A Bangladesh village briefly touched by Tagore’s philosophy of sustainable development remembers the polymath fondly

Tagore's vision of nature-based and people-centric holistic rural development took shape in Patisar

By Preetha Banerjee
Published: Saturday 11 May 2024
Patisar Kachharibari, where Rabindranath Tagore used to work from and manage the estate, has been turned into a museum. Photo: Screengrab of Youtube video by JK Majumder

Every May, the residents of Patisar village in Bangladesh’s Noagaon district (Rajshahi Division) drop everything and gather together with their relatives and friends to celebrate the birth of a man who had last visited them in 1937 — Rabindranath Tagore. He was a zamindar like no other, they recall, in heartfelt gratitude for their erstwhile landowner that is rare among peasant communities. 

Set by the river Nagor, the impoverished village solidified Tagore’s philosophy of rural-centric development — the only kind he deemed to be organic and sustainable. The seeds of this philosophy were sown in his estate at Shelaidah (in present-day Bangladesh) and later took the mature form of rural reconstruction witnessed in Sriniketan (near Santiniketan in West Bengal). 

In 1914, Tagore put in his entire Nobel Prize money amounting to over Rs 1 lakh to set up the Krishi Bank (agricultural cooperative) in Patisar, to help the peasants adopt modern technology to improve their farm yields. But his decades-long association with Patisar produced many more gifts.

Patisar was “one of the most inaccessible villages of the Bengal delta lying on the bank of Nagor across the difficult terrain of Chalan Beel. It grew a single crop in the year and went under flood water in the monsoon. Here the winter was harsh and bitter and poverty pervasive,” wrote S Aminul Islam, sociology professor, Dhaka University. 

The poet was devastated by the condition of the villagers here but realised his power and position to alleviate their plight. “He did not sit quietly telling everyone about the problems of the village people. He was also trying to figure out how to solve their problems within his limited capacity. He realised that through the use of machinery it is possible to increase the production and income of the farmers,” noted Pralay Kundu, assistant professor, department of economics, Raghunathpur College, Purulia, West Bengal. 

Tagore’s view of rural reconstruction has been regarded by scholars across the world as the most holistic approach to development. He upheld the idea that only through localised, community-driven progress in the villages, not just cities, can any country move forward. He highlighted the need to ensure that villages grow along with cities, in their own manner but in the same direction. He denounced the excesses in either. In his essay PalliPrakriti (The City and the Village) he wrote: 

In their natural state — that is, when the community does not incline too much to one side — the village and the town have harmonious interactions. From the one flow food and health and fellow-feeling. From the other return gifts of wealth, knowledge and energy. 

He recognised that without this harmony, both the rural-only model and the city-only model were doomed to fail. “A civilisation which comprises mainly village life cannot advance very far. There the individual is unimportant, the community predominant…On the other hand, where the town predominates, the individual is all-powerful, the community negligible. There, civilisation burns itself in its own fires; the more brilliant its flame, the blacker its fuel, until at last it is reduced to ashes. Many civilisations have thus been destroyed by preying on themselves.”


But to his dismay, he witnessed the accumulation of wealth and power in the urban centres, while the villagers drowned in poverty and lost the strength to keep up with the changing times.

He wanted the rural folk to stop relying on urban exploitative marketplaces and, through education and embracing science, have the upper hand as the producers. He wanted for the villagers to address their problems from within, first getting access to good healthcare and then education so that they can be self-reliant and flourish. 

And his efforts showed results, as Islam’s research showed: 

By 1915, Patisar had a full-fledged rural development programme that included a model farm, modern agricultural equipment brought from the United States. A tractor was introduced for fast and deep ploughing and it became quite popular with the villagers. Roads were repaired, wells dug, jungles were cleared. Provision for proper medical treatment and medicines were made. As many as 200 rural schools including day and night schools were opened in the area. 

To free the villagers from the clutches of moneylenders, he ensured that the farmers get loans at reasonable rates. “The agricultural bank at Patisar provided micro credit to farmers at an interest rate of 9 per cent. Borrowers were reimbursed 3 per cent of the interest after they made full repayment and hence the effective interest rate was only 6 per cent,” Islam noted. 

He also strengthened and set up new cottage industries such as pottery or umbrella-making to help villagers earn a supplementary income. “The scale of the work was considerable. In a letter of 1916 Tagore mentioned that the work of rural development included 600 villages,” according to a research paper by Islam. 

At the centre of his people-centric concept of development was the motive to ‘restore life in its completeness’. He observed that not only were the villagers in his estates losing control over their lives, they were also deeply unhappy and their hours were spent in the absence of joy. 

Apart from engaging them in gainful work, he also pushed them to take part in recreational activities like games, music, excursions and socioreligious festivals. He introduced ‘Hala Karshan’ (Festival of Ploughing);  ‘Barshamangal’ (Festival of Rain); ‘Vrikha Ropan’ (Festival of Plantation) and ‘Nabo-Barsho’ (New Year Festival) to celebrate elements that were already rooted in their culture, noted Kundu in his report Tagore’s Idea of Rural Development and its relevance in present India.

Subscribe to Daily Newsletter :

Comments are moderated and will be published only after the site moderator’s approval. Please use a genuine email ID and provide your name. Selected comments may also be used in the ‘Letters’ section of the Down To Earth print edition.