(Originally published in www.travelanddeal.com in October 2013)
The place I wish to visit and have revisited, time and again, is Santiniketan. The first time I confronted it was in 1989, as an undergraduate student from Bengaluru. My second visit stretched between 1990 and 92 as a postgraduate art history student at Kala Bhavana. And the last time was in April 2010, as an external examiner to the final display of art students’ works. It was also the last time I met young art historian teacher Parvez Kabir who passed away recently, who seemed to be then contemplating of quitting the place, professionally. It was 45 degree hot in the deserted afternoon of the general summer holidays, which, I believe, was the reason for such of his formulating decision and I humorously told him so. Both of us agreed to disagree ‘dialectically’ and had a good laugh at it.
During my first two visits – the second one stretched 104 times more than my first visit which had lasted exactly a week – I could not imagine as to what does it mean to be a Ramkinker Baij in the land of Tagore. During my last visit Parvez was trying to convey more or less the same to me, while I was refuting it, on practical grounds! Santiniketan lives more on its reputation than on ground realities. It was a place which was attempting to make concrete of (i) those who emerged from there and (ii) those who made possible its history. It is not coincidentaly that both are one and the same.
During that one last meet with Parvez, I had to catch a train in a while and hardly had few minutes to experience what was uniquely Santiniketan: close the eyes amidst the sweating uplifted face, inhaling the madka-chai, in the seemingly ever raising heat, seated alone on the lonely table just outside the mud hut-hotel in a seemingly deserted place in the scotching heat of the April afternoon. In this sense, Santiniketan had introduced me to the pleasantries of what is generally categorically termed unpleasant, which alleges a certain Buddha-hood to the place. It is the ‘afternoon’ scotching that I pleasantly remember whenever I think about this place, not the everyday-five-hours-load shedding in the ‘evenings’. One can sense only Tagore’s Mandir and museum (Uttarayan) from wherever they are, at this place, like one can sense Eiffel Tower wherever they move around in Paris.
My initial encounter with it was a certain dejavu. In this sense, Santiniketan is like London. You cannot visit them without already having an imaginary picture about them, due to their sheer popularity. In this sense, there is nothing called as ‘first time’ to popular places! The first time I saw it, I knew that I was already familiar with it and only its visibility—which I had no clue about how it looked — had altered, completely!
Going from a city-in-the-making like Bengaluru, I was confronting a place which was not only away by two thousand kilometers but also took me back by half a century. But for the bicycles, cycle rickshaws, campus buses and goats whose tummy frequently touched the ground, ‘petrol’led vehicles were not allowed inside it. It was delightful to watch the cow-catcher metallic pipes horizontally laid near every gate, being successful in catching the legs of those students who had refused to put on weight. Imagine this happening to students in the darkness of the load shedding and also imagine some clueless bicycle rider without a dynamo, hurrying through towards the kitchen via such a cow-catcher. Actually it did happen once in my presence, while I had heard about such occurrence several other times! The leg of reality always get caught in the cow-catcher-like imagination at Santiniketan.
Perhaps the cows which were thus put away from attending art classes at Kala Bhavana must have been delighted. It was since then that the question as to whether the goats at Santiniketan are short or the ground over there bulges like an elastic in order to romance with the goat? — has stayed with me. What you see is what is represented over there: look in and around Santiniketan and compare it with the works of master artists from Kala Bhavana. The differences are only exceptions.
Rosh (unfermented toddy), which you seasonally get in plenty over there, is perhaps the reason for such creative questioning. There was an art school called ‘Kala Bhavana’ whose heart was a canteen and is a tradition which happens to be still a living tradition even to this day. One could literally place a huge compass and draw a circle, with canteen at the center and all the fine art departments would squarely fit into that imaginary circle! In this sense, Santiniketan is like a traditional woman whose wisdom tells her that the best way to win over a man is through his tummy. More than being a place, Santiniketan is an attitude!
It seems once upon a time, there was a pathway that meaningfully connected the sculpture of ‘Sujatha’ to that of ‘Buddha’ near the ‘Black House’, all three created and constructed by Ramkinker Baij with the aid of art students. Black House, constructed in 1930s, consisted of individual rooms allotted to postgraduate students on a lucky draw-basis. Write your names on sheets of paper, fold or roll them, pick one of them against a room in Black House; and the room would be yours for two years. Similarly the history of all those sculptures, murals, paintings and relief works as well as their creators in and around Kala Bhavana campus are thus selected and projected for a couple of decades as doyens of 20th century Indian art by art historians. Nothing unusual about it except for the fact that other art schools failed to do so!
In a way, most of my tutors there were celebrities as artists and writers, as well. Even to this day I wonder whether Kala Bhavana is a tourist spot is turned into an art school or is it the other way round, if you can excuse to forget the factual history of the place and remember the contemporary style in which the local guides not only explain the artworks and campus but also introduce the students working inside the studio as, “an unusual artist who has come all the way from Kerala stays here”. The seemingly overgrown three windows and one door that represents all the four walls of our studios had to be shut and open choicely, according to the local guides’ timings of visiting the campus! Often a student inside his studio would feel no less than an animal inside a cage, with even cows watching them from beyond their laxman –rekha, the cow-catchers!
Now an asphalt road criss-crosses that pathway between Buddha and Sujatha, which, along with the humorous fact that next to Buddha’s sculpture lies the girls’ hostel bathroom, feeds well a critic’s interventionist appetite.
