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Realising Tagore through Artist-Activist, Shyamali Khastagir

By Manisha Banerjee

In 1986, when I first came to Santiniketan as an undergraduate student, I had been looking for Tagore and his ideas everywhere in his dream abode. Apart from his literature and music, which fascinated our aesthetics, there was another Tagore I dwelt on, the one who thought beyond nationalism in those days of fervent patriotism, promoted cooperatives and dreamt of Swadeshi Samaj. He believed in Atmashakti – self-power more than the power of the government. He has always advised the larger population to try and solve their problems themselves on a local level instead of waiting for the intervention of either God or the king.

Tagore lived and died in colonial India, all the time dreaming of a free nation as well as a free world. Now more than ever, we know how ahead of his times he was in his concepts of human rights, justice, and even more so in his concepts of education and the reconstruction of the village and its crafts.

But Santiniketan and through it, Visva-Bharati, which was supposed to carry the cargo of his life’s best treasure, doesn’t always speak for him today. It has become almost another central University except for the practice of the traditional festivals started by Tagore and a bit of the aesthetics he fostered. Some of the crafts revived and encouraged by him has received much popularity and banged straight into the market and thus into the pockets of business people. Very few are aware of the history and the reason behind Sriniketan, where Tagore pioneered a different concept of education in which a community worked closely with its surrounding rural world.

Despite all this, it can be still said about the place that if one really strives to find, there are still a few people and initiatives who speak for Rabindranath Tagore’s vision.

Shyamali Khastagir

Shyamali Khastagir (1940-2011) was definitely one of them. Her life spoke of her values that she lived by without any compromise. Her house was the abode where every person seeking Gandhi and Tagore would finally land in. She had a worldwide reputation as a peace activist, someone who had gone to the prison protesting against the arms race in the USA, one of the foremost anti-nuke activists in India, who went through uranium mining areas to film children born with congenital birth defects. She was someone who truly embodied the spirit of Tagore’s ashram. Her house was open to people from all over the world – as  Tagore would have said of Visva-Bharati,“yatra visvam bhabati ekaniram” – where  the world comes into a nest. The lives that she touched have transformed in many ways, and I, too, consider myself one of the fortunate people to have been associated with her thoughts and action.

The daughter of the famous painter-sculptor, Sudhir Khastagir, one of the pioneers of the Bengal School of art, Shyamali lost her mother at a tender age and was brought up by her father, who lived in Dehradun and later in Santiniketan. Shyamali married Tan Lee, the son of famous Professor Tan, who was invited by Tagore to set up the China Bhavan in Santiniketan. Tan Lee was an architect. After staying in Kolkata and the birth of their son Ananda, Shyamali moved abroad with him.  She was repelled by the consumerist culture there and started looking for alternatives. Her creative pursuits, along with her quest for Truth, brought her close to Tagore and Gandhi and she joined the peace movement. After separating from her husband, she came back to Santiniketan and settled there and became the symbol of the ashram, the abode of peace as Tagore envisioned it to be.

Shyamali was first and foremost an artist nurtured in Kala-Bhavana, the famous fine arts department of Visva-Bharati, where she came across the legendary artist of the Bengal School of art, Nandalal Bose, fondly known as Mastermasai. Although she herself was the daughter of a very famous painter and sculptor, she never cared using art for earning money or fame. She had her own exquisite style – the fish and the bird prevalent in her sketches remind one of the sacred values of all that exists in land and water, which she tried to save from the greed and exploitation of human beings. She relentlessly inspired folk artists, who came to her door and felt at home immediately.

Saturday Khoai market

The Saturday handicrafts market in the forest of Santiniketan, now a popular tourist attraction – Khoai  bon eyr anyo haat – was actually initiated by Shyamali and a few others as an answer to the rapid commercialization of handicrafts, depriving the original artisans. It was a place where artists came to display and sell things hand-crafted by them – be it jewelry made with beads, handmade paper notebooks, or embroidered cloth items with the famous Kantha stitch revived in Santiniketan. On the very first day of the haat, Shyamali herself sat there with her own products – paper cranes of peace in remembrance of Hiroshima. She gave the paper birds to the wandering Santhal children of the adjoining villages in exchange for pebbles they collected in the forest. What a bargain! This was her answer to the money market, where everything is valued against money.

