This is an excerpt from Amader Shantiniketan, written almost 50 years ago by Shivani. It is a charming memoir of the time she spent there with her sister and brother, sent all the way from Almora to Tagore’s idyllic gurukul in 1935. The following 12 years left a lasting impression on her and, as her readers will know, she carried Bengal into her writing ever after. Written as by a child, it artlessly reveals what the Bengal Renaissance owes to Tagore’s experiments in education. IP
Visvabharati was Gurudev’s ultimate sanctuary and retreat: a place where a prince sat on the same wooden bench as an ordinary student at mealtimes and under the canopy of the same tree when learning a lesson.
As a child, when Tagore’s parents sent him to the Bengal Academy, he felt he had been dispatched to a jail. He has written somewhere about this: “We hardly ever understood completely what our teachers taught us. We were never inspired to make the effort to try and understand it nor were the school authorities especially bothered about this. Now I have a sanctuary of my own. The children who come here are mischievous but what else can they be if they are children? As for the teachers here: they may occasionally lose patience with these naughty children but whenever they consider punishment I try and remind them of their own childhood and the matter gets sorted out without a problem.”
Tagore tried to rectify all the wrongs that appeared to him as blights from his own schooldays. So in Shantiniketan, every student was free to study (or not study) any subject. If you were learning music at Sangeet Bhavan, you could stroll into any class in Shiksha Bhavan (the college section) if you wanted. The tender hearts of children were never burdened with heavy courses. Our textbooks were imaginatively compiled, full of colourful illustrations and covered in soft covers that were easy to handle and keep. In fact, they looked like brightly coloured boxes of sweets. For the nursery children, there was a special class called “Galper Class” meant only for stories and tales. Whenever we heard that Tagore himself or his talented artist brother, Abanindranath Tagore, was going to take it, we ran to attend it, never mind that we were by then in college!
Our classes were held in the sprawling field outside Sinha Sadan, under a cluster of shady trees. On any day, you could walk into a Hindi class conducted by Acharya Hajari Prasad Dwivedi. Or, if you wished, you could stroll to any one of the neighbouring “classes” where you could either listen to the German professor Dr Alex Aronson lecture on Shakespeare’s plays or hear Marjorie Sykes’ lectures on English literature, or to Professor Adhikari as he conducted classes on Hindu philosophy and yoga. Floating above them all were the haunting strains of Shailej da, playing a new melody composed for his israaj by Gurudev himself. We were the first to sing with full-throated enthusiasm Tagore’s famous hymn to Bengal, “Amaar shonar Bangla, aami tomaay bhalo bashi…” (I love you, my golden land of Bengal…). Although we were not to know then that one day it would be adopted as the national anthem of Bangladesh, yet from the moment we heard its stirring lyrics, we realised this was a song that had the power to change destinies. Perhaps this is why Shanti da (Shantimay aka Shantideb Ghosh) got up and danced like a man possessed that day and each one of us, no matter how unmusical, felt our feet tap-tapping on their own to its compulsive beat. During the Second World War, when the battles on the eastern front of India had led to a few Japanese bombs being dropped on Calcutta, a slight shiver of apprehension reached our peaceful Ashram as well. Gurudev’s reaction to this was a beautiful composition: Hinghshay unmattyo prithwi… (A world drunk on violence…) and it was as if a gentle breeze had magically blown away the war clouds from our horizon.
Shantiniketan was the kind of peaceful retreat that remained unshaken by the din and terror of the world beyond. Tagore managed to imbue it with a spirit that banished all evil and negative energy from its precincts. Perhaps this was because it resolutely refused to stifle the spirit of its students. Our classes were not closed in with walls that shut out the outer world, nor did they have ceilings to close our minds. As we sat under the canopy of the Ashram’s trees, the blue sky spread over us for as far as we could see. Never did any teacher admonish a student for following the flight of a bird. If our fingers ached after writing, we were free to put down our pens and stroll away to hear the Santhal tribals who often passed the Ashram’s fields as they went about their work, singing or playing a haunting melody on a flute. When we tired of doing geometry or algebra, we were not punished for letting our minds wander or for following the dance of squirrels as they chased each other up a tree. The cooing doves and pigeons came to entertain us and helped us learn the dates of the three battles of Panipat so painlessly that they have remained etched in our minds forever. Like scores of students before and after us, we too struggled with Akbar’s religious policy and Lord Bentinck’s administrative reforms yet what else was it but the magic of the Ashram that these never became a tiresome burden? Interestingly, for all the freedom we had, the Ashram bred in each one of us a sense of such self-control that our freedom actually disciplined our minds.
