Ratnottama Sengupta trains the spotlight on actress Swatilekha Sengupta(22nd May 1950- 16th June 2021)
“Swatilekha is more talented and far better actor than I. Still, everyone keeps asking for me!” Rudraprasad Sengupta was not boasting to me – the helmsman of the celebrated Nandikar Theatre Group was citing just one instance to show that “women in theatre still suffer bias.”
He wasn’t far from the truth: Swatilekha Sengupta, who passed away exactly a year ago on June 16 at 71, had graduated in English, mastered Western classical music in England, received guidance in theatre from iconic names like Tapas Sen, B V Karanth and Khaled Chowdhury. She composed music for, directed and carried on her shoulder Nandikar productions like Madhabi, Shanu Roy Chowdhury, Pata Jhore Jaay (Dry Leaves Fall), Naachni(Dancers).
Madhabi was adapted from Bhishm Sahni’s Mahabharat based play; Shanu Roy Chowdhury was adapted from Willy Russel’s Shirley Valentine; Naachni encapsulated the exploitation of the nautch girls of tribal Purulia. She wrote some, she composed the music for some, she travelled to UK and USA, Germany and Norway and Scotland… with husband Rudrapasad, with daughter Sohini, even to stage a one-woman play. Yet, she is most recalled for playing Bimala in Satyajit Ray’s Ghare Baire (Home and the World, 1985) – although, ironically, she faced fierce criticism for its critical failure!
Growing up in Allahabad Swatilekha – then Chatterjee – had repeatedly watched Charulata (1964) and Mahanagar (1963) with her school friends. She even wrote to Ray seeking an opportunity to work under him. Of course the letter went unanswered – or perhaps it went astray? For, Ray watched Swatilekha in Nandikar’s Galileo and zeroed in on her for the dream role of Bimala: the wife of a forward-thinking zamindar, Nikhiliesh, whose concern for the welfare of the peasantry under his care is critiqued and upended by an upstart revolutionary, Sandip.
Tagore had written the novel, told through the personal stories of the three protagonists, in 1916 when the Nationalist movement was peaking. The 1905 Partition of Bengal had outraged both, the Hindus and the Muslims, and the protests against the religion-based partition also saw Tagore set Bankim Chandra’s Vande Mataram to music and singing the song to protest the imposition of foreign rule. But after the ‘administrative division’ was rescinded, the call to boycott foreign goods in favour of Swadeshi, indigenous, appealed to the masses – and that led to tensions between the anti-British activists and the idealists. Swadeshi was critiqued as being unaffordable for the peasantry by Nikhilesh in the film and by Tagore, who contended that humanity came before nationalism. Effectively, then, the drama had pitted the conservative versus the radical, rational versus the emotional, East versus West. In short, the home versus the world.
So keen was Swatilekha’s appetite for the character that, on the first day, she’d defied a local bandh and walked from her home in north Calcutta to the legend’s Bishop Lefroy address across the city. On learning that she’d not read the Tagore classic the iconic director had insisted that she should NOT read it. On noticing that she was staring at a harpsichord Ray had asked her if she could play it, and on hearing that she played the piano he’d asked her to play a Beethoven and he had himself whistled along!
All this camaraderie must have passed on to his actor: when the film released to the world, a prestigious American newspaper praised the “immense grace” of the “pretty, surprisingly wilful Bimala”. But the demanding viewers at home tore her to pieces saying “she neither lived nor looked the role”. Suddenly her ‘home’ had turned into a horrid world… “I sunk into depression and wanted to end my life!” Swatilekha had confessed to my young screen-writer friend, Zinia Sen, while preparing to return to the screen 30 years later — with the same co-star, Soumitra Chatterjee, in Bela Sheshe (In the Autumn of My Life, 2015), which is now considered a cult film.
The story of Arati and Biswanath Majumdar takes a curious turn when, on the eve of their 50th anniversary, the husband seeks to divorce his wife. Because? Arati, a typical, traditional housewife, happily spends her life cooking and cleaning, washing and nursing. For, in her vocabulary, those are just other words to say ‘I love you’ to her husband; for looking after her in-laws; for expressing her concern for her daughters and son and grandchildren… This is a far cry from her husband’s definition of a dream partner. For Biswanath, the proprietor of a fabled bookstore, has unending curiosity about the world and wants to travel beyond the map…
The five relationships depicted in the film attempt to define the life-long companionship we brand as marriage. Do marriage vows ensure the fairy tale ending of happiness ever after? Is married life built upon promises kept and love requited? Or do unfilled expectations and unarticulated expressions also cement the friendship? Is it possible to walk into the sunset hand in hand?
Bela Sheshe made on a budget of Rs 1.1 crore reaped Rs 2.3 crore. More importantly, while reviving faith in institutionalised partnership it also breathed new box office appeal in the screen partners, Soumitra Chatterjee and Swatilekha Sengupta. In Belashuru (A New Beginning, 2022) the latest outing of Nandita Roy and Shiboprasad Mukherjee, the director duo have again cast them as Arati and Biswanath. This time, though, it is a new beginning for the husband is eagerly striving for his Alzheimer afflicted wife to recognise that the ‘stranger’ who follows her everywhere, even her bed, is her now-aged groom. For, Arati now lives in the past she left in Faridpur, along with the pond she’d fish in with Atindrada and the textile shop of her comrade in crime, when she got married…
The film pivots on Arati, and Swatilekha outshines one and all in the cast. Not surprising: the actor’s total commitment to the character is borne out by Zinia. She recalls that, “when the rest of the unit sat listening to Soumitra Da’s enthralling anecdotes and Kharaj Da’s  humour filled recitation, Swati Di refused to join in. Instead, she retired within herself, just as Arati would.”
This is echoed by Raj Chakraborty, the director of Dharma Juddha (Religious War ) which was screened in the recent Kolkata International Film Festival. He recounts that the film was shot in Purulia that suffers extreme summer, but “since the sequence was set on a winter night, she kept her warm clothes on all through the shoot. Such was her dedication to the character and the script!”
Having followed her theatre over a long time Raj counts it amongst his blessings that he could work with her. “I’m certain there was more left to learn,” he sighs as he awaits the masses’ response to the film which once again, rests on the sturdy shoulder of Ma/ Ammi/Dadi. Raj could envisage none but Swatilekha as the protagonist who shelters to two sets of men and women when Ismailpur is seized by an apocalyptic night of communal rage. The pacifier succeeds in instilling brotherhood in the four victims from rival camps – until the tragic truth about her son’s death is revealed. It drives home the realisation that the foremost religion is humanism.
Like Swatilekha, Soumitra Da too had a strong presence on the stage. And fortunately, the screen pair’s daughters – Sohini and Poulami, respectively – are also deeply into theatre. “I had chosen theatre when I wanted to direct,” he’d said to me when Sangeet Natak Akademi had decorated him, “because, if I make films, people will always compare me with Manikda.”
That is why I am doubly delighted that the makers marked the release of Bela Shuru– the duo’s last film – around Swatilekha’s birth anniversary, with a unique exhibition. it showcases Soumitra’s typewriter, the script he penned for a play, a collection of pipes acquired on travels abroad; his paintings, poems, letters to his daughter from his Jaisalmer shoot for Sonar Kella (1974)… And it showcases Swatilekha’s violin and mouth-organ; the costumes she wore in Nachni and Bela Shuru; and, a congratulatory letter to Swatilekha, from a star admirer — Amitabh Bachchan…
Surely a far cry from the bias that you lamented when you celebrated the 150th birth anniversary of Notee Binodini in 2013, Rudra Da?
