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Dhaka Tribune

Santiniketan: An abode of peace

Update : 02 Mar 2014, 07:52 PM

For a long time, I cherished the dream of visiting Santiniketan, but it did not happen until our recent trip to Kolkata with my wife and youngest daughter. We left our hotel in Kolkata by car around 9.30am on January 30 in order to avoid the traffic jam that was expected because of a scheduled meeting of the Trinamul Congress (TMC) of Mamata Banerjee, the chief minister of Paschimbanga. She was due to address a huge crowd on the same day at the Brigade ground, ahead of the Lok Sabha election. The city of Kolkata was decorated with banners and ornamental gates for the occasion. A crowd of over two million supporters of TMC was expected to join the meeting and the whole area around the Brigade ground was likely to be closed due to traffic.

As we passed by the Brigade ground, we noticed a huge crowd had already gathered at the venue of the meeting. Thousands of supporters, chanting slogans and carrying party flags and banners with pictures of Mamata Banerjee, were coming in processions from all directions to attend the meeting. 200 giant screens were set up across Calcutta to beam the show live. Another 19 screens were at the Brigade ground. Renowned singers and dancers of Kolkata were due to perform on the stage to entertain the crowd. On our way, we saw hundreds of buses and trucks with supporters of TMC heading towards the city.

Santiniketan is in Birbhum district and about 170 km from Kolkata. Normally, it is a three-hour drive. We crossed the beautiful New Howrah Bridge, also known as Vidyasagar Setu, and were driving towards the north. The older bridge over the Hooghly River is, by the way, known as Rabindra Setu. It is interesting to note that none of the structures were named after any politician. Soon, we took the Kolkata-Delhi Highway, previously known as the Grand Trunk Road. Sher Shah Suri, an ethnic Pashtun, who ruled Delhi for five years by ousting Mughal Emperor Humayun, built and extended the road from Chittagong in Bangladesh up to Kabul in Afghanistan.

It was a pleasant drive over the four-lane highway. The countryside outside Kolkata changed dramatically over the years, particularly during the rule of Jyoti Basu of the Communist Party of India (Marxist). Thatched or tin-shed houses are rarely seen beside the highway. Most houses in the villages are built with bricks and have electricity. Several buildings, apparently owned by well-to-do people, look like palaces. We passed through Hooghly and Barddhaman districts by-passing the town of Barddhaman.

As we were halfway to Santiniketan, I called my friend Prof DP Sengupta (Paharida) in Bangalore. We studied together at Liverpool University under the same supervisor during the early 1960s. He retired as professor of electrical engineering from the prestigious Indian Institute of Science (IISc). He informed me that his elder sister, Usha Mukharjee, was at Santiniketan at that time. He gave me her mobile phone number and advised me to call her on arrival at Santiniketan. I did not have to wait till our arrival. Ushadi called me soon after Paharida had finished his call. She was kind enough to invite us for tea at her house in the evening.

We left the highway near Panaghar, taking a right turn along a narrow two-lane road. The road was busy. We stopped at a roadside restaurant for tea even though the place was not very clean. We resumed our journey around noon. At one point, we had to take a detour as a bridge was under construction over a small river, now lying dry. We had to travel several kilometers along a narrow and bumpy road through a village. Because of the detour and our stoppage for tea, we arrived at our hotel in Santiniketan a little late, around 1:30pm.

The West Bengal Tourist Lodge, where we stayed, is a beautiful place. Though not very modern, it has all the basic amenities. Situated in a serene surrounding, it comprises several single-storied cottages, each with one or two rooms, around a large rectangular garden with beautiful seasonal flowers. We took a large room in a cottage and soon went for lunch. Our car was conveniently parked beside our cottage.

At around 4 pm, we went to see the Visva Varati University. Santiniketan was originally called Bhubandanga, owned by the family of Lord Satyendra Prasanno Sinha, the first Indian member of the British House of Lords. Maharshi  Debendranath Tagore, father of Rabindranath Tagore, received the area as  a gift from the Sinha family and renamed it Santiniketan, an abode of peace, in view of the serenity of the place.

In 1901, Rabindranath Tagore founded the Patha Bhaban, an institution of primary and secondary education, initially with five students, to experiment his philosophy of learning in a friendly atmosphere and in harmony with nature. This institution gradually developed into a centre of culture with emphasis on arts, language, humanities, and music and was renamed as Visva Varati in 1922. It was recognised as a university in 1951. Some illustrious students of Visva Varati include Indira Gandhi, Satyajit Ray and Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen.

