Tagore and Rural Reconstruction - A Synergy and Implications for Modern Professional Social work Practice
Ensconed in a zamindar family and brought up in affluence the young Tagore had initially never felt the plight of exploitation, illiteracy and atrocities of life which the villagers used to face. Tagore’s ardent interest of village upliftment arose when he was exposed to the poverty and oppression which engulfed the rural mass, during the time when Tagore was in charge of the family’s estates in East Bengal. This whole scenario made him keenly sensitive towards these people and he decided to pull them out from this ominous sign of darkness, so as to rebuild India and its villages. Tagore’s ideological framework and attitudes towards the life and society of rural people was inspirational to attract Leonard Elmhirst, a British agronomist to come to India upon the invitation of Tagore to work with him, and in the process they began to formulate methods for social and economic change. Tagore’s ideas of rural development reverberated from his saying:
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. That is the way to discover the true India (Tagore, 1928).
To translate his dream into reality, the Institute of Rural Reconstruction in Sriniketan was established in 1922 as an experiment with the initiative of Tagore and Elmhirst. Elmhirst was supposed to be the man behind the entire experiment. Rathindranath Tagore and Santosh Majumdar had been sent to study agriculture at the University of Illinois-Urbana in 1906, and Tagore later put them in charge of agricultural development as a part of Sriniketan experiment.
In the Visva-Bharati Bulletin, 1928, Tagore wrote:
The object of Sriniketan is to bring back life in its completeness into the villages making them self-reliant and self-respectful, acquainted with the cultural tradition of their own country and competent to make an efficient use of modern resources for the improvement of their physical, intellectual and economic conditions.
The objectives of the mission were:
1. To win the friendship and affection of villagers and cultivators by talking 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.
2. To take the problem of the village and the field to the class room for study and discussion and to the experimental farm for solution.
3. To put the students in the way of acquiring practical experience in cultivation, dairy, animal husbandry, poultry keeping, carpentry, and smithing, weaving and tannery; in practical sanitation work; and in the art and sprit of cooperation.
4. To give the students elementary instruction in the science connected with their practical work.
5. To encourage in the staff and students of the department itself a spirit of sincere service and willing sacrifice for the people of the surrounding villages.
6. To train the students to a due sense of their own intrinsic worth, physical and moral and in particular to teach them to do with their own hands everything which a village householder or a cultivator does or should do for a living, if possible, more efficiently.
Facets of experiment
The experiment was strongly supported by a team of foreigners and Bengalis. Among the foreigners; C.F. Andrews, W.W. Pearson, Kim-Taro Kashahara, Dorothy Straight Whitney, Miss Jenson remarkably contributed for the development of Sriniketan, as a model of village development; both by their own efforts and sometimes by financial assistance.
Elmhirst’s closest associates were Rathindranath Tagore and Santosh Majumdar. Another invaluable worker was Kalimohan Ghosh who was nicely portrayed by Elmhirst in the following manner “Kalimohan, with his extensive rural experience, laid the foundation for all the work in the village in his role as chief interpreter and contact person”. Sri, Dhirananda Roy, V.S. Masoji, a student of Kala-Bhavan and Gour Gopal Ghosh were also other great warriors behind the experiment as Tagore visualized.
The team saw the deplorable condition of the villages surrounding Sriniketan. The whole environment was unhygienic – poor and substandard sanitation polluted pond water, absence of source of drinking water, dilapidated building and temples, malaria-infested jungle and emaciated farm animals. The team, while slowly made their progress encountered four common problems – monkeys, mosquitoes, malaria and mutual trust that impeded their work to a great extent. But the experiment was very significant and Elmhirst wrote:
Notable results were achieved in a small area and in a few villages. Economic returns were such that the rising standard of living in the area was very noticeable. New confidence arose among the villagers.
The Sriniketan programme covered broadly four general areas: agriculture, crafts and industries, village welfare and education. The agricultural activities were based on three phases- (i) experiment; (ii) training, and (iii) extension. Extension activities were given much priority. A Demonstration Plot was created to impart training and education to all the farmers through real life situation. One or two agricultural workers from Sriniketan often used to go to the villages and farmers to supervise all activities. Dairy, poultry, pisiculture and bee-keeping were also some of the salient activities associated with the experiment in view of augmenting the rural resources and over all development of the villagers.
Right from the inception of Sriniketan, handicrafts were much emphasized and it was a step towards revitalizing local industries and initiate new artistic designs. In 1922 Tagore’s daughter-in-law, Pratima Devi introduced ‘Lac work’, ‘Calico printing’, ‘Batik work’ in a small room with tin roof and was named ‘Bichitra Studio’. It 1928 it shifted to Sriniketan and was renamed as ‘Silpa Bhavan’. Weaving, Tanning, Leather craft, Wood work, Pottery, Book binding, Hand made paper making, Basketry and cane work, Machine and power house were other significant areas of handicrafts during the time to empower and making the rural masses self independent. Women were equally encouraged to come forward by Pratima Devi and for them she established ‘Palli Karukari Kendra’to provide part-time employment for them.
