. It explores the history of people who often have not been chronicled in conventional texts.
We are living in times where floods, forest fires, wars and divides are ravaging humanity as it wakes up from the coils of a pandemic that had almost stilled all normal interactions and economic activities for more than two years. The unrests and the changes attributed to “climate change” call for “continued solidarity” and a united front from all humanity as indicated by UN Secretary-General Antonio Gueterres and global guru Harari. In times such as these, an attempt to revive the concept of asabiyya, or bonds based on felt interests, is laudable and a necessity for the world to move forward. And that is exactly what Sattin has done in his recent book.
He has travelled with nomads; folklores, starting with Cain and Abel, Gilgamesh and Enkidu; history, Gobelki Tepe or Potbelly Hill, the place where he locates what might have been Eden, Achaemenid kings, Persian nomads, Mongols, Mughals to global nomads — spanning 12, 000 years of history.
In his book, Sattin tells us: “We are living at a time when the world — our world — shaped by the age of Reason and Enlightenment, powered by industrial and technological revolutions is faltering. Social contracts are fraying and communications are breaking down. The raw materials and natural resources are becoming scarce, and the consequence of our actions … are written large across landscapes, the climate, the fabric of our lives…Change is needed.”
Sattin “traces the shifting relationships between people who move and those who were settled” to find the concept of asabiyya or the sense of bonding popularised by an Arab philosopher called Ibn Khaldun (1332-1406). Perhaps, this is an ideal that could benefit humankind if we were all to see ourselves as one tribe. He has mentioned modern attempts at asabiyya, like the call given by ‘Black Lives Matter’, to contextualise the concept for us and to show how a movement born from within the hearts of people could touch and change attitudes.
The book is divided into three parts after an initial introduction from Mount Zagros, where Sattin was rescued from a bout of sunstroke by nomads: the first part is called ‘The Balancing Act’, where he explores ancient folklore and history, Huns, Hyksos, Scythians, Xiongnu and more: the second part is called ‘The Imperial Act’, from ‘The rise of the Arabs to the Fall of Mongols’ where kingdoms and world history is brought into play and the importance of asabiyya is introduced with historic instances and the last part is called ‘The Act of Recovery’, where changes towards redefining the world in terms of ideals aligned with asabiyya are explored.
The scope of the non-fiction is clarified at the start of the book from Mount Zagros. He starts the first section interestingly in a locale, termed by him as “Paradise” in 10,000 BC with a global population of ‘Perhaps 5 million’, of which he lists the nomad population as ‘Most of the number’. As he unfolds the history of mankind, from the past we find echoes of what could be called mobile or nomadic bonds that embrace to expand and heal civilisations. Sattin has been exploring such bonds for the last forty years.
Described as “a cross between Indiana Jones and a John Buchan hero” and “one of the key influences on travel writing today”, Sattin started his interactions with bedouins at age nineteen and found them nurturing. He elucidates: “After I left school, I went travelling in the Middle East. In the Sinai Peninsula, at that time, there were no hotels or other facilities outside of Sharm el Sheikh. So, I and the friend I was travelling with relied on the Bedouins for many things — they brought us fish and other food, they told us stories about the magical places in the desert mountains and although we had been told that they would rob us, they looked after us.”
Sattin has several non-fictions under his belt and is an award-winning journalist, who writes in a number of well-known journals, like the Sunday Times, the Conde Nast Traveller and the Financial Times. An editorial advisor to the Geographical magazine, he is also a fellow of the Royal Geographical Society and a founder-member of Travel Intelligence and ASTENE (the Association for the Study of Travel in Egypt and the Near East). He was the director of the Principal Film Company, has written, advised and presented on television and radio productions, including the BBC.
In this exclusive conversation, Sattin discusses Nomads, and tells us how the book came to be.
What made you think of writing a book on nomads, who — you have stated in your book — now constitute only 40 million in a world of 7.8 billion humans?
Every book has its moment, and this is the right time for Nomads. It came out of a lifelong interest in people who live on the move and on the problems of settled society, especially with cities – some of the first thoughts in Nomads occurred decades back when I read Lewis Mumford’s The City in History. But I also have many ideas for books in my head at any one time and they don’t all get written! And some of them sit around for ages and then it seems to me to be the right moment to write. The way our world has changed in the past decade helped shape my sense that this is the moment to write about open borders and freedom of movement. I also wanted to write something that would stretch me more than anything else I had written. Twelve thousand years of history seemed like a big enough challenge…
How long did it take you to research and write the book? What kind of research did you do?
I began shaping the idea nine years ago, after I finished my previous book, Young Lawrence, about how the second son of an anonymous, middle class Oxford family became Lawrence of Arabia. The proposal took more than a year to get right – as my editor at WW Norton in New York pointed out, a subject this big can be about everything and nothing. Then there were years of research, particularly in the Bodleian Library at Oxford and the London Library, which is a wonderful place, the largest private library in the world and which serves as my home from home. I had many conversations over the years with scholars, people in publishing, fellow writers, travellers and nomads. And then there was the travelling with nomads, the writing and rewriting.
You travelled and lived among nomads for some time? How many years? Were your travels affected by the pandemic? If so, how did you bypass that?
I have been meeting nomads for more than forty years, particularly in North Africa and the Middle East, where I have travelled extensively. When I was 19, I was looked after by Bedouin in the Sinai Desert. In 2010, I was back there on a camel trek with a guide who impressed me because he knew every mountain, every watering place and every cave, including one which he pointed out as the place where he was born.
In Mali, I spent time with Touareg nomads, who came together each year at a place in the desert beyond Timbuktu – these tribes used to be at war with central government (and are again), but a treaty had been brokered and one of the terms was that tribal and government leaders would meet once a year to sort out grievances. They also played music, danced, raced camels… How could one not be swept away?
Specifically for Nomads, I went to Iran to spend some time with the Bakhtiari, a large nomad tribe who I had chosen in part because they claim lineage that goes back millennia, because they had played a part in the making of modern Iran but also because in the 1920s, a movie was made of their annual migration into the Zagros Mountains, amazingly by the director and producer whose next movie was the original King Kong! The Bakhtiari taught me much about the challenges facing nomads today.
Can you tell us of a few interesting experiences while moving with nomads which are not part of the book?
