Rabindranath Tagore and Sriniketan : Experiments with Village Welfare
Rabindranath Tagore's literary creations are well known and well documented. But what is comparatively less researched are his attempts to rejuvenate the decaying villages. At a time when the country was faced with the twin challenges of colonialism and nationalism he attempted to put forward before his countrymen the ideal of village welfare.
Rabindranath Tagore's contact with the rural world began in the closing decade of the nineteenth century when his father Maharshi Debendranath Tagore entrusted him with the task of looking after their extensive landed estates. The main problem that attracted his attention was the general decay in the countryside that he witnessed. The poet considered the village to be the kernel of Indian civilization. No real regeneration of the country would be possible without regeneration of its villages. He strongly believed that the decay had been accelerated during British rule. As his knowledge of the rural world increased so did his resolve to bring about a change in the lives of the villagers. Rural development was his starting point. He devouted himself to the task of rural reconstruction; improving the condition of the peasants and rural artisans; developing agriculture and cottage industries and; applying the co-operative principle to the task of general welfare. The once thriving and prosperous villages needed to be restored to their former glory.
At the height of the nationalist movement he suggested a different course of action. He advised contemporary political leaders to guide the energies and political awareness of the countrymen to constructive work. It was during the anti-partition struggle in Bengal in 1905-06 that he expressed these ideas forcefully. His motto was atma-shakti or self-reliance. He wanted to promote self-reliance among the villagers. Agricultural and rural industrial development constituted the two planks of his rural rejuvenation programme. Tagore was experimenting with rural reconstruction work when his contemporaries were more inspired by the ideas of nationalism and the anti-imperialist struggle. The poet's own conception of nationalism unfolded over a period of time. He never shifted from his firm belief in the efficacy of constructive work among villagers. Rabindranath's programme for rural development went far beyond an economic recovery. He visualized the village in its entirety. Long association with rural life awakened him to the multifarious needs of the hapless villagers.
Village uplift was the poet's starting point:
If we could free even one village from the shackles of helplessness and ignorance, an ideal for the whole of India would be established… Let a few villages be rebuilt in this way, and I shall say they are my India. This is the way to discover the true India.1
However, it could never be a reality if implemented from above. Rabindranath first attempted a comprehensive outline of rural revival work in a presidential address at the Pabna Bengal Congress Provincial Conference in 1908. He suggested a constructive programme to save the villages whose 'life-giving institutions are uprooted and are floating like dead logs down the river of time.2' The poet talked about educating the masses in the vernacular through melas or fairs. The rural folk he advocated could be educated through folk plays, songs, lantern shows and mythological stories.3
He also put forward a constructive programme which included merging villages into regional units that would include schools, workshops, granaries, co-operative stores and banks as also common meeting places for enjoyment and settling of disputes. The poet's experiments with rural reconstruction were carried out in three phases: Shilaidaha, Patisar and later at Sriniketan. It was at Sriniketan that his programme of rural reconstruction got its full application.4
The poet's ideas for Sriniketan were: to win the friendship and affection of villagers and cultivators by taking a real interest in all that concerns their lives and welfare, and by making a lively effort to assist them in solving their most pressing problems; to take the problems of the class room for study and discussion and to the experimental farm for solution; to carry the knowledge and experience gained in the class room and the experimental farm to the villagers, in the endeavour to improve their sanitation and health, to develop their resources and credit; to help them sell their produce and buy their requirements to the best advantage; to teach them better methods of growing crops and vegetables and of keeping live-stock; to encourage them to learn and practice arts and crafts; and to bring home to them the benefits of associated life, mutual aid and common endeavour.5 Tagore's Sriniketan experiment was given its actual shape by Leonard Elmhirst.6
From the initial stages of his Sriniketan experiment, his work of rural resuscitation, the poet laid great stress on preservation of harmony with the natural world. He highlighted the need for conservation of the wealth of nature both in his various writings as also in the practical work of rural reconstruction.
Emphasis on Scientific Knowledge
Rabindranath developed very early in life his faith in the importance of scientific knowledge.7 Rabindranath sent his son Rathindranath, son-in-law Nagendranath Gangopadhyay and the son of a friend Santosh Majumdar to Illinois University in America to study agricultural science and become acquainted with the modern and improved techniques of agriculture and animal husbandry. They came back and became his active workers. New techniques were introduced. Work was first begun in the zamindari estate at Shilaidaha and then Patisar in the Kaligram pargana.