Tagore realized that all these handicrafts must be rewarded and enormously evaluated. To do so, the organizing different ‘MELAS’ (fairs) was a great endeavour on the part of Tagore. So, he started celebrating fthe oundation day of Sriniketan every year (6th February, 1922) not only as an entertainment but giving an opportunity to the neighoubaring villagers to exhibit and sell their products, as well as an open platform for sharing and interacting among themselves, and with outsiders to enlighten their knowledge and practice. Marketing of such products was started in 1938 through a counter in Kolkata (210, Cornwallis Street; presently Bidhan Sarani) named as ‘Sriniketan Silpa Bhandar’. Remarkably, Subhas Chandra Bose was the founder of the centre.
In terms of cultural enrichment, festivals such as Hala Karshana (a ploughing ceremony), Nabanna (a fall festival for the new harvest of rice), Silpa Utsav and Sriniketan mela (Sriniketan fair as mentioned earlier) were introduced. They were celebrated to mark the splendid achievement of villagers in various spectrum of their life cycle and also fostered the social interchange and cultural initiatives of rural life.
To be a complete man was the concept of Tagore’s education. He never believed in conventional education such as class room lectures, routine examination etc. he advocated an open education system which would be environment friendly, devoid of all sorts of stringent rules and regulations. Simplicity, joyful and creative self-expression in terms of music, painting and dramatic performance etc were his ideals for imparting knowledge to the students. The ‘Brahmacharya Vidyalaya’ in Santiniketan was the manifestation of his ideas but later on he realized his ideas were defeated and he thought of establishing another school in Sriniketan named Siksha Satra in 1924. Another important dimension is worth mentioning here and that is Gandhiji’s visit to Santiniketan in 1914. The visit was also very instrumental in the light of evolution of Siksha Satra educational project. The prime objectives of Siksha Satra were – (i) Tagore perceived that Santiniketan School was not fulfilling his dream because of its changing nature of disseminating knowledge, which was confined only within a couple of books and not beyond that, due to the constant pressure from the parents to make the education system more competitive. So, Tagore felt an intense urge to create a school based on his inner philosophical orientation and it was called ‘poet’s school’; (ii) to make the village boys self-dependent and self-reliant and inculcate in them a sense of minimum professional expertise of their choice; (iii) Always against the stereotyped method of teaching, he argued that the method should be predicted on the individual needs of child. At Siksha-Satra there were no set classes and the teacher was viewed as facilitator and collaborator; (iv) to provide community development services such as; cleaning of forest and drains, maintaining roads, distribution of quinine etc. In this connection he emphatically depicted in his own words “Siksha-Satra is the real school, the ideal school, and the other one will be neglected”. We can also understand his passion for Siksha Satra when he utters:,
I am therefore all the more keen that Siksha Satra should justify the ideal I have entrusted to it, and should represent the most important function of Sriniketan in helping students to the attainment of manhood complete in all its various aspects.
In 1923, a Primary School for Girls was established in Sriniketan to enhance their status in the society through education. By 1939, there were night classes for children and adults unable to attend schools. There was a mobile library-the first of its kind in Bengal [still in operation in many districts of Bengal (especially Birbhum) and different states as well]. An early form of distance education was initiated through Lok-Siksha Samsad (Peoples Education Council, 1937), a society which organized study at homes 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 was included under this section; so was 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.
The Village Boys and Girls Scout (Brati Balak Organization) was initiated by the poet in 1922. The basic objectives of the programme were to develop the Second Line of Leadership among the children of the villages. The broad objectives of the programme were: (a) to develop the sprit of community services; (b) to undertake physical exercise; (c) to develop active leadership; (d) to develop an awareness of natural equilibrium and environment education.
Community health services were part and parcel of the Sriniketan experiment. It was Kalimohan Ghosh who mainly shouldered the responsibility to provide and extend public health services to the adjacent villages. ‘Swastha Samities’ were established in different villages where the villagers used to become the member of the samities by contributing cash or paddy and in ret urn they used to get free medical treatment. Initially, maternal and child health was an important component of the whole gamut of health care services. Rural women were trained to provide the above services to the mother and children.
The Cooperative movement was a significant aspect of the experiment. Cooperatives are an autonomous association of persons united voluntarily to meet their common economic, social and cultural needs and aspirations through jointly-owned and democratically-controlled enterprises. After Tagore’s visit to Russia in 1930, he dreamt of cooperatives at Santiniketan and of collective life on the Russian model. In the early stage of Sriniketan experiment, cooperatives were quite vibrant. Health Cooperative, Agricultural Credit Cooperative, Fishing Cooperative, Weaving Cooperative were the outcome of the villagers’ effort to make the cooperative movement a great success.Visva-Bharati Central Co-operative Bank established in 1927 also marked the continued progress of the cooperative movement.
Another concept ‘Dharmagola’ reflecting the principle of cooperative was introduced in 1928 for the benefit of the villagers. Later on, many villages were found with Dharmagolas and they ran it quite efficiently. During the harvesting time, every family used to deposit some amount of paddy in the respective Dharmagola and in time of exigencies they could buy some after paying minimum interest within their affordability. There were irrigation cooperatives also in a few villages and they were responsible for pond renovation; construction, maintenance and proper utilization of irrigation canals.
