The author experiences a living tradition in rural India – a rare synthesis of art, aesthetics and pioneering environmental awareness.
I knew it occurred every Autumn. And every Autumn I intended to go. And after many trials and as many errors, I finally made it one August.
It was the festival of the earth.
Santiniketan is just about a hundred and fifty miles north of Calcutta; but the train I took made it feel closer to three hundred. Calcutta, recently rechristened Kolkata is a sultry and sublime city in India. It has history and populace packed in three hundred odd years and thirty square miles, like sardines in sauce. Our train was packed too, with stragglers, students, sightseers and seers. Santiniketan represents just such an eclectic mix of humanity and heritage.
Yet, it has been nursed by the life and thought of one man, Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941).
Tagore lived for eighty years, splitting in half between the 19th and 20th centuries, and dabbled in music, literature, painting, education, occasional politics and social reform. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1913, the first Nobel Laureate from Asia. The festival of the earth, though one of the many expositions of Tagore’s imaginative and at times maverick world-view, nonetheless is unique.
It has a pioneering place in the history of modern environmental awareness in its originality and élan. I had been told.
When we reached the venue, the viscous heat of the day seemed to be letting up a bit. It was still warm and steamy, a typical tropical evening of August. We were in a field barricaded with bamboos, flanked on a side by a low hill, giving it an amphitheatresque air. The hill was synthetic, rather a mud-mound, but our pilot said, Rabindranath wrote poetry atop that mountain. We were riding a rickshaw; an eco-friendly vehicle something on the lines of the tricycle, used widely in India.
Within the bamboo precincts, a sea of daffodils surged. Wordsworth’s had colors, and so did these, but these also had voice. There were chirps and chatter as rivulets of children clad in flaming yellow dress, stood in formation. There was audience too galore, in appropriately gay clothes standing around the field, leaving a wide open space in the middle. On a raised platform were being seated dignitaries, four bamboo poles supported a shade above their heads. The shade was a cloth of deep maroon, which kept the slanting sun at bay and deferred to the winds, dancing like a sinusoid.
There was much hustle, but not much hurry, as if the assembly was sure of what was in store, as sure as the coming of seasons. Besides, I was told seventy odd years of tradition had its own momentum, and expectations. We elbowed into the crowd and got into a position; hardly vintage; those nearest to the fence had dug in solidly, clinging to the bulwark like barnacles. Some seemed veterans of the spectacle, flashing references to rains in eighty-four and stampede in ninety-one. Some even older, rued that the ceremony had lost a lot of its sublimity and a little of its touch. “Crowds from Calcutta”, they said in apology, or extenuation.
Suddenly the sound stopped and the song started, or it could have been the other way. Many voices in chorus sang a paean to the earth, to the triumph of vegetation over desert. And in concert, streams of children gushed out to the arena, in a slow, soothing dance, the yellow of their dresses mingling with the sun and the occasional green, mixing with the grass. They poured forth from corners of the field, broke out in little groups, and joined again; every gesture of their faces, and hands and feet part of a pattern, yet discernible by themselves. The lyrics went,
Hoist the flag of verdancy
On the barren lands
Oh ! indomitable Life !
Bless the dust with
Oh ! dulcet Life !
Rustling leaves will bring forth
The song of the mute earth
Filling fruits and flowers with
Oh ! lovely Life !
Spread out a shade of beauteous green
For the wary traveler.
Lure the skies
With the play of winds.
Light the branches into dawn
With the longing for lore
And speak to the dusk in tones of
Build a nest of sleepy song
In the night.
Oh ! generous Life.
(Translated by the author of this essay from the original Bengali)
The song ended, leaving behind an aura that lilted and haunted at the same time. The danseuses faded to the fringes. It was a turn for the speeches next.
Important people were introduced and their antecedents underlined. Some spoke of this living tradition, some spoke of its decay, and still some, outlined their agendas. The crowd listened patiently, out of politeness, or may be reliving the song and dance in themselves. Then came a blissful break of the spoken word.
Five young men, strapping and refined carried a sapling on their shoulders. Not one on their respective shoulders, but one together. The sapling in regal resplendence had a seat on a decked out palanquin. All its finery were flowers, and its carriers, the five young men, were adorned too in yellow and green. Their headgears were from petal and leaves, finely crafted. Their dresses and they, seemed strangely at home with the surroundings. These five men, were an allegory, as I gathered from surrounding small talk. They stood for the elements, earth, water, fire, wind, sky; in classical Eastern philosophy these embody the building blocks of the cosmos. Each of their attires carried a sign of the element they represented.
