Shantiniketan: Tagore set a School Amidst Nature, Unfettered the Young Minds – I

Rabindranath was unhappy with the British schooling system of sitting enclosed within four walls of high raised solid buildings. It was a feeling of suffocation he experienced, when the cold brick walls, he felt, were trying to strangulate a child’s mind like cold grips of death. Being detached from nature was a great torment for his young mind, hence he left school at an early age and was tutored at home. It is this childhood experience that inspired him to establish a school amidst nature, recalls Tapati, in the first part of her two-part weekly column, exclusively for Different Truths.

It was another evening time when I was taking my usual walk around the park. It was a pleasant surprise when I met a bunch of kids, some may be in their teens, busy in hush-hush discussion in one corner. It was dusk and none of the children were usually allowed outdoors, expected to complete their homework and also to avoid mosquito bite, especially with the dengue danger lurking.

“Hi, what’s going on?” Out of inquisitiveness, I enquired.

“Aunty, tomorrow is Teachers’ Day. We are discussing what sort of gift to take for our teacher”, with a twinkle in their eyes I got a prompt answer.

Another child, a bit grown up of the pack, said, “We could have bought some gifts but some of our parents refused to give us money because we have already paid five hundred bucks each to the school to celebrate this day.” Poor kids were in a dilemma.

“In that case, why don’t you create a gift like a painting or a greeting card or some sort of flower basket? You can make it at home, right now, go home and get busy.”

Their faces brightened up and all dispersed hurriedly; I continued with my walk, churning memories of my school days.

With Teachers’ Day celebrations in the past week, I specially recollected the formative years of my life that were spent at Shantiniketan, Tagore’s abode and took a walk down the memory lane. I was fortunate to pass out from this atypical school that was established in by Rabindranath Tagore, a Nobel laureate, and world famous author, and created with the unique education system. The school with its unique practices left its imprint on my young mind where I stepped in as a toddler, holding my father’s hand, who was also a part of this enlightening system and my role model.

Rabindranath was unhappy with the British schooling system of sitting enclosed within four walls of high raised solid buildings. It was a feeling of suffocation he experienced, when the cold brick walls, he felt, were trying to strangulate a child’s mind like cold grips of death. Being detached from nature was a great torment for his young mind, hence he left school at an early age and was tutored at home. It is this childhood experience that inspired him to establish a school amidst nature, where young minds could develop and evolve freely.

I remember that in our school days we were forbidden to utter the bard’s name but refer to him as Gurudev, instead which means the great teacher. In fact, we would also address our teachers and seniors with ‘Da’ and ‘Di’ suffixed to their names, for men and women respectively. This custom helped create a personal bond and congenial atmosphere where teacher and student relations were akin to family, erasing the formidable fear of schooling. I still remember my first day at school when I reached the office of the principal, tightly gripping my father’s hand. With the surrounding painted green, cool breeze, red pathways, the tall whispering rows of mango, Shal, Devdaru trees, carried the soothing touch of nature along with earthy aromas, all working in tandem to weave a magical atmosphere that tranquilised the mind.

Our days started early at 6.30 am with Vedic mantras and a Morning Prayer song written by the founder, Rabindranath. Classes were held under some tree with a big shadow, sheltering us like a canopy. We would spread our individual pieces of woven mats on the ground in semicircles in front of a small cemented alter for the teacher, an open air classroom with a temporary black board in front. The science and geography classes would be conducted indoors owing to the requirement of certain instruments; even during monsoons, classes were held under some shade. In the bitter cold mornings of winter, we opted to sit in the sun enjoying the soft warmth. The monsoon days were fun when we would gather around principal’s office requesting him to call off classes on a wet day and hurray, once it was declared, we would go for long walks accompanied by our teachers singing monsoon songs. Those days we could not think of anything beyond the innumerable songs written Rabindranath himself for every season, every occasion, and every emotion of life.

I fondly cherish the childhood memories of how we enjoyed our open air school running from one class to another which was earmarked for every teacher; we enjoyed moving with our teacher of nature study and exploring the nature, plants, birds, and cycles of weather. Apart from studying the basic subjects like maths and languages, we attended drawing, singing and dance classes. We were taught clay modelling and even had a class of storytelling apart from Batik print, Tie and Dye and Alpona (decorative drawings made with rice flour on the floor, one of Tagore’s own favourite art) on special occasions.

Nature walks and excursions were a part of the curriculum; special attention was paid to enhance the creativity of every child. Hence Literary Evenings or Sahitya Sabha was oraganised where original compositions of students were read along with recitation, songs, and dance performances. Also, 2 km away from Shantiniketan is Shriniketan, devoted to cottage industries like pottery, weaving, leatherwork, basket making, and woodwork. We enjoyed the weekly bus trip to Sriniketan and eagerly waited for the hand on training. Being exposed to so many skills from such an early age gave great confidence to young minds, bracing for future challenges of life. The huge library was another favourite spot as I spent hours sitting and reading in its calm and silent environment.

Another matter of joy was that there was no physical punishment or rude behaviour from our teachers. They explained our faults and follies with soft rebukes and utmost affection. Examinations were not a matter to worry; we had weekly exams and the numbers were added and grades were allotted based on averages. There was no discerning ranking system with a view to not to discriminate between students, performers, and non-performers. This helped us develop tolerance and respect for even those who were lagging behind in academics, but excelling in some other aspect. Games and sports classes in the afternoon were compulsory without which one faced the chance of missing promotion to next class. But we enjoyed every bit of it being trained in different sports.

In an attempt to help with rural reconstruction, Tagore also sought to expand the school’s relationship with the neighbouring villages. Quite often we visited the Santhal villages around to know their life style and rural life, its miseries and simplicity.

The concept of minuscule management was inculcated early where the classes were divided into primary, middle and high school. Every division was managed by elected students from each class and these representatives were to take care of different functions, culture, sports and other activities under the guidance of one teacher. At the same time, spiritual development was taken care of when we attended the weekly prayer session on every Wednesday morning, all in a plain white dress in the beautiful glass temple. There was no idol worship, but praying to the Supreme power without any religious colour.

From its very inception, Shantiniketan was lovingly modelled by Tagore on the principles of humanism, internationalism and a sustainable environment, as described in Tagore’s own words: “The highest education is that which does not merely give us information but makes our life in harmony with all existence.” Soon after the inception of Visva Bharati, Tagore reached out to his friends and peers to be a part of the education system, thereby sowing seeds for global educational influences. We had experienced teachers from different nationalities and religions who gave us an insight into different cultures of the world. In higher classes, students were free to specialise in subjects they loved and pursue higher studies. Along with the mainstream studies, each student was free to join any other course in a broader spectrum of subjects, arts, music, painting or performing arts of their hobbies and passion. This has been my experience almost fifty years ago.

India has a rich tradition of learning and education since old days. The education system was developed according to the needs and capabilities of the individual and that of the society resulting in all round development of the students with humanitarian virtues, self-fulfillment, and not in the acquisition of mere objective knowledge. Amidst beautiful natural surroundings, sitting at the feet of his teacher, students would comprehend all the intricate problems of life through listening and meditation. He would not remain contented with mere bookish learning but acquire fairly practical knowledge of the world and vocational training in different occupations. The training of the mind and the process of thinking were essential for the acquisition of knowledge. The pupil had mainly to educate himself and hone mental skills for growth.

In a much later phase in life with life experiences and maturity, I realised that the education system in Patha Bhavana was a modern extension of education system prevailing in ancient India. The concept of ancient Indian hermit schooling was replicated with a touch of modernity to match the needs of the existing generation. Development of the human mind and soul in absolute terms was envisioned by Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore almost hundred years ago when he created the Ashrama school of Patha Bhavana in 1929. It is with heartfelt gratitude, that today I offer my respect to the great teachers who nurtured me into a human being and values, not a machine running for money, glory and personal gains.

(To be continued)

©Tapati Sinha

Photos from the Internet

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