When I re-re-re-visited Santiniketan in 2010 after almost two decades, I had already made notes about writing an art-based travelogue about the place, even before I reached there. In between my three major visits to Santiniketan between the years 1989-2010, news about its people, their theatricalities ranging from a sublime serenity to unbelievable eccentricities would reach me more frequently than a monthly report. And the news about the death of most of our friends would be later rectified as false information, directly from the horse’s mouth. Just like I had already visualized this place before visiting it for the first time, my few subsequent visits to this place had equipped me to upgrade my inner-eye vision regarding its colourful occurrence. Between my last two visits to this place, a resident of this place had gained a Nobel Prize and the other resident was not alive to see his Nobel Prize disappear from under the nose of its guardians!
Even before I entered the campus after three years (earlier visit was in 2007), I had made notes in the flight about U.G.C paying only train fair for external evaluators, apart from noting one more fact that the asphalted road that criss-crossed the road between Buddha and Sujatha was very meaningful in a contemporary manner. This was enough to sharpen up the critic’s nails that grew at the edge of my fingers!
Within a couple of years after my first visit, I was enrolled as a student of Art History department (1990-92). Slippers replaced shoes, shaving was stretched from alternative-day affair to a weekly affair, video-films were costlier than the balcony tickets at Chitro and Bichitro theatres (Rs.2.90/-) between Santiniketan and Bolpur railway station; Shamshul da himself was a negative-camera to document any and everyone’s artworks, at the drop of a hat. The fact that he did this for almost two decades, is an understatement, in the age of digital reproduction. All these happened apart from a thousand other facts which looked like wonders, since it was like walking through a live table-top model of a township rather than a real one a la Jim Carry’s film ‘True Man Show’. It was a Disneyland/Disneyworld of an artistic and anarchist variety.
Food cooked with mustard seed was consumable only with a thorough coating and dressing of home-made ghee all around it, speaking (even broken) Bengali was ‘the’ visa card to receive warmth among its largely Bengali inmates, in the winter colds. At least I thought so, though Bengali food and Bengalis might readily agree to disagree with it.
Like it happens with all travels, the first visit to Santiniketan was a thriller, literally out of my primary school text book. The second travel to the same place was to ‘travel’ within the Santiniketan campus for two years, whenever I found time between ‘being’ a student of art history in M.F.A course. I was sure to come out of flying colours as a first rank holder, for I was the only student of art history in my class!
Santiniketan is Kala Bhavana, to me. The rest of the places – like Pranthik and Bolpur railway station, Kopai river, Sriniketan around it were places of holiday attractions. The Chaatal premise (near the canteen) was the place where all of us assembled, time and again, throughout the day (and nights). Most discourses occurred outside the classrooms, at Chaatal; and hence the name ‘open-air-school’ to it. To provide another example of how it is a place of dejavu, consider the fact that K.G.Subramanyan was creating the black and white mural on the design department in 1989, during my first visit. Again when I visited it in 2010 he was repainting it! I remember one of his articles about the feel of the Kala Bhavana campus; it carried much nostalgia even to him, thus making the nostalgia of others of my age doubly-nostalgic. We used to play this game of finding the original Gandhi by Nandalal Bose, in a reverse relief, seen on all the Gandhi Bhavan’s throughout the country which was believed to be in Kala Bhavana. Finally we managed to find it behind the old art history department. My tutor R.Sivakumar’s assignment made me visit almost all the murals at Santiniketan, to measure draw them, with a bicycle, a torch, an umbrella, a tape and a notebook, with ever altering friends on every occasion, for the sake of making his book about Santiniketan murals. It was here that I saw for the first time cobwebs on trees both in 1989 and 2010. I am sure they were not the same cobwebs!
What I miss but would not now consume at Kala Bhavana is the guguni for breakfast. If we would, for instance, buy four cup of tea, the canteen owner, one Mr. Maama, would enlist a debt into the accounts of all the four of us. And whenever old-Santiniketanites would meet, the nostalgic dialogue would not conclude without pleasantly remembering him. I had once asked him as to how people over there eat jaamoon sweets, sandwiched between loaves of bread for breakfast, incessantly, everyday; and enquired whether they would not become diabetic. He had that divine smile when he said, “they eat sweets till they get diabetic, because they are worried that they cannot eat sweets once they get diabetes”!
Surendranath Kar’s architectural design of Santiniketan and the old books (as old as 1920s) sold at the Viswabharathi university share a common aspect: they are closely knit with their surrounding and are far away from anywhere. Once I bought a bunch of books, each priced at not more than 25 paise or a rupee. However, when I was about to pay, I was informed that I had to go all the way to the University office, a few kilometers away, pay, get the bill and submit the bill herein and get the books. Santiniketan is so close to one’s heart but too far away to an outsider’s perception.
Santiniketan, to me, is a place to visit again and again, but never to stay. People have changed and the place hasn’t. The same typical architecture, bicycle rickshaws, yellow-white uniforms, afternoon siestas, smell of the polash flowers, a ragged old man selling ‘ek taka Tagore’ (one rupee Tagore), the wild-west-like-afternoon-heats in summer and ‘shawl’ed colderness pairing people. My batchmates have become the faculty, some have gone and others have left. The age-old mature presence of doyens of visual arts—K.G.S and Somanath Hore—smoking with an authoritarian presence at chataal, or similar assuring warmth (remember Spiderman’s quote ‘with power comes responsibility’) is emptied off Santiniketan. Does the place change people or is it the other way round? My travel experience to Santiniketan in Kannada came out as a book in 2010. The consistent anxiety that the place continue to evoke among my generation became a personified character, a classmate of mine, called Prakshubda. Despite a crystal clear explanation that Prakshu (meaning ‘anxiety’) is a mere metaphor, readers of that book even now ask me two questions: ‘Do you still go to Santiniketan?’ and “Is he (Prakshubda, anxiety) still there”!
Santiniketan not only changes people but also necessarily make them come up with a fable about the place. It is always one’s, yours or my Santiniketan and there is no ‘the’ Santiniketan anywhere as such! In this sense re-visiting this place is re-visiting myself.//