What Attracts Bengalis To Visit Visva-Bharati: The World Of Rabindranath Tagore

When we joined the Visva-Bharati University anthropology department, as faculty and students, the campus was reopening in February after lockdown. Santiniketan, in the Birbhum district of the West Bengal city of Bolpur, where Visva-Bharati University is located, had started receiving visitors from all over the state, especially on weekends.

Visitors had long 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 were aware of the cultural importance of Santiniketan and its deep association with Nobel Prize winner Rabindranath Tagore, we as anthropology students had a question.

What makes Santiniketan so unique in the imagination of the people of Bengal that receives such a large number of visitors?

Vacations are usually taken at 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 take away when they visit Santiniketan? Do they ever feel Tagore’s presence or do they understand his greatest socio-educational experiment, the Visva-Bharati University?

If the goal is to better understand Tagore’s literary legacy, wouldn’t it be easier to read his poems, short stories, dramas, and nonfiction? This could be done anywhere. Furthermore, there is little chance of anyone committing to the university as an educational institution unless one is a student or a teacher, aware of Tagore’s thoughts on how Visva-Bharati was created as an educational experiment.

So why do Bengal people dream of coming here?

A cultural footprint

The idea of ​​Santiniketan in the Bengali imagination begins to form at an early age, when children read Tagore’s stories as part of the school curriculum. As they sing the national anthem, many of them think, “Tagore taught India Bengali.”

There is a primal attachment to a poet who wrote poems in his mother tongue and then won a Nobel Prize: the first non-European to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. Tagore’s work, life and portrayal are iconic, synonymous with Bengali pride and embedded in the daily cultural imagination.

Rabindranath Tagore’s father, Debendranath Tagore, affectionately called Maharshi, established the Santiniketan ashram, or abode of peace, in 1863 and invited other like-minded people. Rabindranath Tagore took up the mantle of his father and amplified the aura of Santiniketan by establishing the Visva-Bharati University in 1921.

His students have included the Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, Director Satyajit RayAuthor mahasweta devi Y economist Amartya Sen, who have publicly expressed their gratitude to the institution that formed their work. This has also contributed to increasing the prestige of Santiniketan in the imagination of the residents of Bengal.


Credit: India Post, GODL-India, via Wikimedia Commons.

Arriving at Santiniketan

Arriving at Bolpur-Santiniketan railway station, Rabindra Sangeet can be heard over the background speakers. Photographs 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, with the narrow and busy streets of the market area taking them into Tagore’s universe.

The toto is the only means of transportation for visitors. Even if visitors arrive in their own vehicles, toto driver associations insist that they hire them to get around. Toto drivers also act as informal guides. Toto drivers have rich oral narratives that cannot be verified, but play an important role in helping tourists connect deeply with Santiniketan.

When they take visitors to Hati Pukur, a pond with sculptures of elephants, they claim that the elephants visited the pond while Tagore was sitting there and the memory of this incident shaped the sculpture. Elephants from the nearby forests are often seen in Bolpur.

As visitors near the great banyan tree, or Tinpahar, toto conductors narrate different versions of their association with Tagore: “Tagore was born here,” “Tagore was married here,” or “Tagore wrote Geetanjali under this banyan tree.” Although these stories are not verified, and some may argue that they are not true, they help the visitor to identify with Santiniketan. The stories give visitors a unique look 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 Tagore’s world: Sonartari, Sonarkella, Geetanjali and Bichitra. Tagore busts can be seen everywhere. In fact, you’d be hard-pressed to find a store without Tagore’s portrait. These things assure visitors that they are indeed in the place they have long dreamed of.


The Kala Bhavana. Credit: SuparnaRoyChowdhury, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

Santiniketan appears straight out of Tagore’s books with red earth, huge Banyan trees and their drooping roots, and well-maintained enclosed gardens. The scent of scented flowers lingers in the air. Flora blankets the area as many visitors, at Tagore’s urging, have brought and planted different varieties of seeds here. This has also made Santiniketan a paradise for bird lovers. The songs and trills of the birds in the background are hard to miss.

Amidst the serenity of nature at Santiniketan stands the crystal temple, kaach mandir, or prayer/meditation hall, where many have meditated. A little further on is Chhatimtala, which also houses the ashram, the heart of Santiniketan, where Tagore’s father meditated and is believed to have attained enlightenment. Opposite Chhatimtala is the Uttaryan where Tagore lived. It has now been converted into a museum, offering visual satisfaction and allowing one to immerse oneself in the world of Tagore.

Further on is Kala Bhavana and Sangit Bhavana, where luminaries taught or studied art. In an old house with a sign reading “AK Sen”, there is usually a crowd taking selfies. It is the home of Amartya Sen. Visitors can also see the rural development experiment, Sriniketan, at the Srijani Arts and Crafts Emporium.

On the streets, students can be seen riding their bikes, dressed in their dance class attire, or walking around with tablas, veenas, and sitars.

There are also other beauties from Tagore’s world for visitors to delight in. They make trips to the Kopai River and from the bridge witness the flowing waters. To reach the Kopai River, they pass over the bridge, or jorasanko, which helped make Bolpur fertile for agriculture thanks to Tagore’s intervention. Jorsanko is also the name of the Kolkata neighborhood in which the Tagores lived.

On their way back, visitors shop at the Sonajhuri hat, popularly known as the Sanivar hat, an initiative by Tagore for the mostly tribal locals to earn income. Although many believe that the market actually sells produce brought from Kolkata, the fact that it is sold at the Santiniketan venue makes the items special, as if food becomes prasad once it is offered to a deity.

An Indian street vendor sells photographs of Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore on a sidewalk during celebrations marking his 145th birth anniversary in Kolkata May 9, 2006. The birth anniversary of Nobel Prize-winning poet Rabindranath Tagore was celebrated in West Bengal, with a university established by him breaking tradition and marking the occasion with song, dance and poetry. REUTERS/Jayanta Shaw

Places are made up of their residents. In Santiniketan, it is common to see adivasi women dressed in their traditional saris and riding their bicycles to work. Street vendors sell fruits at the roadside. The locals make unique traditional ornaments for sale. The Bauls-Birbhum district is considered Baul Desh: singing your heart out in the markets adds to the mystical atmosphere. It’s hard to miss the Bolpur cattle herders driving their herds back home.

For many, visiting Santiniketan is an act of cultural reverence, just as Tagore intended. Writer Uma Das Gupta, who has extensively researched Tagore, quotes him as saying: “[Visva-Bharati] it will not be a mere school; It will be a pilgrimage. Let those who come to him say, oh, what a relief it is to be away from the narrow domestic walls and contemplate the universe.

They enjoy their moment and go back to their lives with the promise and hope to return to Santiniketan once more.

Sipoy Sarveswar teaches anthropology at Visva-Bharati, Santiniketan. Her Twitter account is @SSarveswar. Naina Das, Ankita Mukherjee and Riya Gurung were 2020-22 Masters students in the Department of Anthropology, Visva-Bharati.

Gandhi statue at Kala Bhavana by Ramkinkar Baij.

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