When I first went into the Zagros Mountains to meet the Bakhtiari, I was taken by a guide (being British, I had to have a guide for my entire stay in Iran) and he could not understand why I would waste my money and my time going into the mountains. He was from the city and exhibited age-old prejudices against people who lived on the move, whom he called ‘primitives”. But I am not a nomad and although I don’t find them primitive, I do find some aspects of their lives very challenging: years ago, on a camel trek in the Thar Desert, I caught what I now assume was sunstroke and thought I was going to pass out. My guide – there were just the two of us travelling – got me out of the desert. At the first village we reached, he had someone bring a bed out of a house and placed in the shade of a tree. I lay down and remember no more until about four hours later when I woke to find myself surrounded by the whole village. They had been angry with the guide for bringing me to them – think of all the trouble they would face if I died! When I woke, in the middle of this scene, the whole crowd burst into cheers like a scene out of a Bollywood movie.
You have spoken of ‘asabiyya’ taught by Ibn Khaldun. Can you explain the concept briefly and tell us if this can be of relevance in the current global situation?
Asabiyya is a sense of group feeling, something that binds people together. Ibn Khaldun thought it had shaped the world and found that it was most powerful among nomads and people who lived in the desert, in part because they must rely absolutely on each other. When this group feeling is channelled by a leader – the Prophet Muhammed, for instance – it can lead the group towards extraordinary achievements, as when the first Arabs overcame the might of the better-trained and armed Byzantine and Persian armies. It might all sound like something from long ago but I think there is a sense, in our own time, of someone like Greta Thurnberg having channelled that same feeling to force our leaders to pay attention to the climate emergency.
At a point you tell us that “…cities posed existentialist risks, and their temptations could overwhelm the asabiyya and nomads would lose their identity.” Why was maintaining their identity for the nomads so essential? Do you think this is something that needs revival in the present?
The existential risks I mention are the ones that rob nomads of their asabiyya and therefore of their power. Ibn Khaldun had seen this first hand: in North Africa, several small reformist movements had come out of the harsh desert or mountains to the south and overwhelmed the courts and kingdoms along the north coast. But each of those movements had fallen apart within a few generations as the pure people of the desert found themselves corrupted by living in cities. As for identity, it is important for all of us to know who we are and where we have come from — that was one reason to write the book, because very little is taught about nomads in western schools.
Your book touches upon number of issues — including faith. Given the fact that the great Khan had a Nestorian church, a mosque and a Buddhist temple in his capital city despite following the Shamanistic faith, would you say that an openness or tolerance in beliefs and faiths led to a more strongly tethered kingdom, as they did not really seem to have concepts of permanent national boundaries then? Is this not a dichotomy that you create a strongly tethered kingdom and yet are open to move on, leaving the old capital behind? And is it not wasteful?
I think there are two things going on here. On the one hand, a belief in freedom of conscience, the right to follow any or no religion. This was certainly something the great Mongol khans believed in. They were mostly animists, believing in the Sky Father and reliant on signs and omens, but they were not adverse to being prayed for and blessed by an imam or priest. Even the Ottomans, who came out of a nomadic tradition and were clearly Muslims, thought it important to allow freedom of conscience in their empire. What mattered was not who you prayed to, but whether you were prepared to acknowledge the sovereignty of the khan or the sultan. Some of the most successful periods in human history have flourished because of this idea.
A strongly tethered kingdom is another issue. For nomads, cities and capitals were not as important as lands, particularly hunting and grazing lands. The Mongol khans, like ancient Persian emperors and many other nomad leaders, recognised the need for a pivotal meeting place, a capital, but they were mostly more interested in spending time elsewhere and on the move. A leader such as Attila, the Hun ruler, had no interest in the cities he conquered.
You mention British author,Bruce Chatwin(1940-1989), as having said “we are born to move, that we must move or die.” Can you explain what that would mean? In the current context, people talk of roots and homeland. If they keep moving what happens to their firm conviction in homeland?
It depends what sort of ‘moving’ we are talking about. On a mundane and personal level, research now tells us that we are less likely to get ill and more likely to live longer if we walk 10,000 steps a day. On a national and global scale, we need interaction, we need to live lighter, we need to be nimble on our feet and in our thoughts.
You have divided the world into two groups — nomads and settlers — and said we need a bit of both. Can you tell us how and why?
Humans began to settle and cultivate some 12,000 years ago and since then, like Cain and Abel, humans have broadly been divided into those who stay in one place, usually either cultivating the land or living in towns/cities, and those who live on the move. For most of history they have lived in a state of mutual dependence and often even in harmony. A world without nomads, with everyone fixed in one place – which seems to be where we are heading – is a smaller, less rich, less fertile world.
In a post-pandemic world, would the nomadic lifestyle you have written of be feasible, especially with all the governmental issues creeping in?
The word nomad comes from a very old Indo-European word meaning pasture or a fixed area, which suggest the right to graze. But if you take a broad view of what it means to be a nomad in the 21st century, you might also include digital nomads and others who move to work or just because that is how they want to or have to live. That might not have been possible during the pandemic, when we were all locked down, but the number of people on the move now in many parts of the world is right back up and that can only be a good thing – we need to mix and meet, to exchange experiences and opinions.
If we opt for a mobile lifestyle, would we need to redefine borders as of old? Would that take us back to a pre-nationalistic era? Do you think we should be redefining our mindsets and our isms? Do you suggest we all go back to an intermittent nomadic lifestyle?
We should always be questioning mindsets and isms! Happily, we are living through a golden age of revisionist history shaped by a number of forces, decolonialism, Black Lives Matter and #MeToo among them. We also live in an age of misinformation on a massive scale. Nomads has come out of a need I had to shine some light on a way of life that is either entirely missing, or misrepresented in our histories.
Are you planning to write more on this issue or move on to something else? Would you share with us your next project?
There is much more to be written about this issue, but after spending most of the past eight years working on Nomads, it is time for me to look elsewhere. I hope I have stimulated a debate about nomads that will encourage others to look further. Meanwhile my thoughts are turning to Egypt — and to Italy, from where I am writing today.
Thanks for giving us your time during your travels.
As the world celebrates Valentine’s Day, one pauses to think how far commercialisation has seeped in over time that the very concept of a tender emotion was questioned by Tina Turner in a song called, “What’s love got to do with it” nearly four decades ago.
This was written even before Mahasweta Devi (1926-2016) published a nostalgic memoir of 1930’s Santiniketan in Bengali in 2001. She raised her pen to ask the very pertinent question that is quoted above. Why is education in love not a part of our curriculum anymore? She was reminiscing about her days in Santiniketan where children were brought up with rigorous academics while discipline was coloured with love and affection. They nurtured a love for nature in students too. This has become a rarity for many and perhaps needs to be revived as the Earth struggles to continue habitable for humankind. In the process of educating students to love and give, Santiniketan threw up many greats like the writer herself. We are delighted to host an excerpt from the start of Our Santiniketan translated beautifully by Radha Chakravarty.
