ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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A Poet and a Landlord

The Nobel Prize for Literature awarded to Rabindranath Tagore in 1913 included a prize money of £8,000. It is commonly assumed that Tagore spent this entire sum on the asrama school in Santiniketan, and later for setting up his dream project – the Visva-Bharati University. The truth, however, is quite different. This note attempts to revisit the “will” of the poet, arguing that his decision regarding the investment of the substantial sum reveals a complex story in which the need of the peasants of his zamindari and that of the community in Visva-Bharati were held in a delicate ethical balance.

I am grateful to Amiya Kumar Bagchi for explaining the fine points of rural credit and rural banks to me. I take this opportunity to thank the following: The New India Foundation which awarded me a fellowship to pursue my research on the history of Visva-Bharati; Tapati Mukherjee, Director, Rabindra-Bhavana for kindly giving me permission to access the digitised archives; the staff of Rabindra-Bhavana Archives, Santiniketan, who have been unstinting in their assistance; and, Achyut Chetan for his valuable comments on the first draft.

On 20 September 1944, Rabindranath Tagore’s Nobel Prize money and its investment were discussed in a meeting of the Samsad (governing body) of Visva-Bharati. The discussion was sparked off by a letter written six years earlier by the institution’s karma-sachiva (general secretary) Rathindranath Tagore. In this letter, dated 30 January 1938, Rathindranath had apprised the members of the Samsad about the loss of a substantial sum of money, Rs 1,33,571-4-6 (Rupee-Anna-Paise) – huge by any estimate of that time.

Interestingly, the loss was not in the finances of Visva-Bharati, but was in the accounts of the Patisar Krishi Bank, a rural bank located in Kaligram, which was part of the Tagore zamindari in Bengal. The bank had failed to pay the interest which had accumulated to Rs 59,657-0-4, thus raising liability as on 12 February 1938 to Rs 1,93,228-4-10. The money had been advanced as credit to the peasants in the estate of Kaligram, but they could not pay this back. This turned the investments into a bad debt (Samsad Reports 1944: 168).

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