A visit to Shantiniketan reveals the nurturing vision of Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore
One hundred and fifty years ago it was a dusty patch of red-soil scrubland, given as a gift by a West Bengal landowner to India’s most famous artistic family.
But the Tagores saw potential here and named it Shantiniketan – “peaceful abode”, setting up an ashram on the spot.
A generation passed before the family’s most famous son, Rabindranath Tagore, arrived on the scene and began carving what was to become the cradle of Indian arts.
Rabindranath started Patha Bhavana school here, inspired by the vision of free and fruitful learning in a natural environment.
Using the money he received with his Nobel Prize for Literature in 1913, the school was expanded and renamed Visva-Bharati University. It grew to become one of India’s most renowned places of higher learning, with a list of alumni that includes Nobel-winning economist Amartya Sen, globally renowned filmmaker Satyajit Ray and the country’s leading art historian, R Siva Kumar, to name just a few.
Tagore’s ideas on education were fueled by the belief that every person has the seed of genius within, but that each such seed may not grow and bloom at the same time. So he devised a new system of learning at Visva-Bharati that allows students to continue their course until both they and their teachers are satisfied. Classes, where possible, were to be held outside so as to free young minds from the thought-conditioning confines of four walls. The philosophy obviously works – Shantiniketan’s famous Kala Bhavana art college is now considered one of the best in the world.
True to its reputation as a dynamo of Indian art, the university town hums with creative energy. I arrive for one of the regular poetry festivals, and grab the chance to explore its buildings and ashrams.
My poet friend Sabonti Goash, who was a student at Kala Bhavana, has agreed to be my guide. We jump aboard a rickshaw and head past the Upasana Griha prayer hall, whose marble steps on all four sides lead up to stained-glass windows which flicker in the candlelight come evening.
Writers, artists, sculptors and musicians from all over the world are lured here by Rabindranath’s aura, and many stay at the Athiti Shala, which also houses the Tagore family museum. The Shala’s beautifully colourful gardens are a showcase for the many plants that Rabindranath collected on his travels.
But even more striking than the grand Athiti Shala mansion is the Black House, a famous Shantiniketan landmark. Its jet-black mud walls are decorated with reliefs by renowned sculpturs Ram Kinkar and Prabhas Sen, helping to inspire the young artists who study here.
The university has also preserved the Tagore family properties.
Rabindranath had no formal training in architecture, which probably explains why he shunned brick-built structures, preferring the local Santal style of mud houses, some even double storied with thatched roofs. One example is the exquisite Shyamali, a graceful combination of traditional temple and modern, airy home where he imagined he would spend his last years. But the restless polymath built Punashch just a just year later in 1936, with its striking wall of glass. Both houses are now part of the Tagore Museum.
Rabrindranath’s vision of harmony between nature and human life has literally blossomed at Shantiniketan, where a once arid scrubland has metamorphosised into a landscape of handsome homes and campus mansions shaded by lush trees, lakes and gardens. Perhaps this is the greatest legacy of India’s Shakespeare – his living poem of learning.