A Poet’s School : Tagore’s Santiniketan as seen in photos by E.O Hoppé.

In 1929, renowned British photographer Emil Otto Hoppé embarked upon an ambitious photo-documentation project to India. At the time, German-born Hoppé was one of world’s most sought-after photographers. His (high-quality) photographs of India are unlike any other ones that you might have seen from the early 20th century. They represent accurately, the many Indias that exist within this vast nation. During Hoppé’s time in India, he even travelled to Shantiniketan to meet Rabindranath Tagore. Tagore is celebrated for his contribution to the world of literature; he had been conferred the Nobel Prize in 1913. Equally important was his contribution to the world of education.

Hoppé’s photographs of Visva-Bharati University are a visual record of the making of an educational environment that was unrestrained by any religious or regional barriers. In this photograph, you see Amiya Chakravarty (Tagore’s literary secretary) and his Danish wife, Hiordis Siggard. In one of his letters, Tagore references their marriage as the first interracial marriage in Santiniketan (December 1927) – “which should be supported in keeping with the Visva Bharati ideals”.

Hoppé's photographs document an important, historic moment. His photos include artists like Asit Haldar in their youth - the students and alumni of Santiniketan would go on to shape India's premier institutions, excelling in cinema, music, art and even politics!

These pictures are a testament to the meeting of two globally influential figures and their mutual appreciation for each other.

📸 See E.O Hoppe's India gallery here (includes his notes!)

In this photo-essay about the Poet's School, Hoppé's photographs are accompanied by Tagore's words.

The title of this photo essay borrows from Hoppé's phrase and an essay by Rabindranath Tagore featured in a Visva-Bharati bulletin. The text is adapted from Tagore's lecture 'My School' - delivered in America in 1915, published in Personality, London: MacMillan, 1933.

We invite you to enjoy Tagore's literary craftsmanship alongside Hoppé's remarkable photos.

All pictures © E.O. Hoppé Estate Collection - Curatorial. Images have been used with permission.


All around our ashram is a vast open country, bare up to the line of horizon, except for sparsely-growing stunted date-palms and prickly shrubs struggling with ant-hills. Below the level of the field there extend numberless mounds and tiny hillocks of red gravel and pebbles of all shapes and colours, intersected by narrow channels, of rain-water.

Not far away towards the south, near the village, can be seen through the intervals of a row of palm trees, the gleaming surface of steel-blue water, collected in a hollow of the ground. A road used by the village people for their marketing in the town goes meandering through the lonely fields, with its red dust staring in the sun. Travellers coming up this road can see from a distance on the summit of the undulating ground the spire of a temple and the top of a building, indicating the Shanti-Niketan ashram among its amalaki groves and its avenue of stately sal trees.

A Poet's School: Rabindranath Tagore's Santiniketan

I started a school in Bengal when I was nearing forty...In the first place, I must confess it is difficult for me to say what is the idea which underlies my institution. For the idea is not like a fixed foundation upon which a building is erected. It is more like a seed - which cannot be separated and pointed out directly - it begins to grow into a plant. And I know what it was to which this school owes its origin. It was not any new theory of education, but the memory of my school-days.

We all know children are lovers of the dust; their whole body and mind thirst for sunlight and air as flowers do. They are never in a mood to refuse the constant invitations to establish direct communication which come to their senses from the universe....

In India we still cherish in our memory the tradition of the forest colonies of great teachers. The places were neither school nor monasteries in the modern sense of word. There the students were bought up, not in the academic atmosphere of scholarship and learning, or in the maimed light of monastic seclusion, but in the atmosphere of living aspiration.

Children are not born ascetics, fit to enter at once into the monastic discipline of acquiring knowledge. At first they must gather knowledge through their life, and then they will renounce their lives to gain knowledge, and then again they will come back to their fuller lives with ripened wisdom. In the teaching system of my school I have been trying all these years to carry out my theory of education, based upon my experience of children’s minds.

Students and artists from Santiniketan

A number of our boys have shown remarkable powers in drawing and painting, developed not through the orthodox method of copying models, but by following their own bent and by the help of occasional visit from some artists to inspire the students with their own work.

I have set all my resources to create an atmosphere of ideas in the ashram. Songs are composed – not specially made to order for juvenile minds. They are songs that a poet writes for his own pleasure. In fact, most of my Gitanjali songs were written here. These, when fresh in their first bloom, are sung to the students, and they come in crowds to learn them. They sing them in their leisure hours, sitting in groups, under the open sky on moonlight nights, in the shadows of the impending rain in July.

They have ready access to the room where I read to the teachers my new things that I write in prose or in verse, whatever the subject may be. And this they utilize without the least pressure put upon them; feeling aggrieved when not invited. Very often they themselves write plays or improvise them, and we are invited to their performance!

I, for my part, believe in the principle of life, in the soul of man, more than in methods. I believe that the object of education is the freedom of mind which can only be achieved through the path of freedom--though freedom has its risk and responsibility as life itself has.

In his last letter to Mahatma Gandhi, Tagore described the University as his life's best treasure, hoping it would be preserved by the people of India.

"Visva Bharati is like the vessel carrying the cargo of my life's best treasure and I hope it may claim special care from my countrymen for its preservation" [source]


Today, Santiniketan is recognised by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site.

In Santiniketan, there's peace, calm and art. Tagore's ideals continue to influence students, who celebrate the change of seasons with art and music. Here's an art tour to enjoy!

From its very inception, Tagore modelled Santiniketan on principles of humanism, internationalism and a sustainable environment and the curriculum was developed to promote the free interchange of human values and cultures. 

UNESCO [Source]

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A Poet’s School : Tagore’s Santiniketan as seen in photos by E.O Hoppé.