What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet.

— 'Romeo and Juliet', II.ii

To the world, Visva-Bharati is Tagore’s university, but the institution’s name has no obvious link to his – and for a reason. Juliet’s view of the matter was not Rabindranath Tagore’s; for him the name Visva-Bharati was the crystallisation of an ideal – a world centre of learning in India.

It was almost certainly a conception and name that had struck him as both Indian and global during a period of crisis – the First World War.

“Visva-Bharati” was not just apposite, it precisely expressed an ideal of learning for which Rabindranath wanted material and institutional shape. It alluded to the relationship between visva, the world, and Bharat, the country.

Visva-Bharati epitomised his vision of a specifically Indian institution of learning which might contain within itself the magnitude of the world’s intellectual and creative aspirations. No other name could smell as sweet.

There are other institutions of learning more closely connected with the poet’s name. The Rabindra Bharati University, for example – which could be roughly rendered Tagore University – was a tribute paid to Rabindranath on the occasion of his birth centenary celebrations in 1961. It was set up in his ancestral home in Jorasanko, Calcutta, with an emphasis on music, the fine arts, and the humanities to suggest that these constituted the core of his genius.

Then, in 2010, the Government of India proposed another institution in his honour, a Rabindranath Tagore University dedicated to the liberal arts. This was meant to assume shape as a continuation of grand celebrations for his 150th birth anniversary in 2011. Though the university was never founded, the proposal remains available in the public domain. A close reading of it reveals that some of the most salient ideas of Visva-Bharati are, without direct reference, embedded in this proposal for a “University of the Future”.

Now, a decade later, dark clouds of uncertainty hover menacingly over the future of all Indian universities. It is perhaps time to turn to the past to recall the history of an institution which, a century ago, radically rethought the epistemology of the liberal arts, and which included within its ambit Asian and European studies, the visual and performing arts, and the rural economy.

A thoroughly cosmopolitan and quintessentially international vision of education and nation, an implicit rejection of the xenophobic and insular nationalism of its own day and ours, came into being more than a hundred years ago with the act of naming a university “Visva-Bharati”.

Rabindranath began to conceptualise the idea of Visva-Bharati around 1916, as he travelled in the US and Japan delivering his lectures on nationalism – lectures that many saw as controversial then, and which, from the perspective of zealous nationalism, have been often maligned. Witnessing the ravages of the First World War, in which he saw human civilisation pushed to the brink of a savage darkness, Rabindranath hoped to create a habitation for liberal and like-minded intellectuals and creative people.

By the time he laid the foundations of Visva-Bharati in 1918, he seems to have scaled up this grand dream, imagining it as a centre of learning which would be primarily, though not exclusively, for research; in it, he believed, the streams of ancient and traditional forms of knowledge in India might be brought together.

Romain Rolland, arguably the most famous French author, intellectual, and pacifist of his time, and a recipient of the Nobel Prize in 1915, met Rabindranath at Autour du Monde [near Paris] on 21 April, 1921. Rolland, who had been deeply moved by Gitanjali, had also closely followed Rabindranath’s ideas on nation and nationalism in the lectures delivered in Japan and the United States of America in 1916. He agreed with Rabindranath on the dangers of those ideological aspects of nationalism that could turn antihuman and damage civilisation.

Rabindranath’s ideas about nationalism as a menace to humanity had not, however, gone down well with his Japanese and American audiences. Back home, too, his ideological position was not well received.

Rolland had faced similar hostility in his country for harbouring similar ideas. Even before he met Rabindranath, Rolland had taken the initiative to send a draft of the Declaration of Independence of Spirit to the poet on 10 April, 1919. This was an international pacifist document which appealed to the “Workers of the Mind, companions dispersed across the world, separated for five years by armies, censorship, and the hatred of warring nations” to “reinforce our fraternal union – a new union which is more solid and convincing than before.”

Rabindranath’s willingness to become a signatory to this document was expressed in his response: “It is enough for me to know that the higher conscience of Europe has been able to assert itself in the voice of one of her choicest spirits through ugly clamours of passionate politics . . .” He was glad to accept the invitation to belong to this international circle of free spirits.

