Shantiniketan is famous for the Visva-Bharati University founded by Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore. Shantiniketan was previously called Bhubandanga. This area was gifted by Lord Satyendra Prasanno Sinha to the Tagore family. Rabindranath’s father, Maharshi Debendranath Tagore, found it very peaceful and renamed it Shantiniketan, which means abode (niketan) of peace (shanti).
Initially, Shantiniketan was little more than a plot of land characterised by red soil and a few Chhatim trees. Here Maharshi Devendranath used to meditate and he then built an asram on the land for Brammo Kendro.
It was here that Rabindranath Tagore started Patha Bhavana, the school of his ideals, whose central premise was that learning in a natural environment would be more enjoyable and fruitful. After he received the Nobel Prize (1913), the school was expanded into a university in 1921. By 1951, it had become one of India’s central universities.
We paid a short visit to Shantiniketan last March. Eminent actor and reciter Soumitra Mitra and Malabika Mitra invited us to visit Shantiniketan. The Ministry of Culture, Government of India, Shahitya Akademy, Adhyapaksabha, and Visva-Bharati arranged a poetry festival to pay tribute to legendry writer Sunil Gangopadhayay for his great contribution to Bangla literature.
I went along with my poet friends and it was a great opportunity for me to visit Shantiniketan where I learned about the architectural style of Shantiniketan houses, ashrams and Kala Bhavana.
My poet friend Sabonti Goash and I took a rickshaw in front of the prayer hall. Sabonti was a student of Kala Bhavana and she took me on a tour of all the historical buildings. The great Upasana Griha or prayer hall is in front building of the Sriniketon Shantiniketan Road. It was made of multi-coloured Belgium glass with marble steps on all the four sides by the poet’s father in 1863. During evening service, candles are lit around the prayer hall, the flickering lights contributing to the spiritual ambience.
Just beside prayer hall is Athiti Shala where we found the sculpture of Ram Kinkar. Kala Bhavana, the art college of Shantiniketan, is still considered one of the best art colleges in the world and they have an extremely well renowned faculty. Other institutions here include Vidya Bhavana for Humanities, ShikshaBhavana, the Institute of Science, Sangit Bhavana for Dance, Drama and Music, Vinaya Bhavana, the Institute of Education, Rabindra Bhavana, the Institute of Tagore Studies and Research, Palli-Samgathana Vibhaga, the Institute of Rural Reconstruction, and Palli Shiksha Bhavana, the Institute of Agricultural Sciences.
There are also other centers, affiliated to major institutions such as Shiksha Satra, and a School of Higher Secondary Education known as Uttar Shiksha Sadana.
The legacy of Rabindranath has been upheld by intellectuals and eminent artists, sculptors, and musicians all around the world. Over the years, people from different nationalities and cultural backgrounds have come to Shantiniketan to pay their respects to Tagore and his Visva-Bharati University.
Tagore’s family thus established the Athiti Shala for guests. At present this bhavan houses the museum of Rabindranath and the rest of the Tagore family. A beautiful garden with an old nursery also surrounds this building.
Rabindranath was deeply interested in plants and throughout his lifetime, he collected plants from all his travels.
I have been long been interested in the architecture of Shantiniketan, so I wanted to learn more very much about the styles and themes of its construction. One building called China Bhavan that was inaugurated around 1937 is designated for Chinese studies. Here, Professor Tan Yun Shan introduced classes in Chinese history, literature and languages for Indian students. Scenes from Natir Puja, one of Tagore’s dance dramas has been painted on its walls, under the guidance of Nandalal Bose, a pioneering Indian artist.
The biggest attraction in this section is Black House, a mud building known for its aesthetic and artistic appeal, contributed to by stalwarts like Ram Kinkar and Prabhas Sen. At Shantiniketan, under the guidance and encouragement of Rabindranath Tagore, Nandalal Bose, Benodebehari Mukherjee and Ram Kinkar played decisive roles in making Shantiniketan the most important center for modern art in pre-independence India.
Beginning in early thirties Kinkar began to fill the campus with sculptures. His first magnum opus in this genre was the Santal Family done in 1938. In this larger than life sculpture he represented the tribal peasants of the region, giving the figures an iconic presence and dignified grace that was so far limited to the images of gods and rulers. In a country were all public art-work was undertaken only at the behest of Government commissioning and executed in consonance with the taste of conservative ruling elites, this was a radical departure.
