Santiniketan began as an axram in 1863. maharshi debendranath tagore founded it on twenty bighas of land purchased from Bhubanmohan Sinha, landlord of Raipur. The ashram, located near Bolpur in the Birbhum district of West Bengal, was intended as a retreat for householders, where they could spend their time in prayer, away from their worldly preoccupations. The Santiniketan Trust, established by the Maharshi in 1888, provided for a guest house, a prayer hall, and a library dedicated to religious literature.
In 1901 rabindranath tagore founded a school for children in the Santiniketan ashram. Just prior to that he had spent ten years at Shilaidaha on the Padma managing his family estates. In the process he came to know the life of the rural people and it made him want to do something constructive for society. Choosing the fields of education and rural reconstruction he made a beginning at Shilaidaha and then moved to Santiniketan.
At Santiniketan, Rabindranath wanted to establish an ideal school. He was unhappy with the schools he was sent to in his boyhood; he thought English schools were cut off from Indian life, society and culture. In choosing Santiniketan he had three distinct goals: to make the children grow up in an ideal physical environment, close to Nature, an education to balance the city and the village in a changing India and to impart knowledge capable of accepting a larger world.
The Santiniketan School was started during the swadeshi movement; it grew into Vishvabharati at the end of the First World War. The Santiniketan School founded in the Santiniketan ashram, and the Vishvabharati make up the totality of Rabindranath's educational ventures. They were not separate and disconnected institutions although the Santiniketan ashram was founded in 1863, the school in 1901, and Vishvabharati in 1921.
Rabindranath had conceived this totality even before Vishvabharati was formally started. He wrote to his son Rathindranath in 1916, 'The Santiniketan school must be made the thread linking India with the world. We must establish there a centre for humanistic research concerned with all the world's peoples 85The task of my last years is to free the world from the coils of national chauvinism'. He wanted to free India from its spirit of isolation. He wrote, 'We must build up a relationship with the world, to serve and to be served, to give and to receive. India has been cut off from the world's scholarship, treated only to trifles in the name of education and relegated to a perennial primary school. We now want freedom from this spiritual and intellectual humiliation'.
The new idea was one of co-ordination and co-operation among the cultures of the world. A true centre of Indian culture would foster the creative and the universal, first in India's many cultures, and then in those of the world at large. It was this idea that gave birth to Vishvabharati. The curriculum consisted of collecting the treasures of the Vedic, Puranic, Buddhist, Jaina and Islamic minds. It was hoped that this knowledge would lead India to find her identity in her diversity. Rabindranath wrote, 'We must understand ourselves in this extended and interlinked way or else the education we will receive will be like that of a beggar. No nation can be rich on begging'.
The concept of Vishvabharati also included the idea of total activity. Thus at Santiniketan economists, agriculturists, social workers, doctors, midwives, healthcare workers, and specialists in various fields of rural industry and education, experimented and worked with the villagers on different aspects of rural problems. Research and application of research made up the Santiniketan method. A scout movement Brati Balaka Sanggathana was also organised to initiate the village youth in self-reliance. It was hoped that mobilising the children would draw in the elders. The objective was to awaken in the minds of the village elders, torn by disputes among themselves, the absolute need for co-operation.
All in all the Santiniketan school was designed to be more than a school, a society in itself where teacher and pupil, householder and visitor, Bengali and non-Bengali, Indian and non-Indian would all live and learn together.
It was also Rabindranath's hope to free the Indian mind of its slavishness through a new education. He thought that would reveal the fundamental aim of life beyond the mere needs of livelihood. He wanted the children to appreciate the meaning of co-operation and friendship from the very beginning of their education.
In 1919, Rabindranath enunciated his Vishvabharati plan and accepted 'yatra vishvam bhavatyekanidam' (where the world would become a single nest) as its motto. In 1921 Vishvabharati was formally established. Rabindranath was its Chancellor (acharya) till his death, abanindranath tagore and Sarojini Naidu were his successors.
Many eminent European scholars contributed to the development of Vishvabharati at its initial stage. Notable among them were Sylvan Levy, Sten Konow, Tucci, Collins, Vogdanov, Andre Karpeles, Stella Kramreisch. Leonard Elmhirst contributed to the development of Rural Welfare activities. Prabhat Kumar Mukhopadhyaya joined Vishvabharati as its Librarian. In 1936 a department for mass education (Lokashiksa) was added and in 1938 the Shilpasadan (Art Institute).
Different organs of Vishvabharati are Pathabhavan (School), Shiksabhavan (College), Vidyabhavan (Post-graduate and Research), Kalabhavan (Arts), Sangitbhavan (Music), Pallisanggathan (Rural Organisation), Granthan (Publication) etc. In 1937 the Chinbhavan (Sino-Indian Studies) was added in collaboration with Professor Tan Yun-san. Hindibhavan and Rabindrabhavan were added in 1939 and 1942 respectively; the latter, a centre for Rabindra studies, holds the collection of manuscripts, paintings, letters and books of Rabindranath Tagore.
Rabindranath died in 1941. Ten years later Vishvabharati became a Central University of the Government of India, fully funded by the Government. Besides the size of the institution, which has grown many times over since its beginnings in 1901, there have been fundamental changes in two spheres. In Rabindranath Santiniketan and Sriniketan no degrees were given. Today, Vishvabharati gives degrees at every level at par with the other universities in the country. The other change has been in the sphere of finances. Rabindranath started the school with only five boys on his own limited resources. His wife Mrinalini Devi sold her jewellery to meet the expenses of the Santiniketan School at its inception. Rabindranath sold his bungalow in Puri. He depended mainly on the eighteen hundred rupees that came annually from the father's Santiniketan Trust. Later he gave his entire Nobel Prize money to the school. In 1922 he gave the copyright for his works in Bangla to Vishvabharati. Help also came from the early teachers who took very little salary from the school. WW Pearson and CF Andrews of England gave their all to the school. Dorothy Elmhirst Straight of the USA and Leonard Elmhirst of England endowed a large sum of money from their Dartington Hall Trust for Sriniketan's development. There were generous donations to Santiniketan from the princely families of Tripura, Baroda, Jaipur, Pithapuram, Kathiawar, Porebander, Limdi, Awagarh, Hyderabad and from Sir Ratan Tata.
Present day Santiniketan and Sriniketan are successors to Rabindranath's Santiniketan and Sriniketan. In Santiniketan the school reminds use somewhat of life as it was. Open-air classes, seasonal festivals, prayer services in the mondir (temple), its music, give glimpses into the past life of the ashram. A centre like Sriniketan with its training in agriculture and village extension work, also the Siksa Satra school for the village children, carry an imprint of Rabindranath's total approach to education even if the integrity of the original idea is largely lost. [Uma Das Gupta]