Scientific methods of farming were introduced. Improved seeds were imported. Mechanization of farming was sought to be introduced. Crop rotation was introduced. Experiments were carried on in the experimental farms. Fertilizers were introduced. Rabindranath was aware of the attempts of the government to undertake agricultural improvements. Attempts were made in the zamindari estate to discourage sub-division and fragmentation of land among the tenants. The latter were made aware of the results of the experiments carried on in the farm. Rathindranath even imported tractors from abroad.
Agricultural experiments were first carried out in the estates at Shilaidaha. New crops were introduced. Problem of fodder was sought to be tackled. Farmers were given improved seeds from the estate. Later at Patisar the experiments were continued.
The Sriniketan program encompassed four general areas: agriculture, crafts and industries, village welfare and education. Some of these areas overlapped and over the years, there was considerable restructuring and subdividing of the various departments.8 It was under the guidance of L.K. Elmhirst that the Institute of Rural Reconstruction, established in 1922, that attempted to realize the poet's dream.
The agricultural unit under Elmhirst's direction included farming, vegetable gardening, orchards, dairy and poultry. Later sericulture and fishery were added. Soil depiction9 and erosion were a major problem of the area.10 To prevent soil erosion and depletion methods of crop rotation and use of fertilizers were introduced to the villagers through demonstrations and experiments on the Surul farm. Kashahara, a Japanese expert, carried on successful experiments in the orchards and encouraged the families to grow fruits and vegetables in their own courtyards. People came from long distances to see Kashahara's garden with its wide variety of Indian, English, Japanese and Chinese vegetables.11
In attempting to reforest the area and introduce new crops, the Sriniketan nursery provided seedlings and grafts for fruit trees at a subsidized cost. The dairy section took charge of supplying milk for the institution as well as carrying out breeding experiments and research on fodder production. The poultry section taught improved techniques of poultry farming and egg production. The dairy unit tried to upgrade poultry by introducing Chittagongs, the best Indian breed, and some White Leghorns and Rhode Island Reds. At the time, the average Indian hen laid only thirty to forty eggs per year.12 Efforts in poultry raising had to be abandoned partly because the poultry strayed into the houses of the Brahmins and caused damage to paddy grains and the straw thatching of the cottages.13
The Farm demonstrated to the villagers improved methods of farming, especially the utilization of manures, conservation of moisture and rotation of crops, and helped them by the distribution of better seeds. They also tried to cope with the cattle problem through the Dairy. The farm has about 50 Bighas under cultivation with a large tank for irrigation. Besides the common crops raised in the locality the following have been grown with success: potatoes, onions, jowar, maize, impe, cowpea; fibre crops such as jute, sunhemp and dhainchia. Vegetables such as kachu, radish, gourds, chillies etc; and fruits such as papayas, plantains and pineapples were also grown.
Experiments in growing a few varieties of wheat and cotton were also carried on. Special instruction is given to apprentices in irrigation, manuring and selection of seeds. Mulberry cultivation and the rearing of silk-worms were started with the help of Government experts.
The programme in connection with the Agricultural Extension work included; crop rotation (demonstrations were given in the farm); introduction of improved methods of growing vegetables, fruits and flowers; introduction of new varieties of vegetables and fruits; introduction of the system of green manuring; methods of fighting crop diseases and insect and pests; supplying the villages with seeds, cuttings and seedlings from the Farm and Garden. The Farm Superintendent supervised the gardens of the Brati Balakas, and the farms where the Institute's seeds and seedlings were used.
The Garden had about 6 Bighas of land with a small well for irrigation. A number of Japanese, Chinese and other foreign fruits, vegetables and fodder crops were experimented with successfully. The village boys, under the leadership of the Village Work Department started gardens in their home compounds and kept their families on fresh vegetables during the rainy season. Seeds and seedlings were raised and supplied from the Garden. The Japanese gardener demonstrated the conservation and use of night soil in his garden. It was the most practicable, sanitary and profitable method of disposing of waste materials of the most dangerous kind.
