A History of Sriniketan, a presentation

A History of Sriniketan: Rabindranath Tagore’s Pioneering Work in Rural Reconstruction

Presentation by Dr Christine Marsh at Bengal Club book discussion on Uma Das Gupta’s book: A History of Sriniketan.

In my 6 minute presentation, I will make some general connections between Uma’s new book on the History of Sriniketan and my own work as an environmentalist, and then mention the kinds of specific and detailed connections I see in the book.

First of all, I want to say that Tagore’s work on rural reconstruction at Sriniketan has always been my main interest in Tagore, and I very much welcome this new, very detailed and comprehensive treatment. Uma’s book is remarkable for all the strands and connections between Tagore’s ideas and aspirations, the work he initiated and oversaw and how it developed over the last twenty years of his life.

The first book by Uma that I read was her Rabindranath Tagore: A Biography from 2004 about the ‘relatively lesser known aspects of Tagore’s life, namely his work as an educator and rural reformer’. Uma and I met in 2010 at a 150th birth anniversary conference in London. Since then, she has been an important friend and supporter as I struggled to write a PhD thesis on Tagore’s English Writings and continued with my work as an environmental activist.

Uma’s History of Sriniketan is important to me for my work on solutions to the existential crisis we face in the world today. I believe we need local self-reliance in diverse forms around the world and Tagore’s work on rural reconstruction provides a valuable model.

Since 1989 I have been making connections between Tagore’s work and Permaculture, ‘permanent agriculture’ and ‘permanent culture’, which is a teaching movement, passing on the ethics and principles of designing ways for local communities to meet their needs from diverse, productive ecosystems based on natural models.

I first heard about Tagore and also about Permaculture in 1989.

I met Marjorie Sykes (1905-1995) in 1989, the ‘Quaker Gandhian’, who taught at Santiniketan from 1939 to 1941 and worked with Tagore in the last year of his life translating what became My Boyhood Days. She told me that Tagore was a deep ecologist and pointed me to his essay ‘City and Village’ (1928).

In the first part of ‘City and Village’, Tagore relates a dystopian tale about how the moon was once a living planet but became bare and lifeless when a race of people was born which plundered the moon’s resources and ‘soon outstripped nature’s power of recuperation’. Their profit-makers created wants that were unnatural. They dug deep into the stored capital of nature and ruthlessly exploited her resources. Tagore ends his story with a highly prescient warning: ‘My imaginary selenites behave exactly in the way that human beings are today behaving on this earth’. Then in the second part of ‘City and Village’ Tagore goes over his life’s work of trying to help village people and inspire them to help themselves.

I have been an environmentalist all my life. I cannot remember a time when I didn’t know that people are destroying life on earth. But my main focus has been on land degradation and the harm caused by agriculture – what Tagore referred to as ‘the robbery of the soil’ – which gets a mention in Uma’s book.

Back in the 1970s and 80s I carried out research and teaching on land use and land degradation, and I was in despair about the seriousness of the problems and the lack of interest from the general public and activists alike. All the attention was shifting to the future threat of climate change. Then I discovered Permaculture, with the hope of new ways of producing food in diverse plantings of edible perennial plants, designed to meet the needs of local people, and I trained in its design approach and became deeply involved in the movement.

I became interested again in Tagore in 2005, making his short stories and novels the subject of my Dissertation for an MA in Literature, then wanting to go further with a PhD. After I first met Uma in 2010, we stayed in touch by email and we met a few times, and she used to send me suggestions and texts, her own papers, relevant poems and writings by Tagore, which I interwove with what I was finding for myself. In my writings on Tagore I have always seen his relevance, his hopes for a new dawn, as connected to movements like Permaculture, out of which the Transition network emerged in recent years, to help local groups turn to local food growing, local craft skills, the pleasures of creativity and celebration: ‘life in its completeness’ in Tagore’s famous words. The charity Plants For A Future which I have been managing for fifteen years also emerged out of Permaculture, and provides an internationally important online database with details of thousands of useful plants for designers of food forests to choose from. Recently, Plants For A Future has launched a Food Forest Fund to help new food forest projects get started.

The key connection between food forests and Tagore’s work at Sriniketan is diversity. Food forests are the ultimate in diversification – with over 8,000 useful plants to call on in the Plants For A Future database. Diversifying was also an important part of the work at Sriniketan, with new crops and new varieties being encouraged, at different scales from home gardens to fields and farms. Grant funding too has connections: when people are trying new methods or aiming for a fresh start, a small amount of funding can be a big help, which is something Tagore recognised right back from the time when he was supporting farmers on the Tagore family estates in the 1890s. There are very many other connections and parallels between Tagore’s work at Sriniketan seen as a model, and the changes towards local self-reliance urgently needed in the world today, and I look forward to working on Uma’s wonderful book to draw those out and make them more widely known.

Uma Das Gupta, A History of Sriniketan: Rabindranath Tagore’s Pioneering Work in Rural Reconstruction (New Delhi: Niyogi, 2022)

Message from Dr Julie Banerjee Mehta:

It makes me enormously happy to send you the YouTube link of yesterday’s Bengal Club book discussion on Uma Di’s excellent bookA History of Sriniketan.
Your stellar contribution made for an enriching evening and the response has been most encouraging from the audience.
I thank you for your kindness, erudition and time that you have so generously given us.
I will be in touch individually, but I wanted to send this out as soon as possible so you could share widely with your colleagues and friends.
With sincerest thanks and all good wishes,

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