Chapter 16 Tagore, Social Responsibility and Higher Education in India

In: Socially Responsible Higher Education
Sarita Anand
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Visva-Bharati, the Higher Education Institution established by Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore embodies social responsibility and fosters sustainable practices in and around the campus, working with nearby communities and civil society to promote a more livable environment, using resource-efficient indigenous practices. Working together with the community is the key principle for the progressive development of society.

1 Introduction

Turn a tree into a lag and it will burn for you, but it will never bear living flower and fruit. (Rabindranath Tagore)

Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) are centres of knowledge, intelligent talent, teaching and research. Their ways of functioning and, indeed, their entire existence has both a direct and indirect relationship of responsibility with society, because they are the place where the future workforce is nurtured.

Traditionally, HEIs were expected only to perform their core duties of teaching, research and extension activities; however, the scenario has now changed. They are now expected to also exhibit their societal importance through these three functions, by taking their knowledge to nearby communities, as a form of social responsibility. HEIs are, thus, not only a place where theoretical knowledge is imparted and degrees are awarded to students – they are also responsible for educating and creating knowledge which can be used for and with the larger society.

2 Need and Significance

‘Sustainable practices’ refer to actions taken, directly or indirectly, by HEIs to serve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). It is the social responsibility of HEIs to promote and facilitate sustainable practices in and around the campus. Working with the community to make it better is not only good for the community, but also for the academic functioniong of the HEI.

HEIs like Visva-Bharati,1 Santiniketan, founded by the first Indian Nobel laureate, Rabindranath Tagore, are torchbearers for sustainable practices and the promotion of sustainable development. Tagore’s experiments with the Institute of Rural Reconstruction (IRR, established in 1922) and Sikha Satra (a school established by Tagore in 1924) stand as examples of how HEIs can be socially responsible towards nearby communities.

3 Tagore’s Original Framing of Social Responsibility in HEIs

If a true school is to be founded in India, the school must be from the beginning group. The school will make use of the best methods in agriculture, the breeding of livestock and development of village crafts. The teachers, students and people of the surrounding countryside will be related to each other with the strong and intimate ties of livelihood. They shall cooperate to produce all the necessities of their own existence. (Rabindranath Tagore)

The poet, writer, novelist, artist, naturalist and environmentalist Rabindranath Tagore took social responsibility very seriously. In 1906, he released a 15 point Village Reconstruction Charter in Pabna (Bangladesh), which illustrated his vision of autonomous and self-reliant villages, which were not isolated, but remained connected to each other. He stressed the importance of indigenously made goods in the charter, focussing on the training of housewives in local trades to make them self-dependent and add to the family income.

In 1922, Tagore established IRR, now called Palli-Samgathana Vibhaga (PSV), with the main objective of bringing life back into the nearby villages by making them self-reliant and encouraging the revival of village arts and crafts. He successfully implemented a community engagement programme which promoted the local, indigenous culture and traditions. Leonard Elmhirst, an Englishman who had studied agricultural economics at Cornell University, USA, helped him build IRR. Tagore also emphasised the practice of local music, agriculture, health and hygiene to connect villagers to their roots, ensuring that people from the nearby villages and communities would acquire the proper training and competency to put modern resources to efficient use in order to improve their physical, intellectural and economic conditions.

The Rural Extension Centre (REC), Department of Adult, Continuing Education and Extension, is one of the oldest departments of PSV, actively working towards improving the conditions of nearby communities and villages. They have formed village development societies, brati (youth) organisations, mahila samitis (women’s groups) and self-help groups in local communities. REC has been working with more than 48 villages under 8 gram panchayats (village governing institutes). More than 40 Village Development Societies (VDS) have been formed to organise the reconstruction activities of these villages.

  1. More than 5 mahila samitis have been formed and are presently running in the 5 REC villages. Empowerment and awareness raising training programmes are conducted frequently with the women, along with workshops on health, hygiene, sanitation, child marriage, motherhood, childcare, etc.
  2. REC has also formed self-help groups, with the objective of empowering the women of the community and engaging the community with HEIs. These groups promote habits of savings, develop cooperation among the community and encourage self-employment, in order to make the villagers more self-reliant.
  3. Youth organisations, called brati dal, have been organised, which include boys and girls between the ages of 6 and 14 years. These organisations serve to develop the spirit of community service, active leadership and physical exercise among the youth. They also serve to raise awareness on issues such as the environment and nature.