Yes, theatre people the world over agree, that the ‘Moon of Star Theatre’ was deprived of her rightful honour when the theatre that was founded by her not named after her. Why? Because “the aristocrats would not like to enter a place named after a noti.” Thespian Noti Binodini might have been, but she was a fallen woman, wasn’t she? So what if this contemporary of Tagore was the first South Asian actress to pen her own story – Aamar Katha — a lucid memoir that portrays the 19th century society in Bengal which was at ease with European ideas but confined women to homes. So what if the sage Ramakrishna had gone into a trance as he watched her essay Chaitanya Mahaprabhu (1884)? Such was her portrayal that thespian Amritlal Bose wrote, “Whenever I bow to any wooden or painted image of Sri Chaitanya, I see Binodini before my eyes.”
Binodini Dasi had gone onstage at age 12, under mentor Girish Ghosh (1844-1912), and her career had ended when she was just 23. Merely 11 years, but those were the years when the proscenium theatre modelled after European convention was spreading in Bengal. In those 11 years Binodini enacted 80 roles, playing Sita, Draupadi, Radha, Kaikeyi or Pramila, Mrinalini, Motibibi, Ayesha. Please note: She pioneered modern stage make-up by blending European and indigenous styles.
“Because of this, people who had seen her in one role could not recognise her in another,” Girish Ghosh himself wrote. Yet this same stalwart of theatre, to please whom Binodini had drained her own resources and foundedStar Theatre in north Calcutta, refused to write a foreword for My Story as it contained uncomfortable truths about Binodini’s patrons!
Why did the chroniclers of Bengal Renaissance overlook the contribution of this marginalised star to the land’s cultural mileu? “Because of the class-caste divide,” Soumitra Chatterjee suggests in his foreword for the memoir. “How could the Brahmo-Brahmin dominated upper crust acknowledge the talents of a lowborn ‘prostitute’?”
More than a century later, Swatilekha took it upon herself to train the spotlight on the fact that the years had failed to change the plight of another set of dancing artistes – the Nachnis.
 Women in Theatre suffer bias.’ – quoted from Times of India, article by Ratnottama Sengupta.
Ratnottama Sengupta, formerly Arts Editor of The Times of India, teaches mass communication and film appreciation, curates film festivals and art exhibitions, and translates and write books. She has been a member of CBFC, served on the National Film Awards jury and has herself won a National Award. Ratnottama Sengupta has the rights to translate her father, Nabendu Ghosh.
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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.)
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“He was badly beaten in lockup, denied medicine, and died soon after,” my cousin writes in his article on our Uncle Anand in a local Indian publication.
“Uncle A. died of dysentery,” I respond via WhatsApp. “He was only eleven or twelve. Not fourteen as you state. And my father was eight at the time. It says so in my father’s writings.” Later in life, my father had kept notes on his brother’s death.
My cousin hesitated. “I have it on the evidence of Aunt S.,” Aunt S. is our only surviving relative from that generation. “She told me that the police warned our grandfather, that they were watching Uncle A. They finally arrested him. They threatened our grandfather into silence.”
“With all due deference,” I say, because my cousin is nine years older than me, “Aunt S. was just a few weeks old in August 1930. She hardly counts as an eyewitness. And neither you nor I were alive then.”
1930 was the year of Mahatma Gandhi’s civil disobedience movement. Mahatma Gandhi led the fight for independence from the British Empire by nonviolent means. Even in the small coastal town of Karwar, men and women joined in the struggle. Uncle A. with a natural flair for leadership organised the “monkey brigade” that was made up of youngsters. Townspeople hinted to my grandfather that his son, who was leading boys and girls every morning in the dawn marches, was perhaps neglecting his studies. To which my grandfather replied that his son was very smart and secured the first rank in class.
These dawn marches were accompanied by stirring patriotic songs, punctuated by lusty salutations to Mother India, Mahatma Gandhi, and Jawaharlal Nehru. Boys and girls accompanied Uncle Anand to the sea to produce salt out of seawater in defiance of the law. Making salt was a government monopoly. The spirit of swadeshi, of boycotting foreign goods for domestic ones, was in the air and Uncle A. learned how to make soap and taught it to others. He acquired a spinning wheel and showed his family how to spin cotton into yarn on a spindle. The finished yarn was mailed by Uncle A. in a parcel to the handlooms of Nandangadda.
The movement slackened a bit with the advent of the monsoons, and then in August 1930, Karwar was struck for the first time by an epidemic of dysentery.
I write to my cousin, “Uncle A. was not arrested or beaten. He was the first one to contract dysentery. Would you like to see my father’s writings?”
Dysentery was still an unfamiliar disease for the doctors in Karwar. The family doctor was very competent, and he gave Uncle A. the best treatment he knew. There were no antibiotics then. The family doctor believed that another doctor had the penicillin that could save Uncle A. He asked our grandfather to approach him, but the second doctor did not oblige. It was alleged that he was saving it for his own patients. (Our grandfather never forgave this second doctor.) Perhaps he never had any penicillin in the first place.
In the night of the fourth day of the attack, Uncle Anand died. Unexpectedly, the cloth made of yarn that he had spun arrived from Nandangadda on the morning of the funeral. It covered his body like a shroud as he was led to the cremation ground. The town held a large public meeting to mourn the death of Uncle A.
Several people died in the epidemic. My father also had a long brush with the disease, but he survived because this time the family doctor was able to acquire the penicillin.
I wonder why my cousin wants to falsify facts and revise history because that often results in making people believe none of it. This is how myths are born. Was dying from police brutality more tragic or glamorous than dying of dysentery? To me this was like an important intervention between historiography and the “woke” debate.
My cousin resents my contradicting him. Did I, a girl, albeit a grandmother now, younger than him, dare impugn his credibility? I was the unpatriotic one, removed from her heritage, a U.S. citizen who lived in the West with a westernized preciosity that downplayed the brave deeds of Indian patriots. How could I know better?
My beef with my cousin is that he doesn’t check his facts and seeks out the sensational. My cousin’s “facts” came via an aunt whose information was based on hearsay because my grandparents never spoke of the tragedy that had befallen them.
In my cousin’s defense, I must admit that I have my biases too: I hero-worship my father and regard him as the custodian of historical truth; could he have overlooked the arrest and police brutality in recording his brother’s short but heroic life? My father’s memory could just as easily have been distorted.
I also had a grievance. On my ninth birthday, my cousin had snatched my new water colour set before I even had a chance to open it and mixed up the coral with the ultramarine and the white with the green. Maybe I found it hard to believe him.
We are in agreement on one point: that my grandparents could never bear to utter Uncle A.’s name again. His name “Anand” meant “joy”—and after his death the word was forevermore excised from their vocabulary.
Once, during one of my subsequent visits to Karwar, I came across a concrete till. It stood in the shadow of the road, at some distance from my grandparents’ house. The till had a slit for coins, and a sign asking for donations for the oil needed to light the lamp for the Brahma. The Brahma was believed to be the spirit of an unmarried Brahmin youth who haunted peepul trees and coconut palms. I suspect this was a ghost that predated Uncle A.
Then it struck me. The reason for the lamp for the Brahma was to memorialise the dead so that they were not forgotten. It was a way of bearing witness to their lives and the unrealised potential of their lives. Similarly, my cousin’s write-up on Uncle Anand was like a lamp that had been lit to rescue his memory from the jaws of oblivion. If some facts had been embellished for a “good story,” it was all part of the homage.
Ravibala Shenoy has published award-winning short stories, short stories, flash fiction, memoir, and op-ed pieces. She was a former librarian and book reviewer, who lives in Chicago.