Santiniketan was only the very visible part of a huge project taken on by Tagore (1861-1941). The other part now united with Santiniketan under the banner of Visva Bharati University is Sriniketan, a group of villages where Tagore experimented with raising consciousness and standards of villagers to integrate them into a larger world. He brought in new techniques in agriculture and crafts into the villages under this programme involving many prominent scientists, artists and humanists. And the project has blossomed. Did you know Tagore thought of himself as an NGO and his ‘life work’ he felt was developing villages (Sriniketan) and educating young minds to build a world where borders of knowledge, poverty and ignorance could be smoothened?
He wrote: “I alone cannot take responsibility for the whole of India. But even if two or three villages can be freed from the shackles of helplessness and ignorance, an ideal for the whole of India would be established.
“Fulfill this ideal in a few villages only, and I will say that these few villages are my India. And only if that is done, will India be truly ours.”
All this can be found in a book called A History of Sriniketan (Niyogi Books), written by Uma Das Gupta, a major authority on Tagore who moved from Oxford to Santiniketan and made Tagore’s work in these two institutions her own life’s work. We have featured her and her book in our interview/review section.
Raised out of such ashes of poverty that Tagore sought to dispel, are youngsters from the village of Nithari, where ceaseless efforts by volunteers of organisations like Saksham and pandies’ has given a new lease for life to those who have been exposed to violations, violence, divides, poverty and deprivation. One of them, Sharad Kumar, now studying to be an engineer, kicks off our new section called Pandies’ Corner with his story in Hindustani translated by a volunteer, Grace M Sukanya. His story learns from history and shows rather than tells.
A similar approach to view the present through lenses focussed on the past at a much grander scale has been taken by Shazi Zaman, an author and journalist, who has stepped into the Anglophone world with the transcreation of his own novel from Hindi to English, Akbar, A Novel of History (Speaking Tiger Books). He has brought to the fore how in days when sectarian violence based on religions killed, Akbar (1542-1605) tried to create a new path that would lead to peace so that he could rule over an empire united by administration and not broken by contentious religious animosities which often led to wars. In his interview, he tells us of the relevance of the Great Mughal in a period of history that was torn by divides, divisions so deep that they continue to smoulder to this day and date. That history repeats itself is evident though our living standards seem to improve over time. Bhaskar Parichha’s review of Growing up Jewish in India: Synagogues, Customs, and Communities from the Bene Israel to the Art of Siona Benjamin, edited by Ori Z. Soltes, also reinforces these divides and amalgamations in the modern context. The other books that have been reviewed include The Best of Travel Writing of Dom Moraes: Under Something of a Cloudby Indrashish Banerjee, and Gracy Samjetsabam has introduced us to an intriguing murder mystery in Masala and Murder by Patrick Lyons.
Ratnottama Sengupta has also paid a moving tribute to the music legend, Lata Mangeshkar, who died at the age of 92 on 6th February, 2022. The choral symphony of multiple voices that hums through the paean recreating the larger than life presence of Lata reinforces that her lilting voice will stay embedded in many hearts and lives forever. Her perfect honing of musical skills delivered with the right emotions make her an epitome of human excellence. She gave the best of herself to the world.
Wrapped in more dry humour is Devraj Singh Kalsinarrative on why he does not want pets. Meredith Stephens, on the contrary loves pets and sails the seas of West Australia with her camera, words, seals and dolphins. Luke PG Draper also speaks for animals — for the intrusion of pollutants that harm creatures like whales in his short story. Hop all over the world with Ravi Shankar breaking nightly fasts with food from different cultures. More colour is brought in by Suzanne Kamata who starts a new column, Notes from Japan — introducing us to Japanese sensation, Masaki Nakagawa, who has sung his way to hearts with Lativian songs that he loves, so much so that he got to perform at the Japanese coronation and has pictures with the Latvian President.
The time has come to let you discover the mysterious pieces that have not been mentioned here in the February edition — and there are many.
Before I wind up till the next month, I would like to thank our fabulous team who make this journal possible. Keith Lyons has now become part of that team and has graciously joined our editorial board. Sohana Manzoor and Sybil Pretious deserve a special kudos for their fabulous artwork. Our grateful, heartfelt thanks to all our wonderful contributors and readers who keep the journal alive.
In Conversation with Professor Uma Das Gupta, Tagore scholar, author of A History of Sriniketan: Rabindranath Tagore’s Pioneering work in Rural Reconstruction published by Niyogi Books, 2022
Tagore (1861-1941) has been celebrated as one of the greatest poets of the world, a great philosopher, a writer, an artist, a polyglot but what did the maestro himself perceive as his greatest ‘life work’?
He wrote: “My path, as you know, lies in the domain of quiet integral action and thought, my units must be few and small, and I can but face human problems in relation to some basic village or cultural area. So, in the midst of worldwide anguish, and with the problems of over three hundred millions staring us in the face, I stick to my work in Santiniketan and Sriniketan hoping that my efforts will touch the heart of our village neighbours and help them in reasserting themselves in a new social order. If we can give a start to a few villages, they would perhaps be an inspiration to some others—and my life work will have been done.” This was in a letter in 1939 to an agricultural scientist, Leonard Elmhirst (1893-1974), who helped him set up Sriniketan, a craft and agricultural development project for the villages which fell under the purview of the Tagore family zamindari.
To Tagore, his ‘life work’ lay in the welfare of humankind and poetry was just one of the things he did, like breathing. He told a group of writers, musicians, and artists, who were visiting Sriniketan in 1936: “The picture of the helpless village which I saw each day as I sailed past on the river has remained with me and so I have come to make the great initiation here. It is not the work for one, it must involve all. I have invited you today not to discuss my literature nor listen to my poetry. I want you to see for yourself where our society’s real work lies. That is the reason why I am pointing to it over and over again. My reward will be if you can feel for yourself the value of this work.”
These are all incidents woven into a book called A History of Sriniketan by historian and Tagore biographer, Uma Das Gupta, who did her post-doctoral research on the maestro and the history of the educational institutions he founded at Santiniketan and Sriniketan. She moved out of Oxford and pursued her studies in Calcutta. She has highlighted Tagore uniquely as an NGO (Non-governmental organisation) operator and also an educator. Mahasweta Devi (1926-2016) in her book Our Santiniketan, recently translated by Radha Chakravarty, focussed on his role mainly as an educator who sought to revive values, a love for nature along with rigorous academics to create thinkers and change makers like the author herself.
A History ofSriniketan is about his work among villagers to bridge gaps. Often, his poetry and writing expresses the empathy he felt for pain and suffering, his need to instil beauty and well-being into humankind so that they could evolve towards a better world — an ideal which he described to an extent in poems like ‘Where the Mind is Without Fear’ and India’s national anthem.