REC has also set up rural libraries and mobile literacy services, donating books to these entities. These entities are run by the VDOs, and more than 35 rural libraries have been set up in the nearby villages. One mobile library is also operational, which serves the needs of those villages which do not have adequate library services.

Following Tagore’s ideals of promoting agriculture and farming as a social responsibility initiative of HEIs, Visva-Bharti established Palli-Siksha Bhavana Institute of Agriculture in 1963, imparting knowledge in agricultural sciences. Apart from teaching and research, this institute is also engaged in extension activities in agriculture in the surrounding villages. Rural Awareness Work Experience (RAWE) and experiential learning are mandatory, and a part of the academic curriculum. Other academic units, such as the agricultural farm, horticultural farm, dairy and poultry farm, soil testing laboratory, library, and the Rathindra Center for Agricultural Sciences continuoustly support and help the surrounding community, as needed. Presently, this department is checking if new crops can be grown locally, by testing the soil and demonstrating their work to the local farmers. This department is also trying to promote modern animal husbandry, in order to support local income. The university has adopted more than 48 villages and is working towards their welfare, providing them access to local fairs as a platform to showcase their handicrafts.

Silpa Sadan is a Centre of Rural Craft Technology and Design, another department of PSV, which works towards the promotion of rural crafts like tie & dye, batik, paper pulp craft, ceramics and others. This centre engages students with local artisans and villagrs.

Students and faculty of the Deparment of Social Work engage with the communities on various issues, including disabilities, health and hygiene, helping senior citizens, awareness of fatal disases and vaccinations. They work to ensure that no child marriages occur in these communities. They also promote the use of kitchen gardens and pits for bio-fertilisers.

The Master of Education curriculum at Visva-Bharati has a practicum on community engagement and social responsibility. For one semester, students learn through hands-on practice by organising awareness programmes on various issues. The students also teach children in the village schools, holding classes on various subjects. Sustainable practices have been built into the co-curricular activities at the Department of Education – students are assigned to various duties such as campus cleaning, composting, bird feeding and tree plantation.

Visva-Bharati tries to balance the modern educational practices of competition in its academic endeavours, while also abiding by Tagore’s ideals. The latter includes organising different cultural festivals and fairs. Recently, more than 200,000 people visited Santiniketan on the occasions of Basant utsav (festival of colours) and Poush mela (arts and craft fair), illustrating that Tagore’s vision of social responsibility is still in practice at Visva-Bharati.

Basant utsav and Poush mela are only two of the many other festivals and cultural events started by Tagore, which involved the social, cultural, economic and sustainable development of the people in Santiniketan and its surrounding areas, keeping in mind the principles of humanism, sustainability, self-reliance and urban-rural cooperation. The events work to spread awareness on many issues relevant to the local areas, including water conservation, soil fertility, agricultural conservation, tree plantation, use of bio-fertilisers, animal husbandry and village handicrafts.

Basant utsav was first started by Tagore as an elegant celebration in praise of spring. The cultural programmes presented by the students based on Rabindra Sangeet (Tagore’s songs) is spectacular, providing the students with a great opportunity to reveal their talents in music and dancing in groups, in the presence of thousands of people from all around the nation. Basant utsav is the real picture of social responsibility of HEIs, where they celebrate Spring with the common people and all other stakeholders.

Figure 16.1
Figure 16.1

Basant utsav at Santiniketan

Poush utsav/mela marks the harvesting season. This fair promotes arts and& craft by hands, not by machines, with live performances of Bengali folk music, Boul gaan (Boul song), kirtan (prayer songs) and Kabigan (Tagore’s songs). This is Visva-Bharati’s biggest fair, extending its social responsibility by promoting the sustainable practices of handicrafts and indigenous knowledge of local tribal communities like the Santal tribes.

Magh mela (Sriniketan utsav) is a rural event for folk culture and cultivation of rural activities, including an exhibition of agriculture products produced by the Palli-ikha Bhavana (The Agriculture Department) and rural handicrafts like batik, tie & die, Kantha stitch (Santiniketan’s own embroidery), wood work, ceramics, bamboo work, clay work, pottery, and terracotta. The main feature of this fair is to promote sustainable practices of bio-fertilisers, kitchen gardens and handicrafts without polluting machines, promoting indigenous practices like Santhali folk dance and songs and use of many indigenous musical instruments of the Santal tribes.