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Santosh Bakaya interviews Tushar Gandhi, the great grandson of Bapu, after paying a brief tribute to the Mahatma
Before I begin the interview, I would like to pay a small tribute to the great Bapu, the unarmed fighter, the environmentalist, the vibrant economic philosopher, who talked of Swadeshi and self- dependence long before the modern world is slowly waking up to its benefits, who emphasized a people -centered economy rather than a technology centred one, where we find individuals stripped off their dignity, becoming insignificant cogs in the machine. The plight of the migrant labourers during the current pandemic is branded on our collective consciousness, all because of a flawed-topsy- turvy model of development. Only if we had heeded Bapu’s call of making the villages self- sufficient and self- reliant.
Right from the time he refused to ‘cheat’ to correct the spelling of kettle in a class test during the visit of the school inspector, to the time he abruptly called off the Non-cooperation movement, due to violence at Chauri Chaura, well-aware of the repercussions that would follow, he shunned mendacity and violence. Belying his physical fragility, he managed to emerge as a strong moral icon. In a world torn asunder by war and violence, he succeeded in teaching many a world leader lessons in the powerful weapon of non- violence and truth, pitting soul force against brute force. The vulnerable Mohan, full of complexes, foibles, fears and phobias, a boy who was afraid of snakes, ghosts, multiplication tables, metamorphosed into the valiant, venerable Mahatma, [a sobriquet he did not feel comfortable with]. Under the seemingly frail façade, was a man who could flex his moral muscles and shake a comatose nation out of its languor. This unarmed warrior, went on to exemplify self- introspection, self -analysis, self- mastery, and a humongous moral power. Denigrated as the half-naked fakir by Winston Churchill, he was the very epitome of minimalism, but well- clothed in the raiment of love, compassion, fearlessness and forgiveness.
During the Dandi March, women from all sections of society- women who had never been part of public gatherings, women who had not stepped out of the four walls of the house, unlettered village women, poured out on the streets because he had very intelligently linked salt, a common kitchen ingredient to an uncommon call for freedom. Kamladevi Chattopadhyay valiantly stalked into the High Court premises, and while a stunned magistrate gaped, hurled a question at him whether he would like to buy “the salt of freedom”, she had prepared. Songs of freedom rang in the streets, women metamorphosed into human shields blocking the paths of policemen, facing lathi blows and even landing in jails. What do you call such a man – an intelligent strategist? Quixotic? Charismatic? A maverick? Was this not a coup of sorts?
Bapu’s strategy paid off and the Indians realized that throwing off the foreign yoke was not difficult, if heads are held high and spines, straightened. Gurudev Tagore told the Manchester Guardian of 17 May, 1930, “Europe has completely lost her former moral prestige in Asia.” Louis Fischer wrote in the chapter, ‘Drama at the Seashore’, in his biography of Gandhi, The Life of Mahatma Gandhi, “The British beat the Indians with batons and rifle butts. The Indians neither cringed, nor complained, nor retreated. That made England powerless and India invincible”– all because of a seemingly weak, five-foot five man, who sent quivers down the rulers’ backs by a handful of salt.
In this interview with his great grandson, Tushar Gandhi , author of a book called Let’s Kill Gandhi(2007), chronicling the last days of his great grandfather, we hear more on Bapu and Gandhi-ism in the current world.
It is with a feeling of immense awe for the descendant of a great moral icon that I am here with my questions for you, Tusharji. If you remember, this is not the first time I am talking to you. It was in the year 2015 that I not just met you, but presented you my poetic biography of Bapu, Ballad of Bapu, for which you had graciously written the foreword. I remember being awe-struck by your unassuming demeanour coupled with a self-derogatory sense of humour, which your great-grandfather was also known to have had. Please tell us something about yourself, which we don’t know already.
I am an ordinary, simple person of limited abilities who is very lucky to be born a descendant of very illustrious ancestors. Life has taught me that greatness is not an inheritable quality it must be earned. I remember when a celebrity TV presenter Richard Quest was doing a series for CNN called ‘Quest for Greatness‘, he shot the concluding episode at Sabarmati Ashram and invited me to talk to him. His precept was whether places associated with greatness were the source of that greatness. He talked about the greatness of Bapu and about how the place attracted so many leaders of the world to visit it and be inspired by the place and the legacy of the person with whom the place was associated. He asked me if the fountain of greatness was at Sabarmati Ashram and was that the reason leaders visited it to partake of that greatness. My answer was yes, absolutely, sometimes the place inspires great actions and sometimes the aura of the great person associated with the place lingers on to inspire future generations. That draws them to the place.
Yes, that is absolutely right. The lingering aura of a particular place cannot be shrugged off, and if it is a place associated with our beloved Bapu, it will always keep inspiring people. The fragrance that I inhaled on my visit to the Sabarmati Ashram, is something I can never forget. Its aura and extraordinary energy seems to cling to ordinary visitors.
Richard’s concluding question for the show was directed at me, he asked, “There is no doubt that Gandhi was great. Scientists believe that our nature and what we become is also hot-wired in one’s DNA, genes. Did Gandhi have the greatness gene? As his direct descendant have you, Tushar inherited that greatness gene?”
My answer was immediate and short, I told Richard, “Greatness cannot be inherited, it has to be earned.”
I am overweight, the result of an indulgent lifestyle. I am lazy, when you sent me these questions my first question was how long would you be willing to wait for my responses! I haven’t, as yet developed the courage to be absolutely truthful. I succumb to anger and passion. I am enslaved by the sense of taste, to delicious food. I am unable to reduce my requirements in life. I know Bapu would have disapproved of me.
So, I live within my limitations, aware of my short comings.
No one is perfect. We all have our fads, foibles, idiosyncrasies and shortcomings. Yes, I remember, seeing some pictures, of your early teens, in one of which you are even holding on to your pet dog. What were your dreams then? Were you awareof your monumental legacy? Were you curious to know more and more about your great grandfather?
Yes, Zendy was more of a brother than a pet. I loved him, poor chap was a bit of a cripple, he had very limited abilities in his hind legs and so he would drag himself around or we carried him around. As a child I was inspired by my mother’s brother. He was a pilot in the Indian Air Force. So, from very early childhood I wanted to become a pilot. As I grew older, I wanted to join the Indian Air Force and become a fighter pilot. I even sat for the NDA entrance exam, unfortunately I could not qualify and so abandoned those plans. But my desire to become a pilot was obsessive and so I never considered doing anything else and when that dream crumbled, I was left adrift, not knowing what to do. Finally at my father’s suggestion I joined the Printing Institute to do a diploma in printing, I qualified as a printer, but my heart was never in that work and so after several halfhearted attempts, I gave it up as a career.
I don’t have any recollection of a moment or age in my life when I became aware of the legacy I had inherited. I feel I was always aware of the greatness of my ancestor, as I grew older, and my understanding increased the awareness about the greatness of Ba (Kasturba, Gandhi’s wife)and Bapu and my grandparents has grown and along with it my pride in the legacy they have bequeathed to me and with it the awareness of my limitations too.
I never had to request my elders about information about Bapu, I remember as a child my bedtime stories as told by my grandmother or by her sisters and cousins were almost always about their recollections of Ba and Bapu. As a child sometimes I would get fed up and throw a tantrum demanding to be told stories of kings and princes, fairies and princesses. But all I got were stories of Ashram experiences and anecdotes with Ba and Bapu. As I grew older, and my abilities of understanding evolved, I realised and understood the profound lessons those stories taught and the reason why my elders insisted on instilling those stories into my psyche.
My study of the ideals and the methods of Bapu continues. That is a lifelong never-ending quest.
We would love to know about your early life — your idols and heroes. Was Bapu also one of them? Are you also known for your candid, straightforward, hard-hitting words like your great- granddad?