All students of the Ashram had to leave their beds before sunrise. Three bells marked the time for this and the punishment for the lazybones who could not rouse themselves was: no breakfast. Then, we made our beds, had a bath and lined up outside the library for our morning assembly. Each morning and evening, the start of the school day and its end was marked by a prayer. Tagore himself composed these hymns and they were set to beautiful ragas by him, such as Bhairavi, Vibhas or Bhairav. The unforgettable music of “Bhege chho duaar, aishe chho jyotirmaya…” or “O anather nath…” or “Bahir pather viragihiya kisher khoje aili…” rang over these prayer meetings, those thrilling notes sung by some of the most famous names in the world of music today. Till I die I do not think I will forget the profundity of those prayers.
After that, we went to our respective classes: the Kala Bhavan students went one way and the Path Bhavan students the other. As soon as everyone settled in, it was as if the chattering birds had come home to roost and a silence descended over the Ashram.
Then a gong sounded and the lessons of the day would start.
Bisected by a dusty red path, the vast fields of the Ashram had a cluster of cottages on one side, known as Gurupalli. These housed our teachers. The cottages stood like dolls’ houses in a row framed by tall palm trees and fragrant maltilata creepers. They were modest hutments, really, with red-tiled roofs, and their homely interiors matched their simple exteriors. Yet, like the people who lived there, they exuded a warmth and welcoming spirit that drew us to them. The “furniture” was often just a wooden divan, covered with neat rolls of bedding, and a cupboard for books. The inner courtyard doubled up as an open-air kitchen and tantalising aromas of a fish curry often wafted across the field to tickle our nostrils. We followed the scent and reached its source, to be greeted with an “Aisho, aisho, ma” (Come, come, child) and a helping of fish and rice with some delectable pickle was placed in front of us. If we were lucky, we got some sandesh or palm-jaggery kheer and my mouth still waters at the memory of those al fresco meals.
As far as I can recall, till 1935, Gurupalli had just three pucca houses. Near the pond was one that belonged to Dr Dhirendramohan Sen, who was Gurudev’s personal secretary. Another sprawled over a large compound, appropriately named Simantika (Land’s End). This belonged to Shri Lalitmohan.
All of us who came from Uttar Pradesh had declared the house of Bade Panditji (Hajari Prasad Dwivedi) our special adda and whenever hunger pangs hit us (at least once a day) we trotted off in search of sustenance. We ran through their tiny bedroom and descended on his wife (Bhabhi to us), who was to be found in the little kitchen attached to the courtyard at the back. Bhabhi was a simple Bihari soul, and her sweet voice had given a new twist to my name, Gaura. To her I was always “Ga-oora”. Her tiny round frame contained immense patience and if there was nothing else available to feed us hungry hordes, she would place a whole canister of puffed rice to which she added chopped onions and chillies, fresh green coriander, salt and mustard oil. Within minutes, we’d lick it clean.
There were seven or eight of us who attended Panditji’s Hindi classes. I must tell you a little about Panditji at this point. You could spot Panditji and his long legs and arms from afar. He always wore a loose khadi kurta with a carelessly slung silk shawl and his classes were like none other in the Ashram. Often, as soon as a few drops of rain fell from the sky, our otherwise strict Panditji would give us all leave “to get wet”. This was an excuse for the rest of the classes to join in and those unique rainy day “holidays” were surely a Shantiniketan invention! Any class was free to seek this kind of leave and get soaked by the rain.
Apart from the holiday to get wet, Panditji had invented another kind of holiday for us. Often, he would ask a few chosen students to trot off to the Ashram’s lone cooperative store to buy him shaving blades or soap or something. The errand boys (or girls) were given a small tip at the end of this “chore”, so often that the entire class offered to perform this onerous duty. Yet, like all easy-going men, Panditji was a terror when his temper was roused.
There was one other teacher whose temper we dreaded and that was our English teacher, Tanmay da. I think none of us who sat in one of his classes will ever forget him. He was related to Abanindranath Tagore by marriage and the Ashram was full of tales of his fearful temper and strict bearing. He had a round face and wore a faded orange pashmina shawl over his shoulders. His glistening forehead was visible from afar and as soon as we heard him approach, even the naughtiest boys in the class sat down like meek lambs. He entered the class and narrowed his sharp gaze to take an x-ray of all the faces before him. Then he would part his thin lips and start reading. And if, god forbid, anyone yawned, all hell would break loose. This was one act of indifference that Tanmay da never forgave.
