The Age of Innocence

Among the foremost Hindi writers of her time, Gaura Pant ‘Shivani’ spent nine years in Tagore’s Santiniketan. In this monograph, translated from Hindi by her daughter, she recalls the time spent there

Representative image
Representative image

Gaura Pant 'Shivani'

Among the foremost Hindi writers of her time, Gaura Pant ‘Shivani’ (1923-2003) spent nine years in Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore’s Santiniketan. In this delightful monograph, translated from Hindi by her daughter, well known editor, columnist and translator Ira Pande, she recalls the time spent in the Ashram. Published by Penguin Random House, the monograph provides invaluable insights. Selected extracts from the book. Photographs courtesy Mrinal Pande, Group Editorial Advisor of National Herald. Selected extracts from the book:

Gradually over the next few months, I learnt Bangla, and the joy that I derived from this knowledge has stayed with me to this day. I am proud to tell you that it was Gurudev himself who taught me the alphabet, lovingly guiding me through the basic primer, Sahaj Path. Of course, there were some hilarious moments. Bone thake bagh, gache thake pakhi (the tiger lives in the forest, the bird on the tree) was one of the opening lessons. In my excitement at having mastered this difficult line, I read it out to Gurudev as: ‘Gachhe thake bagh, bone thake pakhi’ (The tiger lives on the tree, the bird in the forest).

Gurudev sat patiently, waiting for me to finish…oblivious to my mistake, I went through the entire lesson and turned eagerly to Gurudev for praise. He looked gravely at me and asked: ‘So, child! Do tigers live on trees in your part of the world?”

I remember another delightful instance. Until a brilliant Tamil student, Shivshankar Mundukur, joined the Ashram, I was the star of my class. I was Dr Alex Aronson’s favourite student and basked in this fact. However, under the brilliance of this new entrant, my reputation stood threatened. One day, Dr Aronson asked us to write a critical appraisal of a Keats poem and bring it the next day.

I ran straight to Gurudev. ‘Please write it for me,’ I begged him. ‘I don’t want that Tamil boy to do better. Please, please, please, Gurudev.’

He almost threw me out but when I refused to budge, he dictated a brilliant piece that more than matched the Keats poem. The next day, I confidently submitted my assignment, secure in the knowledge that a Nobel laureate in literature had written it. So, imagine my horror when we got our papers back—that wretched Tamilian genius had been awarded a 6 while I had a measly 4 out of 10! Even more insulting was what Dr Aronson had scrawled at the end of my paper. ‘Too elusive’.

I ran straight to Gurudev. ‘You always tell us to honour our foreign teachers and look what they do! He has given you just 4 out of 10!’ Gurudev threw back his head and laughed. ‘Don’t tell anyone I wrote it,’ he told me in confidence.

Visva Bharati was Gurudev’s ultimate sanctuary and retreat: a place where a prince sat on the same wooden bench as an ordinary student at meal times and under the canopy of the same tree while learning a lesson.

As a child, when Tagore’s parents sent him to Bengal Academy, he felt he had been dispatched to a jail. He has written somewhere about this: “We hardly ever understood completely what our teachers taught us. We were never inspired to make the effort to try and understand it, nor were the school authorities especially bothered about this. Now I have a sanctuary of my own.”

“The children who come here are mischievous but what else can they be if they are children? As for the teachers here, they may occasionally lose patience with these naughty children but whenever they consider punishment I try and remind them of their own childhood and the matter gets sorted out without a problem.”

This is the reason why no student was ever punished in the Ashram. In the eight years that I spent there, just two students were sent away.

Tagore tried to rectify all the wrongs that appeared to him as blights from his own schooldays. So, in Shantiniketan, every student was free to study (or not study) any subject. If you were learning music at Sangeet Bhavan, you could stroll into any class in Shiksha Bhavan (the college section) if you wanted. For the nursery children, there was a special class called ‘Golper Class’ meant only for stories and tales. Whenever we heard that Tagore himself was going to take it, we ran to attend, never mind that we were by then in college!

I can remember one particular story even after all these years, called ‘Momer Putul’ (The Wax Doll). We sat through three periods to hear its end and missed all our regular classes. Such was the magic of the Tagore imagination!

The famous film star actor Balraj Sahni was also a member of the staff at the Ashram for a few years. He taught English literature and his classes were famous for their unorthodox teaching methods. For instance, he would hand us the editorial torn out of a newspaper and ask us to write a precis of it. Or, sometimes he would read out a short story that he was writing.

Little did we know that his dashing good looks would one day make him one of India’s most famous film stars. In the Ashram, you could spot him from afar: a jaunty walk and a red kurta (he was a lifelong member of the Communist Party). His classes on English poetry had us entranced because he read poetry like no one else I’ve met.

One summer, he came on a visit to Almora and stayed with us. He was utterly enchanted by an old church near the house and often walked to it. One day, he picked up an old, tattered Bible from the derelict building and brought it home. My mother was not happy about this at all and told me to ask him to return it. ‘God knows who it belonged to,’ she added darkly. ‘Such old things often bring bad luck if you take them away from their place.’

I dutifully reported this to Balraj Sahni and he laughed at such superstitious mumbo jumbo. Years later, when his lovely wife, Dammo, passd away at a tragically young age, my mother all but said, ‘I told you so.’

The first round of a seminar on Tagore had just ended in Dumstadt’s vast hall when someone came up to me to announce, ‘The German radio has just flashed the news that Satyajit Ray is no more.’ I had never called Satyajit Ray by his real name; to us Ashramites, he was always Manik da. I turned my face towards the windows to hide my tears.

Four years before our last meeting when I had come to Calcutta, Manik da had come to meet me. My daughter’s father-in-law, B.D. Pande, was then the West Bengal Governor, and he had thoughtfully arranged for all my Ashram friends to come to the Raj Bhavan one evening.

We fell upon each other’s necks in joy. Manik da, Suchitra Mitra, my dearest school friend Anima Sen, the daughter-in-law of our respected teacher, Acharya Kshiti Mohan Sen, Arundhati Mukherji, Tara Sarkar…

‘Ours must have surely been the Golden Age of Shaniniketan,’ I had declared loftily as I looked proudly at that assembly of famous personages that day.

‘Don’t ever forget,’ Manik da reminded us solemnly, ‘that whatever we are today is because of what we learnt at the Ashram.’ He always spoke in measured, reflective tones and I suddenly felt as chastened as a schoolgirl rapped on her knuckles for overlooking a basic fact.

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