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When Rabindranath Tagore sent 3 men to study agriculture in USA so they could build Sriniketan

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Please take it seriously when I say my whole heart is with you in the great work you have started. I wish I was young enough to be able to join you and do the nastiest work that can be done for you, thereby shedding the web of respectability that keeps me from having intimate contact with Mother Dust. It is something impure like prudery itself to have a sweeper to serve this deity who is in charge of the primordial cradle of life.

RAbindranath sent the above note to pioneer Sriniketan LK Elmhirst on March 31, 1922, when he learned that the first group of Surul students had dug trenches in their own gardens to clear the ground from the night to help to the improvement of agriculture. Rabindranath looked forward to the day when his village work would benefit from the contributions of modern science.

As early as 1906, he sponsored three young men from Santiniketan to study agriculture and dairy farming at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, USA. They were his son Rathi, his son-in-law Nagendranath Ganguli (1889–1958, married to Rabindranath’s youngest daughter, Mira Devi), and his friend Srishchandra Majumdar’s son, Santosh Chandra Majumdar (1886–1926, student of the Santiniketan school, and later, also a teacher). The plan was that upon completion of their graduate studies in agricultural sciences, they would bring their newly acquired knowledge to rural reconstruction work in India.

Rabindranath was convinced, from his observation of other agricultural countries, that the economic salvation of the village lay in the application of know-how. In 1909, the three University of Illinois graduates returned with their advanced training in agriculture and animal husbandry and began to introduce scientific methods into Sriniketan’s work. Their experiments were conducted jointly with the villagers.

To advance the work, Rabindranath purchased 20 bighas of land in 1912, along with a house which stood on that land just outside the village called Surul, less than two miles west of Santiniketan, where the Sriniketan Institute was to be located. The house that stood on the land was commonly referred to as ‘Cheap Kuthi’. It belonged to the East India Company’s commercial resident for the Birbhum district, John Cheap, who lived there from 1787 to 1828. His job was to indent the local supply of cotton and silk fabrics on behalf of the company with an annual investment quota of 45,000 to 65,000 British Pounds. Silk and cotton fabrics accounted for most of the advances of the East India Company. Weavers used to work on a system of “advances”, all of which was managed by the commercial resident of the company.

As a Commercial Resident, the timely supply of the Company’s needs was the main job. For this, good cooperation was needed from the local agents. Mr. Cheap found Surul and its surroundings not only rich in raw materials, but he also found a friend and ally in an influential Surul landlord and businessman, Sri Srinivas Sarkar. It was from the Sarkars that John Cheap obtained a large tract of land, on which he built his sumptuous house surrounded by a garden and an orchard. It was a house of impressive size, but fallen into disrepair by the time Rabindranath purchased the property. The fact that John Cheap was posted there by the East India Company was evidence of the area’s previous prosperity.

John Cheap encouraged spinning and weaving in the surrounding villages. He collected his products, as well as other goods for sale, through a network of huge clearing stations. It is believed that his enterprise brought the whole region to a level of prosperity, which resulted in a proliferation of ‘pukka’ buildings, houses and temples. Machine-spun fabrics with identical designs, copied from the goods exported by Cheap, began to reach the port of Calcutta at reduced rates. But the inevitable result was that Birbhum’s handwoven fabrics were thrown off the market. As a result, villages were eventually reduced to poverty and plagued with the diseases of cholera and malaria. It is also the time when the district acquires its first railway line. The massive excavations undertaken by the East India Railways during the laying of the Bolpur line had a negative impact on the environment and the health of the people.

L.K. Elmhirst at Sriniketan 1922–23 | Niyogi Books

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During the early years of Sriniketan’s work, nothing substantial could be done with this piece of land except to clear the jungles surrounding the ‘Cheap Kuthi’ area and meet the villagers. A program has also been launched to make Surul Farm a model for the benefit of farmers living in the surrounding villages. This holistic task was led by Rathi Babu and Nagendranath Ganguli, who, armed so to speak, with their education and training at the University of Illinois were ready to make an impact on rural reconstruction. But nothing came of these first attempts to start work in earnest, as all the workers caught malaria. So the first 10 years went by like a roller coaster with work starting and stopping at intervals.

In 1921, Rabindranath traveled widely to inform mankind at large of his international Visva-Bharati University in Santiniketan, a “place” where the world comes together as in one “nest”. When he was in the United States, he arranged to meet a young Englishman who was then an agriculture student at Cornell University. It was LK Elmhirst (1893-1974, agricultural economist, directed the work of Sriniketan from 1922 to 1924, and later supported it throughout his life). Rabindranath had been informed of Elmhirst by another Englishman, Sam Higginbottom (1874–1958), who founded the Nainital Agricultural Institute, where Elmhirst had worked for a few months as a wartime volunteer in 1917–18. Rabindranath appealed to Elmhirst to come and start the Surul Farm.