My childhood, like me was very ordinary and unremarkable. I was a very average student someone who would have been diagnosed as being dyslexic, I am still spelling-challenged in all the languages I can write. If it wasn’t for the word processor software with their built-in spell checks I would never have been accepted as a writer, let alone a published author.
Were you a mischievous boy in school?
I was known to be a mischief maker and spent a record amount of time in detention. But it turned out to be a boon. In detention we were made to sit on a bench outside our principal’s office. The door of his curtain-less office always remained open, so he kept an eagle eye on all the benched ones.
The rule was that after we told him why we were on the detention bench, we had to go to the library, get a book and read it while sitting on the bench. I was so often on the bench that I got hooked to reading to such an extent that our school librarian when asked, why he was spending more than what was budgeted for library purchase, complained to our principal about how he had to keep buying new books because I had read all the books in the library.
This is hilarious! Your punishments turned you into a bibliophile!
The reading addiction grew so much that by my teenage years I was black listed by four libraries in our neighbourhood, because I had read through their collections of books!
In my childhood, shopkeepers used to keep paper bags made from pages of magazines and newspapers. I remember back home after the purchases had been put away, I would open up the bags and read whatever was printed on them, even though it was incomplete. My obsession with reading continues even today, now on laptops and smart phones, but I still prefer to read stuff printed on paper.
I had many idols during my childhood many still are, my ancestors, naturally. Revolutionaries too. Heroes from the folklore and history, sports icons, armed forces legends and martyrs. Those associates of my great grandfather I was fortunate to meet, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, C. Rajagopalachary, Maniben Patel, Khan Abdul Gaffar Khan, once and several others. They all left an indelible impression on my mind.
Since I am well- aware of my limitations I am not as honestly outspoken or frank as Bapu, but I am not known to mince words. Brash, is how I am more often described. But, as we live in a world of increasing hypocrisy, I have realized the need for plain speaking, so I too am becoming more and more outspoken.
To suit myself I have reinterpreted Bapu’s favourite three Monkeys from ancient Japanese and Buddhist lore who were actually four, Mizaru, who covers his eyes and sees no evil, Kikazaru who covers his ears and hears no evil, Iwazaru who covers his mouth and speaks no evil and the obscure fourth Sezaru who covers his lower abdomen and does no evil.
In today’s times I have reinterpreted them, feeling that they more appropriately convey the message: “Don’t shut your eyes and block out evil acts or crimes. Don’t close your ears so as not to hear a cry for help or to the bitter truth. Don’t shut your mouth and remain silent while evil is done, and hate is preached around you. And don’t remain indifferent against injustice, act against it decisively.”
I strongly believe Bapu would have adopted the fourth monkey too and reinterpreted all of them. It is no longer the time for polite and diplomatic talk, we need strong but honest words, not necessarily angry ones and most importantly, actions.
Very rightly said. In his very first public speech, on 4 February 1916, at the inaugural ceremony of Banaras Hindu University, because of his forthright words, Annie Besant had to plead, “Sit down Gandhi”, when he had ridiculed the highly bejeweled princes who were glibly talking about poverty. “Our salvation can only come through the farmer”. Don’t you think these words of Gandhi resonate today with a renewed vigour?
Yes, Bapu did fall foul of the organisers at the foundation stone laying ceremony of the Banaras Hindu University where he was invited to speak, as the hero of South Africa. When he criticised the bejeweled and pompously attired princes and the elite gathered there, Annie Besant who presided over the function, requested him to stop on several occasions.
When he started talking about swaraj (self-rule), the dignitaries on the dais staged a walk out and Ms. Besant called the meeting to a halt, but the student body gathered, insisted on listening to Bapu and trooped out of the venue and held an impromptu meeting on the open ground where Bapu continued his very ‘hard hitting’ and what was then dismissed as, impertinent ravings.
Yes, the students had applauded his candid utterances, saying Hear Hear! much to the discomfiture of the organizers and the princes.
The students were very fascinated by Bapu’s thoughts. It was after this that Bapu forayed into the Champaran Satyagraha, registering a decisive triumph over the colonial power, and gradually taking hold of the reins of the freedom movement.
There is a lot of dissatisfaction and frustration in our country and much that needs to be set right. To begin the process, we need a leader with Bapu’s ability of calling a spade a spade and yet not speaking in an offensive, insulting manner. India today suffers from a very dangerous epidemic of hate, it mustn’t and can’t be countered by counter hate. We must revert to Bapu’s method, honest, truthful words, yet not the language of hate and abuse.
India is witnessing an ongoing protest by farmers from northern states now almost a year old, there is discontent and despair in the entire farm sector, but it is being compromised by a general apathy towards their plight, today it is the farmers, tomorrow it will be another group of us, we must wake up and fight together, united.
Indeed, we need to yank away our comatose stupor, before it is too late. Bapu is said to have had a great sense of humour. Do you recall having heard any incident of Bapu which had tickled your funny bone immensely, as a child?
Bapu is reported to have said that ‘If it wasn’t for his sense of humour he would have gone mad.’ and also that ‘ If he did not have a sense of humour, the ability to enjoy the funny side of everything he would have been driven to despair and committed suicide.’ This is how much Bapu appreciated and valued humour. His humor used to be laced with sarcasm. When an American journalist asked Bapu what he thought about Western Civilisation, Bapu replied “It is a good idea!”
Yes, that witticism by Bapu never fails to bring a smile to my lips.
I recall a personal anecdote told by my grandmother. This happened in Sevagram, Wardha. Bapu received a request from a group of women village sevaks (workers), who wished to greet him on his birthday and spend 2nd October at the Ashram. Bapu welcomed them but said that he was a poor man and so they would have to bring their own meals and not burden the Ashram.
On 2nd October, they came to the Ashram early morning and participated in the activities of the Ashram. At lunch time when everyone at the ashram assembled at the dining hall, Kasturba noticed that the visitors were sitting under a tree, opening the cloth bundles they were carrying. She called my father and asked him why the visitors were not eating along with all the other residents of the Ashram? My father told her of the condition Bapu had laid down to permit the visitors to spend the day at the ashram.
When Ba heard the story, she was very angry, she told my father to call the visitors to assemble in her kutir (hut), she would cook a meal and feed the guests. Unlike her husband, she refused to forget her dharma (duty) as a host. Ba hurriedly cooked Khichadi and fed them. This defiance of his order by Ba was reported to Bapu, everyone expected him to get annoyed and reprimand her. But he smiled, quipping, ‘At one time the British Queen listens to me, but my words hold no authority over Ba.’
A typical Bapu witticism! We have mutated into rodents, running the rodent derby in helter-skelter haste. How would Bapu have reacted to this rodent derby? Would he still have continued to walk alone – taking long strides towards self- discovery, advising\ rebuking people along the way?
Bapu would have warned us about our devolution into rodents. But he would not have just warned us about the evil, danger and unsuitability of our way of life, he would have presented humankind with an evolving alternative way of life and lived it himself. Walking alone was second nature to Bapu, he was so far ahead of his times that he had no option but walk alone, not intimidated by the unknown. Having said that, his belief in the omnipresence of God was so deeply entrenched that he never considered himself to ever be alone.
Please tell us something about yourself as a student, were you obedient and disciplined? How did your peers and teachers treat you? Did you have a rebellious streak in you?
I was a very average student. In our times we were expected to be obedient, and we too believed that we should be obedient, so I also obeyed my elders and teachers. I was only nominally disciplined, there was a rebellious streak in me, muted most of the time, but it did manifest itself from time to time.
