Rabindranath Tagore and Rural Reconstruction by Dr Christine Marsh

Rabindranath Tagore was ‘a poet who was an indefatigable man of action’,[1] whose son said of him that ‘his greatest poem is the life he has lived.’[2] Tagore saw rural reconstruction as his ‘life’s work’.[3] There were three main phases to his endeavours. The first was while he was managing the family estates in the 1890s, the second was the national programme of ‘constructive swadeshi’ he put forward in 1903-8, the third was Sriniketan, a department of his Visva-Bharati university, in the 1920s.

constructive swadeshi
Constructive Swadeshi

His active work brought to Tagore a unique understanding of humanity. His inspired and also practical principles of ‘unity in diversity’ and ‘life in its completeness’ are highly relevant to the challenges facing us in the world today.


Principles and Politics

The intelligentsia in India knew what had brought about the collapse of Indian society: ‘The British Government in India […] has based itself on the exploitation of the masses, and has ruined India economically, politically, culturally, and spiritually’.[4] Understandably, most of the middle classes saw the solution as taking over the reins of government from the British.

In his study of the demographics of Bengal carried out in the 1920s, Arthur Geddes (son of Tagore’s friend, the sociologist Patrick Geddes) concludes that the ‘calamitous state’ of land which ‘less than eighty years ago was an abode of high civilization’ is due to ‘concentration on such modern advantages as cheap railways […] designed to serve the commerce and industry of Calcutta, London or Dundee’, and ‘general disregard of the peasants’ own food supply and health’.[5]

Tagore’s remedy for a broken society was to heal it from within. Cooperation was the key. People must get together in their local communities to help each other and themselves. To give them a start, they would need advice and expertise, suitable training and education, health and welfare provision, affordable finance, and encouragement towards developing participative government and local conflict resolution. Most importantly for Tagore, to counter fatalism and apathy their spirits must be raised, by reviving traditional arts and crafts, music and story-telling, fairs and festivities.

Tagore’s motivation changed over the three phases of his rural reconstruction efforts: initially he felt sympathy and a sense of responsibility as a landlord, next he tried to set out a national programme of constructive self government, lastly he pinned his hopes on bringing about change through education.


Gleaning the Evidence

Tagore has been called ‘myriad minded’ for the diversity of his creative output, encompassing writing, music and graphic art. It was Tagore’s profession as a poet to rework his observations, experiences and emotions into artistic expression. It has been observed that the poet’s passions pervade even his non-literary writing, his essays and addresses, and correspondence.

The historian Uma Das Gupta has specialised in revealing Tagore as the ‘indefatigable man of action’. She remarks that Tagore never wrote a full and coherent account of his activities concerning education and rural reconstruction, and much of his thinking ‘has to be pieced together from occasional comments’.[6]

Das Gupta’s research began in the 1970s with her discovery of a substantial collection of records from the offices of Sriniketan, and she continues to draw on archival material, supplemented by Tagore’s own writings.[7] Scholars from Bangladesh interested in Tagore’s activities on the family estates in East Bengal the 1890s have taken a similar approach. As scattered gleanings on his ‘life’s work’ come together, we see a valuable Tagorean epistemology emerging.


Rural Reconstruction in the 1890s

In 1890 Devendranath Tagore sent his youngest son aged 29 to live on and manage the family properties in East Bengal. [8] On his tours of the estates Rabindranath was deeply moved by the natural beauty of the region, and by the ‘simple and unenthusiastic life of the common people’,[9] and he determined to improve their conditions with programmes of rural development.[10] Years later Tagore recollected his experiences, his motives, the measures he tried, and their mixed success.[11]

Tagore wrote in a letter about the ‘deep despair [which] pervades rural life all over the country’.[12] He was well aware that the root cause of this despair was British imperialism.[13] The Tagores were exceptional as landlords for taking direct interest in their tenants’ welfare. Most landlords were absentees, residing in the city.

