Worrying reports have been coming out of and about Visva-Bharati lately that should put us on alarm about the future of this august institution that was founded by Rabindranath Tagore 91 years ago. When discipline erodes, values blur, law and order becomes an issue, accountability is in question, and a retired vice-chancellor feels compelled enough to complain in writing to the prime minister, Visva-Bharati’s chancellor, things must have gone too far in the wrong and we should feel deeply disturbed.
The biggest concern is that Visva-Bharati seems to have lost its direction. Tagore himself had worries about what would happen to his institution after his death, which was why he asked Mahatma Gandhi to be its mentor. Gandhi took the matter up with Jawaharlal Nehru, and Nehru’s efforts culminated in the Indian Parliament passing the Visva-Bharati Act of 1951, making it a central university and an institution of national importance. All that certainly was well intentioned, but what was a blessing at the time has turned out to be a bane.
Visva-Bharati, as Tagore conceived it, was a larger concept; Visva-Bharati University is not. While the 1951 Act allows it the freedom to stay as Tagore would have liked it to stay, the early guardians of its new incarnation found being a government-supported university, offering recognised academic courses, much easier to cope with than running a visionary centre of excellence dedicated to the world. Over time, the blinkered thinking became a mundane habit too entrenched to discard.
Where are the latter-day Winternitzes, Lesnies, Tuccis, and Elmhirsts, luminaries who had drawn the world’s attention to Visva-Bharati during Tagore’s lifetime and were keen to spread its message around? Where’s the broader interaction, the active exchange of minds, the intellectual camaraderie, which alone can turn it into a truly global laboratory of ideas?
Having paid our ritual homage to Tagore on the 150th anniversary of his birth, it behoves us now to consider reinventing Visva-Bharati and bring its glory back. The greatest disservice to the poet’s memory would be to leave his beloved institution to its rot, in a corner of rural West Bengal that still doesn’t have decent medical facilities, at the behest of an administration that appears to be fractious and self-serving with no one to question its functioning. If Visva-Bharati has an active international programme, there’s no public evidence of it.
In April 1937, while inaugurating the “Cheena Bhavana” at Visva-Bharati, Tagore had spoken of “redeeming an ancient pledge implicit in our past, the pledge to maintain the intercourse of culture and friendship between our people and the people of China.” What, in the name of Tagore, has happened to that pledge? Where’s the new Tan Yun-shan who could help redeem it at a time when a powerful new China has risen above the horizon? Today, Cheena Bhavana exists, like Nippon Bhavana does, or all the other “bhavanas” and programmes that had begun in Tagore’s time, only as skeletons of his ideals, from which the flesh has virtually fled.
The world no longer calls at Visva-Bharati, except for occasional foreign students. No new international centre has been added to it since Tagore’s death. Having long ceased to be a meeting place of cultures, it’s now not even a meeting place of ideas, where alumni could rub their minds off visiting scholars and intellectuals. No schools of thought come to contend at Visva-Bharati; no new concepts emanate from its classrooms.
If we are honest to Tagore, it should be our duty to try and save his beloved institution. Tagore hadn’t conceived Visva-Bharati as a university like any other, but as a melting pot of minds, an open centre of learning where education wouldn’t follow a formal course. That’s the first thing to remember. The task, therefore, should be to broaden the base of the Act of 1951, giving Visva-Bharati an acknowledged international identity, constituting an independent mentor group — chaired perhaps by Professor Amartya Sen? I can’t think of anyone better qualified than him because of his international stature, his deep emotional attachment to Santiniketan, and roots going back all the way to its past — to redefine its vision, and creating a distinguished global body of advisers who would help reopen the vents of ideas that are now choked from long disuse.
A lot remains to be done, from reorienting attitudes to re-building the environs of Santiniketan, and the experience of Nalanda’s upcoming international university gives us hope that the world can be rallied behind Visva-Bharati, morally and financially, if only we’d be willing to reach out. Why should Tagore be kept a prisoner of Indian patriotism? Rescuing Visva-Bharati from its narrow domestic walls, bringing “Visva” back in its scheme of things, will be our fittest tribute to the universal poet and our best possible gift of ideas to the world, of which he was a noble citizen.