“Perpetual Creation”: Musings on Tagore’s ‘Eastern University’
“Perpetual Creation”: Musings on Tagore’s ‘Eastern University’ in a troubled India
by Supurna Dasgupta
(Supurna Dasgupta is pursuing M.Phil.,Department of English, University of Delhi)
published in Campus Politics 2014
Having been brought up in an atmosphere (at home and outside) intensely inspired by Tagore’s philosophies of education and its motives (though a quarrel would break out even at the mention of that last word!), being truly ‘troubled’ by anything was a rarity for the first fifteen years of my conscious life. ‘Trouble’ could be sung or danced away into joy, the apparently transient making way for certain constructions of ‘creativity’ which I thought were, paradoxically enough, “perpetual”. Growing up, for me, was reconciling myself to the reality that a series of ‘troubles’ could actually beset my way and that they would not go away through art alone. Ideas of Truth could help me be tenacious, though not entirely effective in such troubles. At the same time, it must be remembered, that the lessons received within this creative framework of constant improvisation were much better integrated into my education that much of the curriculum that the syllabi and examinations would have us follow. I soon came to realize that my primary ‘trouble’ was that a space so open to improvisation could remain so fixed on perpetuation of certain values.
What follows is a set of preliminary observations and ensuing questions that have come to stay with me for at least the last decade, and, at the risk of sounding outrageously audacious (and perhaps very ungrateful) it is time for me to open them up for further investigation by the reader. The reader is warned that this is an essay without citations, an anomaly in an academic circuit: my excuse being the fact that this became a stream of consciousness rambling on the subject constantly merging the personal and the political, the perpetual confluences making citing sources and origins muddier due to random recollection and the principle of association.
The primary question of course relates to the paradox of an “Eastern” university which does not “distrust” anything foreign. The kind of transcendental internationalism that this sort of paradox demands cannot be afforded by history: the aporias manifesting themselves in the humour of the caricatures of the other on the one hand, and the high seriousness of the homogenized civilizational model on the other. If within his essay on the ideal “Eastern University” Tagore is indeed keen on revealing the “eastern mind” to the west, he has to answer two sets of questions: what are these homogeneous categories of the east and the west who need to be brought together in perfect camaraderie, and why so at this moment? The latter is easier to answer since this is the also the moment of nascent nationalism where Tagore is some sort of an enigma, hoping for civilizational unity instead of narrower (and therefore more aggressive?) nationalisms. The former is the more complex question which viewed from a certain perspective can become one about tradition and modernity. So, for instance, if the ‘Eastern’ traditions define one form of guru-shishya pedagogy with an inherent hierarchy built into it, does Western modernity provide a model that is altogether different? Isn’t Tagore’s university built on the legacies of colonial education that promoted the liberal mechanism of downward filtration? And, more significantly, isn’t Tagore’s emphasis on Beauty, Truth, Simplicity and Tenaciousness yet another oxymoronic coming together of the spirits of Athens and Sparta? Tagore would call this ostensible utopia tapovan.
A particular phrase from the previous paragraph has already ‘troubled’ the harmony of this “Eastern” utopia: ‘downward filtration’. The model of the benevolent patriarch/s as the principal of an educational institution has deeply problematic connotations: that dissemination of education would yet not change the social hierarchy, that it would depend on the subjectivity of the disseminator/s to allow for the social mobility that public education demands on principle, and that through the rhetoric of love and care power relations could be obfuscated. So then the tapovan presumes that students would come for the sake of knowledge and not for access to means to livelihood, while it also presumes that the family of the student and/or the teacher can afford to expect very little more than the pursuit of excellence.
While such a pursuit is covetable, and often unfortunately the reserve of the select few from the petty bourgeois to the elite (something that Tagore constantly tries to amend through his commendably inclusive gestures), the question arises whether such a pursuit can exist at all. It is almost expected that Tagore would lament the advent of “worldly wisdom” in his adolescent students. Such a lament can be read in two ways: the former more optimistic reading being the loss of innocence as the entry into the understanding of privilege; the latter more sceptical reading being the wisdom as a critical category that often cracks through the thin ice of democratic patronizing attitudes.
This brings me to the most troubling point regarding inclusion and perpetuation that then riddles this “Eastern University”. If art is the proposed as the ideal mode of sustaining the joy that sustains the strength of contradictions, then this art is also dangerously close to violence. Yet, Tagore’s personal and public politics are at the absolute opposite extreme end of any possible spectrum on violence. Is inclusive education in public university, especially in today’s ‘troubled’ India of caste politics and civil unrest, ready for the utopia of Tagore’s imagination? Yet the pedagogic methods from the East that he so generously promotes, like that of oral storytelling and learning through performances, or the qualities of warmth and professionalism have proved to be vastly useful not only to your truly but across disciplines and cultures. The “cooperative enthusiasm” that Tagore wishes to see in the community of teachers and students leading to the “perpetual creation” of the institution, can be envisioned today only as a liberal-humanist university which is always in the middle of its own self-actualization, highlighting the pleasures of art, obliviating the struggles.
Finally, then, the question here is about the politics of happiness in pedagogy. Myriads of student protests use happiness as a tool to question to grim dogmatic authority. On the other hand, curiously enough, in Rabindranath Tagore, the quality of happiness is a revered halo emanating out of the perfect educational structure characterized by “sweetness and light” of the Arnoldian canon as it were. To be troubled by the individual within this harmonious community would be to question this ethics of joy. Both the teacher and the student are expected to ‘arrive at’ education, as it were, stripped of history, each a “complete man, who is intellectual as well as economic, bound by social bonds, but aspiring towards spiritual freedom and final perfection.” Within this perfection it is goodness and not happiness that is valued, though the latter is supposed to emerge out of the former. That this goodness (a fixed category) requires perfectly reasonable individuals bound in status quo-ist frameworks of social utility (and near-immobility) is the risk that such a conception runs. The politics of goodness never did run a smooth course.
One of Tagore’s favourites, Leo Tolstoy, who apparently began his novel Anna Karenina with questions about happiness, ends it with a statement about “unquestionable meaning of goodness”. Does the plot of this novel necessarily translate into a coalescence of happiness and goodness? Tolstoy never asks that question. Neither does Tagore.
What would creativity do if it were not scared? How creative is this “perpetual creation”
Editor’s Note: Establishing a contact with Campus Politics 2014 or Ms Supurna Dasgupta resulted in failures.Though we wished to take permission from her to re-publish this article in our website and tried for quite sometime without success, we remained perpetually tempted to publish this one on my own with due apology to everyone related. It is an interesting article on Visva Bharati, the ‘Eastern University’ of Rabindranath Tagore, which we felt needs circulation among the ex-students community of Visva Bharati. Thanks with apology to Supurna Dasgupta and editor of Campus Politics 2014. The photographs have been added by us, only to make reading a bit visually stimulating specially keeping the very significant term ‘perpetual beauty’ in perspective.