Lifelong activist, a friend to all

To us students, Shyamali was the window to a new world, one not found in history books or newspapers, a world where thousands are fighting against injustice and working for alternatives, whether in the field of education, organic farming, low-cost environment-friendly housing and other similar causes. She had a connection with almost every part of the world and her little blue notebook had addresses from all over. ‘Palash’, her house, was a haven for activists coming from different parts of the country and abroad. We had the opportunity to meet these great people whom the university could not host due to political reasons. This is the house where legendary Gandhian activist, Pannalal Dasgupta, lived the last few years of his life when he was going around villages, initiating reconstruction based on sustainable living. Shyamali was a part of the initiative taken by the villagers in a nearby flood-affected area to build an indigenous flood shelter made of earth. He also initiated the famous Meenmangal Utsav in which little fishes were released in streams by kids and the local people vowed not to catch them till they grew.

Keen on preserving bio-diversity, Shyamali opposed the tradition of wearing garlands of palash flowers during the famous spring festival in Santiniketan that usually led to a large-scale destruction of palash trees by the flower-vendors. She inspired us students to participate in the festival group-dance without any flower decoration. We would also put up beautiful posters made by her all over the ashram. Now the University itself has accepted the idea and one environmental organization has taken it up to plant palash trees every year.

Art and activism

Coming to posters, Shyamali was the perfect ambassador for blending art with activism. Even in the prison in the USA, she made posters with her drawings and scribbled on them words of protest. These were long banners on cloth which she could hang from trees that spoke of her concern for the world. In many of these, she evoked lines from Tagore. She gave me one such banner when my daughter was born – on it she wrote about the real purpose of raising a child to make her a conscious human being and not a money-churning machine: “Nijeyr shey, Bisweyr Shey, Biswadevatar. Santan nahey go Mato sampotti tomar.” She is of herself, of the world, of the universal spirit. A child is not merely your property of you, O mother.

I remember three interesting occasions when her spirit of activism blended with Tagore’s vision. During the famous Narmada Bachao Andolan against the huge mega dam project on the Narmada River spearheaded by Medha Patkar, Shyamali persuaded a group in Delhi to perform Tagore’s play Muktodhara (that dwells on a similar theme) in Hindi in the Narmada valley. Later when the group got stranded in the valley for certain reasons, she sold her jewelry to pay for their return journey. On another occasion, when a liquor company colluded with a newspaper group to hold a car rally from Santiniketan in the name of Tagore, Shyamali simply lay down before the first car; finally the rally was called off. And then there was her protest against the Visva-Bharati authorities in erecting walls everywhere, making the open ashram look almost like a fort.

Abiding legacy

In life, as in death, she followed her ideal. In keeping with her wish, she was buried in a village 16 kms from Santiniketan in an ashram where a saint preached communal harmony and built a commune rising against all caste and creed. On the day of the burial, a huge gathering, comprising activists, scholars, artists, those whose lives she had touched, collected at the spot. They were joined by people from all walks of life – from a wandering minstrel to a professor of anthropology.

Her death left a big vacuum in Santiniketan. The search for Tagore and Gandhi always led to her. We still observe Hiroshima Day as initiated by her. In our little pursuits, we try to follow the ideas of Tagore as we found them in her. In the current atmosphere of religious intolerance, her inclusive worldview becomes even more relevant. In Santiniketan, along with my students some of whom came from remote villages, we have tried to nurture ideas of education for the complete human being who can rise over petty differences and show respect for everyone and everything in this world.

In 1940, in one of his letters, Tagore wrote, “Once again the weight of armaments is crushing our humanity out of existence. In the midst of all this can be heard the creator’s voice: This will not do…In the heart of all conflicts I have seen Man, eternal, unvanquished. Statistically speaking, they may be few, but a few of them are enough to save…I have faith in Man. His road lies through death, yet he will provide his deathless destiny and one day win.” In Shyamali, we have witnessed this eternal spirit as her legacy continues to live in the people whose spirit she moved.

Photo credit: Narayan Nandi

Manisha Banerjee lives in Santiniketan and works as a teacher-activist.


For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.

3 Comments Post a comment
  1. So lovingly and minutely u have depicted such an immense personality like shyamali khastogir!! Wonderful! I salute both d author and d subject!!!

    June 24, 2017
  2. So lovingly and ofcourse minutely u have depicted such an immense personality like shyamali khastogir….i was just overwhelmed to read it out.simply wonderful!!
    I salute both,the subject and the author.

    June 24, 2017
  3. Moutusi Bagchi #

    Thanks for the wonderful write up on a personality who strived to hold Tagore’s ideals blending nationalism, environmentalism and sustainability.

    June 25, 2017

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