When we joined the Department of Anthropology at Visva-Bharati University – as a teacher and as students – the campus was reopening in February after lockdown. Santiniketan in the city of Bolpur in Birbhum district, where Visva-Bharati University is located, had started welcoming visitors from across the state, especially on weekends.
For a long time, visitors have flocked to Visva-Bharati to attend institutional celebrations such as Poush Utsav, which begins in late December and marks the harvest season, and Basanta Utsav. Although we are aware of the cultural significance of Santiniketan and its deep association with Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore, we as students of anthropology had a question.
What makes Santiniketan so unique in the imagination of the people of Bengal that it receives so many visitors?
Vacations are usually taken to hill stations, mountains, beaches or museums – places where one enjoys natural beauty or earns something. Visitors take home experiences and memories.
But what do visitors leave when they visit Santiniketan? Do they feel Tagore’s presence or do they understand his greatest socio-educational experience, Visva-Bharati University?
If the goal is to better understand Tagore’s literary legacy, wouldn’t it be easier to read his poems, stories, dramas and non-fiction? It could be done anywhere. Moreover, there is little chance for anyone to engage in the university as an educational institution unless they are a student or a teacher, aware of Tagore’s thoughts on how Visva-Bharati was created as an educational experience.
Why then do the people of Bengal dream of coming here?
A cultural imprint
The idea of Santiniketan in the Bengali imagination begins to form at a young age, when children read Tagore’s stories as part of the school curriculum. While singing the national anthem, many of them think: “Tagore taught Bengali in India”.
There is an overriding attachment to a poet who wrote poems in his mother tongue and went on to win a Nobel Prize – the first non-European to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. Tagore’s work, life and portrait are iconic, synonymous with Bengali pride and embedded in the everyday cultural imagination.
Rabindranath Tagore’s father, Debendranath Tagore – affectionately known as Maharshi – founded the Santiniketan, or abode of peace, ashram in 1863 and invited other like-minded people. Rabindranath Tagore took up the torch from his father and amplified the aura of Santiniketan by establishing Visva-Bharati University in 1921.
Among his students are Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, filmmaker Satyajit Ray, author Mahasweta Devi and economist Amartya Sen, who have publicly expressed their gratitude for the institution that has shaped their work. This too has helped to increase the prestige of Santiniketan in the imagination of the people of Bengal.
Arrival at Santiniketan
Arriving at Bolpur-Santiniketan railway station, Rabindra Sangeet can be heard through loudspeakers in the background. Images and paintings of Tagore and his world are on display, welcoming visitors into his world. Outside the station, drivers of the toto, or electric rickshaw, take visitors on a slow ride through Santiniketan, the narrow, congested roads of the market area bringing them into the world of Tagore.
The toto is the only means of transportation for visitors. Even though visitors arrive in their own vehicles, toto driver associations insist that they hire them to drive around. The toto drivers also act as informal guides. The toto drivers have rich oral histories which cannot be verified, but play an important role in helping tourists connect deeply with Santiniketan.
When they take visitors to Hati Pukur – a shore of the pond with carvings of elephants – they claim that elephants visited the pond while Tagore was sitting there and the memory of this incident gave shape to the sculpture. Elephants from nearby forests are often spotted in Bolpur.
As visitors near the large banyan tree, or Tinpahar, toto conductors tell different versions of his association with Tagore: “Tagore was born here”, “Tagore was married here”, or “Tagore wrote Geetanjali under this banyan tree “. Although these stories are unverified and some may argue that they are not true, they help a visitor identify with Santiniketan. The stories give visitors a unique insight into the world of Tagore, even if they are just illusions created by the toto drivers.
They see shops and establishments named after characters and stories from the world of Tagore – Sonartari, Sonarkella, Geetanjali and Bichitra. Tagore busts can be spotted everywhere. In fact, it would be hard to find a shop without Tagore’s portrait. These things reassure visitors that they are in the place they have long dreamed of.
Santiniketan appears straight out of Tagore’s books with red earth, huge banyan trees and their hanging roots, and well-kept fenced gardens. The aroma of fragrant flowers lingers in the air. Flora carpets the area as many visitors, at the behest of Tagore, have brought and planted different varieties of seeds here. It has also turned Santiniketan into a paradise for bird lovers. The chirps and trills of the birds in the background are hard to miss.
Amidst the serenity of nature at Santiniketan, there is the glass temple – kaach mandir or prayer/meditation hall – where many have meditated. A little further on is Chhatimtala – also home to the ashram, the heart of Santiniketan – where Tagore’s father meditated and is said to have gained enlightenment. Opposite Chhatimtala is the Uttaryan where Tagore lived. It has now been turned into a museum, providing visual satisfaction and allowing one to immerse oneself in the world of Tagore.
Further afield are the Kala Bhavana and the Sangit Bhavana, where luminaries have taught or studied the art. In an old house with a sign saying “AK Sen”, there is usually a crowd taking selfies. This is Amartya Sen’s house. Visitors can also view the Rural Development Experience – Sriniketan – at the Srijani Arts and Crafts Emporium.
In the streets, students can be seen riding bikes, dressed in their dance class attire, or marching with tablas, veenas, and sitars.
There are also other beauties of the world of Tagore for visitors. They take trips to the Kopai River and from the bridge they witness the flowing waters. To reach the Kopai River, they cross the bridge, or jorasanko, which helped to make Bolpur agriculturally fertile through the intervention of Tagore. Jorsanko is also the name of the district of Kolkata in which the Tagores lived.
On the way back, visitors shop at Sonajhuri hat – popularly known as Sanivar hat – an initiative of Tagore for locals, mainly tribals, to earn income. Although many believe that the market actually sells goods imported from Kolkata, the fact that they are sold in Santiniketan makes the items special, similar to food that turns into prasad once it is offered to a deity.
Places are made up of their inhabitants. In Santiniketan, it is common to see Adivasi women wearing their traditional sarees and riding bicycles when commuting to work. Street vendors sell fruit by the side of the road. Locals make unique and traditional ornaments for sale. The Bauls – Birbhum district is considered Baul Desh – singing heartily in the markets adds to the mystical atmosphere. Bolpur cattle herders bringing their herds home are hard to miss.
For many, visiting Santiniketan is an act of cultural reverence – just as Tagore intended. Writer Uma Das Gupta, who has researched Tagore extensively, quotes him as saying: “[Visva-Bharati] will not be a simple school; it will be a pilgrimage. Let those who come there say, oh, what a relief it is to be away from the narrow inner walls and behold the universe.
They enjoy their moment and return to their lives with the promise and hope that they will return to Santiniketan once again.
Sipoy Sarveswar teaches anthropology at Visva-Bharati, Santiniketan. His Twitter handle is @SSarveswar. Naina Das, Ankita Mukherjee and Riya Gurung were 2020-22 Masters students in the Department of Anthropology at Visva-Bharati.
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