The British had introduced private land ownership into Bengal by the 1793 Permanent Settlement Act, creating the zemindari landowners ‘from among the Mogul tax collectors’.[14] This took place at a time which in Britain was ‘the great age of parliamentary enclosure, between 1760 and 1820’, driven by ‘the rage for improvement’ in agriculture.[15] Tagore too sought to improve and modernise agriculture during all the years of his work on rural reconstruction, but strictly where the ‘motive force is not the greed of profit’.[16]

The British were instrumental in creating cities and urban life in India, with a complex array of new roles and classes with no tradition of responsibility and cooperation, probably necessitating the strict law and order imposed by the government which Tagore complains of in his essays.[17] Perhaps most damagingly, big cities such as Calcutta drew the best and brightest of young men from rural areas in Bengal and beyond. This draining process is confirmed and quantified by Arthur Geddes in his population study of Bengal,[18] and, of course, economic migration, and sending remittances home, continues in the world today.[19]


From the 1890s Onwards: An Evaluation

Tagore’s emotional engagement with rural people and their plight changed him as a creative artist and thinker, to such an extent that his son reported that his literary output was ‘at its maximum during the years at Shelidah’.[20] The fifty-nine short stories Tagore wrote in the 1890s reveal his understanding of the complex effects of ‘society in transition’ on urban as well as rural people.[21]

The practical work which Tagore began in the 1890s did not end when others took over the main responsibility for the family estates. Through this work he acquired a lifelong mission. He maintained his interest and involvement in the estates over subsequent years, and when he moved his base to Santiniketan, and established his school there in 1901, he continued rural reconstruction work in the neighbouring villages.

Some admirers of Tagore like to think that he achieved a great deal of practical value in rural reconstruction, that he was an innovator, for example of microfinance, and that his model was built on after India achieved independence.[22] Others argue that his aims and ideals were misunderstood, that he was let down by those who worked for him, but that Tagore is still relevant today and ‘we shall have to go a long way to realize his ideal of a creative society’.[23]

Tagore’s work ranged from emergency relief, through infrastructure building, to advice and encouragement towards cooperative self help and participative democracy. Looking back, with the challenges of the twenty-first century in mind, one can see that what Tagore attempted, with some success, was admirable and ahead of his time, but there is little that is not currently incorporated into efforts to help the disadvantaged around the world, by aid agencies and philanthropic organisations now.[24] The component which is special to Tagore’s approach is his emphasis on joy and celebration and creativity.


Constructive Swadeshi: 1903 to 1908

During the first decade of the new century, two crises, one personal, the other political, took Tagore’s thinking on rural reconstruction in a radical new direction. Tagore suffered a terrible series of bereavements over this period, and subsequently neglected his health.[25] It is hard to reconcile the grief-stricken and ailing poet with the statesman-like image of Tagore leading protests against the Partition of Bengal.[26]

Tagore gave rousing speeches, composed patriotic songs and promoted the swadeshi (home produced) boycott of foreign goods.[27] On Partition Day itself, 16 October 1905, Tagore led the Rakhibandhan procession, the symbolic tying of friendship bracelets to demonstrate unity across classes, castes and religions.

If we focus on Tagore’s work on rural reconstruction, we can move beyond the colourful demonstrations to see how Tagore built on his understanding of how Indian village society had been disrupted by British rule, in order to put forward ‘Constructive Swadeshi’ as an economic, educational and political programme for the nation.[28]

He endeavoured to persuade the Calcutta middle class activists, many of whom had Zamindari landholdings, to reconnect with the villages by encouraging Swadeshi enterprise and reviving traditional fairs, and he attracted some support for such a cause.[29] The majority of activists were not prepared for the long, hard task Tagore spoke of. The moderates agitated for a greater role in government and the extremists engaged in petty reprisals and plots.[30]