Mahila Samities (Women’s Association) played a considerable role in the economic and social welfare of the community. Right from 1936, Mahila Samities were very active in Bolpur, Bandhgora, Bhubandanga, Surul and Goalpara and plenty of activities were carried out for the upliftment of rural women. Information, education and communication material were prepared and distributed among the villagers for creating awareness and to develop a sense of solidarity.
The district of Birbhum is surrounded by Santals - an indigenous and disadvantaged community. They were under utter poverty and landless labourers. There was a clarion call by the poet in terms of their socio-economic development and an attempt was made to extricate them from the vicious circle of illiteracy, ignorance and poverty. Formation of Santal Hitaishi Samiti in 1931 presided by Kalimohan Ghosh was a landmark in the development of this tribal community and it gave a new fillip to the Sriniketan experiment.
In assessing the impact of Sriniketan, various aspects must be taken into consideration. There are the statistically verifiable achievements found in the reports of Elmhirst, P.C.Lal, and others, such as greater crop output, soil reclamation and reforestation, upgrading of livestock, reduction of deaths due to epidemics, creation of cooperatives, revival of and creation of cottage industries, establishment of schools and higher rates of literacy, and so forth.
In spite of the success story of Sriniketan, Tagore himself acknowledged some of the difficulties of Sriniketan experiment. Stating that “forces are working for creating a complete deviation from the path which we pursued when we first began our work”, he also conceded that the unlimited freedom which he had given the staff had resulted in a fragmented programme. He found that the approach of the ‘experts’ had undermined the establishing of sympathetic relationships with the villagers”.
Relevance to Modern Professional Social work
Social work, a service to maintain society’s harmonious functioning, is basically a helping process. It finds a specific mention in the Vedic (Rigveda) word, danam, which reflects the social philosophy of those days to help the needy members of the society.
It was the Association for Improving Conditions of the Poor (AICP) in USA, founded in 1843, which recognized that mere charity does not and cannot solve the problems of the disadvantaged and the unfortunates as this approach of helping through charity created a permanent liability on society. The beneficiaries of charity, because of being dependent on it, lose their self-respect and endure on charity for their whole of life. This was against the democratic values. AICP emphasized self-respect, self-dependence and relief suitable to their needs in its work with the poor. This can be said to be the beginning of professionalisation of charity work, done in the name of social work, under Elizabethan Poor Law of 1601, in the colonial USA. The modern concept of professional social work took its birth in India in 1936 after the establishment of Tata Institute of Social Sciences in Mumbai by Sir, Dorabji Tata.
The nature of social work is now a full-fledged profession. Social work seeks to enhance the social functioning of individuals, singly and in groups, by activities focused upon their social relationships which constitute the interaction between man and his environment. These activities can be grouped into three functions: (a) restoration of impaired capacity, (b) provision of individual and social resources, (c) and prevention of social dysfunction. Social work, as a profession, is no more interested in charity and relief work: instead, it is concerned with the social functioning of the individuals.
If we have a very intense look into the Sriniketan episode, the very essence of Tagore’s concept of providing help to the needy centres around his words - “ to help the people to help themselves; If we want to serve we must learn; there is nothing so dangerous as inexpert service”. Professional social work reflects the same in its theory and practice. Professional social work believes and preaches its mandate that people will be self- reliant and self –sufficient by using all opportunities provided to them from time to time but not making them dependent on others. Over and above the concept of ‘Brati Balak’, ‘mobile library’, ‘women’s group’, ‘cooperative’, ‘health awareness’ and so forth are all the integral parts of modern social work practice in various terminologies such as ‘group work’, ‘community development’, ‘community organization’, ‘case work’, ‘women empowerment’, ‘Self-Help–Group’, ‘reservation policy’, etc. India today thinks of self-help-group for women for women liberation, reservation policy for unprivileged section of the society and the collective development through individual development. These were ideas that Tagore injected in different forms in Sriniketan experiment. Tagore’s ideas thus anticipate the crux of India’s developmental strategy.
1. “Aims and Objects”, Visva-Bharati Bulletin, No. 11 (December,1928). p.1.
2. “Visva-Bharati; a Brief account of the Institution,” Visva-Bharati Bulletin, No.30 (December, 1941), p.7.
3. Dasgupta, Uma. (1984); Santiniketan “O” Sriniketan. Visva-Bharati, Kolkata.
4. “Sriniketan; the Institute of Rural Reconstruction.” Visva-Bharati Bulletin, No.4 (December, 1928), p.8.
5. Dasgupta, Uma (2004) Rabindranath Tagore: A Biography. Oxford University Press, New Delhi.
6. Tagore Rabindranath, ‘Palli Prakriti’, in Rabindra Rachanabali (Sulav), Vol-14, Visva-Bharati, Kolkata.
7. Tagore Rabindranath, ‘Atma Shakti’, in Rabindra Rachanabali (Sulav), Vol-2, Visva-Bharati, Kolkata.
8. Upadhyay, R.K. (2003) Social Case Work, Rawat Publications, Jaipur.