Cultural studies

Why Rabindranath Tagore Instituted Asian and European Cultural Studies at Visva-Bharati University

What’s in a name? What is called a rose
Under any other name would smell as good.

– ‘Romeo and Juliet’, II.ii

To the world, Visva-Bharati is Tagore’s university, but the name of the institution bears no obvious connection to his – and for a reason. Juliette’s view on the matter was not that of Rabindranath Tagore; for him, the name Visva-Bharati was the crystallization of an ideal – a global center of learning in India.

It was almost certainly a design and a name that had felt both Indian and global to him during a time of crisis – the First World War.

“Visva-Bharati” was not only relevant, it precisely expressed an ideal of learning for which Rabindranath wanted a material and institutional form. He was referring to the relationship between visvathe world, and Bharat, the country.

Visva-Bharati embodied his vision of a uniquely Indian institution of learning that could contain within itself the breadth of intellectual and creative aspirations of the world. No other name could smell so sweet.

There are other institutions of learning more closely related to the name of the poet. Rabindra Bharati University, for example – which could be roughly rendered Tagore University – was a tribute paid to Rabindranath on the occasion of the centenary celebrations of his birth in 1961. It was established in his ancestral home in Jorasanko, Calcutta, emphasizing music, fine arts and the humanities to suggest that these formed the core of his genius.

Then, in 2010, the Indian government proposed another institution in his honor, a Rabindranath Tagore University dedicated to the liberal arts. This was to take the form of a continuation of the grand celebrations for its 150th birthday in 2011. Although the university was never founded, the proposal remains available in the public domain. A careful reading of it reveals that some of Visva-Bharati’s most salient ideas are, without direct reference, incorporated into this proposal for a “university of the future”.

Now, a decade later, dark clouds of uncertainty hang ominously over the future of all Indian universities. It is perhaps time to turn to the past to recall the history of an institution which, a century ago, radically rethought the epistemology of the liberal arts, and which included in its field of action the Asian and European studies, visual and performing arts, and rural economics.

A profoundly cosmopolitan and essentially international vision of education and the nation, an implicit rejection of the xenophobic and insular nationalism of his time and ours, was born more than a hundred years ago with the act of naming a university ” Visva-Bharati”.

Rabindranath began to conceptualize the idea of ​​Visva-Bharati around 1916, when he traveled to the United States and Japan to give his lectures on nationalism – lectures that many then considered controversial and which, from the point of view zealous nationalism, have often been decried. Witnessing the ravages of World War I, in which he saw human civilization pushed to the brink of savage darkness, Rabindranath hoped to create a habitation for liberal and like-minded intellectuals and creators.

By the time he laid the foundations of Visva-Bharati in 1918, he seems to have broadened this great dream, imagining it as a center of learning that would be primarily, but not exclusively, for research; in it, he believed, the ancient and traditional knowledge streams of India could be brought together.

Romain Rolland, arguably the most famous French author, intellectual and pacifist of his time, and winner of the Nobel Prize in 1915, met Rabindranath at Autour du Monde [near Paris] April 21, 1921. Rolland, deeply moved by Gitanjalihad also closely followed Rabindranath’s ideas on nationhood and nationalism in the lectures delivered in Japan and the United States of America in 1916. He agreed with Rabindranath on the dangers of those ideological aspects of nationalism which might become anti-human and harm civilization.

Rabindranath’s ideas of nationalism as a threat to humanity, however, had not been well received by his Japanese and American audiences. At home too, his ideological position was not well received.

Rolland had faced similar hostility at home for harboring similar ideas. Even before meeting Rabindranath, Rolland had taken the initiative of sending the poet, on April 10, 1919, a draft Declaration of Independence of Spirit. It was an international pacifist document addressed to “Workers of the Spirit, companions scattered throughout the world, separated for five years by armies, censorship and the hatred of belligerent nations” to “strengthen our fraternal union – a new union stronger and more convincing than before”.

Rabindranath’s willingness to become a signatory to this document was expressed in his reply: “It is enough for me to know that the higher consciousness of Europe has been able to assert itself in the voice of one of its best minds through the ugly clamours of an impassioned policy. . . .” He gladly accepted the invitation to belong to this international circle of free spirits.