The object of the dairy was two-fold: to supply Sriniketan and Santiniketan with fresh and pure milk, and to breed good cattle. Efforts were made to raise fodder which was a problem in the district. An experiment in preserving fodder in Silo was successful.
In India, little or no attention was given to the poultry industry which had a very profitable and interesting field. The Poultry Department was under an expert and within a short time the stock of White Leghorns and Rhode Island Reds multiplied rapidly. Chicks hatched in the incubator were reared successfully. Efforts were made to cross native hens with leghorn cocks and thus build up a better breed which would meet the demands of the people.
A sericulture farm for the production of raw silk was opened in conjunction with the government of Bengal agricultural department with the object of establishing sericulture as a village industry. The scheme was dropped after 1929.14
In terms of cultural enrichment, new festivals such as Halakarshan or a ploughing ceremony in 1928, Briksha Ropana or a tree planting festival in 1928 and Nabanna or a fall festival for the new harvest of rice in 1935 were introduced. An annual Sriniketan mela or country fair was inaugurated to celebrate the achievements of Sriniketan and encourage social interchange and cultural activities among the villagers.
It was after his visit to Russia that the land question began to disturb the poet. He expressed his dissatisfaction with the zamindari system.15
Crafts and Industries
The revival of cottage industries and crafts had been a major goal of Sriniketan. It sought to resuscitate and create local industries, initiate new artistic designs and train apprentices. Nandalal Bose was instrumental in the area of craft design at Sriniketan. In 1930 he founded Karu Sangha, a handicraft cooperative associated with Kala Bhavan, to help improve the economic life of the artisans.16
In the craft area, training centres were set up to restore local industries and crafts such as leather work, tailoring and carpentry. In 1929 a mechanical workshop was set up, and training was offered in mechanical drawing, smithy, lathe work, and wood and metal turning. Lacquer work, raw silk production, pottery, tile making, cane work, embroidery, book binding and such other crafts were initiated.17
The Industrial Department of the Institute was located in a spacious building and is well equipped for the training of apprentices in the following crafts: weaving, leather work, Durrie, Carpet and Ashana-making, cardboard work, dyeing and printing, book-binding, batik work, goldsmithy and enamelling, embroidery, carpentry, lacquer work, metal work.
By 1928, one hundred and sixty two persons had received training in weaving, carpet and durrie making, dyeing and calico printing. There were eighteen centres within Birbhum district under the direct supervision of the crafts department and five outside the district. There were six thousand weavers in the district at the time.
The tanners or muchis in the district numbered twenty thousand. However, it was difficult to establish a market for leather products because of the poor quality of the hides. In 1932 the Birbhum Asprisya Sevak Samiti was set up with Rabindranath as the President and Kalimohan Ghosh as secretary for relief of the untouchables. In the country serious attempts at uplift of the untouchables was taken up only after Gandhi's 1923 fast. Two programmes that evolved from the Samiti were a weavers' cooperative and a project to provide training in shoe making.18
A separate unit known as the Shilpa Bhavan was begun on a small scale in 1922 with the goal of providing vocational training to village apprentices and providing crafts training to the students of the academic departments of Santiniketan and Sriniketan. The unit was initiated by Pratima and Rathindranath Tagore, who had become interested in leather work techniques. New designs in leather goods were created and various crafts such as lacquer and batik work, book binding and fabric painting were introduced. One of the success stories of the period was the revival and improvement in the techniques of lacquering. Pratima Devi, Kalimohan Ghosh and Gretchen Green were instrumental in reviving the crafts in districts depleted by malaria or famine. The artisans themselves had to be revived before the crafts could be given a new lease of life. It took advance wages of rice, sugar and quinine to rouse them and start production.19 Later spinning and weaving were included and some of the programmes were in conjunction with the Bengal Government Industry Department.20 The handloom projects were also continued. Under Silpa Bhavan's auspices an organization called Palli Karukari Kendra was founded by Pratima Tagore to provide part-time employments for rural women.21 Shilpa Bhavan proved to be one of the most economically successful in Sriniketan and it became an independent unit in 1937.
Since 1922, apprentices received their training in Sriniketan's own department in weaving, carpet and durrie-making, dyeing and calico printing. The Institute had 18 centres in this district under direct supervision and 5 centres outside the district.
