The Tapovan Experiment

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Baba went back to Jessore from our temporary village home in mid 1944 to ‘work’; I stayed behind with Ma at Himaitpur to become a part of the Tapovan Experiment of Sri Sri Thakur Anukul Chandra.   Of course at that time and at that age of mine I did not know that I was a part of a huge experiment that was failing and restarting over the last two decades or more; I did not care.   I did not know that I was a part of perhaps the third iteration of the experiment and that the experiment itself had undergone fundamental mutations in the process.   No one told me about it and I was in blissful ignorance about the history the scope and the aim of the exercise.   As a ten year-old let loose with a bunch of boys of the same age romping around freely for the whole day every day, I was extremely happy.   I did not know what was being given to me and what I was taking in.   I do not think the experiment was designed to make me conscious of the process; it was designed to let me respond to the various stimuli being offered and through that stimulant to make me grow at my own pace.   In hind sight, at least for me, it had worked well.

I know now that the Tapovan Experiment had begun in the early 1920s unceremoniously as a natural by-product of the activities concerning the setting up of the Ashram at Himaitpur.   People came in and settled down.   The young children of the Ashramites needed a school of some sort.   The pioneers of the Ashram took it upon themselves to provide an all-round education to the children.   Sri Sri Thakur was keen to develop a system of education that was integrated with the structure of the rural society where the Ashram was situated.   Thus the Tapovan developed as a unique part of the Ashram, unique in its style and structure but totally inseparable from the other activities of the Ashram or from its day to day life.

It is so easy today to make a general statement like ‘the Tapovan developed as a unique part of the Ashram’ but in those days of its inception the life at the fledging Ashram was so diverse and so intense!   The various institutes were being built.   Buildings were coming up.   Bricks were needed for the buildings.    Bricklaying as a vocation could be demonstrated.   New households springing up in the Ashram needed their daily necessities:   Rice Daal and Vegetables.   A part of the land of the Ashram was earmarked for the use by the students where they could be taught the basic principles of agriculture; land management, irrigation, drainage, seed selection, application of manure, weed control, post plantation care, harvesting, storing, marketing and commercial control. The technique of meeting the needs of the Ashram society from within the society could be taught to the students.   The Satsang Printing Press and the Satsang Publishing House were being established.   Once again the pupils of Tapovan got a chance to learn the essence of printing and publishing in all its aspect.   Type Setting, Treadle Machine operation, Flat Bed printer operation, proof reading, composing, book binding – every necessary skill was made available to them.   For all these activities, it became necessary to obtain money.   Commercial activity like tendering for the supply of railway sleepers began.   Once the contract for the supply was obtained, procurement of the wood from North Bengal forests, its transportation by river floats, stacking, mechanical sawing, and commercial deliveries to the railway authorities, all had to be performed and the students of Tapovan were fully involved in all these activities.    Every person of the Ashram who had the ability to offer any knowledge or skill to the students was drafted in for the task of teaching.  It was an amazing and exciting process of learning that was being offered to those lucky students.

And then over some time it all changed.  Isn’t that always the case? As the Ashram grew and in parallel the Satsang Movement of Pabna Himaitpur grew, a central organisation also grew up to control the movement.   A few amongst the earliest members of the ashram were given specific organisational tasks and were anointed as ‘ritwik’s.  The Tapovan, instead of being an integrated part of all activities of the ashram began to become an entity in its own right under specific persons nominated as in charge.    From being a vision, it began to be transformed into another school. Debates began as to whether the students should be made to indulge in agriculture and commerce and trade and unscripted innovations, questions arose whether assisting the process of manufacturing in the chemical works by the students was safe or even the correct thing to do,   and questions arose whether it is necessary for the students to assist in growing the ingredients or in cooking the food that they would eat.    The whole structure of the original impetus morphed into something different.   Tapovan ebbed away by the late thirties.

