Gopal Mal has been selling ice cream on the Visva Bharati campus in Shantiniketan, West Bengal, for 33 years. When I meet him on a baking Friday afternoon, business is brisk. But Mal doesn’t want to talk business. He wants me to write about the cockroach he found in his tea at one of the university’s canteens. As he wipes sweat from tired, bloodshot eyes, he mutters, “What food are the students getting? Just think… so far away from home.”
My colleague and I drop in at the canteen of the university’s pure science faculty Siksha Bhavan for lunch. The food takes almost an hour to materialise and is served on a table that does not seem to have been cleaned for months. A group of students joins us, curious to know why we are tramping around the nearly 1,200-acre campus on a summer afternoon. When we tell them why, they launch into a vociferous information-dispensing spree.
Sitting in his cool, modern, uninspiring office, Visva Bharati Deputy Registrar Amitava Choudhury discusses the challenge of embracing modernity yet remaining true to tradition. As we gravely talk about dwindling University Grants Commission (UGC) funds and the pressure on Visva Bharati to generate more revenue, Choudhury orders lemon tea for all, and informs us that all departments in the university have recently acquired tea- and coffee-vending machines.
As always, these are symptoms of the bigger picture, and unfortunately for Visva Bharati, that picture is one of overwhelming neglect, apparent official apathy, seething anger in several quarters against the current upacharya (vice-chancellor), Rajat Kanta Ray, brewing trouble among rival student unions, and the usual suspects — financial mismanagement, unutilised funds, irregularities in appointments and crumbling infrastructure.
When Rabindranath Tagore formally opened his educational institution in 1921, funded by the money from the Nobel Prize he was awarded in 1913, he was aiming to turn every notion of conventional education on its head. Perhaps motivated by unhappy childhood experiences with his teachers, Tagore decreed that teachers and students would be friends at his university. The idea, he felt, was for the world to meet at Shantiniketan, hence ‘visva bharati’ instead of the more restrictive ‘visva vidyalaya’.
Kishore Bhattacharya teaches geography at Patha Bhavan and is president of the Adhyapak Sabha (teachers’ council). “The open-air classes are only for show,” he says with a wry smile. “Which parents would send their children to hostels that are barely standing, served by water tanks full of moss?
The students have similar stories. “The upacharya hasn’t declared student union elections for over three years. Who represents the students when they have a problem?” asks Rajdip Bose, a second-year student of physical education and member of the Trinamool Chhatra Parishad (Trinamool Students’ Union).
The other big issue is the general discontent against the authorities. Magically, say a section of students and teachers, 130-odd new jobs have materialised on the campus, with recruitments to be handed out on a “lobby basis”. As for campus recruitments, apart from Social Work, no other department has got lucky yet. Choudhury also points out that the UGC’s National Assessment and Accreditation Council (NAC) has yet to inspect the university owing to its “special nature”,
alluding to the lack of profession-oriented courses.
Once known for its illustrious alumni, Visva Bharati is today struggling to draw students from the rest of India. “There was an all-India test across a few cities that about 30 students took. Not a single one applied for admission,” says Rajdip. “Where are the people to respect?” asks Bhattacharya, tired of submitting memoranda to anyone he can think of, including the prime minister, the de jure chancellor of the university. “We can only hope someone raises the issue in Parliament.”
With the year-long celebrations of its founder’s 150th birth anniversary starting today, Visva Bharati ought to be raring to, well, celebrate. Sadly, one almost feels grateful when visiting Visva Bharati that Tagore is present here only as an iconic memory, as an object of ritualistic veneration today.