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Review: Three Chancellors

Three Chancellors explores the waning importance of Visva-Bharati, Rabindranath Tagore’s transnational humanist project, in the national scheme of things, Indrajit Hazra writes.

books Updated: Apr 20, 2013 12:32 IST
Indrajit Hazra
Indrajit Hazra
Hindustan Times

Three Chancellors
Edited by Nilanjan Banerjee
Timeliss Books
Rs. 7500 PP 423

The road to Visva-Bharati is paved with good intentions. But Rabindranath Tagore’s expansive project of a unique institution of learning in Santiniketan has been underwhelming despite many of its illustrious alumni and faculty members, overwhelmingly from the fine arts, keeping it from becoming a total anachronism.

Set up in December 1921 with seed money from Tagore’s 1913 Nobel Prize earnings, Visva-Bharati’s woes – whether they be the bazaar bickerings within the institution or its complete intellectual dependence on central government doles – is a story marked most strongly in the popular mind with the theft of Tagore’s Nobel medal. An objective biography of Visva-Bharati will be able to throw light on what went wrong with Tagore’s trans-national humanist project.

Three Chancellors is not that book. But its value in throwing light on the Visva-Bharati story lies elsewhere. This lavishly produced book uses the filter of three acharyas (chancellors) – prime ministers who, not very serendipitously, happen to be from the same family – to explore its waning importance in the larger (ironically, for an ‘internationalist’ project) national scheme of things.

Despite all the signals, Three Chancellors is not a hagiographical account of Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi. Although, apart from missing out on a catchy title, one doesn’t really understand why the chancellors had to be restricted to the Nehru-Gandhi family. Editor Nilanjan Banerjee, an alumnus of Visva-Bharati, has masterfully collected documents, letters and transcripts pertaining to the trio and the institution and the photographs accompanying the text are an illuminating selection.

Nehru’s interest in Visva-Bharati comes across as genuine, owing to his personal relationship with Tagore as well as his sharing Tagore’s modernist views on learning. There are some delightful exchanges between the Panditji and the Gurudev that include Tagore writing to a pre-prime ministerial Nehru in 1939 for an endowment to set up and maintain a campus hospital in Sriniketan, a conversation on the state of Bengal that Tagore writes in 1938 “puzzles me and makes me despair”, and a letter from a concerned father to Tagore’s personal secretary Anil Chanda in 1934 about enrolling the 16-and-a-half year-old Indira: “When does your next term begin? Is that the commencement of the academic year? I presume she will join the university section.”

There is also a gem from Visva-Bharati reminding Nehru that he has fallen late on the payment of fees (Rs 138 for October 1934-March 1935) for his daughter. Clearly, the ‘Nehru’ section of the book is the most valuable and entertaining one in this collection. A letter to Tagore’s son and the first vice-chancellor, Rathindranath, betrays real dismay.

Indira Gandhi, despite being the only acharya to have been an alumnus, is aloof in her dealings with her alma mater. It is more her time as a student that will interest the reader. A 1934 letter prior to her joining Visva-Bharati has her ask her father whether she could use a separate cottage and “take a servant from Allahabad who would cook for me & also do some of the other work”.

Replying to her letter from Dehra Dun Jail, ‘Papu’ promptly shoots down ‘Indu darling’s’ proposal. Chancellor Indira is honest enough in a conversation with Uma Dasgupta in 1982 when she states that she agreed with the art historian Stella Kramrisch that the Visva-Bharati “never took off as an academic institution but as an experiment in human living”.

Our third acharya, Rajiv Gandhi, seems to have even less interest in Visva-Bharati. The long transcript of a conversation with Visva-Bharati students in January 1988 reads like a political exercise where he fields questions relating to caste reservations, public vs private sector and price hikes. A photograph showing a smiling Rajiv walking up the stairs during a surprise visit to a girls’ hostel with students giggling away is more indicative of his role in Visva-Bharati than anything else.

Three Chancellors is a fascinating collection that reveals much about Visva-Bharati in particular and New Delhi’s approach to matters pertaining to higher education in general. Visva-Bharati and the book’s three protagonists serve as illuminating case studies for historians of post-1947 India, even as the reader can hear the occasional bugle blast for an acharya-crammed family.

First Published: Apr 19, 2013 23:20 IST