Today we are publishing an article titled ‘Reminiscences of Shantiniketan’ penned by Shri Noren Singh Nahar, a senior member of Sri Aurobindo Ashram, Pondicherry, who is an inmate since 1939. He is the third son of Prithwi Singh Nahar. Born on 1 December 1920, he came to Sri Aurobindo Ashram for the first time in 1936 and became an inmate in 1939 at the age of nineteen. His first assignment was supervision of work in Golconde, the oldest Guest House of the Ashram which was under construction and he supervised the cutting and bending of the iron rods. He also worked in the Ashram Bakery and the Press in the printing section. His love for gardening was encouraged by the Mother who gave him a small plot of land behind the office of Pavitra in the inner courtyard of the Ashram Main Building where he, along with help from a senior sadhak named Jyotin-da, grew vegetables.
Pavitra was the first stamp collector in the Ashram. After he joined the Ashram in 1925, he brought his stamp albums from France and thus started the work of stamp collection. Noren Singh used to work in Pavitra’s dining room where there was a small table and one stool. With help and guidance from the Mother (who had entrusted to him the responsibilities of the Philately Department which flourished under him) and Pavitra, he has enriched the department so much that now it houses a vast and spectacular collection of stamps of post-Independence India, French India, Canada, U.S.A., Brazil, France, Holland, Switzerland and some other countries of Western Europe. From 1975 he was helped in his work by his youngest sister Shrimati Suprabha Nahar. It won’t be an exaggeration if I say that Noren-da and Suprabha-di are the soul and heart of the Department of Philately.
Noren-da is a beautiful person. He and his younger brother Nirmal Nahar are among the few people I’ve met who possess both beauty of form and beauty of spirit. Despite being one of the senior-most members of the Ashram, Noren-da is easily approachable and his child-like simple laughter draws people closer to him. The Mother had remarked about Noren-da after seeing him that his psychic being was exactly on the front.
Noren-da and his brothers (Dhir Singh, Bir Singh and Nirmal Singh) had studied at Santiniketan from 1930 to 1934. In this article he has recalled the memories of those golden days at the ‘Abode of Peace’.
With warm regards,
Reminiscences of Shantiniketan
Noren Singh Nahar
“Amader Shantiniketan shob hote apon.” Shantiniketan means the Abode of Peace. We went there in the year 1930. My parents, brothers and sisters settled in a house called “Nichu Bungalow”. It had a big compound with many big trees including amlaki and berries, orchards, etc. In front of our house there was a huge banyan tree. Dwiju Thakur – Dwijendranath Thakur, elder brother of Rabindranath, used to stay behind our house; his daughter-in-law was called as Baro Ma. About Dwiju Babu it was said that when he used to sit outside in his verandah, birds used to come and sit all over his body… there used to be a road leading to Bolpur from….
Gurupalli was close by where the teachers used to stay. There was a small pond called Bhubhan danga. During our visits if we would ask for water from the villagers, they would give water along with simple sweets like Batasha. They were quite warm people. About Bhubhan danga there was a legend that the place was named after Bhuban dacoit who was known for his cruelty. One day, Tagore went to his place and told that he wanted to procure land for his school. Bhuban dacoit requested Tagore to take the land without any consideration as he was repentant of his past deeds. However, Tagore did not agree to that and paid him the right sum. I don’t know whether it’s true but we have heard this story.
We four brothers – Dhir Singh, Bir Singh, Nirmal and I – were admitted to the school in Shantiniketan. Our youngest brother Abhay was too young to be admitted to the school, of course after a year or two he was admitted as well. Sisters were too young, but Sujata used to go to Kalabhavan to learn painting from Mastar- moshai Nandalal Bose[i], the famous painter. My mother used to prepare sweets and whenever she made any special sweet she would send it to Rabindranath through Abhay and Sujata. Once Abhay wanted an autograph, so he wrote some beautiful lines for him, “Bhoy hote tobo Abhay majhe”.
