Wednesday 24 May 2017 News Updated at 11:05 AM IST
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Lessons under trees - Deccan Herald
Lessons under trees
Ranjita Biswas,
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An ongoing class at Santiniketan in rural Bengal
Santiniketan: an abode of peace in rural Bengal; for meditation and congregation of people with liberal intellect. That’s how the place came about in Bolpur, in the Rahr (red soil) region of Birbhum district of (then undivided) Bengal. By train, it’s a little over two hours from Kolkata.

It’s also where Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore founded his famous Visva-Bharati University, to explore avenues of 'knowledge’ in the truest sense, through study in different streams, not in the rigid classroom atmosphere, but in the open, under the shade of mango trees. The evenings would resonate with prayers of devotional songs in an ambience of solemnity.

What’s in a name?

Santiniketan’s origin is quite interesting. The place was once known as Bhubandanga, after a local dacoit Bhuban Dakat; so people avoided the place. In 1863, Debendranath Tagore, Rabindranath’s father, was on a boat journey to a new area far from their zamindari - which falls in Bangladesh now - and came across a landscape of red soil with rows of chhatim trees and date palms. He was instantly charmed. He was at the forefront of the Brahmo Samaj movement that was sweeping Bengal then, 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).

In 1901, Tagore started a school here - Brahmachary Ashrama - modelling it on the age-old gurukul system of 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 (1921). After Independence, it became a university renamed as Visva-Bharati, which Tagore defined as "where the world makes a home in a nest.”

Some of the best artists, linguists, performing arts exponents, scholars from home and abroad joined the Visva-Bharati faculty, believing in Tagore’s vision. Its Kala Bhavana, department of fine arts, saw the development of the Bengal School of Art with scions like Abanindranath Tagore, Nandalal Bose, sculptor Ramkinkar Baij, painter Benodebehari Mukhopadhyay and K G Subramanyan. The Sangeet Bhavana resonated with lyrical notes of Rabindra Sangeet and dance 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. Among the iconic figures associated with Santiniketan in some way or the other are maestro Satyajit Ray and Nobel laureate Amartya Sen. Visva-Bharati is today a central university.

The sprawling university campus is dotted with buildings closely associated with the Tagore family, which visitors make a beeline to explore. 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.

No less distressing for those devoted to Tagore’s vision have been some unwelcome incidents that have rocked the campus from time to time. But things seem to have settled down for the better, at least for the time being.

Perhaps one needs to walk towards the Upasana Ghar, the prayer hall, to marvel at the concept, and introspect. It’s a gem of a construction made with Belgian glass. Locally, it’s called kanch (glass in Bengali) mandir, deriving its name from the glass-laden walls. In the evening, when candles are lit inside the hall, they create an ethereal island of beauty and peace.

As seasons change

Santiniketan is also famous for a number of festivals. The Basanta Utsav was initiated by the poet to celebrate spring at the time of 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. This is the month of Falgun, bringing a wind of change to the world after the wintry months; in Tagore’s language: Ore bhai, fagun legechche bone bone, which roughly translates to: 'Oh see, brothers! Fagun has coloured the forests.’

It’s a tradition that has become iconic. 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 meditated under the shade of chhatim trees.

Then the students go out singing, dancing and throwing coloured powder into the air and smearing each other with it, in a spirit of bonhomie. Only dry powder, abeer and gulal, are used. No chemical concoctions and coloured water are allowed. Impromptu soirees of song and dance, sharing misti (sweets) and food to commemorate the occasion, spring up everywhere. The evening brings in a different ambience as hundreds gather at Chhatimtala 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 December. You can see students creating fascinating art, buy beautiful terracotta figurines crafted by indigenous craftsmen, and listen to the Bauls, the wandering troubadours who sing of transience of life, and love for the one who presides over this universe. This mela usually stretches to more than a week, but due to environmental concerns, the National Green Tribunal has recently directed that it cannot continue beyond three days, and can showcase only traditional art forms and culture.

One of the favourite modes of transport with visitors to explore the area is hiring cycle rickshaws. The rickshaw-pullers often double as guides, pointing out the interesting venues. One of the iconic rides is on the red-smeared paths by the Kopai rivulet, where Tagore’s many songs echo in the wood of Sonajhuri trees; scenes from many Bengali films shot here come alive and you get caught in the magic of the moment.

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.