In Tagore’s Backyard, Learning a Thing or Two

“Jodi tor daak sune keu na aashey, tobe ekla cholo re…” the words from Rabindranath Tagore’s famous song rang in my ears as I walked along the dusty path early in the morning. It may be a coincidence that I was walking in Tagore’s own backyard.

The sole purpose of my visit to Bolpur, or Santiniketan, in any case was solitude. I had heard and read a lot about the place and wanted to witness the glory of this Bengali beauty for myself. And one fine spring morning, I found myself walking the path the Gurudev had walked over a hundred years ago. But right now, at 6:30 in the morning, instead of being smug about it, I was questioning my decision; there seemed to be nothing to see or do here.

“Do you see that tree in the centre? That’s a Chatim tree. It is under this tree that Rabindranath Tagore’s father, Debendranath Tagore, had sat down to rest while passing through the forest. He had found the spot so peaceful that he decided to build a house here. Since the land belonged to his friend, he bought it on a token amount and built Santiniketan at the same spot,” said Anirban Sarkar, a student at Visva-Bharati University, as he showed me around the campus, the nerve centre of everything in Santiniketan. He studies Rabindra Sangeet here during the morning hours and shows people like me around after his classes are over. That way, he says, he keeps himself engaged and makes a little pocket money, too.

It was well past noon now and I was standing in the heart of Santiniketan surrounded by towering trees soaking in the serenity of the place. I had already seen the residential complex of Tagore, walked the length of the town and had uncountable kulhars of rabri and mishti doi sold by middle-aged men on bicycles. And after listening to interesting stories and anecdotes from Anirban, I felt a little more reassured about my decision.

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Santiniketan is known all over the world for the Visva-Bharati University. Some believe that the university is called Santiniketan; some think that the town is named so, but in reality Santiniketan is the house Debendranath Tagore had built back in 1883 for spiritual purposes. Since he had found this place exceptionally peaceful, he had called it Santiniketan, the abode of peace. Rabindranath Tagore had later lived in the same house, before going on to establish the university and build many more homes in the vicinity. Like his father, he had also found peace here, and he used it to create Nobel Prize winning literature and art.

More than hundred and thirty years later, the place still induces peace. Even though the campus is buzzing with tourists and students alike right now, there is a soothing sense of calm here. And while the literature created by Tagore cannot be seen on the streets—it is stacked up in book stores and libraries—the art is omnipresent.

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From the multiple carts that sell handmade terracotta figures and handmade bags, to the walls around the town, from the little local shacks to cafés set up by foreign students, art is everywhere in Santiniketan. On my walk through the town in the morning, I came across paintings, murals, and sculptures carelessly strewn around—by the road, in a courtyard, on a rooftop. And, in the university, I witnessed a whole new level of it. The painting on the walls of the office buildings, the sculptures in various stages of completion, cottages covered in murals; the hostel, painted in black, adorned with sculptures from all over Asia, the installations outside the girls hostel and in the courtyard. The campus, especially the arts department, with creations by Ramkinkar Baij, K.G. Subramanyan, Nandalal Bose, Benod Bihari Mukherjee, and many more renowned artists, seemed like a living art installation.

But Santiniketan is much more than its campus. And to know that, you need to dig a little deeper.

Flanked by two hamlets called Prantik and Bolpur, and two tiny rivers called Kopai and Khoai, the town lives in times gone by. People commute on bicycles or on foot, motor vehicles are hard to find, food is served on dried leaves or in clay pots, roadside shacks do not serve anything other than tea, and touristy things are hard to find.

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While reading up about the place, I had come across the names of various boutique stores, pottery studios, and handicraft shops, but when I walked along the spinal chord of the town, I spotted nothing but an old bookstore called Subarnarekha.

Subarnarekha, or the line of gold, stands right across the university campus. From the outside it looks dusty and worn out; inside, however, it houses treasures that are priceless. Some books here are so old that they are ready to disintegrate any moment; some have their own little stories scribbled in fading ink, while some await their first ever owner. There is art, too, and like every other place in Santiniketan, it is strewn around haphazardly here as well—on top of shelves, in corners, on counters. You can spend hours here browsing through the store listening to sweet Bengali banter in the background and yet not get enough of it.

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It was almost dusk when I left Subarnarekha. Luckily I found a young man who knew about the other places I wanted to visit and agreed to take me around in his toto. I spent the next few hours traversing the veins and arteries of the hamlet that I did not know existed. And it was here that I discovered the real Santiniketan—in the quiet lanes flanked by tiny yet beautiful houses, in the courtyards full of dahlias, phlox, roses, and daisies, in the uneven roads and dark alleys, in chirping birds and looming silence. And no, I was no longer worried about having nothing to see or do here.

This piece first appeared in The Week.

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