Our school life was quite interesting; the teachers were very affectionate and caring. There used to be 100 students in the school from elementary to the highest standard. There was a library… We used to sing prayer songs before going to the classes; this Morning Prayer was called as Baitalik.
There was a big bell near the “Shaal Bithi” which was adjacent to the library. The gong of the bell signified starting of the classes. We had mats with us to sit under the trees. It used to be co-educational system, hardly 10-12 students in each class. After each period we used to go to different places to learn different subjects. One interesting thing was that in rainy season whenever there was slight rain, students used to ring the bell to declare holiday. Then we used to visit different places getting drenched! Places like Kopai[ii] and other rivers which were at quite a distance from our school.
There was a place called “Amrakunja” near the spot where our classes were held. At times Tagore would come and sit there, beyond that there was a guest house. Adjacent to “Amrakunja” was the “Upasana Griha,” built entirely of glass. We used to have our weekly offs on Wednesdays instead of Sundays as Tagore did not want to follow the British system. When Tagore used to be there in Shantiniketan he used to read verses from Upanishads in the “Upasana Griha” on Wednesdays. In his absence Sri Kshitimohan Sen[iii] used to recite from Upanishads. After the recitations we used to have a short meditation.
When we went to Shantiniketan for the first time Tagore was not there. After his return, he stood in “Upasana Griha” and one of our teachers introduced each of the students individually to him. We did Pranam to him, which was our first meeting. Afterwards I have seen him many times. We used to call him Gurudev. When there used to be special functions (for Kolkata and other places) and we used to do rehearsals, he would come out and observe. Apart from these there used to be special functions held in “Singha Sadan,” in a special hall opposite to the library. The school boarding houses were close by. “Singha Sadan” was also used for teaching Jujutsu. We had two teachers, a Japanese gentleman[iv] and an Indian person who was our relative. We used to have Jujutsu competitions. I had taken some Jujutsu lessons there. One day, for some special occasion, Gurudev was there and after the function everyone clapped. He was quite furious with this imitation of the foreign custom, he wanted the people to say Sadhu Sadhu instead of clapping. He became red with anger.
There was a building “Uttarayan” a two-storied building meant for Gurudev. All the treasures, gifts and awards received from various countries and dignitaries were kept there. There were no security guards. Occasionally I used to visit “Uttarayan” to see these unguarded treasures, it never occurred to us even to touch any item.
I remember, at that time, Gurudev was staying in the building adjacent to “Uttarayan”, most probably in “Shyamoli.” He used to sit outside and write. On Wednesdays I often plucked Keya (Ketaki) flowers and offered them to Gurudev. On one such occasion I offered the flowers and then put forward my autograph book to him for signing. He simply signed “Rabindranath Tagore”, I requested him to write something more. He was a little irritated with this and then wrote “Blessings”. And now, after a long time, I understand he was in a different mood as he was writing something and my request interrupted his flow of writing.
When he used to take the dance and drama troops from Shantiniketan to Kolkata normally they used to perform at New Empire Hall. He used to be present during the performances. My father gave his car to Haren-da[v] who was looking after the requirements of the troop; he gave us free tickets for the show. So we all went to see the function. This was another instance when we met Gurudev. There were other similar incidents.
Gurudev was not only concerned with education but also about the rural development of Bengal. There was an institution Sriniketan, it was a few kilometers away from Shantiniketan. There was a road connecting these two places, but we used to walk through the paddy fields. En route to Sriniketan there was a Kali Mandir under a huge tamarind tree. It seems, once upon a time dacoits used to stay near the Mandir and they would chop off the heads of innocent travelers. Anyway, we used to pass by the temple and reach Sriniketan. There was a place which was at a little elevation compared to the surrounding land and there were some frescoes. On special occasions Gurudev would stand there to speak a few words. Developmental work was going on in Sriniketan, imparting practical knowledge like weaving, general hygiene, cleanliness and similar other things to the villagers. This was for the training and development of the villagers.