Dasgupta did this by not only delving into Tagore’s own writings but by devoting her life to unearth the depth of the maestro’s commitment and the hard work and money he invested in the project he described as his ‘Life’s work’. She even visited the villages and talked to the beneficiaries and workers. Her book is peppered with photographs of Tagore in Sriniketan. It is amazing to see pictures of the poet with people from Sriniketan sitting on the ground or celebrating festivities.
Tagore, Das Gupta tells us, poured all his Nobel prize money, into the Sriniketan Bank project which was led by his son, Rathindranath. The project hoped to free the peasant from debt. How well were these experiments received by Tagore’s contemporaries? Das Gupta writes in her book: “It would not be an exaggeration to say that Rabindranath had to encounter all of those things, that is, to ‘overcome opposition’ and to ‘conquer space and time’, in no uncertain measure. In short, he had to drive hard to do anything good for a better village life. As a first step, he insisted that Indians should unite to provide nation-building services to the village and not look to the State for doing what was our own duty towards our people. For him, this had to be the more important function of the Swaraj being sought from alien rule.
“In Rabindranath’s view, what had misled society in our transition to modernity was the introduction of the Western concepts of private property and material progress. What this led to was that mankind, though never free from greed, now crossed the limits, within which it was useful rather than harmful. What came about as a result was that property became individualistic and led to the abandoning of hospitality to our people and loss of communication with them. As a consequence, there was an increasing divide between city and village. He found all that to be the reality, when trying to bring about changes, both in his family’s agricultural estates and in the villages surrounding Santiniketan-Sriniketan.”
To bridge this divide, Sriniketan was created with the involvement of more of the Tagore family, agriculturists, scientists from all over the world, like Leonard Elmhirst whom Tagore had invited in 1921 to lead the Sriniketan work, and artists, like Nandalal Bose. It was a path breaking experiment which found fruition in the long run. They adapted from multiple cultures without any nationalistic biases. Rathindranath brought batik from Indonesia into the leather craft of Sriniketan. We are told, “One of the early influences was from Santiniketan’s association with a group of creative thinkers from Asia, who were spearheading a Pan-Asian Movement that questioned Western hegemony in art and artistic expression. A pioneer of the Pan-Asian Movement was Kakuzo Okakura (1863–1913, Japanese scholar and author of The Book of Tea). He came to Calcutta in 1904, when he met Rabindranath, and they became friends. Okakura admired and supported Rabindranath’s Santiniketan school. Nandalal’s Kala-Bhavana syllabus included Okakura’s artistic principles of giving importance to nature, tradition, and creativity, which were the same as Rabindranath’s artistic principles.”
That Tagore’s effort was unique and overlooked by the mainstream is well brought out through the narrative which does not critique but only evidences. For instance, Das Gupta contends: “He (Tagore) wrote the same to Lord Irwin, the Viceroy, in a letter dated 28 February 1930, when appealing for a government grant towards agricultural research. ‘I hope I shall have the opportunity on my return for another talk with Your Excellency in regard to what has been my life’s work and in which I feel you take genuine personal interest.’ Lord Irwin had come for a visit to Sriniketan at the time and Rabindranath was told of his favourable impression of what he saw during his visit to Sriniketan. In his letter, Rabindranath wrote how he was doing the work ‘almost in isolation’, without any understanding from his people or from the government.” Does that often not continue to be the story of many NGOs?
Sriniketan by Dasgupta is a timely and very readable non-fiction which brings to light not just the humanitarian aspect of Tagore but the need for the world to wake up to the call of nature to unite as a species beyond borders created by humans and live in harmony with the Earth. It all adds up in the post-pandemic, climate-disaster threatened world. To survive, we could learn much from what is shared with us in this book. I would love to call it a survival manual towards a better future for mankind. Scholarship has found a way to connect with the needs of the real world. The book is reader friendly as Das Gupta writes fluently from the bottom of her heart of a felt need that is being voiced by modern thinkers and gurus like Harari — we need to bridge borders and unite to move forward.
Das Gupta retired as Professor, Social Sciences Division, Indian Statistical Institute. She was Head of the United States Educational Foundation in India for the Eastern Region. Recently, she has become a National Fellow of the Indian Institute of Advanced Study (IAAS), Shimla, and a Delegate of Oxford University Press. Her publications include Rabindranath Tagore: A Biography; The Oxford India Tagore: Selected Essays on Education and Nationalism; A Difficult Friendship: Letters of Rabindranath Tagore and Edward Thompson, 1913–1940; Friendships of ‘largeness and freedom’: Andrews, Tagore, and Gandhi, An Epistolary Account, 1912–1940. In this interview, she focusses mainly on her new book, A History of Sriniketan, while touching on how Tagore differed from others like Gandhi in his approach, his vision and enlightens us about a man who created a revolution in ideological and practical world, and yet remained unacknowledged for that as in posterity he continues to be perceived mainly as an intellectual, a poet and a writer.
You are a well-known biographer of Tagore and have done extensive research on him. What made you put together A History of Sriniketan?
Grateful for your kind appreciation.
Writing a history of Sriniketan has been a priority for me. As a Tagore biographer, my dominant theme is about a poet who was an indefatigable man of action. His work at Sriniketan is of prime importance in that perspective. The secondary theme is of him as a poet and writer of many a genre, lyric, poetry, narratives, short stories, novels and plays. I had to make a choice of emphasis between the two themes since I did not intend to write a full-scale biography covering all aspects of Tagore’s life, equally. My choice was to explore his educational ideas and to examine how he implemented them at his Santiniketan and Sriniketan institutions. His work as an educator and rural reformer is even today hardly known because his genius as a poet and a song writer overshadowed his work as an educator, rural reformer, and institutional builder. That area of research was quite virgin when I started it as a post-doctoral project in the mid-1970s. For perceptions about his poetry and his large oeuvre I have drawn on the work of the scholars who know the subject better than I do.
My focus is on the concerns that featured persistently in Tagore’s writings and his actions. These were about the alienation in our own society between the elite and the masses, about race conflict and the absence of unity in our society, India’s history, nationalism, national self-respect, internationalism, an alternative education, religion, and humanism as elaborated by him in his collection of essays titled The Religion of Man (1931).
A History of Sriniketan is a detailed presentation about his ideas and his work on rural reconstruction. The idea of doing something to redeem neglected villages came to him when he first went to live in his family’s agricultural estates in East Bengal. His father sent him as manager in 1889. The decade that he spent there was his first exposure to the impoverished countryside. He was then thirty, already a poet of fame, and had lived only in the city till then. The experience played a seminal part in turning him into a humanist and a man of action. The closer he felt to the masses of his society the further he moved from his own class who were indifferent to the masses. His independent thinking gave him the courage of conviction to work alone with his ideas of ‘constructive swadeshi’.
