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January 9, 2017

Tagore and decolonisation


January 9, 2017

Rabindranath Tagore was a poet, novelist, short story writer, playwright, painter, musician, and educationist who influenced a large number of people, generation after generation.  

He was born in the post-1857 period when the Indians were pushed to the corner after the abortive attempt of a freedom war in 1857. The War of Independence was a result of the economic, social, cultural, and religious exploitation of India by the foreign rulers. Tagore, born in 1861 to an enlightened family, was aware of the effects of the colonisation of India, especially its impact on the cultural and social life of Indians. His resistance to the Raj was subtle and his tool of resistance was education.

In British India, there was, on the one hand, a tradition of indigenous education which had a long history and was accessible to the masses and, on the other, English education in schools patronised by the British rulers. English education was expensive, limited to a few places and was removed from the local culture and values. A typical approach of imperialist powers is to glorify their own culture, language, and educational system and stigmatise the culture, languages, and educational systems of others. Education has always been used by the imperialist powers to influence and control the minds.

A prime objective of the discursive approach of hegemony is to make the marginalised groups believe that their culture, language, educational system, and way of life are inferior and, thus, of no worth. It was against this backdrop that Tagore thought about an innovative style of education which was different from the indigenous and English systems of education.  It was based on a subtle attempt of decolonisation which embodied the spirit of freedom. It was a poet’s way of responding to the challenge of colonisation. 

Tagore was concerned about poor condition of the people living in villages. Their living conditions were further exacerbated by the repressive economic policies of the Raj. To empower the students – culturally, economically, and spiritually – Tagore established his school, Shantiniketan, in 1901. Tagore’s concept of education was associated with liberation and freedom. Freedom of thought, expression, and choice were the pillars of Shantiniketan. 

An important part of the process of decolonisation is to identify, recognise, and celebrate one’s own roots and the culture that constitute one’s identity.  Shantiniketan aimed to bring students to a setting that was close to their cultural environment. Students were provided an innovative concept of education where they were given an opportunity to engage with the objects of nature and develop a sense of association with their motherland. 

The focus of education was much more that just mundane literacy. It was a holistic educational approach that would encompass the educational, physical, spiritual, and aesthetic development of children. The curriculum was not fixed and combined theoretical and practical work. The emphasis was on blending interest with learning. Thus, in Shantiniketan, learning was fun. The teacher was not the only source of knowledge but students would learn by doing. As a result, experience and learning were intertwined. 

The students, besides the core subjects, were exposed to painting, reading stories, music, creative writing, dance and drama. They were encouraged and motivated to write, paint, and publish their works. Besides the routine teaching offered at schools, scholars and thinkers were invited to Shantiniketan where they would interact with students and share their experiences with them. Thus, the students’ horizon of thinking was broadened through regular interaction with external speakers. 

Tagore was aware of the importance of language as not just a tool of communication but also as an important marker of identity. As a scholar and writer, he knew how language plays an important part in the construction of realities and how learning is enhanced if a student is taught in a language that is familiar to him. Bengali was chosen as a medium of instruction in Shantiniketan. This decision demonstrated that local languages are in no way inferior to English and Indians are proud of their culture and languages.

The central theme of Shantiniketan was to develop a holistic personality of the child. Isolated ‘knowledge’ was not the objective at Shantiniketan. On the contrary, harmony with nature, sensitivity about people, and empathy with the cultural surroundings were emphasised.

Tagore was conscious of the acute poverty of the villagers in Bengal. To address their needs, a rural education centre, Sriniketan, was established.  This centre was important in providing basic literacy and skills to the learners.  He also established a university, Visva-Bharati, which focused on bringing together the cultural diversity of different parts of India.

Tagore believed that creative writing, painting, dance, and drama played a vital role in the expression of national identity. Shantiniketan could therefore be seen as a hub of activities that revolved around celebrating the indigenous culture, local settings, cultural surroundings and local languages. 

A subtle approach was employed through Shantiniketan to decolonise the minds of Indians and empower them to be proud of their own cultural heritage. Tagore’s involvement with education spanned over four decades.  These efforts converged on one point: waking up the Indian nation from deep slumber by exposing the students to a brand of education that would lead to freedom and liberation. He was shocked by the massacre in Jallianwala Bagh in 1919 where hundreds of Indians were killed on the order of a British officer. The whole nation protested against this killing.   Tagore, as a sign of protest, returned his title.

Tagore’s idea of life was incomplete without freedom. His vision of Shantiniketan was expressed in one of his poems where he prays to God for a school:

“Where the mind is led forward/by thee into ever-widening thought and action–/into that heaven of freedom, my Father,/Let my country awake.”

Tagore’s educational efforts paid off and Shantiniketan turned into a movement of alternative education and the expression of national identity.


The writer is an educationist.

Email: [email protected]


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