Please tell us something about Bapu’s walking habits. He shunned physical classes in school, but later did a lot of physical labour, becoming a very agile walker. “The modern generation is delicate, weak and much pampered.” He said during the Dandi March and walking less than twelve miles a day, he considered, “child’s play”. How did he become such a sturdy walker?
Bapu acquired the habit of walking far and fast in South Africa. He used to compete with his friend Herman Kallenbach to see who walked the longer distance and who was faster than the other. This became a daily lifelong habit and when at the age of 61 he lead the Dandi March, others much younger than him had to run to keep pace with him. There is a very iconic photograph of a child holding on to Bapu’s walking stick and seemingly pulling Bapu along.
Yes, I have seen that iconic photograph.
The child is Bapu’s grandson Kanha, who lived with him when Bapu was briefly staying at Juhu in Bombay. Every evening Bapu would insist that Kanha accompany him on his walks on the beach. Kanha walked very slowly, so, to make him walk faster, Bapu used to push him ahead of him with his walking stick. Over the years some dexterous photo retouching artists touched up the photo to appear as if the child was pulling Bapu along. Bapu had a very long stride which also added to his speed of walking.
Bapu was a staunch supporter of women empowerment, but in the Dandi March, if I am not mistaken, among the 78 handpicked volunteers, who accompaniedBapu on the 240-mile march which lasted 24 days [12 March to 6 April 1930], only a few women joined the retinue from the Sabarmati Ashram to Dandi, other women only joined him later. Did this issue not become a bone of contention among the women?I recall having read that powerful women like Kamladevi Chattopadhyay, Sarojini Naidu and Perin Captain (the granddaughter of Dada Bhai Naoroji) were displeased that they were not part of the handpicked retinue, strongly venting their ire, saying that they would not be satisfied merely by picketing shops. But yes, I remember Sarojini Naidu becoming a part of the March during the last stretch to Dandi, and raising a fistful of salt on 6 April,1930, and saying, “Hail Deliverer”.
There was a reason why Bapu refused to allow women to accompany him on the Dandi March. His objective was to provoke the Colonial Government to deal harshly with him. Threats were also made against the Satyagrahis, news was leaked that the Government would unleash a regiment of Pathan Sepoys to beat them and disrupt the march, not even sparing Bapu. Sardar Patel was arrested a week before the March was to begin and locked up in Sabarmati Prison. This was a warning to Bapu. Bapu wanted such harsh responses. He knew that if women accompanied him the Colonial Government would claim that Gandhi had taken women along as protection.
He knew that the ‘gentlemanly’ colonial government would not harm women and so he had insulated himself from reprisals by hiding behind a protective shield of women. So Bapu decided that women would not accompany the marchers, hence they were not allowed to accompany him and his handpicked companions on the March from Sabarmati to Dandi.
There was a lot of discontent among the leading women Satyagrahis of that time, and they protested against Bapu, but they obeyed him too.
After he picked up salt at Dandi and broke the law on 6th April 1930 they demanded that now they must be allowed an equal opportunity to participate in Satyagraha in the front lines of Satyagrahis. Sarojini Naidu and Mithuben Petiet welcomed Bapu at Dandi. Eventually a Women’s Conference was held at Dandi and addressing the attendees, Bapu ordered the women to participate in the Satyagraha from then on.
Bapu used symbols very powerfully. Symbols such as minimal clothes, charkha(spinning wheel), salt, khadi were very effectively used by him for mass mobilisation. We would like to know something from you about his strategic use of symbols.
Bapu was a master communicator throughout his campaigns, first in South Africa and later in India, he utilised the power of symbolism to a great advantage. Bapu’s use of symbols and gestures was unlike the very artificial and dramatic use of symbolism, by the ‘leaders’ of today. He used them in a much more honest, sincere and believable manner. After deciding to embrace poverty when he was one of the most prosperous Indian lawyers in South Africa, Bapu chose to live simply to identify with the poor Indians he was leading and living amongst at the Phoenix Settlement. Yet he continued to wear the western attire of a gentleman.
It was only towards the end of his struggle in South Africa after a few Satyagrahis died during the Satyagraha and as a result of the brutal incarceration they were subjected to, that Bapu discarded the western attire and appeared in public dressed as what was then contemptuously described as the dress of a ‘Coolie’. When he arrived in India in 1915, he had started dressing in an elaborate costume of a Kathiyavadi gent. The dress of his home region in India.
In Champaran and before that during his year and half long travels to discover India, Bapu came face to face with the abject poverty of its populace and it was then that he began dressing less. Finally, it was when he saw the farmers of Madurai toiling in the fields, dressed merely in a brief loin cloth, that he discarded the kurti that he wore and adopted the attire of a mere loincloth to identify with the people he wanted to lead.
Yes, that is what riled Winston Churchill and he commented adversely on his attire.
Yes, it was this that bugged Winston Churchill and when Bapu visited Buckingham Palace to have tea with the royalty dressed similarly, Churchill called him ‘the half-naked Faqeer’. When Bapu was questioned by a reporter as to whether he would be dressed as he always did if he was invited to meet the Emperor he had replied that if he dressed up in any other manner he would be dishonest and disrespectful towards the Emperor.
The charkha to him was not just a symbol but a tool for the rejuvenation of India’s traditional crafts and village industries, he used it as a symbol of his idea of the ideal ‘industrial’ revolution in India’s villages he wished to usher in.
Salt was one of his most brilliant and evocative symbolisms, which he turned into a symbol of the British oppression of the masses of India. Their suffering and their aspirations for freedom, dignity and existence. It caught the fancy of the people of India and the attention of the entire humanity.
It goes without saying that through the powerful use of symbols and symbolic language, he was able to drive many a point home. Could you throw some light on his relationship with Kasturba? Both were married at the age of thirteen, and both grew together, and all of us know that Ba’s death devastated him completely. Obviously, with his obstinate ways, he was definitely not an easy man to carry along with. Yet, she was the moral strength behind him.
Ba was Bapu’s anchor. Throughout his evolution he has acknowledged her as his teacher of several important lessons, one of them being Passive Resistance.
Ba had the unenviable task of living with him as he transformed and surviving each of his catharsis. She not only survived but carried the family with her- immediate family initially, her growing sons and then the extended ashram family as she learnt to accept all of them and started feeling responsible for them.
Initially tumultuous, at times it was difficult to believe that their relationship would survive. But what Bapu wrote to the Viceroy and Lady Wavell replying to their message of condolences on Ba’s death, illustrates the depth of their relationship, showing how much Bapu relied on Ba. I quote:
‘I send you and Lady Wavell my thanks for your kind condolences on the death of my wife. Though for her sake I have welcomed her death as bringing freedom from living agony, I feel the loss more than I thought I should.
‘We were a couple outside the ordinary. It was in 1906 that after mutual consent and after unconscious trials we definitely adopted self-restrain as a rule of life. To my great joy this knit us together as never before. We ceased to be two different entities. Without me wishing it, she chose to lose herself in me. The result was she became truly my better half. She was a woman always of very strong will which, in our early days, I used to mistake for obstinacy. But that strong will enabled her to become quite unwittingly my teacher in the art and practice of nonviolent non-co-operation.’
One does not require to say any more.
Do you not find it a daunting task to carry forward the legacy of Bapu?
It is daunting but I have always lived within my limitations, and I don’t bother to live up to the expectations of others, this has made it easier to live with such a ‘heavy’ legacy. I have always considered the legacy I have inherited as a boon and so I have never felt it a burden.