Figure 16.2
Figure 16.2

Poush Mela at Santiniketan

Figure 16.3
Figure 16.3

Magh Mela (Sriniketan Utsav) vegetable exhibition

Nandan mela is an art fair organised by the Kala Bhavana (Department of Arts and Craft) on 1st and 2nd December every year for the community. Various activities like painting, sculpture (wood metals), ceramics, graphics, art works, craft items, diaries, stationery items, and fashion jewellery are available for sale at affordable prices made by teachers and students of Kala Bhavana.

Figure 16.4
Figure 16.4

Nandan Mela at Kala Bhavana

Figure 16.5
Figure 16.5

Sona Jhuri Mela or Khoai Mela or Sonibar Haat (Saturday market at Sonajhuri)

Sona Jhuri mela or Khoai mela or Sonibar haat (Saturday market at Sonajhuri) is an old haat (market) or weekly fair held every Saturday at Khoai, Santiniketan. It is famous for the local artisans’ ethnic craft, and the baul (folk singers) and Santal dances, since Tagore’s time.

Brikharopana utsav, or the tree planting ceremony, was started by Tagore on July 14, 1928, and since then has continued as ritual of Santiniketan with simple and artistic ceremonials accompanied by music, dancing and Vedic chanting, invoking nature’s fertility and symbolising its ever-recurring youth. Rabindranath had long bewailed the ruthless deforestation of the countryside. In his own words, he said – “The Creator had sent life, made preparations everywhere for the same. Humans out of greed provided ingredients for killing. Violating the Creator’s intent, there are so many curses in the human society. Destroying the forests, greedy humans, invited their own detriment. Trees are assigned to cleanse the air, their fallen leaves provide fertility to the soil, and they are being uprooted. Whatever be the gifts of the Creator for benefit, humans having forgotten their own well being, wasted them”. Vriksharopana Utsav is celebrated on the 22nd of Shravan (7th August), the death anniversary Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore.

Halakarshan is an annual ploughing day celebrated in the agricultural grounds in Sriniketan during the rainy season on 8th August. It is aimed at endowing the work of ploughing with dignity, almost a sacredness.

4 Other Sustainable Practices of Visva-Bharati on Tagore’s Framing of Social Responsibility

There are so many practices introduced by Tagore which are followed by Visva-Bharati even today. The Visva-Bharati administration utilises its human resources for promoting awareness campaigns and cleanliness drives on several occasions such as during and after all the fairs held.

Open schooling is the best practice of schooling in the shade of trees, near nature and saving electricity during the day.

Upasana or weekly prayers at the university are still observed as per the idea of Tagore, held in Upasana Griha (glass prayer hall) on the campus, where not only the stakeholders of Visva-Bharti but also any member of the society can take part. This shows the good gesture of culture and tradition of social responsibility of this HEI towards its community.

On 10th March every year, since 1914, Gandhi Puniyah is observed with an annual cleanliness drive at Visva-Bharati. On this day, remembering Gandhi’s visit to Santiniketan in 1914, all the members of the Visva-Bharati community do menial work to clean the campus themselves, as a token of respect to the ideals of Mahatma Gandhi and his meeting with Tagore.

Shilpotsav is celebrated on 17th September. It is a secular festival honouring the sustainable practices and promoting local artisans and craftspersons in Santiniketan.

Samavartana, or the annual convocation, is an important occasion organised in the university calendar. Successful students receive saptaparni leaves (seven leaves) from their Acharya (from the Prime Minister of India, who is considered their teacher). These seven leaves signify a message – that an environment-friendly approach and giving importance to nature are still in practice in this university.

Sabujayan is the annual plantation programme organised by the university and the NSS team during the monsoons (in August) every year. It is also a good practice to promote sustainability in and around the campus.

Varsha-Shesh is a year-end evening prayer done in Upasana Griha as thanksgiving for the end of a peaceful and fruitful year.

The Central Library of Visva-Bharti has a unique feature in its building. The roof of the dome is covered with transparent glass, which allows the sun rays to pass through, providing enough light in the reading area, saving on electricity.