As a pragmatist he knew there was not a lot he could do given his meagre resources as an individual in relation to the enormity of the needs. But he was determined at least to make a beginning with the work. His goals were a revitalized peasantry, village self-reliance through small scale enterprises, cottage industries and cooperative values. He wrote, “If we could free even one village from the shackles of helplessness and ignorance, an ideal for the whole of India would be established…Let a few villages be rebuilt in this way, and I shall say they are my India. That is the way to discover the true India.”
Disillusioned with nationalist politics he turned to his own responses to the many troubled questions of his times. Tagore was convinced there could be no real political progress until social injustices were removed. He pointed repeatedly to the sectarian elements of Indian nationalism which kept our people divided. He hoped that the Santiniketan-Sriniketan education would create a new Indian personality to show the way out of the conflict of communities. He thus brought a different dimension to nationalism by arguing for universal humanity. It led to doubts about his ‘Indianness’ among his contemporaries. He had the courage to defy the idea of rejecting the world as a condition for being ‘Indian’. In fact, he tried continuously to break out of the isolation imposed on his country by colonial rule. He had the foresight to sense that the awakening of India was bound to be a part of the awakening of the world.
What is the kind of research that went in into the making of this book? What got you interested in Tagore in the first place?
I am a historian by training. Historians have to back up every statement they make in their analysis by written documents. That is why the historian’s main source is the archives. Likewise, my research for this book has been mainly archival. I searched for written documentation from 1922 when the Sriniketan scheme of rural reconstruction work was officially launched. The documentation included the minutes of meetings, memoranda exchanged among the workers of the Institute of Rural Reconstruction, official notes, and annual reports written and filed.
In addition, I used to visit the villages in which the scheme was implemented to get an understanding of the ground reality. The work was started with six villages in 1922, extended to twenty-two more villages in the first ten years, and to many more villages afterwards. When the work was being run on a small scale, the Institute tried to post a village worker to stay in the village itself and work along with the villagers to implement the Sriniketan scheme. Some of these villages actually kept notes and records of their work which I could use as part of my local level research. I also interviewed some of the workers who had retired but who were still living around Sriniketan in their old age though their number was small. I have used those oral interviews in my documentation. Some of the Village Workers had their own private correspondence to which they gave me access.
There is also extensive personal correspondence in the Rabindra-Bhavana Archives between the leaders of the Sriniketan work. Among them first and foremost are Rathindranath Tagore and the British agricultural scientist, Leonard Elmhirst, whom Tagore had invited in 1921 to lead the Sriniketan work. Elmhirst had been to India earlier as a Wartime Volunteer during World War 1. When Tagore came to know of him through another British agriculturist working in Allahabad, Sam Higginbottom by name, he contacted Elmhirst with a request to come to Santiniketan and to lead the Sriniketan work. One of Tagore’s prime targets was to implement Scientific Agriculture in the villages. In fact, many years earlier, in 1906, he had sent his son Rathindranath and another student of the Santiniketan school, Santoshchandra Majumdar, who was Rathindranath’s classmate, to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champagne to study Agriculture with the view that they would bring back the expertise for the Sriniketan work at the completion of their studies.
Elmhirst was in Sriniketan from 1922 to 1924 after which he returned to his work in England. He worked closely with the Sriniketan team even from far through the letters they exchanged. Rathindranath consulted Elmhirst regularly over Sriniketan’s work in progress and this correspondence is in the archives.
There is also a very charming body of personal letters between Tagore and Elmhirst. Tagore’s originals are among the Elmhirst Papers in the Dartinghall Hall Trust archives in Devonshire, UK, and Elmhirst’s original letters are in the Rabindra-Bhavana archives, Santiniketan. This correspondence has been published.
Another very important source of documentation is available in the Diaries of Leonard Elmhirst which he wrote from the start of the Sriniketan work in 1922. Elmhirst’s Diaries were published by Visva-Bharati titled Poet and Plowman. There are some day-to-day accounts of how the work was being done on the ground by a group of senior students from Santiniketan who had chosen this field for training and of course by the Village Workers who had been appointed by the Institute. There were other leaders who helped with the work throughout like Kalimohan Ghose who later carried out the pioneering Surveys of the Villages. I have included some of these path breaking Surveys in the Appendices of A History of Sriniketan.
Last but not the least important for my research were Tagore’s ideas of education and rural reconstruction about which he wrote several essays in two important collections, namelyPalli-Prakriti(Countryside and Nature) and Sikshya (Education). Some of the essays were autobiographical as to how he started the rural work in his family’s agricultural estates in East Bengal where his father sent him in 1889. He stayed at Selidaha, the Estates’ headquarters, with his family till 1900 when he moved to Santiniketan in South Bengal’s Birbhum district where his father had founded an ashram and called it Santiniketan, the ‘Abode of Peace’. It was not a monastic ashram but one for householders to spend some days in prayer and meditation away from their household responsibilities. This is where Tagore and his young family moved in 1900-01 with his plans to start a school for children in the heart of nature. It was to be a school where the children could learn to creatively assimilate the knowledge imparted to them instead of in the classroom that characterised colonial education. This was how his Santiniketan school was founded in 1901.
Santiniketan was located within two miles of the Bolpur Railway Station on the East Indian Railway Line. It was situated on high ground, in the middle of a wide plain, open to the horizon on all sides. There, father and son had planted noble groves of mainly mango and sal trees. There, in the heart of nature not far from a big city, Tagore had the advantage of being able to draw upon both raw materials and cultural products in equal measure as it were. There was the influence of trees, open fields, and the seasons changing so starkly on the one hand; on the other hand, there was the inspiration of artists, science teachers, libraries, and hand-made, machine-made, equipment.
You ask why I got interested in working on Tagore. There is a very personal story to share. When our son was born in Oxford where my husband and I were working with University Fellowships during 1972-73, we decided to move to Visva-Bharati on an invitation from the then Vice-Chancellor, the eminent historian Pratul Chandra Gupta. We were of course attracted to the possibility of being at Tagore’s institution and also to the prospect of raising our child in its pastoral environment. We did thus move to Visva-Bharati in 1973 leaving our Calcutta jobs at Presidency College, where my husband was Professor of History, and Jadavpur University, where I was teaching. Once we went Visva-Bharati, I began to explore the possibility of doing post-doctoral research on Tagore rather than on colonial history as was the area of my doctoral dissertation at the University of Oxford.