It was Martin Luther King Jr who had said, “Gandhi was perhaps the first person in history to lift the love ethic of Jesus above mere interaction between individuals to a powerful and effective social force on a large scale”, which is indeed the truth. There is no denying the fact that it is a dystopian world that we are living in, where all are caught between the harsh tones of hatred and the insidious currents of revenge and rancor. How can non-violence again be revived as an effective social force?
Even in the past, we have lived in the age of hate, prejudice and strife; family relationships too have become fragile due to this but it’s not entirely a new phenomenon. When Bapu arrived in India, one of the first things he realised was the disunity between Hindus and Muslims due to distrust and hostility. He concluded that to effectively fight the colonial power he had to unite the two religious groups, and he set about working diligently towards it by igniting the passion for freedom in every heart.
He achieved his objective, but the glue was tenuous, and as independence became a reality, it rapidly deteriorated and the traditional distrust and hostility resurfaced. Hate and violence took center stage in 1946. Bapu realised that he had lost his dream in his hour of triumph. In 1946-47 and the first month of 1948 , insanity prevailed in India and the newly-created Pakistan.
It was only Bapu’s murder which shocked Indians and restored sanity for the time being. That sanity lasted for the first fifty years of its existence because of compassionate leadership and the memory of the sacrifice of Bapu. But then opportunist ‘leaders’ stepped into the forefront and unleashed a campaign of untruths and communal hate. The venom has now permeated to our cells and altered our very DNA, and we see its manifestation in every aspect of our existence. Unfortunately, now there is no Gandhi to jolt us back to sanity by sacrificing himself. Even if one was to emerge, I don’t think we collectively deserve such a deliverer.
Yes, we indeed need Bapu to remerge, and pull us back to sanity. Tell me, can walks for peace change mindsets? What triggered the idea of the re-enactment of the Dandi March? I remember, it was the year 2005, the 75th anniversary of the March I was in my MPhil class, and the news of the reenactment of Dandi March was very much in the air, and my students were hurling questions after questions at me – most of them laced with cynicism. Can you tell us something about your experience during these marches? I remember seeing pics of the March where one man was dressed like Bapu. How did this image of Gandhi impact the people?
My reenactment of the Dandi March in 2005, in its 75th anniversary year, was a personal challenge and a token gesture of response to the violence of 2002 the state had endured. That is why I went out of my way to invite the participation of a group of Pakhtoon Khudai Khidmatgaar, descendants of the legacy of Khan Abdul Gaffar Khan. It was a privilege to walk alongside the almost 100 Red Shirts from Pukhtoon Khwa in Pakistan and watch the people of Gujarat warmly embrace them and invite them into their homes.
The personal challenge was that three of my ancestors had walked the entire route in 1930: my great grandfather, Bapu, my grandfather, Manilal and my uncle, Kantilal. It always felt challenging to me. I wanted to test if I had it in me to walk the distance. I was always the proverbial ‘Couch Potato’, so, it was an intimidating task. After putting it off several times, I decided to take the plunge. None who knew me, believed I would complete the journey. On several occasions during the March, I wanted to give up mid-stride, the agony too excruciating. Then I visualized walking with Bapu, imagining his walking stick pushing me along and it gave me the strength to complete the walk-first that day’s walk and then the entire 241 miles.
There were several people who dressed as Bapu during the March, but one had a remarkable resemblance to Bapu, and it was very inspiring, walking the entire distance, barefeet!
That was indeed a commendable feat. Gurudev Tagore, who was deeply revered by Bapu, happened to be in the vicinity of Sabarmati Ashram on 18 January, 1930, and paid him a visit. When asked what plans he had for his country in 1930, Bapu remarked, “I am furiously thinking night and day, and I do not see any light coming out of the surrounding darkness.” But then the Inner Voice spoke to him, and light came in the form of the iniquities of the Salt Tax, and he decided to embark on the path of Civil Disobedience. What exactly was the nature of this Inner voice, for him?
For Bapu his inner voice was his conscience keeper. He acquired the ability to hear it after much effort. Once he began hearing the ‘still faint voice’ it became his search light, it guided him, showed him the direction and illuminated his objective.
Bapu was not against technology as such, but he was staunchly convinced that our education system bred mediocrity. What would he say about the education system of today?
Bapu had rejected the western education system outright as unsuitable for Indian needs. He believed it till his end, begging with his sons in South Africa and then in his Ashrams in South Africa and India he developed a new system of basic education that he believed would cater to the varied needs of India. It was based on the principle of Enlightening the mind, Awakening theheart and Empowering the hands. He named his model of Basic Education Buniyadi Talim and then Naee Talim.
True to his brutally honest utterances, he would have termed the education system in India today as a curse on India and Indians and would have crusaded to destroy it completely, at the same time, offering a more suitable sustainable alternative.
We are witnessing that our basic education model has completely failed and only churns out substandard students, worth next to nothing. Same is the case with the higher University education system. Upon graduation, students realise that their ‘qualifications’ are worthless, they are not able to get jobs which their parents were able to secure upon graduation. Even with professional degrees, it is the same. Engineers acquire a degree in Management even after specialising in a field of engineering, even after a masters. Doctors study for super specialisation after specializing to enhance their earning ability. Education from being a medium of enlightenment has been reduced to merely being a means of earning. That is the resounding failure of education system the world over, but starkly so in India.
Yes, it is indeed pathetic. If you happen to meet him again, what would your first question to him be? Any niggling doubt that you would want to clarify?
If I were to have an opportunity to meet Bapu now, my question to him, even though I know what his answer would be is, “Bapu, how may I seek revenge for your murder?” My biggest regret is that I did not get to learn from him and so the rest of the time I would sit patiently and absorb whatever he thought I needed to learn. I would not waste my time in asking questions.
In this era of Instant gratification, truth and honesty have become outdated. How would Bapu react to the WhatsApp forwards, short cuts, cutting corners, passing the buck and the inhumane behaviour of the human beings that have become so much a part of the present socio- political- psychological ethos?
Bapu would have rejected it all and made a bonfire of all of it.
Do you think Bapu was a disillusioned man in the last days of his life? On 14\ 15 August 1947 midnight, when the thrilling words of Nehru’s epochal “Tryst with Destiny” speech rang through a free India, sheathed in a celebratory fervor, a frail but morally strong man, lay on a frayed mat in Beliaghata in Calcutta praying, fasting and relentlessly spinning, considering the partition ‘a spiritual tragedy’, ruing the vacuity of such a freedom, but still not losing faith in humanity. Mulling over many things– if he had erred somewhere, maybe he could set it right, somehow? What do you think were the issues that were going on in his mind that day?
The last years of his life were tragic for Bapu, as he had faced betrayal, he felt abandoned, cast away by those he had trusted. He saw the true nature of his people, his countrymen and women, whom he had assumed he had transformed. But his personal grief would have been enhanced because for all the things he saw going wrong with his people and in the nation, he had helped liberate, he would have blamed some weakness of his own character some flaw in his actions and he would have been harsh on himself. That was the greatest agony he had to endure.
On the first Independence Day, he pondered over his anxieties but continued to work to set things right and guide his people back on the right path and to do penance for everything wrong, that he blamed himself for.
After India won freedom, in a message to the cabinet of ministers of West Bengal, he wrote, “From today, you have to wear the crown of thorns. Strive ceaselessly to cultivate truth and non-violence. Be humble. Be forbearing… Do not let yourself be entrapped by its pomp and pageantry. Remember, you are in office to serve poor in India’s villages.” Humility is needed like never before. Is the India that we see today the India of his dreams? Are the poor in India’s villages being served?
India became Independent on August 15, 1947. But it never achieved ‘Purna Swaraj’ that Bapu had aspired for, 75 years later it still hasn’t.