Of their meeting, Elmhirst wrote:

I well remember the morning in the spring of 1921 when a telegram reached me in Ithaca, from Tagore, which said: “Come and see me in New York. I made a hasty trip to New York, and will never forget the friendly welcome I received. “I have,” Tagore told me, “an education and arts institution in Santiniketan which is mainly academic. It is surrounded by villages, some Hindu, some Muslim, some Sandalwood, but all are decaying; all had an ancient culture, but today they seem sick. Will you come help me find out why? Would you be willing to move to a village? Would you consider it? So how about coming back with me tomorrow?

“But,” I said, “if I’m really going to be of any use to you, I must finish my course at Cornell.”

Elmhirst came to work for Sriniketan after completing his studies at Cornell. He came to Santiniketan at the end of 1921 and started rural work in 1922, moving to Surul with a team of two teachers and 10 senior students from the Santiniketan school. On the team were Rathi Babu, Santosh Majumdar and Kalimohan Ghose, whom Elmhirst called his “three closest associates”. Another resource person who joined them soon after was Miss Gretchen Green from the USA, a paramedic nurse, who was asked to set up the village health center and clinic in Surul.

It was not easy at first for the Santiniketan-Sriniketan team to start their work as there was a political movement going on at the time. Gandhi’s non-cooperation movement had touched many hearts, even in Santiniketan. The political turmoil has also affected the team’s relationship with the villagers to some extent. Elmhirst wrote in his diary how Rabindranath used to regularly discuss their local problems and experiences and consulted, in particular, Kalimohan Ghose, as he was Sriniketan’s contact person with the local villagers. Moreover, the villagers trusted Kalimohan Ghose.

Initially, the team undertook reconstruction work in the three designated villages in the Surul district. Elmhirst’s diary records refer to the desperate struggle they had to establish early contact, first with Muslim villages and later with Hindu villages. Again, as Elmhirst wrote in his journals, Rabindranath learned all about Kalimohan and gave his encouragement to continue the work and reiterated his support.

Then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru in Sriniketan 1952 | Niyogi Books

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After starting work, Elmhirst was only able to stay for two years, from 1922 to 1924. He had to return to England to set up his own educational establishment, Dartington Hall in Devonshire, although he remained linked to the Sriniketan’s work throughout his life. His correspondence with Rathi Babu shows how closely he followed all Sriniketan matters, even criticized some of them in his assessment. Rathi Babu sincerely sought Elmhirst’s advice, and a number of the leading village workers also kept in touch with him. Elmhirst himself returned to Sriniketan on short visits every two years. The lady he married, Dorothy Whitney Straight (1887–1958), endowed an annual grant of Rs 32,000 for Sriniketan, which has been of fundamental assistance to the work over the years. This is how the “permanence” of Sriniketan was ensured. Dorothy Whitney Straight was the daughter of American financier William Whitney and widow of distinguished diplomat Willard Straight. Rabindranath dedicated his book of essays, educational pioneer, to Dorothy with the following words, “To Dorothy Whitney Straight who made Sriniketan possible”.

When designing the work of Sriniketan, Rabindranath insisted on a holistic approach that would take into account the life of the villager in all its aspects. He also affirmed his confidence in the cooperation of young people in carrying out the reforms and in the progressive support of their elders to this end. This is why he was drawn to the Scouting movement founded by Lieutenant General Robert Baden-Powell (1857-1941, founder of the worldwide Scouting movement) and decided to link the Sriniketan experience to the Scouting movement. Rathi Babu arranged for two boys from the Santiniketan school to join a training course for scout leaders in the central provinces.

Among other aspects of the Sriniketan experience, Rabindranath encouraged the collaboration of scientists, economists, sociologists and technicians in the work. He encouraged everyone to stand with the villagers in their fight against poverty and oppression. He also made sure that the team didn’t impose too many “stats” or technicalities on the villagers to cause the changes. He wrote to Elmhirst: “All the time that Sriniketan struggled to become a form, I wished intensely that she had not only form, but also light, that she might transcend her immediate limits of time. , space and special purpose.’

This excerpt from “History of Sriniketan: Rabindranath Tagore’s Pioneering Work in Rural Reconstruction” by Uma Das Gupta has been published with permission from Niyogi Books.