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Santiniketan – ‘where progressive education and visual art are intertwined with architecture and landscape’

Santiniketan, literally a haven of peace, is inextricably associated with Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore’s name. It was he who had conceived a liberal institution to impart education in its most expansive form. Recently, Santiniketan was included in UNESCO’s list of World Heritage Sites, following the 45th session of the UNESCO World Heritage Committee in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Ranjita Biswas traces the history of the renowned institution

Santiniketan is India’s 41st UNESCO World Heritage Site. The area, site of the Visva Bharati University, comprises historic buildings, landscapes and gardens, pavilions and artwork, and reflects educational and cultural traditions that together express its ‘outstanding universal value’.  In its recognition, UNESCO states: ‘The built and open spaces of Santiniketan constitute an exceptional global testimony to ideas of environmental art and educational reform where progressive education and visual art are intertwined with architecture and landscape.’

Chhatimtola, where Rabindranath’s father used to meditate under the shade of chhatim trees.

Established in 1901, Santiniketan is in Bolpur in the Birbhum District of West Bengal. By train it takes a little over two hours from Kolkata. Through Visva Bharati University, Tagore strove to explore avenues of ‘knowledge’ in the truest sense through study in different streams, held not in the rigid classroom atmosphere, but in the open under the shade of mango trees. He himself was ‘home educated’ as he did not like the rigidity of classrooms.

Santiniketan’s emergence is an interesting story. The place was once known as Bhuban-danga after a local dacoit, Bhuban dakat. Hence, people avoided the place. In 1863, Devendranath Tagore, Rabindranath’s father, was on a boat journey to the rahr (red soil) region lying far from their zamindari in lush riverine area which now falls in Bangladesh, and came across a landscape with rows of chhatim trees and date palms. He was charmed instantly. He was at the forefront of the Brahmo Samaj Movement that was sweeping Bengal at the time, mainly attracting intellectuals and liberals who shunned the pomp and grandeur of ritualistic religion. He found it an ideal place for meditation and prayers and built an ashram which he called Santiniketan (abode of peace).

Santiniketan is inextricably associated with Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore’s name.

In 1901, Rabindranath Tagore started a school here calling it Brahmachary Ashrama, modelling it on the age-old gurukul system (ancient education system in India). This is now known as Patha Bhavana. After Tagore received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1913, the school was expanded into a college in 1921. After Independence, it became a university renamed Visva Bharati, which Tagore defined as “where the world makes a home in a nest.”

Visva Bharati is today a Central university. Some of the best artists, linguists, performing art exponents,and scholars from India and abroad at the time joined the faculty believing in Tagore’s vision. Its Kala Bhavana, Department of Fine Arts, saw the development of the Bengal School of Art  and early Modernism in India with scions like Abanindranath Tagore, Nandalal Bose, sculptor Ramkinkar Baij, painter Benodebehari Mukhopadhyay and K.G. Subramanyan working and teaching here. The Sangeet Bhavana resonated with lyrical notes of Rabindra Sangeet and dance dramas that the poet composed and choreographed prolifically. Chinese scholar Tan Yun-Shan was invited to head the Chinese Language Department. The Japanese language faculty was no less famous.

Other iconic figures associated with Santiniketan in some way or the other are maestro Satyajit Roy, Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen, as also many luminaries in the art and culture arena. The sprawling university campus is dotted with buildings closely associated with the Tagore family. The Uttarayana complex is where the poet lived. The Rabindra Memorial Museum, located in the Bichitra building houses some of Tagore’s original manuscripts, letters, documents, paintings, certificates and photographs. One of the most prized showpieces was the Nobel Prize Medallion. It was stolen in 2004 and is still untraced. Understandably, it created an uproar about the security arrangement in this abode of peace as conceived by the illustrious Tagore family.

Baul singers in Santiniketan add to the romance of the place.

One of the most beautiful buildings is the Upasana Ghar, the prayer hall, scintillating with a liberal use of Belgian glass. Locally, it is often referred to as Kanch Mandir, deriving its name from the glass laden walls (kanch means glass in Bengali). In the evening when candles are lit inside the hall, it creates an ethereal island of beauty and peace as the air resonates with devotional songs in an ambience of solemnity.

Santiniketan is also famous for a number of festivals. The Basanta Utsav was initiated by the poet to celebrate spring-coming during the Holi – Dol in Bengali. The streets reverberate with songs and dance on the full- moon Dol Purnima Day to usher in the king of seasons. It is a tradition that has been carried through the years. The campus is decorated with alpana, the Bengali style rangoli, made with rice paste and flowers.

The day begins with a prayer under the shaded mango groove of Amrakunja, followed by a congregation at Chhatimtola, where the poet’s father used to meditate under the shade of chhatim trees. Afterwards, the students go out singing, dancing and throwing coloured powder ino the air and smearing each other in a spirit of bonhomie. Only dry powder, abeer and gulal, are used. No chemical concoctions, or coloured water are allowed. Impromptu soirees of song and dance, sharing mishti (sweets) and food to commemorate the occasion spring up everywhere. The evening brings in a different ambience as hundreds gather at Chhatimtola under the full moon to watch one of Tagore’s many dance dramas being enacted by the students.

Another famous occasion is the Poush Mela celebrated in winter. You can see students at work creating fascinating art, you can buy beautiful terracotta figurines crafted by indigenous craftsmen, all the while listening to the bauls, the wandering troubadours (writers/ performers of songs) who sing of transience of life and love for the one who presides over this universe.

One of the favourite modes of transport for visitors to explore the area is by the cycle rickshaw that can be hired. The rickshaw pullers often double as guides pointing out the interesting venues. One of the iconic ‘rides’ is on the red-earth paths by the  Kopai rivulet where Tagore’s many songs echo in the wood of Sonajhuri trees. It is also a favourite locale for many Bengali films and an inspiration for romantic songs. This is part of the Khoai Region of Birbhum, a geological formation of small canyons due to erosion caused by wind and water. If it’s Saturday, a must visit is to the weekly market (haat) where local artisans bring their handiworks to sell.

(The writer is a senior journalist who lives in Kolkata.)

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