What would be the purpose of such a book? Do you think Tagore’s model would work if multiple NGOs adopted his ideas?
As I have already mentioned I am a biographer of Tagore’s educational ideas and the history of his institutions at Santiniketan and Sriniketan. To me writing this book on a history of Sriniketan was an integral part of my research. But at a personal level, I was concerned that the history of that practical and experimental work that Tagore did under the most difficult of circumstances might get completely forgotten if it were not documented. That was a genuine concern because of two reasons. Firstly, while Santiniketan has retained its charm as a popular tourist spot, and as Santiniketan’s oldest buildings of exceptional architecture had become heritage buildings, Sriniketan did not have anything to show or display for outsiders to connect with its one-time strident presence in bringing life and action to the villages. Secondly, Sriniketan never reinvented the wheel but just carried on from the 1950s as a unit of Visva-Bharati University to fill in for routine bureaucratic and funding purposes. Even its beautiful and thriving craft work that brought acclaim to Sriniketan from well beyond its precincts, would slowly but surely erode.
Therefore, the primary purpose of this book is to document a pioneering humanistic enterprise for posterity, and also for the next generations who were expected to be engaged in the field of rural development even though the original model was not necessarily practically and theoretically viable in today’s socio-economic scenario. The book is also for the scholar and for the generally interested person. When I was starting my work in the mid 1970s, there was no doubt in my mind that Sriniketan was becoming less visible.
As for whether multiple NGOs could use the Tagore model is for the NGOs to tell us, but I do know that in its neighbourhood, Sriniketan remains an important inspiration for mobilizing villages non-politically. There have been one or two such movements in the vicinity of Santiniketan-Sriniketan which are continuing to work actively at grassroots. One is Pannalal Das Gupta’s ‘Tagore Society for Rural Development’. Founded in 1969-70 as a registered society, the Tagore Society specialises in motivating villagers to take on environmental self-help projects. There is also the ‘Amar Kutir Society for Rural Develoment’ located very close to Sriniketan which was once a shelter for runaway political prisoners. Founded in 1923 by Susen Mukhopadhyaya, a young revolutionary freedom fighter then, who was attracted to Tagore’s work in rural reconstruction. We learn from his writing that he kept observing the work while coming in and out of jail himself. ‘Amar Kutir’ developed the work of organising local crafts persons, upgrading their skills, training them in design, and in marketing their products for economic rehabilitation. The Birbhum district had several families of traditional weavers. Some of them had been engaged in trade by the East India Company.
Another such non-governmental private initiative for rural development has come up more recently in 1984 in the outskirts of Sriniketan called the ‘Elmhirst Institute of Community Studies’, (EICS), whose members are working mainly in the areas of women and child development including family counselling, family adoption, de-addiction and rehabilitation, HIV/AIDS education and intervention. They were started with substantial moral and financial support from Elmhirst who was interested in spreading Sriniketan’s pioneering enterprise and taking the ideas further to meet the needs of the later day.
In other parts of India individual leaders were drawn to the work of building village self-reliance and a few had dedicated themselves to the cause in post-independence India. For his Ashrams at Sabarmati and Wardha, Gandhi himself kept closely in touch with Sriniketan which he visited several times even after Tagore’s passing and knew it well. Gandhi’s follower, Baba Amte, in Madhya Pradesh was a key worker in the field. More contemporarily one reads of the utopian commune ‘Timbaktu Collective’ in rural Andhra Pradesh where a husband-and-wife team, Bablu and Mary Ganguly, have organised the hapless farm labourers of Anantapur district to work for the regeneration of wasteland and start projects on organic farming, soil conservation, propagation of traditional food crops and have also taken steps for women’s and Dalit empowerment and rural health. Most of these ideas were at one time born and nurtured in the holistic laboratory for socio-economic development that Sriniketan was. Bablu Ganguly acknowledges Fukuoka as his mentor. Being Bengali by birth, it would not be surprising if he was aware of Tagore but perhaps only as a poet and songwriter.
Tagore withdrew from the national movement to develop villages, which is where, he felt lived a large part of India. Gandhi had a similar outlook. So, where was the divide?
With his deepening sympathy for the suffering millions of his country, Tagore became increasingly critical of the changes that Britain had brought to India. But he also felt strongly for the West’s ideas of humanism and believed they were of benefit to Indian society. Revolutionary changes were inescapably entering into our thoughts and actions. This was evident in the proposition that those whom our society decreed to be ‘untouchables’ should be given the right to enter temples. The orthodox continued to justify their non-entry into temples on scriptural pretexts, but such advocacy was being challenged and resisted. The people’s ‘voice’ had put out the message that neither the scriptures nor tradition nor the force of personality could set a wrong right. Ethics alone could do so.
There were important factors that led gradually to this new way of thinking. The impact of English literature was one such. Tagore pointed out that acquaintance with English Literature gave us not only a new wealth of emotion but also the will to break man’s tyranny over man. This was a novel point of view. The lowly in our society had taken it for granted that their birth and the fruits of their past actions could never be disowned; that their sufferings and the indignities of an inferior status had to be meekly accepted; that their lot could change only after a possible rebirth. Society’s patriarchs also held out no hope for the downtrodden. But contact with Europe became a wake-up call. It was no surprise that in his landmark essay Kalantar (Epoch’s End) Tagore recalled and endorsed the British poet Robert Burns’s unforgettable line, “A man’s a man for a’ that”.
It was in that longing to bring hope to the deprived people that Tagore and Gandhi felt really close. They were both carrying out rural reconstruction work because they knew that the majority of Indians lived in villages and wanted to bring awakening and national consciousness to the villages as the prime goal to freedom. Both men focused their attention on the peasantry as the largest class within Indian society who were paralysed by anachronistic traditions and weighed down by poverty and the absence of education.
The major issues on which Tagore and Gandhi differed were debated nationally. Before discussing the specific issues in the controversy, it would be useful to examine their general positions on freedom and nationalism. In The Religion of Man (1931), Tagore developed the position that the history of the growth of freedom is the history of the “perfection of human relationship”. Gandhi applied the same principle to resolving India’s racial conflict. Tagore took the idea further and challenged the credo of nationalism. Tagore argued that the basis of the nation-state was a menace to the ideal of universal harmony or to the “perfection of human relationship”. But to the nationalist leadership all over the country, including Gandhi, political self-rule or swaraj came to be understood as a necessary phase of spiritual self-rule, or swarajya, and nationalism as the first step towards attaining free human fellowship.
Tagore alone spoke out against that trend. He argued that the crucial stumbling block in India’s future lay in the social problems of the country such as the absence of human rights for the masses and the alienation between the educated classes and the masses. He emphasised what the country needed most of all was constructive work coming from within herself and the building of an ethical society as the best way for rousing national consciousness. The rest would inevitably follow, even political freedom.