I was fond of collecting stamps since my childhood. I used to go to different people for stamps, first of all to Gurudev’s Secretary, Anil Chanda, then to Dinu Thakur, composer of songs by Gurudev. There was a Javanese student, I would get East Indies’ stamps from him. I would also go to C F Andrews[vi] who was popularly called Deenabandhu (“Friend of the Poor”).
The teachers were quite friendly and affectionate. I frequently visited Kalabhavan. On one such occasion I saw Mastarmoshai sitting in the verandah and painting. I gave my autograph book and requested for an autograph. He took the book, thought for a moment and in no time, with his deft hand, sketched a Santhal lady winnowing paddy. It was in black and white but quite wonderful. It was with me for a long time. Apart from Mastar moshai I took autographs of some other artists. There were some teachers whom I remember: our librarian Bidhushekhar Shastri[vii] who was a very learned person and had mastery over 30-40 languages; Sri Kshitimohan Sen, he would tell us stories of Bangoma-Bangomi and other fairy tales. His way of storytelling was very captivating. Tejesh-da is another teacher I remember, he used to teach Botany. His house was near “Upasana Griha”, it was quite a funny house, a round shaped building built around a palm tree.
In Sishu Bhavan some students of Mastar moshai had done fresco work. I suppose the art works are still there. The boarding in-charge was a Ceylonese gentleman Wilmot-da[viii], he was very tall and quite affectionate. Apart from these I remember Asha-di and her sister, they came from Benares. Then Sisir-da[ix] who later became the Registrar of the Ashram School, was there teaching History in Shantiniketan. I was his student there. Then Tanmay-da was there teaching mathematics. There was another teacher whose surname was Goswami, called Gosain-ji[x]. I cannot recall his first name; he used to teach Sanskrit or Bengali.
As Gurudev was a well-known personality, many dignitaries used to come to meet him. I have seen a few of them; most important among them were Pandit Nehru and Kamala Nehru; then Pandit Malviya, founder of Benares Hindu University, and Abdul Ghaffar Khan “Frontier Gandhi”. I also remember two French gentlemen who came all the way from Paris to meet Gurudev by airplane; they landed near a place called “Santhal Palli”.
Near the Upasana Griha there is a renowned place called “Chattim Tala” where Maharshi Debendranath Tagore, father of Gurudev, had a realisation. “Chattim Tala” was the place from where Shantiniketan started.
Every year there was a charity fair.[xi] The students used to have stalls and the sale proceeds would be deposited in “Poor Fund”. The fair was held near Shaal Bithi. Once my brothers had a stall to sell Papads in the fair. Our sisters first purchased Papads by paying money but soon they finished their money and came asking for more Papads, ultimately my brothers gave Papads to them free!!
Ashram Kobi Nishikanto[xii] was in Shantiniketan in those days. During the fair, once he made rhymes covering all the Professors of Gurupalli including Rabindranath Tagore. I remember the first line of one of the rhymes: “Amader Sujji Mama, Shaban bechen dhama dhama”. He had a grocery store! Nishikanto made similar rhymes concerning other professors like Sri Kshitimohan Sen and others.
I don’t remember the year when Gandhiji first visited Shantiniketan Ashram[xiii], but that date used to be celebrated every year. The servants used to get off on that day. The students and teachers of the Ashram used to do all the work including sweeping and cleaning of latrines. We all used to participate. Once the work was over, all the students, teachers and the servants would have food together. This event of collective eating was covered in some newspaper in Kolkata and our brother Abhay Singh’s name was mentioned in that report. As you know, our society was much more conservative in those days. My grandfather and some other important people of our Jain community were discussing this newspaper report in our Kolkata house when Abhay was there on his school holidays. He was called upon by these elders to explain his behaviour; he listened to their rebukes silently. However, my grandmother who was a very learned person was present in the house. Once she heard from Abhay about the incident she came out to defend him. She quoted instances from the scriptures and asked those people to substantiate how Abhay’s behaviour was in any way ashastriya. The matter concluded with this before the elders of the society could take any step against him formally.
