The charming memoir of eminent Hindi author Shivani’s student days at Shantiniketan is a rare and delightful offering of a slice of history. She describes a life where the children lived and learnt under the tutelage of Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore himself, besides an eminent panel of teachers dedicated to imparting true education and inculcating their scholarship.
The book was written by Padma Shri awardee Gaura Pant, better known as Shivani, in Hindi in the 1960s, and published by New Age Publishers, Calcutta, but did not receive much traction at the time. It has now been translated by her daughter Ira Pande, herself an eminent writer and translator, who ensures that the essence of Shivani’s girlhood memories remains intact.
‘Amader Shantiniketan’ reflects the embodiment of Tagore’s utopia: “Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high.” It is of crucial importance from a historical, cultural, and educational perspective today as the true spirit of education has taken a back seat amidst competitiveness and the joy of learning has been replaced by the stress on preparing for earning a livelihood.
Shivani’s stories as a young girl studying at Shantiniketan offer a singular peek into a life that every student and teacher would long for in today’s time. Her experience of studying in the Ashram is abundant with music, scholarship, celebration, science and nature. Tagore wrote: “Without music and the fine arts, a nation lacks its highest means of national self-expression and the people remain inarticulate.” He stressed on growth, experience, activity and a creative ecosystem for the complete development of a child. He invited artists and scholars from India and other parts of the world to live and teach at Shantiniketan.
Shivani and the other children were free to grow and develop at their own pace. Unrestricted, they would roam the grounds, listen to the singing of the passing Santhals, visit the simple homes of their teachers, eat with them and run at will to Gurudev. They were free to express themselves through music, art and dance; creativity was encouraged in every form. There were literary evenings and outdoor celebrations, especially on moonlit spring evenings, “when the Ashram was awash with a silvery light… like a personal invitation from Mother Nature to us Ashramites”.
Shivani recounts a story about the time when she asked Gurudev to help her out with an essay because she wanted to outperform a Tamil boy whose scores were the highest in class. Although he was unwilling to comply, she managed to persuade him. However, the essay scored a mere four and the Tamil boy’s essay received a score of six. The teacher, Dr Aronson, remarked that Shivani’s essay was “too elusive”. When she told Gurudev, he “threw back his head as he laughed, ‘Don’t tell anyone I wrote it’”.
She shares memories of her legendary teachers such as Pearson, Professor Ta’an, Vidhushekhar Bhattacharya (scholar and teacher of Sanskrit, Pali and Prakrit), Nityanandabinod Goswami (he participated in all Ashram activities, play-acting, music, arts), Hajari Prasad Dwivedi ( Hindi novelist, literary historian, essayist, critic and scholar), Marjorie Sykes, Nandanlal Basu, Sailajaranjan Majumdar (distinguished exponent and teacher of Rabindra Sangeet), Maulana Alimuddin, Satyendra Nath Bose (mathematician and physicist specialising in theoretical physics), Sarju Maharaj, “the Ashram’s most devoted culture-vulture (and) an extraordinary connoisseur of arts” and Gurudev himself. These gurus and scholars were devoted to the quest of knowledge and imparting scholarship.
Shivani reminiscences about famous names like Balraj Sahni who taught them English for a time. “He read poetry like no one else I’ve met,” she notes. There is Amartya Sen, “Babloo”, the grandson of Acharya Kshiti Mohan Sen, who “would often visit our hostel and all of us would coo over him”.
Nowhere is the narrative pedantic or attempting to instruct; yet, it forces one to introspect and somehow, come out wanting. Sweetness and laughter flow from the pages, captivating the readers, leaving them with a sense of longing for simpler, more gracious times.