When in 1944 Baba decided that I should join the Tapovan, I of course knew nothing of the background of Tapovan that I had just described.  All this information came to me much later in life.   I now know that even in 1940-41 Sri Sri Thakur was much concerned about the poor state of the Tapovan.   He was still pleading with all his followers to let Tapovan get back to its original format of exploratory learning with its full integration with day to day life.  But, strangely, his fervent appeals were ignored by all his ‘followers’.   The Tapovan limped along on the edge of oblivion.   There were, it now seems to me, many factors that conspired to derail this noble experiment.  All this is my surmise stemming from what I have been able to put together from written as well as verbal history of the Satsang Movement as it exists.   Sri Sri Thakur always advocated development of human resources as the prime source of developmental energy. ‘Men are your own, money is an external artifice, capture [the hearts and minds of] people as much as you can’ was one of his sayings that were prominently displayed in the Ashram as I remember.   However, as the organisation grew, the natural momentum gave primacy to the size of the organisation; continual development of the men within the organisation came to attract only secondary attention.   Yet, in hind-sight, it was strange and unnatural that it should have been so.   I distinctly remember Sri Sri Thakur personally and constantly goading individuals to take up and pursue higher education in various fields.   The ones with school education were made to take up under-grad studies and the graduates were pestered to go in for studies at the master’s level.   The ones who managed to cross that hurdle were encouraged to take up research in the fields of their specialisation.    Tapovan, as the starting point of this man-making endeavour was very close to his heart.    He was however very non-dictatorial in his management and leadership style.   Once a hierarchy was constituted to run the affairs of the organisation, he never interfered with or overruled the day to day orders of those in charge.   It so happened, that those who had initially built up the Tapovan became seniors in the organisation and moved away to other jobs and tasks; the vision of the mission became obscure in the minds of those who came later to run the activities of the Tapovan.    Another nasty blow was dealt by fate when the secretary of the organisation Sri Gopal Mukherjee was killed in a rail accident.    Gopalda (as he was known as within the organisation) was the moving spirit of the organisations scientific and educational activities.   The ‘Vishwa Vijnan Kendra’ or the universal scientific centre at Himaitpur was his creation.   Similarly, he was the moving spirit behind the research and production activities of the Satsang Chemical and Pharmaceutical Works.  He was the interface through which the pupils of Tapovan interacted with these activities.   With his demise there was an abrupt rupture of these activities.   The Viswa Vijnan Kendra just stopped and withered away.   The chemical works carried on with its manufacturing activities but the research work stopped.   In both cases the connections of these activities with the students of Tapovan stopped.   The initial interaction that was being built up with Tapovan and the Satsang Electric Power House and electrical/mechanical workshop also stopped.   The new dispensation took away all the agricultural activity and consequent commercial activity that the students were indulging in.   The land was put to other use.    Tapovan morphed into another Paathsaalaa or village school.   Its popularity and effectiveness both waned.

Attempts to put Tapovan back on its feet continued.   By the end of 1944 when Baba decided to put me in there, it had under gone another process of rejuvenation.   New huts were built; round things with thatched roofs held on bamboo poles and mud floors edged with bamboo lattice frames and a cement platform about a meter square for the teacher to seat upon.  The new dispensation did not try to introduce agriculture into our syllabus.   However, we did have the freedom to visit the power house, the workshop, the printing press, and the chemical works.   Alas the Vishwa Vijnan Kendra had already become a carcass.   Its giant gasholder tank had come off its well-foundation and was rusting away.   The well itself had a small amount of water and a colony of frogs and tadpoles that we could watch with fascination for hours on end. The laboratory rooms were always under lock and key and our curiosity about the instruments and tools kept under covers therein went unsatisfied.   We could peep through the glass panes of the doors and see them but there was no one who would tell us what those instruments were.

In its then current form, the structure of its syllabus was still radically different from the standard format of 10(matriculation) + 2(intermediate) + 2(graduation) that was in vogue at that time.  In the syllabus, the first ten years were squeezed into five.   There were two years of primary which were designed to bring a child from the level of character recognition to approximately the level of class five.   The next five levels of class six to ten were re-scheduled into three one year term.   Strangely, the students did not feel it to be burdensome.   On the contrary, we had enough time to play and pursue individual queries.   We learnt how to speak in public confidently and how to question established wisdom.   We were open to the world and were fully tuned to the national political scene which was then in turmoil; one just has to recollect that from 1942 to 1946 almost all political leaders of the Congress were behind bars while the politicians of Muslim League persuasion were being officially molly coddled.  The communist party of India was in full support of the war effort and was therefore left alone by the British Indian Government even though the communists preferred to work under ground.   The activities of the INA were carefully hidden from the Indian public, but broadcasts from Rangoon and Singapore were still heard and whispered news circulated making us anxious as well as excited.