An experiment in chrome tanning without the aid of machinery was started early in 1922, but it proved unsuccessful as more than 26 per cent of the hides in the neighbourhood were found unfit for this process. Moreover, chrome tanning required expert knowledge and the use of many chemicals, and it was therefore found unsuitable for introduction in the villages. An apprentice of the department was sent to the Calcutta Research Tannery to learn bark tanning. He finished his course and started his work in July 1924. A number of local muchis were trained. Through the small tannery, the Institute tried to teach some of these people improved methods of tanning and shoemaking. Some of those who were trained by the Institute started work in their own villages and were earning a better living. The Superintendent of the Calcutta Research Tannery reported favourably on the quality of leather turned out.
The Carpentry shop was fitted with up-to-date equipment. The apprentices under the supervision of an expert Japanese carpenter made all the furniture required by the Institute. Outside orders were also executed. A small workshop at Santiniketan offered facilities for learning smithy work. Advanced students were taught how to take care of the power station and to run oil engines.
The following Cottage Industries were introduced for boys and girls in different villages: spinning, weaving, dyeing and printing; needlework; basket-making; gardening. The village muchis and carpenters are given facilities for receiving training at the Institute.
Village Welfare department
The village welfare department aimed to impart lessons in self-dependence to the villagers. The work of this department covered the following activities:
- A study of Village life in social, political and economic aspects.
- The development of the Villages in regard to:-
- Sanitation and health.
- Economic improvement.
- Promotion of education.
- Social and moral progress.
The Medical section looked after the sanitation and health of the neighbouring villages by organizing local Health Societies. The Medical Officer of the Institute also gave demonstrations and lantern lectures on personal hygiene, food, village sanitation and preventable diseases.
The dispensary covered a substantial area. In special cases indoor patients were accommodated for a few days. In 1924 about 5,000 patients were treated in the dispensary. The Medical Officer, apart from his duties in the dispensary carried on a certain amount of research work in connection with malaria, spleen and kala-azar. Through systematic treatment there was a marked decrease in spleen and malaria complaints.
Efforts were made through the Village Societies to settle disputes by arbitration, and to bring about mutual trust which has practically died out in the villages, but which was at one time backbone of village life.
Another step undertaken for the betterment of social and moral life was the improvement of the condition of the depressed classes, by spreading education and by removing the evil of drink. A Dom-Samiti (low caste association) representing Doms from more than 30 different villages was formed.
An important function of the village welfare section was rural health which began on a small scale. Gretchen Green who opened the first dispensary bemoaned the shortage of personnel and medical facilities for treating vast number of patients.22 With the dispensary as a base, Kalimohan Ghosh began to organize co-operative health societies in which villagers took out membership entitling them to a limited amount of free treatment.23
By 1930 Dr. Harry Timbres joined the staff and took over the anti-malaria programme. He was a Quaker who had been involved in medical and relief work in Russia during the First World War. A twenty seven per cent reduction of deaths by malaria was reported between 1928 and 1948. Various other welfare activities were undertaken to promote healthy living conditions. Drains were opened up, tanks were disinfected, trenches dug, quinine distributed and smallpox vaccinations were administered. Preventive health care was thus promoted. Many of the health initiatives of the welfare section were carried out by the Brati Balakas and Brati Balikas. They were a group modeled on the Scout Association of Baden-Powell but adapted to the concerns of the Indian village.24 Rabindranath however, was insistent that his group of volunteers was very different from the scout movement.25
Rabindranath and Elmhirst sent some students, including Dhirananda Roy to a scout camp sponsored by the Quakers in the Central Provinces in 1921. When they returned, a youth group was organized in the village of Mahidapur.26 Gradually, the volunteers became acceptable and by 1928, there were eight hundred members organized in thirty centers.27
After 1940, however, only 267 children in twelve groups were reported. The volunteer groups were very effective in alleviating village health conditions through quinine distribution, first aid and water purification projects. Their activities sought to break down caste and religious differences through group games, music and plays, water purification, sanitation, fire brigades etc. They also helped supervise the melas, repair buildings and assist famine relief in the district through the distribution of food and clothing.
