Friday, January 20, 2012

International Conference: Women, Creativity and Social Concern

On January 5th-7th, 2012, the Women's Studies Centre at Visva-Bharati in Santiniketan, West Bengal, India hosted an International Conference on Women, Creativity, and Social Concern. Dedicated to the memory of Ashramkanya Amita Sen, the conference celebrated the 100th year anniversary of her birth.

The conference focused on the "social construction of gender in the Indian context by analyzing the various institutions such as education, household, community, market, and the state" and hoped that discussion would "help to evolve perspectives on development and strategies to counter the inter-linked forces of caste, class and patriarchy." Key guest speakers included Professor Amartya Sen and Professor Martha Nussbaum. Below you can view a selection of images from this most successful event:
Conference Inauguration: Lighting the lamp with Asha Mukherjee and Professor Amartya Sen
Asha Mukherjee delivers the Welcome Address

Professor Amartya Sen delivers the Inaugural Address
Remembering Smt. Amita Sen: Professor Martha Nussbaum delivers a special plenary lecture 
Professor Nussbaum in discussion with Asha Mukherjee and Arvinder Ansari
For additional photos, click here

If you would like to read more about the conference, please see below for the conference outline.

International Conference: Women Creativity and Social Concern
Ashramkanya Amita Sen: 100th birth anniversary Celebration) 5-7 Jan. 2012
Women’s Studies Centre, Visva-Bharati, Santiniketan
In a life span of eighty years, Rabindranath Tagore wrote two thousand five hundred poems, seven novels, composed eighteen hundred songs and a number of plays, wrote, directed and produced at least four well-known dance dramas (nritya natya/geeti natya). Over the years these dance dramas and songs have become an inalienable part of Bengali culture. As if that was not enough, in his late years, he took to painting and produced almost two thousand paintings, which are believed to be a new initiative in the world of art. A mere enumeration of these creative aspects can hardly do justice to his incredible achievements and the great contributions he made to the civilization. He took to interpretation of Religion, History and Society proposing a new concept of “India”, preaching internationalism when nations like Japan, Germany and Britain were preparing for World war. He not only proposed but also implemented significant programmes in rural reconstruction in pre-independent India. Needless to say, contribution of this magnitude is not possible without a novel foundational attitude arising out of a basic philosophical position. Over time his attitude towards Man and the World changed and so did his philosophy. 
Tagore was also responsible for a revolutionary programme in education, using (mostly) his own resources, which was fundamentally different from the usual form and style of education under colonial regime. Even today, it is felt that his educational programme gives us a new insight into the very concept of education. In particular his concerns for women and society are well known.  The women characters in his literary writings ranged from a house-maid to a princess, from an unfortunate mother to a woman deceived by an idea of false revolution and development propagated by a man.  Chitranganda, heir to a royal family convinced herself that to be worthy of the throne she should be like a man and thereby imposed a false identity upon herself. But more paradoxical was her own attempt to be worthy of Arjuna’s love by transforming the body of a beautiful woman.  Finally, she discovers that her journey was actually a journey from one false identity to another – all imposed, directly or indirectly, by the world of man.  Another character Chandalika, living in the periphery as an untouchable, meets a Buddhist monk who tells her that she is as human as he is.  She discovers her humanity; but also develops desire for the monk and compels her mother to use black magic to get him. However, she finds out the extreme pain the monk is going through and rediscovers her humanity, not in desire, but in renunciation!
As we have said, Tagore was not only a poet, a novelist, a composer and a painter, he was a social activist too. For all his ideas to flourish, he needed a place. And he knew that the cities could not anchor it.  So, came the revolutionary idea of Santiniketan – a place which would be different from the urban myth of capitalist development ushered in by the industrial revolution and absentee landlords investing their money in cities like Kolkata which ultimately acts against the real development of humanity.
In Santiniketan, he involved a host of women who were so eager to participate and enjoy the new forms – of song, dance, plays, painting, nature, social relationship and everything Tagore thought necessary for human development. It was not only learning a few tricks but re-creating characters depicted in his plays and dance-dramas. The women of ashram and ashramkanyas achieved exceptional feats in staging the dance dramas and creating unique styles in singing. In fact, Tagore put a heavy demand on our women. In 1936, he was hoping for a new beginning of civilization and strongly believed that women’s role is absolutely essential. He expected that women would get rid of their conservative attitude, open their heart, sharpen their intelligence and invest all their resources in the pursuit of knowledge and experience.  In his opinion, uncritical conservative attitude is against the creative spirit. He was unequivocal in claiming that if the women wish to participate in this transition, they will have to rise above the age-old inertia and all sorts of imaginary fear to make themselves worthy of the new beginning of civilization.
At his insistence women of the ashram not only actively participated in all the activities of ashram but also enrolled themselves in different courses in Kala-Bhavan, Sangit-Bhavana and many of them excelled in their pursuits.  Kiranbala Devi, wife of Kshitimohun Sen enrolled in Kala-Bhavana and being invited by Nandalal Bose, actually did a sculpture on the wall of Shyamali. Nandalal’s wife, Sudhira Devi, initiated creation of a style of ornaments mostly using natural ingredients – different flowers, leaves etc. Others like Gouri Bhanja, Jamuna Devi created a style of alpana, batik and other forms using indigenous style. In the process these indigenous forms were raised to the level of art. This creative spirit was continuously translated into a programme of social development through the programme of Rural Reconstruction Tagore started in Sriniketan.
It is this program in which Ashramkanya Smt. Amita Sen participated actively throughout her life. When she was two and a half years old she had drawn Tagore’s attention so much that he brought her activities in a stream of images in  a song and since then she remained an integral part of Santiniketan Ashram. Her whole life can be seen as dedication to humanity and “development” in Tagorean sense. She was an integral part of Tagore’s experiments and she carried the mission forward as long as she was alive. She was the editor of a handwritten magazine “Gurupalli” when she was a student and later of Sreyasi - the feminist magazine started in early nineties. She was the lead dancer in a number of productions in Santiniketan and Kolkata. She was Sampadika (Secretary) of Ashmrik Sangha and became a member of Visva-Bharati Court for two terms. She was trained in lathi khela, chura khela and Judo. As a woman she never felt any inhibition and made contribution in every aspect of life- dance, literature, writing, social and cultural activities and provided personal care to the sick, old and needy.  Her house was a home to many, especially to those who came from outside.  Through her collection of essays and memoirs Anando Sarbo Kaaje,  Santiniketane Ashramkanya, Chole Jay Din and Shirish Bakul Amer Mukul, we find the rich cultural history of Santiniketan interwoven into life stories and interesting incidents. It is well-known that three santhal villages on the west of Santiniketan were part of the Santiniketan Society. Amita had very intimate relation with the villagers and would always stand by them in their need.  She truly believed that ‘serving humanity is the true service’
The conference would be dedicated to her memory to celebrate her 100th birth anniversary.