We were there in Shantiniketan for approximately five years from 1930 to the end of 1934. When we went there our sisters Sumitra and Suprabha were very young, so they may not remember much.
Another incident I remember is the visit of Uday Shankar.[xiv] I exactly cannot recall the year he came, may be in 1932 or 1933. He came to Shantiniketan, stayed as a guest of Rabindranath and his team members stayed with us in “Nichu Bungalow”. Abhay Singh took them around Shantiniketan acting as a local guide. There was a photograph of Abhay Singh along with the troop taken in front of Uttarayan. We all requested Udayshankar to dance, however he was in no mood for dancing. Later he relented and showed us some movements of his hands. His main objective of coming to Shantiniketan in that trip was to get a letter of recommendation from Rabindranath and to seek his blessings. Most probably he was leaving for his USA trip.
Near Uttarayan there was a Santhal Palli which I have visited a few times, their cleanliness was exemplary. The Santhal men and women were quite healthy. At times they used to sing in their own language, but as I said, their sense of cleanliness was amazing. They used to welcome their guests. I don’t exactly remember what work they used to do but generally they used to be happy and cheerful.
Another incident I remember of Shantiniketan. There was a hospital, I have forgotten the doctor’s name. I used to visit him regularly on account of often having cuts and wounds. He used to get irritated with my frequent visits. We used to have carpentry classes there. I made something like a tennis racket out of wood. There was a tennis court near the football ground and I wanted to play tennis, so I made the racket. Our residence was bordered with wooden fence, so one day as I was jumping across the fence pivoting on the racket, it slipped and I fell on my chin. I had cut my chin but I did not visit the hospital so as not to further irritate the doctor! The wound healed on its own.
We have heard the song of Gurudev, “Gram chara oi ranga matir path amar mon bhulay re”… the colour of the earth in Shantiniketan, Birbhum is all red, one has to just move outside the town…it’s all red. The surrounding environment was also quite nice… probably he got inspiration for that song in those natural surroundings. There was a boy called Sudhir in our class. He once wrote a letter to me many years later, he wanted a reunion of the classmates. I replied to him stating that it was not possible for me. I do not know what the ultimate fate of his initiative was. We exchanged letters for a couple of times, however it did not continue for long.
I think it was in 1934 that there was a devastating earthquake in Bihar.[xv] Gandhiji said it was the result of the sins! At that time our class was being held beside Sishu Bhavan and the funniest thing was that while we were discussing about earthquake in our class we felt the whole ground shaking.
We did not have custom of Saraswati Puja in Shantiniketan; it used to be our annual sports day. I knew swimming from my Kolkata days. I participated in the swimming competition once in Biren-da’s pond. I had an early lead but as I reached the finishing point I was out of breath. Somehow I managed to float and secure first place. Years later I realized the importance of warming up before playing any game.
My father was a great admirer of Rabindranath, he used to visit Shantiniketan often to meet Tagore and discuss about literature. They used to exchange letters; he had many letters from Rabindranath. He himself used to write and a few of his writings had been published in Sabuj Patra, the magazine edited by Pramatha Choudhury[xvi]. He was also quite known to my father. Once I remember, in our Ballygunj house, I came out of our house cycling and saw him sitting in a car. At that time I did not know his identity, he had come for some work of my father. When I came to know about him I requested Pramatha Babu to come in. He said that he would come some other day.
My father had collected all the first editions of Rabindranath’s books. During the centenary edition compilation, people from Viswa Bharati had come and gathered much important information from father’s collection. He was also a great connoisseur of art; he could really appreciate good paintings. He had paintings by Nandalal Bose, Rabindranath Tagore and others in his collection. I remember distinctly two of Nandalal Bose’s paintings in our Ballygunj house. One was Sharad-o-Shree, another one was Birth of Sri Chaitanya. There was also an interesting art piece of Rabindranath in father’s collection. He had painted on a Pot and signed his name on it, quite a unique piece indeed. Before coming to Pondicherry my father presented it to Rabindranath. He wanted to sell it but when Rabindranath said they had financial constraints, my father donated the art work to Shantiniketan.
