As a community, Santiniketan was a vibrant gathering of students who had assembled to undertake an experiment in nationalist education. While Rabindranath was the epicenter of this community, it had its own moments of crisis, despair and laughter. The memory of theses moments have generated a wide range of memoirs that have sought to record the small moments of joy and woe of a fledgling community that sought to embody the whole world within itself. This article records a few such moments that created ripples in the otherwise quiet life of Santiniketan.
Sudhiranjan Das, an early student of the ashrama vidyalaya recollects the peon of the ashrama- a withered, old man with shrunken cheeks and toothless gums. With a leather belt over his short ‘dhoti’ and a cudgel in his hand he moved from Bolpur to Santiniketan twice a day.
“He was our peon. We used to call him ‘sardar’. We had learnt about him from the popular stories that went around- our youthful imagination gave a lively hue to it. It did not fail to excite us despite having no proof of its authenticity. Our tender age required no proof; we believed whatever appealed to us. The sardar happened to be the leader of a notorious band of dacoits that terrorized Birbhum. He and his followers used to haunt the road extending from Bolpur station to Suri. In the evening they used to wait near the Chhatimtala and attack the commoners shouting ha-re-re-re, their battle cry. After snatching their belongings, the sardar distributed the booty among his followers. These dacoits were expert in handling lathis (sticks), a strong bond of unity and loyalty existed among the members of the gang. The consequence of betrayal was severe punishment - the traitor was never seen again.
The sardar did not show any mercy even to own son-in-law. In the darkness of night, he travelled fifty miles from Bolpur to a village in the district of Burdwan, walking with a ‘ran-pa’ (a wooden device which helps to walk faster) and returned back after performing his duty.
One day, the sardar and his followers came across an elderly gentleman in the Chhatimtala, sitting under the Chhatim tree holding his hands in prayer. He was wearing a long cloak and was exceedingly fair with long beard. The dacoits were delighted to have a big game in their hands. Hearing their shout the gentleman opened his eyes and said, ‘You wait a bit, I have not yet finished my prayer-once I finish do whatever you like.’
The dacoits laughed at it but soon they were astonished to observe the effect on the sardar, his whole expression had changed within a moment. He gazed at the peaceful and pious face of the holy man and he was moved. A strange feeling crept over his mind, the eyes of the hard-hearted criminal moistened. He could not believe his eyes to see a man praying peacefully at the face of immediate death. He stayed back as his followers went away unwillingly. The sardar waited till the prayer was over; the holy man looked at him-the dacoit could read the mercy and forgiveness in the eyes, his troubled mind was soothed. He bowed his head at the saint’s feet and begged him for shelter. The holy man blessed the sardar touching his head; he was none other than Maharshi Debendranath. At that time he was the guest of the Singha family of Raipur and while strolling in the afternoon he had to the Chhatimtala.”
In the ashrama the boys not only studied in the lap of nature but they had special ways of mischief. Sudhiranjan Das remembers one such incident:
“During a summer vacation I stayed back at the ashrama with some other boys – the intention was to improve our knowledge in mathematics under the guidance of Jagadanandababu. Chandi, the cook, was in charge of our meals. He was a short, stout fellow, who used to brag about his bravery-that he was not afraid of the ghosts and could venture around the cremation grounds at the dead of a new-moon night.
One day Saroj, I and few others decided to teach him a lesson. We managed to get hold of the skeleton of the laboratory that belonged to the days of Satyababu. Besmearing it with phosphorus around the eyeballs and jaws; we cautiously brought it out and tiptoed off to suspend it from Chandi’s thatched roof. We made the jaws to move by drawing strings, Saroj started to throw pebbles at the sleeping cook to wake him up. Witnessing the hair-raising spectacle at the dead end of night, Chandi began to groan. We feared the worse, was the fellow going to die? He stretched his hand for the stick lying aside- our heart sank- if he struck out, the ghost it would break into pieces and the next day Jagadanandababu would not spare us. We giggled in chorus. At last Saroj exclaimed, “So, Chandi you fight with the ghost in this manner!”
Brightening up the lamp Chandi replied, ‘I had already understood that it is you. I was about to hit it –the ghost would run away.’ Drops of sweat trickled from his face; I said, ‘obviously, that is why you were groaning- what do you think us, deaf?’
Chandi confessed that he was afraid. We put the skeleton back in the laboratory and sketched out a satisfactory explanation regarding the disappearance of phosphorus to save ourselves from Jagadanandababu. But the incident was not revealed as we could not say anything from our fear of Jagadanandababu and Chandi remained silent in order to conceal his cowardice. The only outcome of this was that since then Chandi’s boasting about ghosts was never heard.”
Tanayendranath Ghosh, an erstwhile teacher of Santiniketan, did not ever leave the place; it may be a legend but Hirendranath Dutta recalls once when Tanaybabu made up his mind for a visit.
