East meets West at the Tagore Festival in May

“The highest education is that which does not merely give us information, but makes our life in harmony with all existence.” Thus spoke Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941), founder of the Shantiniketan educational foundation in Bengal, India, and the inspiration for the establishment of the Dartington Hall Trust in Devon.

It is at Dartington Hall that the 150th anniversary of Tagore’s birth will be celebrated this May. The Tagore Festival promises to be a rich week of poetry, dance, music, film, workshops, networking, delicious food, and craft stalls, all aimed at inspiring green creative living. A celebration of Indo-British relationships and an opportunity to explore the relevance of Tagore’s vision in the 21st century, the event will feature a host of inspiring figures. From author Deepak Chopra and poet Andrew Motion, to activist Vandana Shiva and business innovator Juliet Davenport, the festival will offer a discourse on a new vision for humanity in harmony with planet Earth. It is being curated by Satish Kumar, Editor-in-Chief of Resurgence magazine.

As the first Asian to receive the Nobel Prize, in 1913, for his book of poems, Gitanjali, Tagore led an educational revolution as he sought to bridge the gap between the colonialists and the colonised in India. By setting up a foundation where spirituality and earth sciences were taught alongside literature and politics, Tagore planted a seed for the freedoms in education that are so important to human rights today.

A campaigner for peace, Tagore resented the violence of colonialism yet saw the benefits which could be accrued from a close relationship with the West. Establishing Shantiniketan in 1901, he carried out a revolution distinct from Gandhi’s non-violent political activism, one instead rooted in literature and education.

Amartya Sen, a Nobel Prize winner in Economics, speaks of his time at Shantiniketan: “There was something remarkable about the ease with which class discussions could move from Indian traditional literature to contemporary as well as classical Western thought, and then to the culture of China or Japan or elsewhere.” The school was unusual in many different ways, Amartya reveals, such as classes being held outdoors.

In Tagore’s radical approach to education, he sought to empower people by vitalising knowledge, and through establishing Shantiniketan he created one of the first small ripples of change that lead to the concept of ‘education for all.’ The UN’s Right to Education, written in 1948, forty-seven years after Shantiniketan was established, states: “Education is a fundamental human right and essential for the exercise of all other human rights.”

Now, UNESCO has declared 2011 as the year of Tagore, Neruda and Aimé Césaire in order to help to “re-found the intellectual and moral solidarity required by the challenges facing humanity.” They are convinced that it is necessary to bring into collective thinking, the shared responses demanded by a rapidly changing world. This is a view echoed at Dartington Hall, near Totnes in Devon, which is home to Schumacher College, Dartington College of Arts and Devon School for Social Entrepreneurs. Two continents, one ocean and several decades away from Shantiniketan, the Dartington Hall Trust supports education for the arts, social justice and sustainability in a similar yet contemporary manifestation of Tagore’s vision.

Leonard Elmhirst, who co-founded Dartington with his wife Dorothy, met Tagore while studying in New York in 1921. Sharing similar backgrounds – both were born to landed gentry with a tradition of spirituality – Tagore and Elmhirst spent the next two years working together in India, setting up a centre for rural regeneration, called Sriniketan. In 1925, when Leonard was about to return to England, Tagore suggested to him that he should start something similar in the UK. Thus the seed for the foundation of the Dartington Hall Trust was planted.

This year’s Tagore Festival, on 1-7 May, promises to be a true melting pot of cultures and a grand sharing of traditions and ideas. From medicine, to art, cuisine and sport, the cultural influences run deep within the two countries. The festival will offer an opportunity to celebrate these nourishing and deeply ingrained aspects of the India-UK relationship as it seeks to inspire creatively sustainable ways of life.