In his novel, Ghare Baire (The Home and the World, 1916), Tagore seemed critical of Gandhi’s call for Khadi and burning of mill cloth imported from England. Yet, Sriniketan was a handicraft forum for villagers to find a way to earn a living through agriculture and craft. So, why the dichotomy of perspectives as both were promoting local ware? Where was the clash between Gandhi’s interpretation of Khadi and Tagore’s interpretation of selling indigenous craft?
There was never any conflict in their perceptions or feelings for the poor, Gandhi’s and Tagore’s. Other issues were stirred in relation to the Khadi campaign and the burning of foreign cloth. For instance, the Congress in 1924 moved a resolution under Gandhi’s recommendation enlisting its members to spin a certain quantity of cloth on the charka (spinning wheel) as a monthly contribution. The idea was to give the movement country-wide publicity, and also, to make spinning a means of bonding between the masses and the politicians.
Tagore was wholly opposed to the idea of using the charka as a political strategy for swaraj and explained his position in his 1925 essay titled ‘The Cult of the Charka’. He argued that there was no short-cut to reason and hard work if anything was to succeed; that nothing worthwhile was possible by mass conversion to an idea; that our poverty was a complex phenomenon which could not be solved by one particular application such as spinning and weaving Khadi. Tagore raised the question if our poverty was due to the “lack of sufficient thread”, or due to “our lack of vitality, our lack of unity”?
On burning clothes Tagore’s position was that such a method hurt the poor by forcing them to sacrifice even what little they obtained from selling those clothes. He concluded that buying and selling foreign cloth should be delegated to the realm of economics. In his reply Gandhi wrote, that he did not draw “a sharp or any distinction between economics and ethics”. He added that the economics that hurt the moral well-being of an individual or a nation “are immoral and therefore sinful”.
Is Sriniketan unique? Can it be seen as Tagore’s model for rural development?
To the best of my knowledge there is no parallel institution in India.
I am not aware if Tagore was ever talking of a ‘model’ that he expected others to follow. He was certainly hoping, as he wrote, that his work will help to establish an “ideal” [his word] for the rest of the country.
My own sense is that an “ideal” has been established given that empowerment of the villages through the Panchayats has become a nationwide project. Of course, the government’s approach is not fully in character with Tagore’s holistic vision for the individual’s humanistic development. Today the individual hardly counts, politics and economics are what matter. All the same it has to be said that the villages are getting some attention and are not left to rot as had been the case in the earlier century.
You have said that Tagore faced criticism for the way he used Nobel Prize money. Can you enlighten us on this issue? Tell us a bit about the controversy and Tagore’s responses.
As anyone would surmise the Nobel Prize money was very precious also to the Santiniketan community because the teachers and workers there had to struggle over the resources for the institution. But contrary to the community’s expectation, Tagore decided that the Prize money would be given to the cause of rural credit. He had started the Patisar Krishi (farmers’) Bank in 1906 followed by the Kaligram Krishi Bank. According to Tagore’s biographer, Prasanta Pal, the total investment in the rural banks in 1914 amounted to Rs 75,000 of which Rs 48,000 was invested in the Patisar Krishi Bank at 7% interest per annum and Rs 27,000 at the same rate of interest in the Kaligram Krishi Bank. Tagore decided that only the interest from those investments could be used to pay for the maintenance of the Santiniketan school. The actual purpose of the fund was to give loans to the poor peasants so as to relieve them from exploitation by moneylenders and some unethical landlords too. In order to repay their loans, the peasants had to sell their produce at a rate lower than the market price immediately after drawing the harvest. This phenomenon was causing them perpetual indebtedness. The Krishi Banks were to loan money to the peasantry at a lower rate than the money lenders and relieve them from the age-old exploitation.
Tagore was firm that the primary beneficiary of his Nobel Prize money would be the poor peasantry of his family’s estates, and the Santiniketan school would be only the secondary beneficiary. He tried thus to balance his two main concerns when settling the future of his Nobel Prize money.
It cannot be said there was a ‘controversy’ over this as Gurudev (which was how the community addressed Tagore) was too revered for a controversy to be raised about a decision that he had taken. But there was disappointment. It seemed strangely that even his inner circle had not realised his deep emotional attachment and ideological commitment to the cause of the impoverished peasantry. Perhaps, my response to your earlier question may explain why.
Tagore had noticed the gaps between the different strata of Indian society. Sriniketan was an attempt to bridge the gap. How far did his ideals succeed?
There was tremendous societal gap between the different strata of Indian society. With all of Tagore’s will and effort, it cannot be said that the Sriniketan ideals could bridge the gap. Even today, a perceptive visitor, who visits Santiniketan and Sriniketan, located only within two miles of each other, can tell the difference between the two. Santiniketan looks bright and thriving, but Sriniketan looks neglected.
Community life in the Indian villages was seen to break for the first time with the emergence of professional classes among the English-educated Indians. The city began to attract them away from the villages. Those Indians were happy to let the government take over guardianship of the people and relinquish to it their own traditional duties to society. The result was a widening gap between town and country, city and village. Tagore knew from his life’s direct experience that none of those who dominated the political scene in his time felt that the villagers ‘belonged’. The political leadership apprehended that recognising this vast multitude as their own people would force them to begin the real work of ‘constructive swadeshi’. They were not even interested to try. That was where the Sriniketan effort was invaluable to Tagore. He saw that the endeavour built at least a relationship with the village, if nothing else.
The Sriniketan scheme sought to bridge the gap by bringing to the village a combination of tradition and experiment. Tagore knew that a civilisation that comprises of only village life could not be sustained. “Rustic” was a synonym for the “mind’s narrowness”, he wrote. In modern times, the city had become the repository of knowledge. It was essential therefore for the village to cooperate with the city in accessing the new knowledge. One such vital area of expertise was in agriculture. His study of “other agricultural countries” had shown that land in those countries was made to yield twice or thrice by the use of science. A motor tractor was bought for Sriniketan in 1927 because he believed that the machine must find its way to the Indian village. He wrote, “If we can possess the science that gives power to this age, we may yet win, we may yet live.”
Your book tells us that Sugata Dasgupta’s publication, A Poet & A Plan(1962) showed that Sriniketan had benefitted the villages it adopted decades after Tagore’s death. Has there been further development of these communities or is it status quo?
No, it cannot be said that it is status quo from the 1960s. There have been changes for sure. There have been benefits to the villages from the Government’s projects. Indeed, the government had adopted some of their early projects from Sriniketan’s original work.
