India’s first Nobel Laureate, Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore wrote in 1929:
I was brought up in an atmosphere of aspiration, aspiration for the expansion of the human spirit. We in our home sought freedom of power in our language, freedom of imagination in our literature, freedom of soul in our religious creeds and that of mind in our social environment. Such an opportunity has given me confidence in the power of education which is one with life and only which can give us real freedom, the highest that is claimed for man, his freedom of moral communion in the human world…
Thoughts like these made the founding principle of Visva Bharati – Yatra Visvam Bhavatyekanidam – ‘where the whole world can find a nest’. Starting with a small school for holistic education called Patha Bhavan, on receiving the Nobel Prize in 1913, Tagore started working towards formalising the institution from 1921. Visva Bharati is India’s first Central University post Independence.
At Santiniketan – the Abode of Peace, artists like Nandalal Bose, Benode Bihari Mukherjee and Ram Kinkar Baij among a large group of global artists, musicians, dancers were attracted to Tagore’s ideologies and principles and contributed in creating one of the largest dynamic educational centres of the world.
Nandalal Bose, popularly respected as Mastermoshai (Bengali for teacher), was instrumental in archiving the indigenous art and craft practices and introducing new artistic practices to Santiniketan. This included Batik – where wax is painted on fabric along the design before dyeing it in multiple colours. Because of him, Santiniketan Batik was inspired by the ‘alpona’ tradition of Bengal. ‘Alponas’ are handmade decorations on the floor made of rice flour paste – only white.
Nearly 100 years later, Batik is still actively pursued as a form of creative expression by the locals. Female alumni of the Kala Bhavan or the Fine Arts department of the University collect at ‘Karu Sangha’ and create some of the most stunning Batik and Kantha saris and stoles. Each carefully hand painted and dyed textile is a collectible on its own.
Due to Tagore’s insistence, only local festivals resonating different seasons and their related activities – Poush Mela (winter), Vasantotsav (spring), Varsha Mangal (rains) and Maghotsav (anniversary of Brahmo Samaj) were adopted by the University. No religious festival is formally celebrated by the University.
Tagore always stressed on inclusion of the local population which included a sizeable Tribal Santhal population even 100 years back.
For the Santiniketan Ashramite and residents of Bolpur town (of which the campus is a part), seeing batches of Santhali women and men leave for work dressed to their nines in their barest minimum possessions is a common sight. Most of us pass by this without realising how this integration of the otherwise marginalised Tribal community has come about due to the insistence of Tagore on laying a strong foundation for an Inclusive society where the poor Santhals are not left behind by a strongly elite group of intellectuals. He believed every human being to be creative, one with Nature, and to look both inwards and outwards.
Words usually remain words, mere words. With no meaning, context and rarely with any application! However, Tagore proved to the world what words like Access and Inclusion meant a century ago, even when they were not legally accepted.
If you visit Santiniketan today, you would probably make a trip to the ‘Shanibarer Haat’ or the Saturday local market in the Shonajuri (local tree) forest on red gravel. Handwoven cotton textiles like Gamcha, intricately embroidered Kantha stitich garments, jewellery painstakingly designed with beads and seeds of local plants or copper, handmade wooden combs of nature inspired motifs are there. I had found a small boy selling owls made of apricot shells, dried and painted by him during his spare time after school. And, a young Santhal girl selling skirts and tops made of Gamcha, garments alien to her community but so perfectly made that it could put any graduate from high browed Design schools to shame! Organic, sustainable, handcrafted, absolutely local – Tagore wins hands down on his vision of a space where the “whole world would find a nest” – the world had scoffed at his idealism back then but patiently it has borne fruit.
Today, even the University walls and dustbin is hand painted with Alpona motifs!
All photos by the author who’s lucky to have amassed enough Santiniketan arts and crafts to last few lifetimes. Though she’s terribly saddened to see people bargain for even petty purchases with the poorest people of our society. The same consumers who wouldn’t even realise how ruthlessly they are cheated by big corporate honchos…
I will leave you with the Visva Bharati anthem, written by Gurudev, for introspection: