First published in Daily Star, Bangladesh
“Today it seems to me that every festival in Santiniketan offered homage to the seasons in some form or other… Much later I learnt that the festivals of Santhals and other Adivasis are the expressions of respect for farming and forest life. There are forms of nature worship based on an advantage of the earth as a primal mother.”
— Our Santiniketan by Mahasweta Devi, translated by Radha Chakravarty, published by Seagull Books
One of India’s foremost literary figures of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, Mahasweta Devi was awarded the Ramon Magsaysay Award in 1997 for her “compassionate crusade through art and activism to claim for tribal peoples a just and honourable place in India’s national life.” Her affection for humans and nature were bred into her by her tenure in Rabindranath Tagore’s Santiniketan where she studied from 1936- 38. There were many more from Santiniketan who have been change-makers in different fields like Amartya Sen, Satyajit Ray, Indira Gandhi, Syed Mujtaba Ali and Gayatri Devi to name a few.
The theme of bridging borders has been recurrently spelt out in the narrative translated by Radha Chakravarty from Bengali to English. An eminent translator who has been nominated for the Crossword Translation Award (2004) for In the Name of the Mother by Mahasweta Devi, Chakravarty’s rendition retains the flavours of Bengali, livens with the synergy at Santiniketan and gives a vivid stylistic feel of the writer, preserving the persona of a strong, fearless, accomplished, unconventional thinker in her mature years.
Our Santiniketan is a translation, of Mahasweta Devi’s Amader Santiniketan written in Bengali. This book came into being in 2001 when the author started penning down her memories on the persuasion of the editor, Alok Chattopadhyay, of Srishti Prakashan. This is an important book for the current troubled and divisive times. The translation of the idea of the world as a family exposed to a larger readership may perhaps impact our move towards a more humanitarian world.
The Santiniketan projected by Mahasweta was a place that transcended all barriers of race, class, creed and wealth coloured with love, kindness and affection. It showcased Rabindranath’s vision of an ideal education system. We are told: “And in Rabindranath’s time, Santiniketan offered independence. It offered nurture. And those days, they didn’t teach us the value of discipline through any kind of preaching. They taught us through everyday existence”
Mahasweta Devi studied and played together with many, including eminent names in music, Kanika Bandopadhyay and Suchitra Mitra. She mentions others who taught, served or studied in Santiniketan and touched the world in different ways to make it a better place — Amiya Chakravarty, Nandalal Bose, Rathindranath and Mira (Rabindranath’s children), Ramkinkar Baij, Rani Chanda, Maitreyi Devi, Mrinalini Sarabhai along with people who were part of the ‘kitchen army’ or the man who ran the tea stall.
Tagore was present at festivals, rehearsals and even presided during meals on some occasions. They worked at creating an ideal environment conducive to learning. By her description, Tagore had visualised education to build on the strengths of the children or students.
“Santiniketan did not adopt any measure that would jeopardise the children’s sense of confidence and security. The attempt was to instil in everyone the conviction that if one tried, one could achieve e-v-e-r-y-thing…
“He (Tagore) was the creator who moulded human character. He knew the children, when they grow up, will choose their parts according to their individual capacities. But his concern was to ensure that the children learn to use time productively and find joy in active effort. We were also trained to think for ourselves and apply our ideas in practice.”
Reflecting on her youthful days at Santiniketan, Mahasweta Devi wonders, “Why does education in love not feature in today’s curriculum?” Though in Santiniketan, they followed academic rigour, they were disciplined with affection. They were taught to give dignity to all kinds of work. Perhaps that is why Mahasweta wrote,