I quote Bapu to show what he believed ‘Purna Swaraj’ was. In 1925, in the issue of Young India of 29th January he wrote. ‘Real Swaraj will come not by the acquisition –of authority by the few but by the acquisition of the capacity by all to resist authority when it is abused. In other words, Swaraj is to be obtained by educating the masses to a sense of their capacity to regulate and control authority.’
Then again writing in the April 16, 1931 issue of Young India, Bapu said, ‘ Let there be no mistake what Purna Swaraj means. It is full economic freedom for all the toiling millions it means no unholy alliance with any interest for their exploitation. Any alliance must mean their deliverance.’
One does not need to illustrate how far India has diverged from Bapu’s concept of Purna Swaraj for his people. Today those he commanded to become servants of the people have become their Overlords.
Martin Luther King Jr. had pointed out, “He lived, thought and acted, inspired by the vision of humanity evolving toward a world of peace and harmony. We may ignore Gandhi at our own risk.” Ever thought of recreating a New India based on Bapu’s principles, with you heading it?
I am not capable of the task. I have admitted my short comings right in the beginning and once again let me remind you ‘Greatness cannot be inherited it has to be earned’.
It was an absolute honour interacting with you and getting to know a lot more about you and Bapu. Immensely grateful for this enriching and enlightening discussion. Thanks for your precious time.
The pleasure and privilege are mine. Thank you.
Dr. Santosh Bakaya is an academician, poet, essayist, novelist, biographer, Ted Speaker and creative writing mentor. She has been critically acclaimed for her poetic biography of Mahatma Gandhi [Ballad of Bapu]. She has more than ten books to her credit , her latest books are a biography of Martin Luther King Jr. (Only in Darkness can you see the Stars) and Songs of Belligerence (poetry). She runs a very popular column Morning meanderings in Learning And Creativity.com.
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Anasuya Bhar explores the history of the National Anthem of India, composed by Tagore in Bengali and translated only by the poet himself and by Aruna Chakravarti. Both the translations are featured here.
The national anthem and the national song of India are both parts of a post-colonial narrative and did not originate prior to the British colonisation of the country, which happened effectively, from the middle of the eighteenth century. India has been broadly classified as a civilisation and a cultural phenomenon, rather than a race or a territorial presence prior to the British colonisation.
India has remained an idea ever since the ancient times, perhaps even prior to the advent of the Classical Graeco-Roman civilisation of the west. The historicisation of India’s past has been a much debatable issue, with European historians representing India from their perspective. Much damage was done, for instance, by James Mill’s The History of British India (1817), which rubbished the country as thoroughly debased and wanting the civilisational touch of the European west. The reality of India, or more correctly Bharat, inhered in the local and regional historical specificities, its literature, culture, myths and legends. The historical perspective of our inhabitants was that of the Puranic history whose chronology, order and narrativity depended on a time scale different from the idea of time in the western rationale for chronology. In other words, the European west’s rationale consequent of the enlightenment, and the enlightened concept of history, was a later addition to the Indian consciousness.
The concept of a distinct nation, and as an individual entity in the consciousness of a socio-political presence in the history of the world, was also, a comparatively belated concept in our country. In fact, it was not earlier than the Mughals that the country was conceptualised as a unified entity from the North to the South, from the East to the West. The Indian sub-continent is strategically guarded by the geographical presence of the Himalayan range, the Indian ocean, the Bay of Bengal and the Arabian Sea. Hence, the territorial boundaries which become crucial in determining the political borders of the European or the American west are not of much consequence over here. The borders that are present in the former continents are a result of political aggression and imperialism. The borders that ensued in the Indian subcontinent and eventually created Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Nepal, Burma, Bangladesh and also Sri Lanka, are, however, a result of the European and, particularly, British intervention.
The consciousness of India’s nationalism was, as mentioned in the beginning, a later one and quite clearly a colonial aftermath. Among the first to mention the lack of an indigenous history was Bankimchandra Chattopadhyay (1838 – 94), the celebrated novelist and intellectual of nineteenth century Bengal, who himself attempted to write, through his various essays, a historical consciousness for his country. The writer of our national song ‘Bande Mataram’ (in Anandamath, 1882), Bankimchandra was also the first to think of a ‘jatiyo’ or a nationalist consciousness, and attempted to take a fresh look at the puranic history based on myths and legends. He rewrote the narrative of Krishna, and also looked afresh at the fundamentals of the Hindu religion.
The nationalist consciousness was given a fresh lease through the several attempts for promoting indigenous products and enterprises by the Tagores of Jorasanko in Kolkata. The Hindu Mela (Hindu fair), begun since the mid-1860s by Dwijendranath Tagore (1840 – 1926) was among the first to strike concepts of an indigenous nationhood, by giving impetus through homespun fabrics, cultivation of rural handicrafts and traditional food items like pickles or ‘bori’, such that a space could be created independent of the parameters used by the colonial masters. Rabindranath (1861 – 1941) also refers to several attempts of his elder brother Jyotirindranath (1849 – 1925), in creating the matchstick factory or even striking a competition in the ship trade with their English counterparts in the waters of Bengal in his autobiographical Jibansmriti (My Reminiscences, 1911). He also mentions the latter’s attempt at designing a national dress for the country, trying to fuse various drapes of traditional clothing. This is again very interesting because, a distinctive sartorial appearance would help in identifying the Indian from the European, even externally. The sari as we wear it now, was first conceptualised by Jnanadanandini Devi (1850 – 1941) of the Tagore household. She gave the Indian women a dignified attire by fusing the styles of Parsis and Gujaratis, and also by improvising on the styles of the European gown to give us the blouse-jacket. The unification of various styles automatically veered towards a oneness in the same territorial boundaries and the nationalistic consciousness came first through cultural means.
The Tagores of Bengal were also among the first, after Rammohan Roy (1772 – 1833), to venture beyond their homes. Dwarakanath (1794 -1846), grandfather of Rabindranath, not only stayed in England for a substantial period of time, but also endeared himself to Queen Victoria as the ‘Prince’. Debendranath (1817 – 1905), his son, was in the habit of touring the Himalayas extensively, and even took his youngest son Rabi along with him. Satyendranath (1842 – 1923), another of his sons, was the first Indian to qualify in the Indian Civil Service; he too, extensively toured several parts of India and abroad. Rabindranath was a frequent traveller from a very early age. The women of the Tagore household, beginning with Jnanadanandini Devi also moved out of their antarmahal (inner quarters) and into the other parts of their country and even the world. Indira, Mrinalini, Sarala, Pratima along with Jnanada were frequent travellers both within and outside the country. Hence, the country and the ideology of India as a nation were familiar concepts to the members of this remarkable family from Bengal. Of course, there were other influential households in nineteenth century Bengal, but none so extensively influential.
The formation of the Indian National Congress (INC) in 1885, marked the culmination of several isolated and scattered attempts at nurturing a nationalist consciousness. I have, however, given a few instances from Bengal. I am sure similar attempts were made in other states as well. Even in the formation of the INC, we see the pivotal role played by Janakinath Ghosal (1840 – 1913), husband of the well-known litterateur Swarnakumari Devi (1855 – 1932), elder sister of Rabindranath. According to the memoirs of his elder daughter Hiranmayee, Janakinath was a key presence at the time of the formation of the Congress. Later, Sarala (1872 – 1945), their younger daughter, not only became a part of the Congress, but was also among the foremost figures in Bengal to enthuse young men into the national struggle through cultivation of physical fitness programs. Sarala also worked closely with Swami Vivekananda and Sister Nivedita in some of their philanthropic programs.