The use of cement and laterite mortar to model the figures, and the use of a personal style in which modern western and Indian pre-classical sculptural values were brought together was equally radical. With this seminal work Ram Kinkar established himself as a noteworthy modern Indian sculptor.
The university has preserved the houses owned by Tagore’s family. Shantiniketan Griha is the oldest and first building of Shantiniketan built by Rabindranath Tagore’s father.
Tagore had no formal training in many of the fields he traversed, like architecture. He virtually had no experience even in mundane enterprises like house building till his fiftieth year, around the time he came to settle at Shantiniketan. Tagore did not go for brick-built houses in his ashram; instead he preferred the Santal style of mud houses, some even double storied with thatched roofs. One such example of an exquisite mud house is Shyamali.
The language of contemporaneity that we find in the architecture of Santinketan is an invaluable expression of this quest of the poet. This musical language, crossing boundaries of time and space, still remains as our priceless inheritance.
As regards the structures of buildings in Shantiniketan and Sriniketan, certain features come to the fore. The first and the most important is the presence of ecological balance and sustainability. The story of Shantiniketan’s metamorphosis, from a scarce rain zone to a rain prone one, has been the result of programmed tree plantations, efforts undertaken by Tagore and his institution. He felt the buildings should not stare out rudely from their surroundings, rather remain veiled amidst the trees around them. The second notable feature is the influence of open spaces.
There is a Lily Pool or the Pampa Lake at the backyard of Udayana. This has serpentine lanes and collection of exotic bushes, herbs, creepers and flowers under the shadows of a huge age old asvatha (peepul tree), bat (banyan tree) and pakud (species of a fig tree).
Uttarayan Complex consists of the poet’s houses. The poet lived and worked in the Northern Complex consisting of several buildings as: Udayana, Konarka, Shyamali, Punascha and Udichi. The Bichitra (Rabindra Bhavan) was designed by the poet’s sons Rathindranath Tagore and Surendranath Kar.
Rabindranath never enjoyed living in the same house for a long time. And it was Suredranath Kar and a few able ashramities, devoted to Rabindranath’s ideals, who successfully transformed his imagination into reality.
From 1919 to 1928, Udayana was built. In harmony with the vast landscape of Shantiniketan, horizontal expansion of space received emphasis in the construction. The shifts in the structure of this house on the vertical and horizontal planes have lent it a strange artistic touch. There are symmetrical open verandas on the two sides of the main door. The verandas leading to the rooms are covered, and there are detailed carvings on the wooden doors.
The unequal floors of Udayana also remind one of the Khoi with its undulating banks. The pillars on either side of the doors are similar to the columns in Buddhist caves and to the columns of hanging verandas in Gujarati havelis.
Shyamali, built in 1935, was very dear to the poet. It carried traces of the Buddhist Chaitya style and yet the way space was utilised in the middle to facilitate access to all rooms indicates the influence of Hindu temples and of the courtyards of rural homesteads. This house was designed by Surendranth Kar. Sculptures by Nandalal Basu and Ram Kinkar all around the house have given it an unusual appearance. Rabindranath also wrote about this house in one of his poems:
The home of my last years
Would be built on the earth
I will call it Shyamali
When it will fall part,
It will be like falling off to sleep-
Dust will return to dust.
Rabindranath, ever the lover of variety, built Punashch in 1936 after the completion of Shyamali. It was constructed on a slightly raised platform. The overall height of Punascha is not much.
According to Rabindranath’s wishes, the eastern side of this house was covered in glass. The wall came up on the western side. Punashcha, like Konark, kept changing its form throughout the years. Another feature of this house is the semicircular courtyard adjoining it that is enclosed by a boundary wall extending from the two sides of the house. There are windows on both sides and the shutters are made of wood. Rabindranath often sat writing beside these windows. Now these houses are located in the museum complex. Every day hundreds of people come here as tourists.
We moved from one place to another by rikshaw but bicycles are the common mode of transport at Shantiniketan. I saw many houses of renowned scholars and artists such as Amartya Sen, Nandalal Basu and Sunil Gangopadhayay. The upkeep of lovely gardens in front of each house is quite remarkable.
Near Sriniketan, around 3 km away from Shantiniketan, was a previously fast eroding area known as ‘Khowai’. It is now a large forested area with herds of deer and a natural bird sanctuary. Shantiniketan is also famous for handicrafts. Batik is very famous as is a handmade fabric called kher. Dukra, made by the ethnic Santal people is also widely popular.
Shantiniketan is an eco-friendly cultural city which remains untainted by modern development and industrialisation.