Tagore was called ‘disloyal, unpatriotic and a traitor’ when he objected to violent attacks on officials, ‘retired from political activities and went back to his work at Santiniketan’.[31] What Tagore and other anti-partition activists failed to do was engage the village people themselves in the campaign.[32] The Swadeshi Movement in Bengal in effect served as a dress rehearsal for the concerted national movement from 1919 onwards, led by Gandhi.[33]


Principles and Politics

Sriniketan is rightly seen as the pinnacle of Tagore’s achievement in rural reconstruction. Uma Das Gupta identifies Tagore’s three strategic aims as follows: to reconnect the urban Bengali middle class to their rural roots and responsibilities; to unleash the inner energy he saw as latent in rural society; and to take an evolutionary approach by starting with just two or three villages.[34]

The centre at Sriniketan would provide carefully honed support to enable a gradual transition towards ‘life in its completeness’, and demonstrate Tagore’s vision for India. The scheme would improve rural living with ‘better soil, better cultivation, better health, better education and better recreation’.[35] Sriniketan was established under the capable management of Leonard Elmhirst, one of the friends and colleagues Tagore drew to Santiniketan after Gitanjali and the Nobel prize earned him international recognition.[36]

What was achieved by the Sriniketan teams from 1922 onwards is impressive. The initial start with three villages expanded to involve dozens of villages. Projects included extensive road repairs and construction of drains, mosquito-ridden ponds being filled up, tanks cleaned, areas of jungle cleared, quantities of quinine distributed and kerosene sprayed onto mosquito breeding areas.

There was intensive work carried out by Cooperative Welfare Societies, Rural Reconstruction Societies, and village ‘panchayats’ (traditional village administration groups). There were efforts to involve young people, including training of boy scouts in village cleanups and fire drills, and then different levels of village education and apprenticeship schemes were developed.[37]

It seems though that Sriniketan expanded too far and too fast, and lost sight of Tagore’s strategic vision. Das Gupta describes Tagore as ‘exhausted and weak’ and clearly in despair in the 1930s. She relates how Tagore’s son had reorganized Sriniketan ‘as a business’, with profit-making dairy units and cottage industries, to the detriment of Tagore’s aim of building village self-reliance.[38] From this outcome a important lesson can be learned.



The Lesson of Sriniketan

Tagore was able to be a multi-faceted genius because he lived and worked in the moment. He gave his full attention to the present activity and then moved on to the next. He did not plan, but ‘began anyhow’ on the basis of an idea, as he told his friend Patrick Geddes.[39] ‘Foresight is a gift which I wholly lack’, he confessed to Charlie Andrews, fearful of losing his freedom to be ‘foolish and irresponsible’ when he took charge of his new university.[40]

The consequences for Sriniketan are vividly illustrated by an anecdote related in a letter written in 1923 by Arthur Geddes to his father, Patrick.[41] Arthur was ‘chewed up’ by being let down by the Poet, who had interfered with the performance of a ‘rural play’, ‘Masque of Earth & of the Desert’.

Of course Tagore interfered! The play was the task of the moment. As Arthur remarked: the Poet had composed songs for the play and he could not ‘bear to hear them howled’ and ‘that meant importing Santiniketan singers’. But the purpose of the play was that it should be performed ‘by the Reconstructors themselves’. The boys resented Tagore’s meddling and half the players ‘funked coming at all’. Arthur observes that ‘the Ideas are (the Poet’s) – can he never bear to see them realised! – because imperfect?’

In his lectures in America, Tagore warned that ‘all systems produce evil sooner or later’.[42] By ‘systems’ he meant the ‘commercial and political treadmill’ of the West, the ‘inhumanity and injustice’, where those who have ‘sacrificed their souls to the passion of profit-making and the drunkenness of power’ are ‘morally incapable of allowing freedom to others’.[43]

However, planning and organisation, and training in how to design and implement systems, are essential to small-scale, relocalisation enterprises, as is good governance where everyone involved participates. That is one important lesson for grassroots activists from the failure of Tagore’s aims and ideals for rural reconstruction.


