If you’d ask a Bengali, you’d find that Shantiniketan is not a place – it’s a way of life. As the name suggests, it is the “abode of peace”, and it’s very ambience transports you to another world! Shantiniketan is only a couple of hours by road from the city of Kolkata and well-connected by rail. Even then, the place has maintained it’s idyllic, old-world charm.
Shantiniketan : the Beginnings
In 1862, Maharshi Debendranath Tagore established an “ashram” where anyone, irrespective of caste and creed, could come and spend time meditating on the one Supreme God. In the years to come, his son, and India’s most talented poet Rabindranath Tagore too, would find peace in this very place. In 1901, he established the Brahmacharya Ashram (on the lines of the ancient gurukul systems), now known as Patha Bhawan – a school for children. Tagore strongly disliked the idea of crammed classrooms and believed that :
The highest education is that which does not merely give us information but makes our life in harmony with all existence.
In 1921, he established the world-famous VishwaBharati University, laying foundations for intercultural learning and exploration. In this new experiment, Tagore called upon the artist Nandalal Bose, who took over as Principal of the Kala Bhavana. Soon, Shantiniketan became the nest for artists such as Ramkinker Baij, Benode Behari Mukherjee, KG Subramanyan, Satyajit Ray , Chitranibha Chowdhury, and many others.
The free-spirited and liberating ‘Shantiniketan’ thus became the most important centre of modern art in pre-independent India. Take a look at some of our favourite Shantiniketan-art!
The Kaanch Ghar
Sculptures by Ramkiner Baij
Ramkinker Baij is fondly remembered as the father of modern Indian sculpture. Baij’s sculptures often represent his experience of men, women, animals, landscape and he was particularly drawn to the Santhal tribals. The Santhals were in close proximity to Shantiniketan (and remain to be even today), and Baij was quite eager to record their life in some form.
This sculpture is widely considered the first modern public sculpture in India, and Baij’s magnum opus. In this sculpture, created in 1938-39 you can see a Santhal (tribal) couple with their two children and a dog. They’re shown to be carrying almost all their meagre material possessions in the sculpture. Do you think the sculpture represents their return from a market after selling their produce? Or could this be a representation of migration? The entire sculpture has so much energy – you can almost feel them walking!
In the second half of the 19th century Santhal-migration to the tea estates of Bengal, Assam or the coal fields of Bihar was common. But the sculpture doesn’t evoke feelings of displacement – rather, fills you with a sense of purpose, of hope.
In a country accustomed to seeing only deities, film stars and politicians in such huge statures, the monumental size of the the tribals, gives them “iconic” status!
Call of the Mill:
This sculpture too, represents the Santhali’s responding to commercialisation! Movement is crucial to Ramkinker Baij’s sculptures – in this one, a couple of factory workers shoot off to work on hearing the mill-siren, with a child running behind.
Perhaps Baij also tried to show the stark contrast between the otherwise music-and-dance-loving Santhals and ‘a world dominated by money and clock-time‘, that they have become part of! Call of the Mill as well as Santhal Family are reflective of the growing effects of industrialisation and urbanisation! In both sculptures, Ramkinker Baij used materials like concrete and laterite pebbles.
This was Ramkinker Baij’s first sculpture in Shantiniketan and has a mind-blowing secret! While in the art-world it is common knowledge that “Sujata”(named so by Tagore himself) was meant to represent a female student of Kala Bhavan, little did we know who that female student was! Maitreyee Chowdhary, in a research piece indicates that the the sculpture was modelled after Jaya Appasamy, a noted art writer, critic and artist.
Most art-historians have noted how Ramkinker’s sculptures, just like his choice of material, grow from the earth. It almost echoes Nandalal Bose’s philosophy. Bose had once instructed his students while sketching trees – that the strokes must start from the ground – for a tree grows from the earth and not the other way round! Sujata, the 11-feet tall, graceful sculpture too, uses cement-concrete as the main material. In fact, because of a Buddha-sculpture in close proximity, Bose suggested a pot to be added to this sculpture’s head!
The Buddha :
One of the many amazing things about Ramkinker Baij’s sculptures is how site-specific they are. They respond to the surroundings and the surroundings respond to the artwork! Similarly, as Buddha rests in meditative mood, you can spot “Sujata” walking towards him, just like in the story! It is because of the placement perhaps, that Tagore decided to call the female sculpture “Sujata”. In the original story, Sujata the princess, walks towards Buddha with a bowl of milk and rice as an offering. The incident becomes a turning point in the story as Siddhartha’s asceticism ends and Buddha-hood (enlightenment) begins. However, the original Buddha sculpture by Rudrappa Hanji was destroyed in the late 1940s and so, Baij created an altogether new one, so that the Sujata narrative fell in place!
In the campus, there are other striking sculptures by Ramkinker Baij : the Thresher, Lampstand, Mahatma Gandhi, etc. (see image above)
Internationally acclaimed artist KS Radhakrishnan was one of Ramkinker Baij’s last students. Check out these sculptures in his signature-style!
