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The book is a collection of letters, documents and photographs that record the fond relationship that these three Indian prime ministers shared with Visva-Bharati University and Santiniketan edited by Nilanjan Banerjee.  This coffee table book shows Nehru, his daughter and grandson in an unusual light.  Rather than publicand much photographed people, in this book they are carefree and uninhibited.  The correspondence between Nehru and Indira Gandhi is particularly charming although these have been previously published and may seem familiar to some readers.  Even so, it’s a delight to read fatherly advice like, “I want you not merely to keep well but to be aggressively fit and as far as possible, to make yourself impervious to disease.  Keep in mind Nehru was writing to Indira from jail in Almora.

The book also has some beautiful photographs.  Some of these are by photojournalists like Bhaskar Paul and Samiran Nandy and many have been gleaned from archives.  They show Tagore, Indira, Sonia and Rajiv Gandhi in casual settings.  For example, there are photographs of a young Sonia, wearing a traditionally Santiniketan-style batik scarf.  There are many shots of Indira, when she was a scrawny teenager, aside from the more familiar look from when she was older and had acquired that distinctive white streak in her hair.

This lavishly produced book uses the filter of three chancellors, prime ministers who not very serendipitously, happen to be from the same family to explore its waning importance in the national scheme of things.  Despite all the signals, Three Chancellors is not a hagiographical account of Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi.  Although, apart from missing out on a catchy title, one doesn’t really understand why the chancellors had to be restricted to the Nehru-Gandhi family.  Editor Nilanjan Banerjee, an alumnus of Visva-Bharati, has masterfully collected documents, letters and transcripts pertaining to the trio and the institution and the photographs accompanying the text are an illuminating selection.

There is also a gem from Visva-Bharati reminding Nehru that he has fallen late on the payment of fees (Rs 138 for October 1934-March 1935) for his daughter. Clearly, the ‘Nehru’ section of the book is the most valuable and entertaining one in this collection.  A letter to Tagore’s son and the first vice-chancellor, Rathindranath, betrays real dismay.

Indira Gandhi, despite being the only acharya to have been an alumnus, is aloof in her dealings with her alma mater. It is more her time as a student that will interest the reader. A 1934 letter prior to her joining Visva-Bharati has her ask her father whether she could use a separate cottage and “take a servant from Allahabad who would cook for me & also do some of the other work”.  Our third acharya, Rajiv Gandhi, seems to have even less interest in Visva-Bharati.  The long transcript of a conversation with Visva-Bharati students in January 1988 reads like a political exercise where he fields questions relating to caste reservations, public vs private sector and price hikes.  A photograph showing a smiling Rajiv walking up the stairs during a surprise visit to a girls’ hostel with students giggling away is more indicative of his role in Visva-Bharati than anything else.

MY TAKE:  Three Chancellors is a fascinating collection that reveals much about Visva-Bharati in particular and New Delhi’s approach to matters pertaining to higher education in general.  Visva-Bharati and the book’s three protagonists serve as illuminating case studies for historians of post-1947 India.  This is a kind of book that you’ll enjoy flipping through and there are enough little nuggets of affection and history in there to keep you entertained.

 

BOOK DETAILS:

EDITED BY:  Nilanjan Banerjee

PUBLISHERS:  Timeliss Books

LANGUAGE:  English.

PAGES:  421

PRICE:  Rs. 7500

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