When they finally met on 21 April in Autour du Monde, Rabindranath handed Rolland a printed promotional article on Visva-Bharati, intended for circulation among his friends and associations abroad. The very next day, Rolland sent a letter to Rabindranath assuring him that he would spread Rabindranath’s idea of ​​such a university among his friends in Europe. He also expressed the hope of one day going to Santiniketan and explaining “some of the essential ideas of my Europe”.

Unfortunately, Rolland’s dream never came true; he continues to be Rabindranath’s true benefactor, watching over the latter’s career almost like a sentinel. He ultimately never visited Santiniketan – but another Frenchman, the famous orientalist Sylvain Lévi (1863-1935) responded to Rabindranath’s invitation and did.

In his diary [Rabindranath’s son] Rathindranath, who with his wife Pratima and adopted daughter Doll had accompanied his father on the trip to Europe (and later to America), remembers Levi arriving to meet his father. Rathindranath describes the scholar as a “charming man”, “unpretentious” and “awesome”.

Levi’s students, who were devoted to him, called him “Mahaguru” (great master/teacher). The appellation was appropriate because Lévi had studied Sanskrit for six years at the Sorbonne, and after completing his doctoral thesis on “The Indian Theater” had succeeded his professor Abel Bergaigne in the chair. Lévi learned Chinese and Tibetan soon after, intending to pursue Buddhist studies, and by 1894 had begun a lifelong collaboration with the scholar Chavanna.

When Rabindranath met him, Lévi was a professor at the prestigious College de France, where he had taught since 1894. clear of his faith in Tagore.

Through his expertise in the Hindu and Buddhist textual cultures, Lévi realized Rabindranath’s ideal of the scholar who could initiate Indological studies in Visva-Bharati. The French scholar arrived in Santiniketan with his wife Désirée on November 10, 1921. According to Madame Lévi’s diary, her husband began teaching fairly soon after his arrival. There were daily Sanskrit classes and, on Sundays, lectures on Buddhist literary texts and religious treatises. Teachers and Ceylonese Buddhist monks from the Santiniketan ashram attended his classes.

Sylvain Lévi is not the only “foreigner” to have responded to Rabindranath’s call to make his dream of Visva-Bharati come true, there were other, much younger Europeans who found the poet’s offer. to Visva-Bharati quite irresistible.

Leonard Knight Elmhirst, a young Englishman pursuing an agricultural science course at Cornell, and Stella Kramrisch, a Viennese art historian, were two such young professionals. Rabindranath had heard of Elmhirst from their mutual friends, Sam Higginbottom and Harriet Moody, and was keen for the young Englishman, who wanted to work in the villages of India, to accompany him to Santiniketan where he had planned a project large-scale village development project in the neighboring village of Surul.

With Kramrisch, it was a chance meeting in an academic meeting. Rabindranath, impressed with her lecture, invited her to the new Kala Bhavana, the center for fine arts and music. These guests had arrived at the beginning of December 1921.

The decisions to invite Lévi, Kramrisch and Elmhirst were carefully considered. Each of them had expertise in an area already identified as one of the key areas of the newly founded institution – Oriental studies, visual arts and rural development. By the first decade of the 20th century, Rabindranath had already developed a deep conviction that the study of Buddhism in its pan-Asian aspect was central to understanding India; hence he had invited Levi to formally inaugurate Oriental studies at Vidya Bhavana at Visva-Bharati.

Kala Bhavana, on the other hand, was to break away from the model of colonial government art schools and function as a studio where art teachers and aspiring student-artists would work in tandem. More importantly, Rabindranath wanted artists to know the artistic traditions of Asia and Europe, and although Stella Kramrisch was also trained as a historian of oriental art, Rabindranath asked her to give a series of lectures on the history of European art at art. teachers and students of Kala Bhavana.

Aware that there was little room for his young artists to access informed discussions of Western art, Rabindranath wisely channeled Kramrisch’s scholarship in directions he felt the context demanded.

Excerpted with permission from Tagore University: A History of Visva-Bharati 1921-1961Swati Ganguli, published by Permanent Black in collaboration with the New India Foundation and Ashoka University.