Bibliographical Notes

  1. Uma Das Gupta, Preface, in Rabindranath Tagore: A Biography (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2004), pp. ix-xi (p. ix).

  2. Rathindranath Tagore, On the Edges of Time (Calcutta: Orient Longmans, 1958), p. 184.

  3. Tagore, Letter to the Viceroy, 29 February 1930. (The Dartington Hall Trust Archive, Papers of Leonard Knight Elmhirst, LKE India, LKE/IN/25 Folder A, ‘Visva-Bharati correspondence’.)

  4. ‘Pledge taken on Independence Day, January 26, 1930’, in Jawaharlal Nehru, An Autobiography (London: John Lane, 1936), pp. 601-2.

  5. Arthur Geddes, ‘The Population of Bengal, its Distribution and Changes: A Contribution to Geographical Method’, The Geographical Journal, 89 (1937), 344-61 (p. 360).

  6. Uma Das Gupta, ‘Rabindranath Tagore on Rural Reconstruction: The Sriniketan Programme, 1921-41’, Indian Historical Review, 4 (1978), 354-78 (p. 364).

  7. Uma Das Gupta, ‘Lonely friendships of “largeness and freedom”: Glimpses from the letters of Andrews, Tagore and Gandhi’ (unpublished presentation, 22 August 2013, book forthcoming), p. 1.

  8. ‘[Tagore] administered three estates: Birahimpur, shahjadpur and Kaligram, with their headquarters located at Shilaidaha (or Shelidah), Shahjadpur and Patisar, respectively’. (Atiur Rahman, in ‘Tagore’s Thoughts on Rural Credit and Development’, p. 363.

  9. Tagore’s dual view is evident from his Glimpses of Bengal and in many of his short stories written in the 1890s.

  10. Atiur Rahman, ‘Tagore’s Thoughts on Rural Credit and Development’, in Contemporarising Tagore and the World, pp. 363-73 (p. 366).

  11. Tagore, ‘City and Village’, in Towards Universal Man (London: Asia Publishing House, 1961), pp. 302-322 (pp. 317-9).

  12. Das Gupta, Rabindranath Tagore: My Life in My Words (New Delhi: Penguin, 2010), p. 101.

  13. Tagore, ‘Society and State’, in Towards Universal Man (London: Asia Publishing House, 1961), pp. 49-66 (pp. 52-3). Tagore, ‘Nationalism in the West’, in Nationalism (London: Macmillan, 1921 [1917]), pp. 1-46 (p. 8).

  14. Michael Barratt Brown, The Economics of Imperialism (Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin, 1974), p. 261.

  15. E.P. Thompson, Customs in Common (London: Merlin, 1991), p. 110.

  16. Tagore, ‘An Eastern University’, in Creative Unity (London: Macmillan, 1922), pp. 167-203 (pp. 200-1).

  17. Tagore, ‘The Changing Age’, in Towards Universal Man, pp. 341-52.

  18. Arthur Geddes, ‘Population of Bengal’, p. 345.

  19. Richard D. Wolff, ‘US Economic Slide Threatens Mexico, in Capitalism Hits the Fan: The Global Economic Meltdown and What to Do About It (Northampton, MA: Olive Branch, 2013), pp. 190-2.

  20. Rathindranath Tagore, On the Edges of Time, p. 31. (‘Shelidah’ (or Shilaidaha) was the headquarters of one of the Tagore estates.)

  21. William Radice, ‘Introduction’, in Rabindranath Tagore: Selected Short Stories (London: Penguin, 1994), pp. 1-28 (pp. 1, 6).

  22. Atiur Rahman, ‘Tagore’s Thoughts on Rural Credit and Development’, pp. 363-4.
    Ahmad Rafique, ‘Tagore’s Thoughts on Village Development and Rural Reconstruction’, in Contemporarising, pp. 375-93.