The sapling was brought to the center of the field, where the ground lay marked in colored design, which probably too had a significance.. After its descent from atop the elements, the little plant stood awhile bold and bewildered. Then the chief guest strode in, and bestowed the plant into the earth’s embrace. Another guest, slightly less chief, poured water from a sprinkler, tastefully decorated. I was worried the actual water might spoil the sprinkler, its adornment. But the second-in-chief guest, in due discharge of his responsibility, poured with gusto. I learned, again from gossip, that these guests’ positions were an honor and much in demand, and each year the nomination became a near thing.
There was again flurry of the decorated divas, another of anthem and dance. This song’s tune was lighter and it related an expansive invitation to nature to fill Man’s life with bounty.
The program concluded with the song and the children disappearing into a dusty dusk. The crowd dispersed, to return to homes and hotels. I cast a look at the deserted field, the barricades so essential some time back, seemed anxious now to be pulled down. The sapling stood, small and straight, to welcome the night and the morning after, and then the night again….
I walked and mused on the occasion, brikkharopan as it was formally called; the planting of trees, in literal translation.
The little impromptu shack that served tea in earthen cups, deeply biodegradable, was a hub also for other returnees like me. All spoke of their impressions, some wry, some risible. One said, why all this fuss, they could have just planted the tree ! Another, in a sagely tone, interjected, but this is what Santiniketan is about, Tagore’s……
The remark and the repartee both lingered in my mind, as I walked back to the lodge.
Next day dawned clear and early, the sun seemed to have been turned on by a switch. I was headed today for Sriniketan, a little town adjacent to Santiniketan; not really an adjunct, a satellite or sister perhaps.
The road was a thread of asphalt on the red lateritic soil of these parts. The ground here wears a crimson hue, and a red dust clings to shoes and clothes, with an earthy aroma. The color of the soil seemed also to affect the mood, I heard people break into songs, normal workaday folk from the metropolis.
I was walking the distance to Sriniketan and arrived, drenched in sun and sweat and expectation. The crowd again had beaten me to it, coming in cars and rickshaws and in droves. Wriggling again, I carved a position of some viewability, and peered into a grassy precinct, bulwarked again by bamboo.
A strip on the ground was covered with petals and paint. And a bull, its horns painted and head hemmed by a scarf lay in wait, or ambush. He was harnessed to a plough, and several volunteers, in equally aesthete attire, attended to him, offering grass and guidance.
Today’s occasion was halakarshan; meaning, tilling of the land. Amid another round of choral singing, another anthem of Tagore’s lyric and tune, the proceedings began. And they ended shortly, for the bull ploughed the designated strip in no time, chaperoned by a dignitary who placed a ginger finger on the till and then let it go. And then the bull, freeing from the shackles of ceremony, ran towards some grass on the fringes and scattering the spectators in that direction, descended to serene grazing. It was an anti-climax, the bull’s behavior as well as the function. I mingled with the crowd for a while gauging the mood, gathering dispatches about the year the then bull had really charged at the crowd, and another, when rain had washed everything away. Tagore himself, one said, had ran the bull with the plough in the year 1927. And he ran it the whole way. This informant must have read it somewhere, for he hardly looked as ancient as that.
As with the earlier evening, there were cameras everywhere, some clicking, some silently capturing the moments.
I decided to return by a later train, to dodge the multitude who were already making a beeline for the station. It gave me a chance and some time to stroll through Santiniketan.
The festival of the earth that I witnessed over an evening and a morning had all the makings of the bathetic, or the contrived. It had been going on for three quarters of a century, and obviously novelty now was none. Those who participated perhaps were merely going over the motions, maybe years in a row and those who organized, conformed more to tradition than inspiration
But, still it left an impression. And a redeeming one.
To understand such impact, one needs to explore the place Santiniketan had in Tagore’s life and living. Santinketan and Tagore both shaped one another, to the extent one can not be discussed in isolation.
Tagore’s Santiniketan is neither Shakespeare’s Stratford, Voltaire’s Ferney or Thoreau’s Concord, but a curious cocktail of all of these. The land was a part of family estate and his father Devendranath Tagore, built the first house there, charmed by the quietude of the barren wilderness. Tagore moved to Santiniketan with his immediate family in 1901, at the age of 40, leaving his sprawling ancestral house at Calcutta where the large and illustrious Tagore clan lived.
He founded an elementary school at Santiniketan with few students, one of them being his eldest son. It is strange Rabindranath started a seminary, for he went to several schools and dropped out of all. He was even sent to England to study Law, but returned without a degree. Tagore experimented with his unconventional ideas about education at Santiniketan and the school graduated to Visva-Bharati University in 1921. The name carries a germ of Tagore’s vision of integrating the culture and learning of diverse lands at his institution. He had won the Nobel Prize for Literature in the meantime and gained recognition as a preeminent litterateur and thinker of the world. Till his death in 1941, Tagore managed to balance a prolific literary output with an overweening interest and activism for Visva-Bharati; visiting many countries on lecture tours and leading music and dance ensembles, mainly with a view to fund raising for the institution.
