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Once upon a time, there was this illiterate bird in the kingdom. It sang songs, but never read the scriptures. It jumped about and flew, but never cared for custom and convention. The king proclaimed, “Such a bird is of no use; it eats fruits in the orchard, and the fruit market runs at a loss!” He summoned his ministers and ordered, “Give the bird some education!”

So starts Rabindranath Tagore’s short story Tota Kahini (‘The Parrot’s Tale’ or ‘The Parrot’s Training’) which was first published in 1918 in a Bengali magazine Sabuj Patra.

Apart from being known as ‘Bishwa Kobi’ or World Poet and being the first non-European to win the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1913, Tagore was an educational activist. He had noted and predicted the dangers of western civilization as the east emulated the western system either by choice or through enforced educational ideals.

Even at a time when people were furiously raising their voice during the nationalist movement, Tagore envisioned a “No-Nation” scenario based not on the divisive stance of the colonists but on internationalism and mutual cooperation and harmony. He writes in his essay ‘Nationalism in India’: “Nationalism is a great menace. It is the particular thing which for years has been at the bottom of India’s troubles. And inasmuch as we have been ruled and dominated by a nation that is strictly political in its attitude, we have tried to develop within ourselves, despite our inheritance from the past, a belief in our eventual political destiny.”

Tagore believed that true education couldn’t be achieved when alienated from one’s cultural roots.

The colonial system imposed upon Indian children was ill-suited to their development. The system encouraged rote learning without any proper base, the syllabus had no connection to the Indian children’s reality, the uniform in the new schools was too warm for the Indian climate, and most importantly, the system promoted competition amongst individuals rather than cooperation.

The entire education system of the colonisers smacked of importance on the self, rather than humanity as a whole. Ironically, in spite of the importance on self, the system had no place for the individual spark. Without this intellectual and emotional sympathy and respect for the individual traits and needs, true education and development is impossible.

Tota Kahini: the story

Tagore’s Tota Kahini tells the story of how a king forces “education” onto a parrot. It is a deadly satire on how the education system of the colonized paid no heed to the cultural traits inherent in the Indians which had taken root over hundreds of years, and instead forced on them an educational system which destroyed their very soul and took down the nation.


The parrot is first introduced as “illiterate” and “of no use” to the society. It fell on the nephews of the king to “educate” the bird. The first reason for the parrot’s illiteracy was found to be its “nest of twigs and straws” which was apparently too small to hold much education. Thus, a golden cage was made for it. People from afar came to appreciate it- Education or not, the bird got a great cage! What a lucky bird! As the cage was maintained and polished regularly, people applauded the “progress”. Scribes were called for, and heaps of manuscripts copied for the bird’s “education”. This “overflow of learning” impressed many. All those employed for this process gradually grew richer, drawing fat salaries in the name of the parrot’s “education”.

When a critic commented, “The cage keeps getting better, but no one cares about the bird”, the king was infuriated and went to see for himself “the furious pace at which education was being imparted”. He arrived to a huge clamour of musical instruments, chants, and a crowd of masons, goldsmiths, scribes and clerks. The king was rather impressed with the sound, to which his nephew replied, “It’s just not the sound, Your Highness! A lot of money has gone behind this!” Satisfied, the king was about to mount his elephant, when the critic reminded him of the bird. The king turned back and was shown the “education” process.

“The process was so much larger than the bird itself, that the bird was not seen, rather, it was fair enough not to see the bird. The king realized that there was no dearth of arrangements. The cage had no food or water. Reams of pages from hundreds of textbooks were thrust to the beak of the bird with tips of pens & quills. The bird not only could not sing, it could not even cry out. The process was very exciting.”

The bird started to die, but due to its “wild nature”, it often looked at the sun and snapped its wings. The policeman railed at the “show of indiscipline” and an ironsmith came to beat the cage and clamp the wings of the bird. The royal relatives of the king decried: “In this country, the birds are not only undisciplined, they are ungrateful!” No-one knew when the bird finally died until the critic had spread the rumour. The king called his nephew and demanded answers.

The nephew replied, “The education of the bird is complete, Your Highness!”
The King asked, “Does it jump anymore?”
The nephew said, “Heavens, no”
“Does it fly?”
“Does it sing?”
“Does it shout if it does not get its feed?”

The bird was brought to the king and he pressed it. It didn’t move, didn’t make a sound or open its beak. “Only the dry papers from the books rustled in its belly.”

Tagore’s education system

Tagore conceived a new type of education system which referred back to the ancient methods of learning in India. He sought to “make Santiniketan the connecting thread between India and the world [and] a world center for the study of humanity somewhere beyond the limits of nation and geography” (Rabindranath Tagore: The Myriad-Minded by Krishna Dutta and Andrew Robinson).

In his school Vishva Bharati established in 1918, Tagore employed a brahmacharya system in which students had gurus who would guide them on a personal basis on the emotional, intellectual, and spiritual levels. Students wore loose Indian clothing and walked barefoot. They were more in touch with nature and most of the time teaching was carried out in the open. Students were encouraged to sing, dance, act, paint and take any means which would help their creativity evolve.

Vishva Bharati campus

Tagore wanted to build a system on the amalgamation of the Eastern and Western culture which would bring together the ancient and the modern, and the urban and rural. He believed that an education system with Indian roots would help the people rise beyond the divisive ideals inherent in the western education system. Education was, for Tagore, a means to bring together the entire human race by means of cooperation. “The people who are lacking in this higher moral power and who therefore cannot combine in fellowship with one another must perish or live in a state of degradation.” (Nationalism in India)

Tagore was fully aware of the direction the world was moving in with the suspicion and hatred among nations and individuals which gradually poisoned our minds and the environment we live in. His thoughts are well expressed in his last speech The Crisis of Civilisation. The right means of education which would develop the mind, spirit and body as a whole while bringing together the entire humanity by means of cooperation, is one way which Tagore suggested might help heal the world.
[Full Tota Kahini Translation here]


Photo by Jeremy Bezanger on Unsplash

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