The objective of the proposed conference is to discuss various aspects of women creativity, participation in social life, Tagore’s school and the role of women and Tagore’s views on Development and provide participants a platform to critically examine these ideas and their relevance today as well as to provide with the tools and skills required for understanding and mainstreaming gender. The conference intends to focus on social construction of gender in the Indian context by analyzing the various institutions such as education, household, community, market, and the state and to help to evolve perspectives on development and strategies to counter the inter-linked forces of caste, class and patriarchy. It will also examine the impact of mainstream development and globalization processes on women, particularly from the marginalized sections in our society. Tagore realized from his own experience of the villagers’ attitudes and their social behavior that strength can be generated only in a self-reliant village society developing its own locus of power and its own momentum of growth and charity would not lead to the empowerment of people and thus, education is necessary.

Conference Participants

1. Martha Nussbaum; Professor, Department of Law, Chicago University, U.S. 
2. Deepankar Chatterjee; Professor, Department of Philosophy, University of Utah, U.S.
3. Aishika Chakroborty; Associate Professor, Department of History, Brahmananda Keshav     
    Chandra College, Kolkata
4. Pulak Datta; Associate Professor, Department of Graphics, Visva-Bharati, Santiniketan 
5. Dr. Mirja Juntunen; Director, Nordic Center in India
6. Sanjukta Dasgupta; Professor, Department of English and Dean of Faculty of Arts, Calcutta
7. Tista Bagchi; Professor, Department of Linguistics, Delhi University, Delhi
8. Nilanjan Banerjee; Indira Gandhi Center for National Integration, Visva-Bharati, 
9. Aparna Chowdhury; Alapini Mohila Samiti Deer Park, Santiniketan 
10. Amit Hajra; Department of Rural Extension, Sriniketan Visva-Bharati
11. Sharmila Roy Pommot; Paris, France
12. Swati Ghosh; Simanta Pally, Santiniketan 
13. Maitreyi Chowdhuri; Professor, PCK, Visva-Bharati 
14. Bijoy Mukherjee; Professor, Department of Philosophy and Religion, Visva-Bharati 
15. Rakesh Chandra; Professor, Department of Philosophy, Lukhnow University