I have here captured the key incidents of our 5 years’ stay in Shantiniketan. There are so many other small incidents which I cannot recollect now.
[i] Nandalal Bose (3 December 1882—16 April 1966) was a notable Indian painter of Bengal School of Art. A pupil of Abanindranath Tagore, Bose was known for “Indian Style” of painting. He became the principal of Kala Bhawan, Shantiniketan in 1922. He was influenced by the Tagore family and deeply impressed by the murals of Ajanta. His classic works include paintings of scenes from Indian mythologies, women and village life.
[ii]KopalRiver: The Kopal River (Bengali: Kopai; also called Sal River) is a tributary of the Mayurakshi River. It flows past such towns as Shantiniketan, Bolpur, Kankalitala and Labhpur in Birbhum district of West Bengal. It is a small river in dry season but overflows its banks during the monsoon.
[iii] Acharya Kshiti Mohan Sen (2.12.1880-1960): Born inBenares, Sen completed his masters in Sanskrit from local Queen’s College and took up a teaching job in Chamba in the foothills of theHimalayas. In 1908 he came to Shantiniketan at the invitation of Tagore and stayed on till his death 52 years later. He retired from Viswa Bharati as Principal of Vidyabhavan. It was mainly at the instance of Acharya Kshiti Mohan Sen that Rabindranath became acquainted with the ideas of medieval saints of India and explained their significance in his discourses, including his famous lectures on The Religion of Man. He was also known as Dadu (Grandfather) for his style of storytelling.
[iv] Nokuzo Takagaki: An expert in Jujutsu, he was a State scholar at theUniversity of British Columbia. He came to Shantiniketan in 1929 and stayed for about 2 years.
[v] Haren Ghose was the first Indian impresario. He is best known as having presented Uday Shankar and his dance to the Indian public in 1930. He was a good photographer and published many photographs of well-known personalities in the periodical, The Four Arts Annual, as well as articles contributed by them, whether from India or from overseas. Just weeks before India won her freedom in 1947, during the Calcutta riots he was murdered in his office.
[vi] Charles Freer Andrews (12 February 1871—5 April 1940) was an English priest of the Church of England. He was an educator and participant in the campaign for Indian independence and became Mahatma Gandhi’s close friend and associate. Andrews greatly admired the philosophy of the young Mohandas Gandhi, and was instrumental in convincing him to return to India from South Africa, where Gandhi had been a leading light in his Indian Civil Rights struggle. Andrews was affectionately dubbed Christ’s Faithful Apostle by Gandhi, based on his initials. Also, for Andrews’ contributions to the Indian Independence Movement, Gandhi and his students at St. Stephen’s College, Delhi named him Deenabandhu or the “Friend of the Poor”.
[vii] Bidhushekhar Shastri (1878-1957): Sanskrit scholar and Indologist, born at Harishchandrapur, Malda in West Bengal. He studied at a Tol, obtaining the degree of Kavyatirtha when he was seventeen years old. He was fluent in Sanskrit and wrote both prose and poetry in the language. He spent several years in Benares studying the scriptures and was awarded the title of Shastri. Bidhushekhar joined Brahmacharya Vidyalaya at Shantiniketan as a professor of Sanskrit. After this he joined the department of Sanskrit atCalcuttaUniversity as Asutosh Professor. He learnt Avestan for a comparative study of Vedic literature and learned French, German, Tibetan and Chinese to study Buddhist scriptures. The Government of India honoured him with the title of Mahamahopadhyaya in 1936. He was awarded a D.Litt. and the title of Deshikottama (1957) by the universities of Calcutta and Visva-Bharati respectively.