When they finally met on 21 April in Autour du Monde, Rabindranath gave Rolland a printed promotional write-up on Visva-Bharati, intended for circulation among his friends and associations abroad. The very next day Rolland sent a letter to Rabindranath assuring him that he would spread Rabindranath’s idea for such a university among his friends in Europe. He also expressed the hope that he would visit Santiniketan some day and explain “some of the essential ideas of my Europe.”

Unfortunately, Rolland’s dream was never fulfilled; he continued to be Rabindranath’s true well-wisher, watching over the latter’s career almost like a sentinel. He never eventually visited Santiniketan – but another Frenchman, the renowned Orientalist Sylvain Lévi (1863-1935) responded to Rabindranath’s invitation and did.

In his diary [Rabindranath’s son] Rathindranath, who, along with his wife Pratima and adopted daughter Poupée had accompanied his father on the trip to Europe (and later to America), recalls Lévi arriving to meet his father. Rathindranath describes the scholar as a “charming man”, “unassuming” and “genial”.

Lévi’s students, who were devoted to him, referred to him as “Mahaguru” (great master/teacher). The appellation was apt because Lévi had studied Sanskrit for six years at the Sorbonne, and having completed his doctoral dissertation on “The Indian Theatre” had succeeded his teacher Abel Bergaigne to the chair. Lévi learnt Chinese and Tibetan soon after, with the intention of pursuing Buddhist studies, and by 1894 had begun a lifelong collaboration with the scholar Chavanna.

At the time Rabindranath met him, Lévi was a professor at the prestigious Collège de France, where he had been teaching since 1894. That such an eminent academic set aside an offer to deliver lectures at Harvard in order to accept becoming the first visiting professor at Visva-Bharati is a clear sign of his faith in Tagore.

With his expertise in both Hindu and Buddhist textual cultures, Lévi fulfilled Rabindranath’s ideal of the scholar who might initiate Indological studies at Visva-Bharati. The French savant arrived in Santiniketan with his wife Désirée on 10 November 1921. According to Madame Lévi’s diary, her husband began teaching quite soon after he arrived. There were daily Sanskrit classes, and on Sundays lectures on Buddhist literary texts and religious treatises. Teachers and Ceylonese Buddhist monks of the Santiniketan ashram attended his classes.

Sylvain Lévi was not the only “foreigner” who responded to Rabindranath’s call to give shape to his dream of Visva-Bharati, there were other, much younger Europeans who found the poet’s offer to be at Visva-Bharati quite irresistible.

Leonard Knight Elmhirst, a young Englishman pursuing a course in agricultural science at Cornell, and Stella Kramrisch, a Viennese art historian, were two such young professionals. Rabindranath had heard of Elmhirst from their friends in common, Sam Higginbottom and Harriet Moody, and was keen that the young Englishman, who wanted to work in India’s villages, accompany him to Santiniketan where he had been planning a full-scale village development project in the nearby village of Surul.

With Kramrisch, it was a chance meeting in an academic gathering. Rabindranath, impressed with her lecture, invited her to the newly established Kala Bhavana, the centre of fine arts and music. These guests had arrived by early December 1921.

The decisions to invite Lévi, Kramrisch, and Elmhirst were well thought out. Each of them had expertise in a field already identified as one of the key areas of the newly founded institution – Oriental studies, visual arts, and rural development. By the first decade of the twentieth century, Rabindranath had already developed a deep conviction that the study of Buddhism in its pan-Asian aspect was central to the understanding of India; this was why he had invited Lévi to formally inaugurate Oriental studies at Vidya Bhavana in Visva-Bharati.

Kala Bhavana, on the other hand, was meant to break away from the model of colonial government art schools and function as a studio where art teachers and aspiring artist-students would work in tandem. More importantly, Rabindranath wanted artists to know about the art traditions of both Asia and Europe, and, though Stella Kramrisch was also trained as a historian of Oriental art, Rabindranath asked her to give a series of lectures on the history of European art to art teachers and students at Kala Bhavana.

Aware that there was little scope for its young artists to access informed discussions of Western art, Rabindranath judiciously channelised Kramrisch’s scholarship in the directions he felt the context required.

Tagore’s University: A History of Visva-Bharati 1921-1961

Excerpted with permission from Tagore’s University: A History of Visva-Bharati 1921-1961, Swati Ganguly, published by Permanent Black in collaboration with the New India Foundation and Ashoka University.