Jana Gana Mana, now venerated as our National Anthem, was most possibly first composed as a hymn, by Rabindranath Tagore. This hymn was first recited on the second day of the annual session of the Indian National Congress on 27th December 1911, by none other than Rabindranath himself. This was followed by a second performance of it in January 1912, in the annual event of the ‘Adi Brahmo Samaj’ or the Brahmo Congregation, and then it was published, for the first time in the January edition of the Tattwabodhini Patrika, which was the official journal of the ‘Adi Brahmo Samaj’, with the title ‘Bharata Bhagya Bidhata’ or ‘the determinant of Bharat’s destiny’. The journal was, at that time, edited by Rabindranath himself. The original song, composed in Bengali, has five stanzas. The Anthem makes use of only the first of the five and usually covers an average time of 52 seconds when sung. The original language has been retained, although its intonation is Devanagiri.
The song is a hymn to the all-pervasive, almighty, and the maker of the country’s destiny, the power of whom presides over her natural boundaries of the Himalayas and other mountains and the rivers, and where resides individuals of all races, cultures and religions. It has been the benefactor, through thick and thin, assimilating the good with the bad, and when the country has been lying destitute in trouble and pain, has extended its hand in empathetic wonder. The sun of Bharat’s destiny will rise again and the pall of darkness shall be drowned in the light of a new dawn – a new beginning and a new hope. Rabindranath did not live to see this dawn, but his visions were realised and honoured by the makers of the Constitution of the Republic of India.
The hymn that originated in the poet’s fiftieth year, perhaps had its germs planted in him through his entire life as the beginning of this essay tries to elaborate. It was only time and the political needs of the country that expedited its utterance in the year 1911. The poet’s vision found embodiment in other and similar creations as well. His Gitanjali (1912) contains the well-known poem, ‘Where the mind is without fear’ (XXXV) –
Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high
Where knowledge is free
Where the world has not been broken up into fragments by narrow domestic walls
Where words come out from the depth of truth
Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection
Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way into the dreary desert sand of dead habit
Where the mind is led forward by thee into ever-widening thought and action —
Into that heaven of freedom, my Father let my country awake.
The year in which he composed and first presented Jana Gana Mana, that is 1911, was in many ways a very crucial year in his personal history. As mentioned earlier it was his fiftieth birth-year, and he was gradually beginning to be acknowledged for his poetic greatness in his own land. The following year, that is 1912, he would go to England, with some of his own translations into English, and which would, introduce him to the world as a major poet, among other poets. 1911, was also the year which marked the coronation of King George V and the transfer of the British capital from Calcutta to Delhi. In fact, Rabindranath’s hymn was initially mistaken to be sung in honour of the new Emperor of the British dominions, but was later clarified to be otherwise, and was acknowledged to be a ‘prayer’ for his own native land and independent of such intentions.
The period that we are considering is also a very significant one in Rabindranath’s own consciousness of the nation and his concept of nationalism. In 1910, he published his novel Gora where he underlined the irony inherent in religious exclusivity and bigotry. His protagonist, a staunch votary of Hindu values and virtues, ironically emerges to be an Irish foundling reared in a Hindu home. Through him Rabindranath proves the efficacy of such conservative religious bigotry. His song ‘Bharata Bhagya Bidhata’ pledges to go beyond external divisions of religion and politics, and endorses the value of humanity; nor does it discount the importance of the west, but believes in the fruitful coming together of the best of all worlds. His school at Santiniketan, later to be identified as Visva-Bharati, exemplifies this coming together of the best of all the worlds. In 1919, he delivered a series of lectures on nationalism, which came together in a single volume called Nationalism, and further endorsed his beliefs in finding the nation through culture, history and habits rather than through and in territorial, narrow parochial walls. In Ghare Baire (The Home and the World, 1916), published around the same time, he offers us a critique of the Swadeshi Movement that dominated colonial politics in the first decade of the twentieth century in Bengal. He subtly interweaves a tale of the ‘personal’ with the ‘political’ in the triangular narrative structure of Bimala, Nikhil and Sandip, only to expose the petty hypocrisies that inhere within the grand narratives of ‘nationalism’, ‘patriotism’ and even ‘swadeshi’ at the cost of the common good and humanity at large.
Jana Gana Mana was sung by Sarala Devi Chaudhuri, Rabindranath’s niece and daughter of Janakinath, in 1912, and who had distinguished herself as one of the earliest women nationalists of the country. The song was, then, performed in front of veteran Congress leaders. Outside Bengal, the song was perhaps performed for the first time by Rabindranath in the annual session of Besant Theosophical College in Madanapalle, Andhra Pradesh, on 28th February 1919. The Vice-Principal of the college, Margaret Cousins, was so enthralled by the song that she asked the poet to translate it for her. This Tagore did, and the translation is called ‘The Morning Song of India’. A facsimile image of the same is shown here.
‘Jana Gana Mana’ has been translated into English by noted writer, academic and translator, Aruna Chakravarti. She is perhaps the only person to accomplish this beside the poet himself. The following is the translation made by her, along with the English transliteration of the Bengali original (Songs of Tagore, Niyogi Books):
Leader of the masses.
Lord of the minds of men.
Arbiter of India’s destiny.
Hail to you! All hail!
Your name resounds through her sea and land
waking countless sleeping souls
from Punjab, Sindh, Gurarat, Maratha
to Dravid, Utkal, Banga.
Her mighty mountains—Himachal, Vindhya,
her rivers—Yamuna, Ganga,
the blue green sea with which she is girdled;
her waves, her peaks, her rippling air
seek your blessing, carry your echoes.
Oh boundless good! Oh merciful!
Hail to you! All hail!
At the sound of your call the people assemble
from myriad streams of life.
Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist, Jain.
Christian, Parsee and Sikh.
East and West stand by your throne
hands held in amity,
weaving a wreath of fraternal love;
of empathy, unity.
Oh you who bring us all together!
Hail to you! All hail!
Nations rise and nations fall
on the perilous path of history.
And you Eternal Charioteer
guide the world’s destiny.
Through day, through night, your wheels are heard
renting the air with sound,
dispelling terror, banishing pain;
blowing the conch of peace.
Oh true arbiter of India’s fate!
Hail to you! All hail!
In the deep dark of a turbulent night,
when our swooning, suffering land
lifted her eyes to your face in hope,
she saw your unwavering gaze
raining blessings, alight with love,
banishing evil dreams.
Like a loving mother you held out your arms
and changed her destiny.
Oh you who wipe out the pain of the masses!
Hail to you! All hail!
A new day dawns; a new sun rises
from the mountains of the east.
Song birds trill; new sap of life
is borne on the holy breeze.
India awakes from aeons of slumber
to the strains of your lofty song.
Head bowed to your feet oh King of kings!
Hail to you! All hail!
(Republished with permission from Songs of Tagore, Niyogi Books)
Outside of the country, the song was also performed as the ‘national anthem’ of independent India, under the leadership of Subhas Chandra Bose on the occasion of the founding meeting of the German Indian Society on the 11th of September 1942, in Hamburg, Germany. The Indian Constituent Assembly allowed the performance of Jana Gana Mana on the midnight of 14th August 1947, marking the close of the historical session in the Parliament. It was on the 24th of January, 1950 that only the first stanza of the song was accepted as the National Anthem of independent India. The paeans of a land millennia old, perhaps heading the dawn of all human civilisation alone, is sung through glory to the world over, till date, bearing the torch of an all tolerant, enduring land, by the name of Bharat. Perhaps we still need to be in quest of its philosophy of oneness.
Dr. Anasuya Bhar is Associate Professor of English and Dean of Postgraduate Studies, at St. Paul’s Cathedral Mission College Kolkata, India. She has many publications, both academic and creative, to her credit.
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