“This means,” he would say, “that your attention is elsewhere. So go out and stay there until you decide to return here and pay attention.”
Not a single day passed when some hapless student or the other was not punished for yawning.
There is an awful truth about yawns: they spread by osmosis. Have you ever noticed how if someone starts to yawn, a dozen other faces begin to twitch as well? One day, to my horror, I felt a yawn coming. I quickly put my head down and tried to disguise it by aring my nostrils so that my mouth would not show it. But do you think this escaped Tanmay da’s sharp gaze? At first I did not understand that the barb was aimed at me.
“You all know,” his deep voice intoned, “that there are two types of yawns: internal and external. The first is a shameless act, open for all to see. The other one is more refined: the yawner tries to hide it, like a deer it darts quick looks around and then swallows it so that no one notices it. Only, this makes the pupils of the eyes dilate and also the nostrils. One of my students here has just given me a splendid example of this kind of yawn. So, don’t you all think that I should reward this child?”
By the time I could take all this in, my “art” had been rewarded. He drew a huge mark of Vishnu on my forehead with a piece of chalk and made me stand and show it to the whole class. For days after that, I was greeted with exaggerated bows by my mischievous and cruel classmates, calling out, “So how are you today, Vaishnaviji?”
The Ashram offered a number of interesting locations for holding a class. Our teachers had the option of holding a class under the shade of a perfumed creeper, or in an arbour of the Lata Kunj. There was the horseshoe-shaped bower of flowers or the dark and verdant Amrakunj (Mango Grove). Only Tanmay da had decided that his class would always be held in the small clearing in front of the nursery section, Shishu Vibhag. Rain or shine, he would not move from this spot. Sometimes gentle raindrops fell on our shoulders like the hand of a friend beckoning us to come and play; at another time one could sense a furious thunderstorm brewing, the sort that uprooted trees, but there was nothing that would move Tanmay da to dismiss his class. His orange shawl was like the red flag a guard waves to indicate danger.
“It’s started to rain, Tanmay da,” someone once dared to say.
“So?” he answered. “Are you made of paper?”
Even the raindrops ran away after they heard that reprimand.
The complete antithesis of Tanmay da was Prabhat da. His olive-coloured skin, elegant French beard, aristocratic nose and regal bearing was what first attracted us to him. And then there was his 100-watt smile and warm greeting: “Hey, young lady!” or “How are you today, little princess?” Tell me, who would not love a teacher who brought such charm when he entered a class? Like Tanmay da, he also had a fixed location: the horseshoe-shaped space under the shade of a maulsari tree in front of the Ashram guest house. A dirt path ran close to this spot and, often, a Santhal tribal would pass by playing a haunting tune on his flute. At other times, the birds that lived in the maulsari tree would start up a noisy conference. In any case, that tree supported so much life that it was a constant source of distraction. One day, one of my classmates, bored with the day’s lesson, was intently watching some squirrels run up and down a branch. Prabhat da quietly walked up to him and stood there, trying to figure out what was absorbing this student. Of course, the culprit was quite unaware of this development.
“So, my dear Viswamitra,” asked the amiable Prabhat da, “is your Menaka going to descend from heaven today?”
The Ashram also had a modest laboratory for the science students, presided over by the genial Pramath da, while the Health Science and Hygiene classes were conducted by the Ashram’s “Dactar babu”. What we learned from him went far beyond what he taught us in his classes. “Why would anyone want to know about the coils of a human brain or the twists of a rib-cage?” he asked us. “Don’t waste your time learning all this here. Go home and swot it from your textbooks,” he advised us affably.
“Then please, Dactar babu,” the class piped up, “sing us a song.”
