When Mahatma Gandhi’s self-help cooking experiment at Tagore’s Santiniketan caused turmoil
Gandhi came to Santiniketan for the first time on 17 February 1915 when Rabindranath was away. Gandhi left on 20 February, without meeting the poet, when he received the news of Gokhale’s death. Gandhi came back to Santiniketan on 6 March and stayed till the 11th. It was during this period that he and Rabindranath not only met for the first time but also had their first interactions. Gandhi recalled this visit thus in his autobiography:
As is my wont, I quickly mixed with the teachers and students and engaged them in a discussion on self-help. I put it to the teachers that, if they and the boys dispensed with the services of paid cooks and cooked their food themselves, it would enable the teachers to control the kitchen from the point of view of the boys’ physical and moral health, and it would afford to the students an object-lesson in self-help. One or two of them were inclined to shake their heads. Some of them strongly approved of the proposal. The boys welcomed it, if only because of their instinctive taste for novelty. So we launched the experiment. When I invited the Poet to express his opinion, he said that he did not mind it provided the teachers were favourable. To the boys he said, ‘The experiment contains the key to swaraj.’
This visit and the experiments that Gandhi initiated were not as uneventful and smooth as Gandhi’s account might suggest. There was some opposition from some of the teachers but there were others who were very enthusiastic. From 10 March when Rabindranath was actually not present in Santiniketan, the experiments in self-help were put in place. One of the students at that time, Pramathanath Bishi (later to become famous as a writer and teacher), remembered that because of these new arrangements, in the ashrama a satya yuga began for the students who began doing all the work and as a result studies became irrelevant and no one noticed that. But actually some parents did take notice that their sons were learning to cook and clean and chose to bring them back home. One mother wrote that if you have to learn to cook, you will learn it much better at home from me. In reality, the issue ran much deeper than just cooking and cleaning. An early and well-known biographer of Rabindranath noted that in the kitchen and dining areas of Santiniketan, the caste distinctions practised in Hindu society were followed.
This matter came up in the conversations between Rabindranath and Gandhi and the latter said that in the ashrama everyone should be treated equally and, in the habits and sitting arrangements of students there should be no distinction/discrimination. Those days, Brahmin students sat in a separate line when they ate, and the authorities of the institution did not give any advice or guidance to students on this matter. Each student followed what his guardian advised. Gandhi said that this practice of Brahmins sitting and eating separately in a different line was against the spirit of an ashrama. In response, Rabindranath said that he had never put any pressure on students regarding their dharma and social attitudes. He added, that if they were compelled, they would follow the orders, but the new attitudes would not be implanted in their minds/interiors. He went on to say what was not accepted from the inside voluntarily would have no permanent impact. For this reason, he was not in favour of any external ethical pressure.
Rabindranath noted the controversy that the self-help experiment had caused in a letter (undated but may have been written around this time) to his son Rathindranath. The letter said: Here there is great turmoil (golmal) over eating arrangements (bandobasta). Following Gandhi’s advice, the boys have taken the responsibility of cooking and are carrying on the work… The work is difficult but it has started. Through this some of our problems—financial and others—have been solved. Most importantly, the boys will learn and after so many years the process of awakening the spirit of the ashrama to the full will have begun. The boys are all enthusiastic, but some of the teachers are not… If we remain quiet for some time, things will settle down by themselves. The issue has many complicated elements but they will resolve themselves—if we are patient and quiet there will not be any difficulties.
Gandhi acknowledged that the impact of his experiments in Santiniketan had been short-lived. In his autobiography he wrote, ‘The experiment was, however, dropped after some time. I am of the opinion that the famous institution lost nothing by having conducted the experiment for a brief interval, and some of the experiences gained could not but be of help to the teachers.’ Gandhi returned to Santiniketan on 1 and 2 April 1915 and in his autobiography noted, ‘Our stay in Santiniketan had taught us that the scavenger’s work would be our special function in India.’ In August 1918, looking back on his visit to Santiniketan, Gandhi wrote to Andrews, ‘I think that both you and Gurudev are doing the finest work of your lives. You are now writing real poems. They are living poems. I wish I was in Santiniketan sitting side by side with the privileged boys listening to Gurudev’s discourses and also yours.’