“One of Tanaybabu’s brothers was a railway employee at Chittaranjan- this was, as usual, not known to Tanaybabu. Suddenly receiving a letter from his little niece Tanaybabu was moved; the child had earnestly requested him to pay them a visit - she had never seen him and was eager to meet her uncle. Chatting at the tea-stall, Tanaybabu mentioned about the letter and read it aloud too. We encouraged him to make the visit and he was willing to do so. In our subsequent meetings, I sometimes used to ask –‘what are you thinking of the visit?’ Tanaybabu’s reply used to be in the affirmative -‘I am willing to go as soon as I get a chance’. This procrastination hardly surprised us as we knew him well. Time passed and Tanaybabu’s impending visit gradually faded from our memory. It was not before a couple of years that it came suddenly to my mind and I asked, ‘Had you gone to Chittaranjan to meet your niece?’ Tanaybabu laughed heartily, ‘Believe it or not, I really went there, but by then my brother had been transferred somewhere else and I was unable to find his recent address. So I returned by the next train.’ Another outburst of laughter followed. The latent disappointment through this forced laughter was obvious to me.”
Tejeshchandra Sen used to stay at the Taladhwaja, a hut built surrounding the trunk of a huge Tal tree. During his stay at Santiniketan, once he had thought of changing his residence. Hirendranath Dutta gives the details:
“There is comic interlude to the history of Taladhwaja. About the end his working years, owing to his infirmity and the decaying condition of Taladhwaja, he talked to the authorities and went to stay one of the tenements of Visva-Bharati, leaving his cottage. ‘I can no more look after it’-he explained. Everybody was deeply afflicted by his decision. Taladhwaja could not be imagined without Tejeshbabu. Was it going to be the abode of Betal, a spirit dwelling in a corpse? The anxiety was soon over. A few days only passed, probably not more than two weeks- one fine day Tejeshbabu was seen to have returned to the Taaldhwaja. Everyone commented, ‘now, have you learnt your lesson?’ With a dejected face he replied, ‘what could I do, I could not stay elsewhere.’ For some days his friends had a hearty laugh over it. But all were inwardly satisfied- the original inhabitant had returned to his home. From that day onwards King Taladhwaja stayed there in his kingly grandeur till the last day of his life.”
The teachers used to gather during the afternoon tea-break at Dinubabu’s (Dinendranath Tagore) place to chat over the tea cups; later the gathering used to take place on the first floor of the library. Pramathanath Bishi recollects one such gathering where the poet himself was present:
“We often used to decide that anybody who would use English words while on that day would have to pay a fine of one paisa per English word. Sometimes the fine collected was not meager.
On such a day Rabindranath came to the gathering. We thought, what a luck, today there would be a handsome collection. He was informed about the rule. The conversation continued for more than an hour.
To put him in danger, such topics were raised where English words would come naturally. But in vain, not a single foreign word dropped from his lips. That day our trustee’s face was sullen.Rabindranath understood everything. But he did not remain the cause of the heartbreak of so many innocent fellows, a day or two later all the members were invited at tea at Uttarayan.
Pramathanath Bishi remembers one occasion when Tagore taught him a lesson:
“One day, at noon, he was teaching a text, probably Browning’s drama. Meanwhile Sadhucharan (Tagore’s attendant) handed him a glass containing some drink. It was of bright golden hue. He was drinking it and my greedy eyes were moving around the glass in despair. Having finished the drink, he looked at me and asked, ‘Would you like to have some?’ I humbly replied, ‘Not bad!’ He signaled to Sadhucharan. Sadhucharan brought another glass of drink. My classmates and teachers were definitely envious of my fortune! Taking a sip, I realized that it was the extract of boiled neem leaves. Good heavens! What a severe anticlimax! But then there was no way retreat, I finished the last drops with a smiling face.Tagore asked, ‘How does it taste?’ I replied with excessive smartness, ‘Excellent! Such a delicacy you taste everyday!’ At my words most of my classmates’ tongues grew restless, as many of them had already started fidgeting. Then Rabindranath unraveled the secret, ‘You should not be unnecessarily disturbed, it was neem extract!’ It seemed that their suspicion was not completely dispelled, they perhaps thought that two of us cunningly made the dry Browning class somewhat interesting.”
Pramathanath Bishi narrates an incident when a good beating tasted sweet:
“If Jagadananda babu hit a boy, the consequence of this rash deed proved to be good for t the student. We used to be afraid of him, but his mind was filled with love and affection.
However much he used to shout and scold, seldom he gave thrashing. He felt bad after beating the boy and after sometime he called the boy and gave him some biscuits. It proved fatal to him. The boys grew eager for his beating, as soon as the news spread among the students. But what a misfortune; he was not laying his hand on anybody. We asked the chap, ‘You have seen the box of biscuits, how many were there?’ He replied, ‘Almost full!’ Come let’s go to Jagadananda babu’s place. He was then perhaps busy composing some text, observing the movements of the planets- the evil stars assembled at his door for his slap were hardly noticed by him! We cursed our luck and returned home in despair.”