Within few years of his death, the Government of India declared Visva-Bharati as a central government university.
Today, visiting Santiniketan, one is aware of confusion. The place seems to be caught in a cusp of two cultures; between the pulse of an university and the trappings of a memorial. As Tagore lived a large part of his genius there, conceiving nearly all that is the place, his presence hangs heavy, even more than sixty years after his demise. This has a stifling effect at times on the university, for which dynamism and change are deeply needed for development.
Every year, programs such as brikkharopan and halakarshan are organized with pious regularity, in apparent perpetuation of the founder’s vision. They carry a clear danger of descending to the mere ritual. Maybe they do at times.
Yet with so much claim to be clichéd, the festival of the earth stands out unique in its originality. Its ideator’s life and view of life, breaths an abounding recency into the very conception, even today.
Tagore lived a life of variegated activities; he composed nearly three thousand songs, wrote several thousand poems, over hundreds of short stories, novellas and novels, plays and essays, and painted nearly four thousand pictures. He is perhaps the only Nobel Laureate in Literature to have written a primer for his native language. A truly Renaissance personality, Tagore shaped and developed the language he wrote in, chaperoning Bengali from awkward adolescence to a reliant youth.
Tagore’s influence on the Bengalis has not worn thin even sixty years after his death. The Bengalis represent the fourth largest language group of the world, concentrated mainly in India and Bangladesh with a Diaspora rich and varied across continents. For a man whose message spreads across myriad media and who spoke in many voices, not without contradictions, the immanence of Tagore as a cultural fountainhead is astounding. His songs are sung as anthems, ballads and elegy, at inception of ceremonies, public performances and private renditions. From a roving minstrel peddling his clichéd couplet, to the politician canting on his electoral beat, to the dreamy adolescent pining for love, to the protagonist in search of a cause, everyone in Bengal needs Rabindranath on his side. Such proliferation of a single personality on a large populace across national boundaries is nearly without parallel in history, perhaps reminiscent of Shakespeare’s or Goethe’s but different in tone and texture from either’s. Tagore is the only composer of two national anthems of the world.
For Tagore aesthetics was a living ideal beyond his immediate world of creation. His love of letters, talent with tunes and panache for paint in a way obscures the originality of many ideas he experimented with at Santiniketan. The festival of the earth is one of them, perhaps the most relevant to the global concerns of the modern age.
In July 1927 Rabindranath first started the observance of the festival of the earth through brikkharopan and halakarshan. The message that runs deep within all the color and lyric and pageantry is one of recognition of the bounty the earth bestows on us. And awaking to a covenant to honor and preserve the environment.
In the second decade of the 20th century, between the two world wars, the stride of technology was unmatched. Many of the modern modes of communication, travel and of course warfare were being tried and tested at that time, often at heavy and unheeded environmental loss. It is striking that the first credo of conservation arose from the poet of an un-industrialized nation.
Nature runs as a consistent motif in whole of Tagore’s oeuvre. He sought a harmony between the progress and preservation. Deeply chary of the blinding lure of technology, Tagore in his plays and speeches repeatedly warns of the mindless proliferation of machines and the machinations of Man that it inevitably entails.
However, Tagore’s wariness of technology should not be taken as the whims of an irresponsible Luddite. He was deeply cognizant of the fact that technology when applied with discretion had the power to bring about great enhancement in the quality of human life. Tagore experimented with the industrial production of matches, soap and other such utility items at his ancestral estate during his youth, at a time when British ruled India did not have any industrial infrastructure whatsoever. Later Sriniketan was set up with the primary aim of encouraging a vibrant village economy, and several cottage industries were founded under Tagore’s aegis. Tagore sent his son Rathindranath to study the technology of agriculture at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, which was later applied with much effect at Sriniketan. To bolster a fledgling village bank, Tagore deposited his Nobel Prize money there; only to lose all of it, when the bank, perhaps inevitably, liquidated.
The festival of the earth as conceived and coined by Tagore is perhaps the first sentient move in the world to build up mass environmental awareness. The beauty of Tagore’s conception was that he sought to inculcate this rubric not through slogan and pamphlets but over a cultural framework. He looked to deliver an impact that was redoubtable but not rabid. Whether he has been successful or not is a question open to inquiry and interpretation. And the answer also lies in the dynamics of an age far removed in time and space from his. What survives till today amid all the confusion and conflict is the spirit of redemption – Man’s appreciation of the aesthetic awakens in him a respect for the harmony inherent in nature.
On my way back to the station, I met a young boy, incandescent in his ochre uniform. I asked his name and the class he studied. And then inquired, for whom was he carrying the small sapling?
He replied with determination and a little diffidence, I will plant it outside my window today. Every year I do.