Another aspect of village welfare was the building up of cooperatives.28 The poet had long hoped to set up co-operative granaries (dharma-golas), and over two hundred co-operatives were established for grain storage, irrigation, banks etc. Some were more successful than others. Samavaya Bhandar, a casteless co-operative store of consumer goods, was started in 1918, but it was unsuccessful. The Santals of the neighbouring area organized a successful co-operative by themselves with the assistance of the Institute in 1936.The Visva-Bharati Central Co-operative Bank was started in 1927 with the aim of combating rural indebtedness. It had 236 Agricultural Credit Unions attached to it. 69 Irrigation Societies and 12 Health Societies were registered initially. Co-operative Dharmagolas (Paddy Stores) were also started.
Economic research and rural surveys were also carried out by the welfare section. For instance the 'Ballabpur Rural Survey' of 1926 edited by Kalimohan Ghosh provided a detailed report on the Ballabpur village.29 Reconstruction work in Balalbpur was formulated on the basis of the survey, and the efforts in Ballabpur were among the most successful of the Sriniketan projects.30
There was some attempt at land distribution, at least in the early period. Seven hundred acres of land were acquired by Sriniketan in conjunction with the Bengal government. The plots were allotted to Santal families for cultivation.31
Educational activities were implemented at all levels. By 1929 there were night classes for children and adults unable to attend day school in twelve villages and one day schools for girls. There were nine night schools for the depressed classes, and forty students in the girls schools four of whom had appeared for lower primary examination.32
By 1929, the number had increased to 52 under teachers Nanibala Roy and Mirchand Kashara. The girls came from all castes, and no discrimination was made and the girls' school was located in the house of one of the teachers. The curriculum was of the holistic type and included basic literacy, gardening, cooking, math, crafts, recreational activities etc. Unfortunately on account of their extreme poverty, the girls of the poorest families were unable to take advantage of this opportunity.33
Pioneering work in adult education was carried on through various activities. There was a rural circulating library- the first of its kind in Bengal- which contained 1500 books by 1940. There were also lectures and recitations from the epics and scripture. In 1929 it was reported that twenty-six lectures were given in nineteen villages on such topics as Ramayana, the life of Chaitanya, cooperative health and hygiene and the work of Santiniketan and Sriniketan. Attendance was said to be nearly six thousand. Training camps were held where instruction was given in scout organization, cottage craft, first aid, elementary agriculture and co-operative organization.34
Jatras or folk-plays and melas or fairs were also arranged. An early form of distance education was initiated through the Lok-Siksha Samsad, a society which organized home study and examinations for persons who could not attend school. A special education section was added later to handle some other educational areas. The Lok-Siksha Samsad activities were included under this section as well as a training centre for primary school teachers called Siksha Charcha Bhavan. In training primary teachers the centre supplemented the government curriculum with music, agriculture, sanitation, scouting and craft training to create a more holistic approach. This section took charge of monitoring the apprentices from the other sections and organized additional lectures and lab work in physics, botany and chemistry. A meteorological observatory was created in 1929 and the apprentices learnt to chart weather conditions. There were also some special women's educational projects, which were handled by the Mahila Samitis such as nutrition, maternity and childcare, literacy etc.35
The poet attempted to revitalize the decaying villages by attempting all round development. Education was given considerable importance. His entire work was based on the principle of co-operation. He was influenced by the ideas of Sir Horace Plunkett, the father of the Irish co-operative movement and the Irish poet George Russell. Agriculture and rural industries constituted the twin planks of his rural resuscitation programme. Conservation of the natural balance and preservation of nature lay at the root of his rural development programme. Elmhirst agreed with the poet that however much one may talk of increasing death rates, the all powerful sway of malaria and disease, the grinding poverty and the frequency of famines as some of the ills plaguing the Birbhum region, in actuality at the bottom of the trouble lay the robbery of the soil. Fundamental among nature's laws was that which allowed no race of farmers to take more out of the soil than they put in. In places where scientific farming had to be carried on, men succeeded in so far as they repaid the soil generously. The question of soil conservation in lateritic soil condition becomes vital because it is prone to severe erosion. Extensive parts of Birbhum are covered by secondary lateritic formation. From the time of Elmhirst attempts were made to address the problem of soil erosion. Afforestation programmes were adopted. Various kinds of trees for timber as well as for fuel were planted. From the 1940s onwards Sriniketan made a vigorous attempt in this direction. The poet's work of rural revitalization involved hard and dedicated work. Undaunted by constant failures and his inability to inspire his countrymen, swayed by the nationalist movement, he persevered never losing faith in the necessity of such enterprise.