More interventions are needed of course but it has to be said something is being done. Of course, the changes I can mention that have benefitted the condition of the villages and therefore the villagers’ lives came well after Sugata Dasgupta’s publication. The three that I can mention are communications, roads, and electricity. Today there are more long-distance buses than ever before transporting people to and from the villages. Totos and cycle rickshaw-vans take passengers from the bus stands to the interior villages. Roads are another major development. Besides the highways, the mud paths in the villages are now being converted to metalled roads. There is electricity in the villages.
I should mention one other significant change which is that secondary education is now fairly common to the present-day rural populace. College education has also come within their reach.
What is the current state of the present day Sriniketan? What do you see as the future of Sriniketan?
Presently, Sriniketan runs as a department or unit of Visva-Bharati University and works according to the University’s requirements. I am not acquainted with the requirements. I continue to be a regular user of the University’s Rabindra-Bhavana archives even now. But I have not been connected with the University in any official capacity after the 1980s which is a long time ago.
Thank you for your time.
(This is an online interview conducted by Mitali Chakravarty.)
PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL
Giant whispering and coughing machines,
But the Quietus shaped by thieves
Broadcasts from a churchyard sleeved
With coats that serve as muscle:
The wavebands glowing overpower
The rabid storms of chording where
Your child hands clap against the air.
Beautifully devout before a spent
Cascade of money pours from out
A vast resettling of drums. Thence
Begins the mental struggles of arcane
Girls, who may not dance upon a floor
Nor faces inside faces prick music.
Vast Sundays and organ-frowned spaces
Leave dark emptied trees behind
Seas, where sotto voce tames the race
Of gaoled men; and the sureness of
Faith will dive into the bays and quays
Which seem too straight or still-born.
The light of rock attunes to sound
But this noise contests the altar-lit
Grounds of life’s lurch, groomed with
Minds which govern sadness from ground
Teas, but still the coffees of the earth
Grind to dust the magmas of bent birth.
Jim Bellamy was born in a storm in 1972. He studied at Oxford University. He has written thousands of poems and won three awards for his poetry. He tends to write in a bit of a fine frenzy. He adores prosody.
Excerpted from The Brass Notebook: A Memoir by Devaki Jain. Published by Speaking Tiger Books, 2020.
‘She has wheels on her feet’: I think this phrase is used in several Indian languages to describe women who are constantly travelling (‘kaalile chakram’ in my own language, Tamil). The phrase sometimes carries with it a sense of exasperation or dismissal: why can’t she stay in one place? I was just the sort of person to whom that phrase applies. In retrospect, it amazes me to find that over a span of about fifty years, starting 1955, I have travelled to ninety-four different countries. I have also had the privilege of visiting every one of the twenty-nine states and seven Union Territories in India. In most of them, I have visited some of the poorest and most marginalized villages to meet women and to try to understand their struggles. Very little of this travel was for tourism or holidays. Nearly all of it was professional travel with my costs covered.
This cycle of constant travel began in a sense in childhood, when I accompanied my father on his trips and safaris. So many of my memories of childhood are of me in the back seat of a car, en route to somewhere unfamiliar. But I really became a self-sufficient traveller in my own right in 1962, when I found myself part of an unusual, and now almost impossible, overland trip from Oxford to Delhi. The leader of this bold travelling party was Elizabeth Whitcombe, an Oxford student who had studied ‘Greats’: that is to say, the four-year degree in Greek and Latin languages, literature, history and philosophy. She had only two conditions for members of her party: one had to be able to drive, and to contribute £100 to the kitty. In the end, there were four of us: two men and two women in a hardy Land Rover.
We started, of course, from where we were, in Oxford, and took the ferry across the English Channel into France. We drove across France and Switzerland, all the way down to Greece and then Turkey. Throughout, we stayed in what were called ‘mocamps’—camps for motorists to park their cars and spend the night. Sometimes, we slept out in the open in our sleeping bags. Elizabeth, a seasoned camper who had climbed mountains in New Zealand, brought all the necessary equipment. A well-read scholar, she could educate us about the antiquities in Greece and Turkey—archaeological sites and ancient monuments—that we visited.
From Ankara in Turkey, we went on through Trebizond, Batumi, Erzurum, Tabriz, stopping in each town, walking through and occasionally shopping in the bazaars. We all bought leather coats in the market in Istanbul, where the sturdiest and cheapest leather goods were to be found. The one memory of that part of the trip that stayed with me as a traumatic experience was seeing the decapitated heads of cattle being used to hang things on—bags, hats and so forth. The heads still had eyes and it was like they were staring right back at me when I looked at them.
One of my co-travellers, a mathematician from New Zealand called David Vere Jones, wrote to me recently with some of his memories from this leg of the journey: of a mosque with a wooden floor and many squares of old carpets, of leaving the mosque after dark in search of a camping ground, of eventually settling down for the night in a dry riverbed where some nomads were camping opposite. Some of the children and old men in their encampment came to visit us, bringing us melons; we accepted gratefully, offering them cigarettes and brandy in return. They sang for us, and one old man chose a particularly bawdy number that sent his companions into convulsions of laughter. David can also remember swimming in lakes, and the constant stomach upsets to which we all fell prey during the journey.
About the Book:
In this no-holds-barred memoir, Devaki Jain begins with her childhood in south India, a life of comfort and ease with a father who served as dewan in the Princely States of Mysore and Gwalior. But there were restrictions too, that come with growing up in an orthodox Tamil Brahmin family, as well as the rarely spoken about dangers of predatory male relatives. Ruskin College, Oxford, gave her her first taste of freedom in 1955, at the age of 22. Oxford brought her a degree in philosophy and economics—as well as hardship, as she washed dishes in a cafe to pay her fees. It was here, too, that she had her early encounters with the sensual life. With rare candour, she writes of her romantic liaisons in Oxford and Harvard, and falling in love with her ‘unsuitable boy’—her husband, Lakshmi Jain, whom she married against her beloved father’s wishes.
Devaki’s professional life saw her becoming deeply involved with the cause of ‘poor’ women—workers in the informal economy, for whom she strove to get a better deal. In the international arena, she joined cause with the concerns of the colonized nations of the south, as they fought to make their voices heard against the rich and powerful nations of the former colonizers. Her work brought her into contact with world leaders and thinkers, amongst them, Vinoba Bhave, Nelson Mandela, Henry Kissinger, and Iris Murdoch.
About the Author
Devaki Jain graduated in economics and philosophy from St Anne’s College, Oxford and is an Honorary Fellow of the college. She is a recipient of the Padma Bhushan (2006) and an honorary doctorate from the University of Westville, Durban, South Africa.
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