This was exactly the nudge our Dactar babu needed. He’d shut the book in front of him with a decisive snap, close his eyes and begin to hum. What a voice God had blessed him with! With a hand cupped over one ear, Dactar babu launched into our favourite song: “Kolkata keval bhule bhara / Mari hai re…” (Kolkata is a maze, I’m in love with it…)
As the rest of us clapped to keep the time, he warmed up: “Bow bajaare giya dekhi / Bauti kothai noi. / Shyam Bajare giya dekhlam / Na Shyam na Rai…”
The wan faces of the sick in the infirmary lit up as Dactar babu’s jolly voice sang on, for what he could not cure with medicines, Dactar babu healed with his magical voice. Once he started to sing the famous folk songs of Bengal—Bhatiyali, Baul and Kirtan—he forgot everything, even the fact that the class was over and it was time for us to leave. Our singing doctor could be heard late into
the night, warbling away as he cycled to some sick patient on the campus. He and I would often
have friendly arguments over his pronunciation of Hindi words in the songs he sang but our common love of music always resolved these with laughter. At the time of the annual picnic, we begged him to come along but as he was the only doctor at the Ashram, he couldn’t very well leave his patients. However, Dactar babu resolved this dilemma by coming along anyway and once he sat down to sing, no one could prise him from his mridang. Often, he was joined by our Sanskrit teacher, Gosainji. Watching them, in their simple homespun dhotis, and listening to their joyous duet in action one could be misled into thinking that here was a pair of rustic village singers, attending a tribal Pausa fair.
Those days, our Ashram did not have a lady doctor and Dactar babu was our lone saviour. From Bhuwandanga to Sriniketan, and from the neighbouring Santhal villages to Bolpur, Dactar babu peddled his way on his trusty bike, smiling and singing his way cheerfully from one patient’s bedside to another. Our Ashram had among its students the princes of Tripura and Sumatra-Java; the scions of some of the wealthiest industrialists came there as did princesses from Agartala and Assam: all of them held out their wrists for Dactar babu to feel their pulse and surrendered meekly to his bitter medicines. For him whether your blood was blue or red, you were a sick person in need of tender loving care.
“Show me your tongue,” he’d say. “Hunh! Call this an illness? Go, have a dose of panchtikt and a bowl of good fish-broth. You’ll be as right as rain tomorrow! Next…”
Most of us ran away before we were made to swallow that deadly panchtikt! It was pure poison, I tell you. But there was no escaping it for it was Dactar babu’s favourite medicine: a palliative for all ills. He had devised its special formula himself and cured most of us with just one dose of it. Even now when I recall its bitter taste, my body shivers in disgust. All of us were made to stand in a row and the bitter concoction poured down our unwilling throats. Fish was cooked regularly in the Ashram kitchen and Dactar babu knew which fish was good for which ailment. “Have magur fish for good eyesight,” he’d declare, “and hilsa for the brain. Get rid of a cough with sukto and chingri to deal with asthma.”
The Ashram’s “hospital” was an old building situated at its very edge. Like the rest of the Ashram, it exuded a serenity that beckoned, rather than repelled, patients. That modest hospital was the only one I have known that did not reek of the sickening smell of medicines and fear. Large windows on its walls brought in light and sunshine and were a means of cross-ventilation as well. The walls were adorned with cheerful frescoes and on the far horizon was a railway track with a signal that was endlessly entertaining for the patients as they gazed out. Next door, another little room doubled up as Dactar babu’s office and his dispensary. Dactar babu’s faithful companion was the compounder, whom we knew as Yadav babu, who handled everything from compounding mixtures to taking down patients’ histories. Often, this little room became a classroom where Dactar babu held his classes while keeping an eye on a sick patient.
What a strange classroom it was indeed. On one side lay the weighing scales and on the other was an examination table neatly covered with a red blanket. Two dead snakes were preserved in glass jars of chemicals. Also in the room was a skeleton in a cupboard and it leered at us from there as Dactar babu taught us anatomy. One day, a classmate said that it was actually a Santhal tribal’s skeleton that Dactar babu had bought from one of the tribal villages nearby. All of us were goggle-eyed at this revelation but no one had the courage to verify this. Ultimately, I offered to bell the cat. Prodded by my friends, I got up and asked: “Dactar babu, is it true that this skeleton belongs to a Santhal tribal?”
“Oh!” Dactar babu pondered over this seriously. “Wait, I think I’ll verify it from the skeleton himself. Let’s see what the good creature has to say.” Then, equally seriously, he turned to the skeleton and asked its skull loudly: “Excuse me, sir, were you a Santhal? This girl would like to know.”
Then he turned to me and said: “Baap re baap, he says—write this down quickly, girl, for the person who answers this question correctly will top the class!” The whole class was rocking with laughter by now and Dactar babu, for the first and perhaps only time, cuffed my ear and said: “The next time I hear a stupid question from you, out you go! Understand?”
That evening, still smarting from the humiliation of that episode, I was walking slowly back to the hostel, when I felt a kind hand on my shoulder. “Is your ear really hurting, child? But don’t you dare repeat such foolishness ever again.” Dactar babu and I were friends once again.
This memoir was published in July-September 2017 issue of The Indian Quarterly magazine.