“Terrafly” is a 12-feet bronze sculpture done for Ramkinkar Baij’s centenary celebrations in 2006 in Shantiniketan. It is often misunderstood on social media to be a sculpture by Baij himself – but guess that would be quite a compliment to the artist!
According to the artist, “Maiya as the bow and arrow brings together the notion of strength and beauty born out of the tension of the bow”. This sculpture, in the Uttarayan complex was made to honour Tagore’s 150th birth anniversary.
Murals by Benodebehari Mukherjee
Benodebehari Mukherjee was born with partial blindness, which proved to be his big boon! Since he was differently-abled, he was admitted to Shantiniketan instead of “usual school” and under the tutelage of Nandalal Bose he shone as one of modern Indian art’s brightest stars. He began with sketches, watercolours and moved to tempera on wood, works on silk, textile block prints and finally paper cut works.
Medieval Indian Saints
This mural was created in 1946 – just before India became ‘independent’. This period was also marked by violence and disturbance between the Hindu-Muslim communities. Against this backdrop, the mural “Medieval Indian Saints” has special relevance. The mural celebrates the different ideas of saint-poets like Kabir, Surdas, Ramanuja etc and highlights co-existence and plurality of religious beliefs along the river Ganga (meant to signify life / civilisation). 80 feet in length and spanning across 3 walls of a room, this mural at the Hindi Bhavan is considered to be modern-India’s most “ambitious”, painted using the fresco-buono* technique.
*This is a method of wall painting in which powdered pigments colours are mixed in water and are applied to wet freshly laid lime plaster ground. In this method the colour becomes the part of the wall so that the colours last long.
Ceramic Figures on a Wall
There came a time when Benodebehari Mukherjee completely lost his sight – but clearly not his vision or passion for art! This mural was created purely based on touch! It is believed these were created based on paper-folded figural images.
Life on Campus
In the Cheena-Bhavana along the stairway, this mural captures the ethos of campus life. The influence of Japanese art and technique is visible in this mural by Benodebehari Mukherjee! Capturing individual events and weaving them together, this piece of art evokes nostalgia. By the way, did you know – that he began with painting his hostel-room ceiling and then there was no stopping him! His murals were so detailed that it was impossible to even think that he was visually-impaired!
The Legacy of Nandalal Bose
Mentored by Abanindranath Tagore (nephew of Rabindranath Tagore), Nandalal Bose joined Kala Bhavan as it’s first Principal. He involved his students in projects such as creating artwork for the Haripura Congress Session; and later illustrating the Constitution of India!
Artist KG Subramanyan also painted this black-and-white mural on the facade of the painting department building of Kala Bhavan in 2011. He was 86. He had been mentored by all three teachers : Nandalal Bose, Ramkinker Baij, and Benodebehari Mukherjee!
Nandalal Bose’s Murals
Natir Puja : Bose was drawn to the “Nati” imagery ever since the dance drama Natir Puja was first staged at Shantiniketan. An adaptation of Tagore’s poem ‘Pujarini’, it is a Buddhist story of devotion and sacrifice. The mural is designed like a storyboard – a reminder of the influence of Japanese art on Nandalal Bose. Using tones of brown, and a rag dipped in colour as a brush, the mural spreads out highlighting key moments of the story. Bose’s signature style represents a mix of pan-asian styles and quick brush strokes.
Birth of Chaitanya : Bose loved to experiment and drew inspiration from all around his environment. This particular mural in the Patha Bhavan uses tempera on paper, and one of the scenes is said to be representative of the “Birth of Chaitanya”.
Halakarsana : This is painted on the wall of Surul Kuthibari, the house often used by the Poet as a retreat in Sriniketan. Sriniketan is the rural centre conceived to promote and preserve tribal art and craft traditions. The mural captures Halakarshana – a ploughing festival introduced by the Nobel Laureate to honor the tiller of the soil.
Built in 1934, the Black House (Kalo Bari) was planned by Nandalal Bose, Surendranath Kar, and Ramkinker Baij. Made of mud and coal tar, it has relief figures that include symbols like the Harappan bull and other motifs from Egypt, Ajanta and Bengali folk art! The place serves as a hostel for senior students currently.
Also Visit : the Srijini Shilpagram, a cluster of 6 cottages painted in tribal style!
You’ll see houses painted in Patachitra style, Soara (Odisha), and even the Santhal-style!
Finally, don’t forget to visit the Rabindra Museum, that offers an intimate glimpse into the poet’s life!
Still wondering if you should visit? Don’t take our word for it, when you have Rabindranath Tagore‘s testimony! Here’s what he once wrote to his wife in a letter:
Today I arrived in Santiniketan and immersed myself in an ocean of peace. Unless one comes down here, it is not possible to imagine from a distance how much one needs to come here. I feel as if I am alone – surrounded by the boundless sky, wind and light, seated in the lap of the primal mother…