[viii] Wilmot A. Perera (1905-1973) was a Sri Lankan statesman and philanthropist. A Member of Parliament, he was Ceylon’s first Ambassador to China. Born in Horana to Abraham Perera, a wealthy landowner, he was educated at Cyril Jansze College, Panadura and at the prestigious Royal College,Colombo. Taking over the family business, he became active in his home area, establishing the first rural development society in Raigam Korale and went on to establish Sri Palee College (Sripali Academy) in 1934 in Horana, based on Rabindranath Tagore’s Shantiniketan. The Sri Palee Trust established by him with his lands was donated to the University of Sri Lanka in his memory in 1974. This later became the Sri Palee Campus of the University ofColombo. He was married to Esme Perera Abeywardena.
[ix] Sisir Kumar Mitra: Born on 19 January 1887 in Calcutta, he was the Head of the Department of Philosophy and Dean of the Faculty of Arts, Benares Hindu University. His writings compared Eastern and Western Philosophy, and the teachings of Sri Aurobindo in comparison with Western philosophers. He was the author of important reference books like RESURGENT INDIA. As the Registrar, he occupied a ground-floor apartment at the South-Eastern corner of the Ashram school compound (Pondicherry).
[x] Nityananda Binod Goswami: Literary scholar and Sanskrit teacher in Shantiniketan. Generally called as Gosain-ji. Gosain-ji was a devout Vaishnavite but had discarded all the external pretensions of the cult. He wore a beard instead of the traditional tuft on his head. He was a scholar in Pali and Sanskrit.
[xi] Annual charity Fair in Shantiniketan used to be called as Anandamela.
[xii] Nishikanto Raichowdhury (24.03.1909—20.05.1973): Poet and artist, he joined Kalabhavan in Shantiniketan at the age of 18. Tagore used to like him and called him as Chand Kobi (Moon Poet). He went to Sri Aurobindo Ashram in 1934 (or 1933 as per some letters of Dilip Kumar Roy).
[xiii] Mahatma Gandhi first visited Shantiniketan on 17 February 1915, one month after his arrival in India. He was attended by C F Andrews as Tagore was not in Shantiniketan at that time. His first face-to-face contact with Tagore was on 5th of March 1915.
[xiv] Uday Shankar (8 December 1900—26 September 1977): Pioneer of modern dance in India and a world renowned Indian dancer and choreographer, Uday Shankar was most known for adapting Western theatrical techniques to traditional Indian classical dance, imbued with elements of Indian classical, folk and tribal dance, thus laying the roots of modern Indian dance which he later popularized in India, Europe and the United States in 1920 and 1930s, and effectively placed Indian dance on the world map. In 1962, he was awarded by Sangeet Natak Akademi,India’s National Academy for Music, Dance and Drama, with its highest award, the Sangeet Natak Akademi Fellowship for Lifetime Achievement, and in 1971, the Government of India awarded him with its second highest civilian award, the Padma Vibhushan.
Uday Shankar performed in US for the first time in January 1933 along with his dance partner Simkie, a French dancer, in New York, before setting out on an 84-city tour with his troupe. So he might have visited Shantiniketan in 1932 end.
[xv] The 1934 Bihar earthquake was one of the worst earthquakes inIndia’s history. Some 30,000 people were said to have died. Munger and Muzaffarpur were completely destroyed. This 8.4 magnitude earthquake occurred onJanuary 15, 1934 at around 2:13 PM (I.S.T.) and caused widespread damage in northern Bihar and in Nepal.
[xvi] Pramathanath Chaudhuri (7 August 1868—2 September 1946): Known as Pramatha Chaudhuri, alias Birbal, is an exceptionally illuminating persona in modern Bengali literature. It is astounding how he kept hold of his uniqueness in all-pervasive era of Rabindranath Tagore. As the editor of Sabuj Patra (“Green Leaves”, 1914) and the mentor of the group that gathered around this journal, Chaudhuri left a lasting legacy to the literature ofBengal.