  23. Binoy Bhattacharjee, ‘Rabindranath’s Ideals of Rural Reconstruction’, in Rabindranath Tagore and the Challenges of Today, ed. by Bhudeb Chaudhuri and K.G. Subramanyan (Shimla: Indian Institute of Advanced Study, 1988), pp. 185-93 (pp. 189-90).

  24. See e.g. International Institute of Rural Reconstruction, ‘What We Do’, http://iirr.org/index.php/aboutus/main-content/what_we_do/

  25. Tagore’s wife died in 1902 and he suffered further losses of his nearest and dearest over the decade, perhaps the most tragic being that of his younger son Samindra in 1907. (Rathindranath Tagore, On the Edges of Time, pp. 61-5, 111.)

  26. Historian Sumit Sarkar relates how the partition scheme had evolved from 1866, but had scarcely reached the people’s attention until the announcement in 1903 of a partial adjustment of boundaries, followed by a process of expansion leading up to the formal proclamation in 1905. (Sumit Sarkar, ‘The Development of the Partition Plan’, in ‘Partition and Bengal’, in The Swadeshi Movement in Bengal 1903-1908 (New Delhi: People’s Publishing House, 1973), pp. 9-30 (pp. 9-20).

  27. Krishna Kripalani, Rabindranath Tagore: A Biography (London: Oxford University, 1962), pp. 200-2.

  28. There is a considerable amount of evidence of Tagore’s involvement included in Sarkar’s descriptions of ‘Swadeshi Enterprise and Boycott’ (Sarkar, pp. 92-148) and in attempts to establish ‘National Education’ in Bengali instead of the official English education. (Sarkar, pp. 149-181.)

  29. Tagore, Society and State (Swadeshi Samaj), in Towards Universal Man, pp. 49-66.

  30. Sarkar, pp. 35-7, 75-6.

  31. Marjorie Sykes, ‘The Poet and Politics’, in Rabindranath Tagore (London: Longmans, 1943), pp. 55-60 (p. 58).

  32. Sarkar, p. 78.

  33. Mass participation came later in ‘1919-22, 1930-34, 1942 and 1945-6’ with ‘Gandhian noncooperation’. (Sarkar, ‘Conclusion’, in The Swadeshi Movement in Bengal, pp. 493-516 (p. 493-4).)

  34. Das Gupta, ‘Rabindranath Tagore on Rural Reconstruction: The Sriniketan Programme, 1921-41’, p. 355.

  35. Das Gupta, p. 362.

  36. ‘The Tagore-Elmhirst Correspondence’, sourced partly from Santiniketan and partly from the Elmhirst Papers in the Dartington Archive (www.dartington/archive) was published in Purabi: A Miscellany in Memory of Rabindranath Tagore 1941-1991, ed. by Krishna Dutta and Andrew Robinson (London: The Tagore Centre UK, 1991), pp. 72-121.

  37. Das Gupta identified and quantified these achievements from her archival research into minute books and other Sriniketan Papers.

  38. Das Gupta, 376.

  39. Tagore, letter to Geddes, 9 May 1922, in A Meeting of Two Minds: Geddes Tagore Letters, ed. by Bashabi Fraser (Edinburgh: Word Power Books, 2005), pp. 68-9.

  40. Tagore, letter to Andrews, 18 April 1921, in Letters to a Friend ed. by C.F. Andrews (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1931 [1928]), pp. 155-7 (p. 156).

  41. Arthur Geddes, Letters to his sister and father, 10 April 1923 to 3 August 1924 (unpublished, courtesy of his daughter Marion Geddes).

  42. Tagore, ‘The Nation’, in Creative Unity, pp. 141-53 (pp. 152-3).

  43. ‘The Spirit of Freedom’, in Creative Unity, pp. 131-40 (pp. 135-6).

Dr. Christine Marsh is an independent scholar with a background in research on land use and land degradation. Her current focus is on the contemporary relevance of Tagore’s work on rural reconstruction, and on how an appreciation of Tagore’s philosophy of world change could help build support for current relocalisation initiatives, particularly the Permaculture and Transition Movements.