The central administrative buildings, including the Central Library and Academic & Research Sections of the university, are a “No Disturbance Zone”, which leads to smooth functioning of the library and central office. Routine tasks are carried out without disturbance and with speed, thereby promoting sustainable practices.

Public transportation provided by Visva Bharti Bus Services saves fuel, and reduces traffic and pollution by more than 80%. Cycling is common on the grounds of Visva-Bharti to move in and around the campus – another sustainable practice of the university.

Car pooling is also normal among teachers from different departments. Many teachers and non-teaching staff follow the 5R principles (Reduce, Refuse, Reuse, Recycle, and Reflect) in their daily lives and encourage students to do so as well.

Rainwater harvesting is promoted. The university’s Department of Zoology in Sikha Bhavana (Faculty of Science & Technology) has prepared two or three rainwater harvesting pits which are affordable to showcase the technology, and promote its adoption in the nearby villages.

The Kindness Bowl of Water is the most noticeable sustainable practice. At Vinaya-Bhavana (Department of Education) two big cemented water tubs (each of 400 litre capacity) on either side of the department building provide drinking water to cows, dogs, birds and many other animals.

Figure 16.6
Figure 16.6

Cows drinking water from Kindness Bowl of Water in Department of Education, Vinaya Bhavana, Visva-Bharati

Green purchasing is becoming a new trend with the university administration laying emphasis on energy saving electronic devices like use of LEDs in place of CFLs and bulbs.

The swimming pool of the university utilises solar energy. Use of solar energy is increasing.

Visva-Bharti is a ‘No Plastic Zone’ and single use plastic is banned in the campus canteens and other shops.

Pearson Memorial Hospital at the university uses an incinerator for its waste, a sustainable practice saving us from pollution caused by bio-medical wastes.

7 Conclusion

This chapter is based on personal experiences and observations of the author, some interviews with stakeholders and survey of different departments at Visva-Bharti. This institution is highly devoted towards its sustainable practices in and around the campus taking its social responsibility very seriously.

Improvement of village life, a practice started by Tagore himself, continues till date and is very visible in the villages adopted by Santiniketan. These villages are self-dependent due to the selfless efforts of Tagore who provided several platforms like melas to showcase their talents, cultural practices and handicrafts like kantha stitch, batik, tie-dye, terracotta, etc.

7.1 Knowledge Exchange between Visva-Bharati, Santiniketan and the Community Intellectuals

There is provision for exchange of knowledge between academics and community intellectuals at Visva-Bharati. The university engages with the community to help and facilitate them in different ways, such as providing an opportunity to show their talent in different fairs organised by the university. The university invites Boul singers and musicians in several cultural events, the craftsmen and women are engaged in different departments as guest trainers (for example in the woodwork department), and local artisans train the students in the art of weaving.

7.2 Stories of Today’s Students Becoming Engaged with the Community

Many departments at Visva-Bharati directly engage with the nearby communities, such as the Department of Education. At the department, M.Ed. (Master of Education) students are trained to carry out their social responsibilities towards community by directly engaging with them. Students are assigned the selected 5 villages are per their need base. They go to the villages in their free time (mostly in the evening after classes) and give remedial classes in different subjects as per the village children’s demands. They also train the village children in classical dance, music, drawing, painting, sketching, origami, and any other art form based on the talent and needs of the children.

Figure 16.7
Figure 16.7

Kantha stitch by local villagers

Figure 16.8
Figure 16.8

Amar Kutir leather work from local factory run by Tagore’s disciple

This chapter on Tagore’s vision of social responsibility and the present activities at the university, establishes the fact that Visva-Bharati is a true ambassador of HEIs performing its social responsibility wholeheartedly. All the stakeholders of the institution and its different departments, depending on their capacity and expertise, work to engage with local communities. The university also hires local people and youth for jobs in itsoffices, and gives from social and economic support to community SHGs.

Figure 16.9
Figure 16.9

M.Ed. Sem-IV students at Majhipara village carrying out their community engagement and social responsibility task

Visva-Bharati in Santiniketan is a premier HEI in India performing its social responsibility sincerely and adopting sustainable practices for almost a century. It truly is an abode of peace (Santiniketan), which continues to walk on the great path started by Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore.


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