When I actually began attending classes at the Tapovan in 1944, the group in the first term had already been there for half a year.   I however found myself in no position of disadvantage.   The environment at home had prepared me well in mathematics, English, Bengali and Sanskrit.  History and Geography had not reached me directly as a ‘taught subject’.   However, Baba had played the ‘can you find it in the atlas’ game with me so often and for so long a time that my geographical awareness was far ahead of the other boys in the group.    History was another matter altogether.   I was expected to read historical novels and plays and connect the dots.  I remained with the Tapovan group for the second half of 1944 in the first term, for the whole year of 1945 in the second term and for the first couple months of 1946 in the third term.   I should therefore be able to opine about Tapovan with reasonable authority.   However, at this distance of more than half a century, I find my memory to be extremely patchy.   I do not recollect the name or the face of the person who functioned as the ‘Head Master’.  I do not remember if there was a person with that identity at all.   I do not recollect who taught us English or Maths.  The one person -that I remember strongly is   Pandit Girish Chandra Kavya Teertha – our Pandit Moshai – who taught us Sanskrit.    All the same,   I did learn to speak and write in both English and Bengali and I grew to love literature in all the three languages offered to me in those pre-teen years.    I also learnt enough mathematics to be not intimidated by the syllabus that I had to master for my matriculation examination.  However, the deepest impression that I carry of that period of my life is the interactions I had with a gent named Mr Anil Bose, my Anil Master Moshai.    He was the singular source that I drew upon to quench my thirst about things scientific.   In our time, ‘science’ was not a subject for the regular syllabus for matriculation examination of the University of Calcutta.    Yet, over the year and a half of my stay in the Tapovan, he managed to teach me the physical fundaments of heat.   He taught me how a steam locomotive worked.   He taught me how to draw sectional diagrams of mechanical parts.   He taught me how an internal combustion engine works.   He even taught me the concept of a turbojet engine for an aircraft.   Yes!  It was only 1945 and he was telling me about the work done by a man named Frank Whittle and how that work was likely to revolutionise the world of aviation!   He took me around to the local Power House and taught me the basics of electric power generation.  He made me draw out wiring diagrams of imaginary houses to teach me the concepts of power distribution.    He taught be the basics of mechanics, of leverage and torque, of pulleys and mechanical advantage.  And the wonder of it all, all this bundle of knowledge was for free and no one ever asked either of us why we were expending such a lot of time and energy on things that were not ‘in the syllabus’.

Tapovan rolled on and was on track though no tracks were easily visible.   We learnt how to speak and to debate, to do our sums and to memorize Pancha Tantra Katha Mukham under the keen oversight of Pandit Moshai and to satisfy our own curiosities in our own chosen fields in our own chosen ways.   I spent my time making sectional drawings of steam locomotives and turbojet powered passenger aircraft while my friend Manu spent his time learning to type-set and proof read at the press and publishing house.   Another friend Arunaditya probably nurtured his curiosity about molecular physics, a field where he distinguished himself in later life.

We moved away from Himaitpur in March 1946 due to multiple happenings in the family, all unexpected and unplanned for.    That brought about an abrupt separation for me from the Tapovan experiment.   A few months later, the Ashram itself suddenly uprooted itself from Himaitpur and re-settled itself at Deoghar in Bihar.   With this relocation, the then current iteration of the Tapovan experiment also ended.

Our childhood was dynamic as it was turbulent.    Politics Economics Sociology Statecraft Nationhood and individual survival, every thing was under severe challenge.   How our family and our society managed to protect educate and bring up the young is a wonder.   I never understood how they managed to do it, but I am eternally grateful that I managed to get the upbringing that I did.

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