Pramathanath Bshi had an opportunity to experience Tagore’s medical skills:
“I was then quite young; once I sprained my foot while playing football-nothing could be done except laying down in the hospital. Hearing about the accident, he (Tagore) sent me an ointment made of datura leaves and other such stuff. The instruction was to apply it on the affected area and bind it for a couple of days. Two days after when the bandage was removed; the foot was covered with blisters. I had to remain bed-ridden for a few more days, as a result of this. My unfavourable feelings towards the healer cannot be expressed.” Quite clearly Tagore’s medical skills could not match his creative ones!
Tagore had once lent someone a sum of rupees ten, Syed Mujtaba Ali recalls the incident:
“He (Tagore) used to reside on the top floor of Dehali, his grandson Dinubabu (Dinendranath Tagore), used to stay in the ground floor.One day, in a gathering at his verandah, the topic of borrowing money was raised. Suddenly Tagore said, ‘You know Dinu, once a fellow borrowed ten rupees from me and waxed eloquent, ‘I shall be ever grateful to you.’ Those who were present remained silent, not understanding the point (thrust) of humor. After all, it was perhaps, not impossible for Gurudev to make jokes.
After a brief pause, Gurudev uttered with a sigh, ‘The fellow possessed one admirable quality despite his several follies. He was truthful and kept his word - he remained ever grateful.’ The gathering burst into spontaneous laughter. Behind the serious veil was a sharp, witty and humourous man!
Tagore never turned away the naughty boys. He had extraordinary patience for them. Mujtaba Ali gives the details of one such touching occasion:-
The new boy Bhandare got a seat in Bithika. In front of it was Salbithi - at its one extreme was library and Dehali was at the other end. Gurudev, then used to stay at Dehali
Coming out from Dehali, Gurudev was heading towards the library through Salbithi. He was clad in a long cloak and a black cap/hat was on his head. Seeing Gurudev, Bhandare immediately rushed towards him. Others were astonished - the fellow had arrived in the Ashrama only few minutes before and without asking anybody he was rushing towards Gurudev!
From afar, everybody saw Bhandare telling Gurudev something - Gurudev smiled, it seemed that he was making mild objections and Bhandare was pressing on the matter. At last Bhandare thrust something in his hand, Gurudev smiled again and put it inside the pocket under his cloak. Bhandare came back to the dormitory beaming, without even greeting Gurudev.
Everybody asked, ‘What did you give to Gurudev?’ Bhandare replied mixing Marathi and Hindi, ‘Who Gurudev? He is just a mendicant.’ ‘What are you saying, he is Gurudev’!
I don’t know about Gurudev but I have given him a fifty-paisa coin.’
What was he saying? Mentally deranged or completely mad? Had he given a fifty-paisa coin to Gurudev! After interrogation it came emerged that when he was leaving his place, his grandmother had advised him to donate to the holy men and mendicants, According to her advice, Bhandare had given the coin to the mendicant. Yes, at first the man was unwilling to take, but Bhandare was a shrewd fellow, not to be put down easily; fifty-paisa was no joke! The incident took place forty years ago. It was impossible to convince Bhandare that the receiver of his charity was not any mendicant but Gurudev himself!
When Bhandare realized his mistake his reaction cannot be found in Ashrama recorder. But that is rather irrelevant in this context.
Soon Bhandare’s notoriously naughty nature was exposed. Students felt disturbed, teachers agitated, everywhere chaos prevailed. The Headmaster Jagadanandababu had been an employee at Rabindranath’s estate and an expert at handling goons. He was also at a loss regarding this unruly boy and he informed Gurudev.
Gurudev called Bhandare and said, ‘What am I hearing about you, Bhandare?’ Bhandare remained silent.
Gurudev continued with his eyes full of sorrow, ‘Bhandare now you have started behaving rowdily. Till now, I had not seen a nice boy like you, and now you are doing such things that I have to bow down my head in shame in front of all. You remember when you first came here, what a dear fellow you had been? Don’t you remember, you used to donate money? Even you had given me a fifty-paisa coin? So far, many students came and went away but nobody had given me any money. I have kept that coin with great care. Will you see it?’
One or two years after this incident, I arrived at Santiniketan. The Marathi musical exponent late Bhimrao Shastri then used to lead the morning baitalik (Prayer). Forty years have passed. Till now I think, I can visualize young Bhandare singing the baitalik.
Das, Sudhiranjan, Amader Santiniketan, Kolkata: Visva-Bharati, 1366 (Bengali calendar),rpt., 1394(Bengali calendar).
Dutta, Hirendranath, Santiniketaner ek Yug, Kolkata: Visva-Bharati, 1387 (Bengali calendar).
Bishi, Pramathanath, Rabindranath O Santiniketan, Kolkata: Visva-Bharati, 1351(Bengali calendar),rpt., 1415(Bengali calendar).
Ali, Syed Mujtaba, Gurudev O Santiniketan, Kolkata: Mitra and Ghosh Publishers Pvt. Ltd., 1388(Bengali calendar),rpt., 1415(Bengali calendar).