A Poet’s School: A Visit to Santiniketan

As my daughter, Tess, and I walked through the grounds of Patha Bhavana, the primary and secondary school of Tagore’s university, Visva Bharati, I felt very much at home. The atmosphere of quietness and the friendly interaction between teachers and students was very familiar. Like other areas we went to in India, the older buildings seemed rather run down, but in Tagore’s school, where ninety per cent of the classes are held outdoors, it didn’t seem to matter too much. The many evergreen trees were constantly drop­ping leaves, and the ground was covered with them, providing a beautiful environment for lessons. The children in their yellow and white uniforms were bright-eyed and confident, and our guides, three boys from Year 9, were friendly and, like students anywhere, were happy to have some time off from their studies. It was great to see a school so similar in spirit and intent to SOTE.

Tagore’s idea for his School, established at Santiniketan in West Bengal in 1901, was to get away from the stifling atmosphere of the traditional nineteenth century classroom in which he was trained, with its drills and mindless rote-learning intended to prepare young Indians for the British colonial service. Tagore, born in 1861 in Kolkata, wanted a school with a more traditional Indian structure that would embrace Bengali language and culture and be based on a more intimate personal relationship between teacher and student. Cultural pursuits were to be given emphasis along with the physical sciences and humanities — a place where all cultures of the world could be represented and celebrated.

We spoke to the Acting-Principal, Sm Bijaya Bhattacharya, as well as the art teacher and the Director of the Kindergarten, and they left us with an impression of a dedicated teaching staff who highly value the student-teacher relation­ship. The Science Co-ordinator gave an insight into the school’s approach to education when he explained that he believed encouraging children’s creativity was one of the main purposes of all subject areas. Later that evening we attended one of the weekly literary meetings which were full of creative writing, recitation, songs and dances.

While at Santiniketan I had the opportunity to visit Rabindranath Tagore’s nephew, Supriyo Tagore, who had been the principal of the school for over 30 years. I asked him what were the essentials of Tagore’s approach. He explained that Tagore had emphasized that children need to be nurtured in three important relationships:

  • Relationship with Nature
  • Relationship with Other People; and
  • Relationship with the Higher Truth.

He said it was from these fundamental bases that the children’s education should be built. He was concerned that recent trends towards education for success and competition with external exams could undermine Tagore’s great experiment.

India’s Prime Minister, Dr Manmohan Singh, is the university’s Chancellor, and this gives some idea of the high esteem in which this institution is held in India. However, Visva Bharati is now a Central University and this brings with it the requirement to fit in with the overall education system.

Starting as a primary school at the beginning of the twentieth century, it gradually grew and developed so there are now a number of tertiary departments including: Humanities & Social Science, Science, Dance, Drama & Music, Fine Art, Education, and Tagore Studies & Research. Visva Bharati also has a twin campus a few kilometres away at Sriniketan which is dedicated to Agricultural Science and Rural Reconstruction, with a view to assisting the local villages in a practical way with sustaining their livelihood.

We visited the Institute of Fine Arts under the guidance of the head of the sculpture faculty and saw the students working away at a great variety of pieces for their imminent annual exhibition. There was even one student from Ferny Grove in Brisbane! We walked past students being tutored under the trees and saw evidence of the creative spirit being nurtured in a very individual way.

Unfortunately, our stay was too brief to gain more than an impression of Visva Bharati but it left a desire to understand more about it and to perhaps set up some on-going communication for the mutual benefit of our like-minded schools.


Richard Waters has been principal of the School of Total Education since 1978. He has taught at both primary and secondary levels and has a particular interest in parent education and the training of teachers. He is also a teacher of senior Study of Society and History.