Notes and References
1. Tagore, Rabindranath, 'City and Village', Towards Universal Man, New York, 1962, p.322
2. ibid., p.122
3. Sarkar, Sumit, The Swadeshi Movement in Bengal: 1903-8, New Delhi, 1973, p. 55
4. Tagore, Rabindranath, 'Presidential Address', Bengal Provincial Conference, Pabna,
1908, Towards Universal Man, New York, 1962, pp. 118-119
5. 'Aims and Objects,' Visva-Bharati Bulletin, no.11, December 1928, p.2
6. Elmhirst, L.K., 'The Foundation of Sriniketan', in Rabindranath Tagore, Pioneer in
Education, Essays and Exchanges between Rabindranath Tagore and L.K. Elmhirst,
London, 1961, p.20
7. Tagore, Rabindranath, 'the Cult of the Charka,' Truth Called them Differently, p.92
8. O'Connell, Kathleen M., Rabindranath Tagore: The Poet as Educator, Calcutta,
9. Elmhirst, L.K., Poet and Plowman, Calcutta, 1975, pp. 46-48
11. Lal, Prem Chand, Reconstruction and Education in Rural India, London, 1932, p.63
12. ibid., p. 65
13. 'Sriniketan Annual Report, 1929', Visva-Bharati Quarterly, Vol. VII, January, 1929,
15. Quoted in Tagore, Rabindranath, Letters from Russia, Calcutta, 1984, p. 156
16. Mandal, Panchanan, 'A Biographical Sketch,' Visva-Bharati Quarterly, Nandalal
Number, vol. XXXIV, May, 1968- April 1969, p.190
17. 'Sriniketan Annual Report, 1927', Visva-Bharati Quarterly, Vol.VI, April, 1928,
pp. 28- 40
18. 'Visva-Bharati: a Brief account of the Institution,' Visva-Bharati Bulletin, no. 30,
December 1941, p. 7
19. Green, Gretchen, The Whole World & Company, New York, 1936, pp.140-41
20. Development of Cottage Industries by Silpa-Bhavana,' Visva-Bharati Bulletin,
no. 32, January, 1951, pp. 1-5
21. ibid., p. 10
22. Green, Gretchen, The Whole World & Company, New York, 1936, pp.118-19, 148
23. 'Sriniketan Annual Report, 1929', Visva-Bharati Quarterly, Vol.VII, January, 1929,
24. O'Connell, Kathleen M., Rabindranath Tagore: The Poet as Educator, Calcutta,
25. Tagore, Rabindranath, Letters from Russia, Calcutta, 1984, p.175
26. Elmhirst, L.K., 'The Formation of Sriniketan' in Rabindranath Tagore, Pioneer in
Education, Essays and Exchanges between Rabindranath Tagore and L.K.
Elmhirst, London, 1961, p. 74
27. Mukherjee, Himangshu Bhushan, Education for Fullness: A Study of the
Educational Thought and Experiment of Rabindranath Tagore, Bombay, 1962,
28. Elmhirst, L.K., 'The Formation of Sriniketan', op.cit., p. 39
29. Ballabpur Rural Survey, Santiniketan, 1926
30. 'Supur: An Experiment in Rural Reconstruction,' Visva-Bharati Bulletin, no. 28,
31. 'Sriniketan Annual Report, 1929', Visva-Bharati Quarterly, Vol.VII, January,
1929, pp. 453-69
32. 'Sriniketan Annual Report, 1927', Visva-Bharati Quarterly, Vol.VI, April, 1928,
pp. 28- 40
33. Lal, Prem Chand, Reconstruction and Education in Rural India, London, 1932,
34. 'Sriniketan Annual Report, 1929', Visva-Bharati Quarterly, Vol.VII, January,
1929, pp. 453-69
35. O'Connell, Kathleen M., op.cit., p.206