With Visva-Bharati at its centre, Santiniketan grew into a university town. The university complex comprises a cluster of buildings, both old and new, housing different departments, institutions, museums, libraries, prayer halls, students’ dormitories, and administrative units plus open spaces for lectures, sports, gardens, and parks.

One of the oldest and the most decorative structure in the complex is the Upasana Griha (Prayer Hall). It was built by the poet’s father in 1863 and is made of coloured glass with marble steps on all sides. It is open on Wednesdays only when special prayers are held. It is also called “Kanch Mandir” (Glass Temple). The temple was closed during our visit and we could see it only from outside. Tagore’s father also prayed at another place, known as Chhatimtala, (under a “Chhatim” tree) within the complex.

Two most famous buildings of Visva Bharati are the Kala Bhaban, housing the faculty of arts, and the Sangeet Bhaban, housing the faculty of music and dance. Similarly, there are Hindi Bhaban for studies of Hindi, Cheena Bhaban for Sino Asian studies, Vidya Bhaban for humanities, Shiksha Bhaban for science, Vinava Bhaban for education, Rabindra Bhaban for studies on Tagore etc. Other prestigious centres and institutes like the Indira Gandhi Centre for National Integration, Rural Extension Centre, Centre for Rural Craft, Technology and Design, Centre for Social Studies and Rural Development, Centre for Biotechnology, Centre for Mathematics Education, Centre for Environmental Studies, and the Computer Centre are also associated with the university.

A prominent structure in the complex is the Black House, a mud building coloured black with tar. It is now used as a residence for final year students. The Natun Bari (New House), built in 1902 for the poet’s family, is a thatched house now used as a meeting place. During our visit, we talked to two former teachers of the university who came to attend a fortnightly meeting of the ladies of the university. The Library of Visva Varati has a collection of over 3,76,000 volumes of books.

The Uttarayan Complex was closed on the day. We left it to be visited on the following day. What impressed me most is the openness of the complex and its proximity with nature. We saw the Amrakunja (Mango Grove) where classes are held in the open air under mango trees. The class area is demarcated by a brick-liner. There is a small but simple brick platform where the teacher sits in front of the students. We also saw small groups of students getting lessons or studying on their own on the verandas of some of the buildings.

The whole complex looks like a park with beautiful gardens and trees around the place. There is a big playground within the complex. It shows that sports and games get equal importance as studies. No motorized vehicle or rickshaws are allowed inside the campus. The only allowable mode of transport is the bicycle. It was a pleasant sight to watch students, both boys and girls, in small groups cycling on the roads and gossiping with each other at the same time. We walked inside the university from one end to the other, looking at different buildings, statues, and gardens while our car was waiting for us in a designated parking area. As the visiting time was closing, we left the complex and returned to the hotel.

In the evening we went to meet Ushadi. She was married to late Panna Lal Mukharjee, younger brother of famous singer of Tagore’s songs, Konika Banerjee, nick-named Mohar. Ushadi lives in the same housing complex where Mohardi lived. Ushadi’s father, Professor Suresh Chandra Sengupta, was the Principal of BM College, Barisal during the partition of India in 1947. He left former East Pakistan for India with his family soon after partition and later settled in Kolkata. Two of Ushadi’s brothers, Professor Santosh Sengupta and Professor Sunil Sengupta, taught philosophy and agro-economics respectively at Visva Varati. Sunilda visited us in Dhaka more than a decade ago.

We were warmly received by Ushadi. She is about 80 years old and lives practically alone at her house. She is still very pretty and elegant for her age. She has three daughters who live in Kolkata. Two of her daughters, Sohini Mukhopadhay and Ranjini Mukhopadhay, are renowned singers of Tagore’s songs. She remembered many students from Bangladesh who had studied at Santiniketan. She particularly mentioned the names of Rezwana Choudhury Bannya, Papiya Sarwar, and Lily Islam.

Ushadi was indeed very happy to see us. She served refreshments and tea to us. Even though we met hardly for an hour, it seemed as if we knew each other for ages. She showered so much love and affection on me, my wife, and my daughter that later I called Paharida and said, “Ushadi is most probably my sister, not yours, and you must have hijacked her when I was very young!” Both Paharida and Ushadi laughed heartily having listened to what I said. We took some pictures with Ushadi. As we were leaving, Ushadi insisted that we must visit her again and stay at her house, not at any hotel. Later, she called me several times during our stay in India to enquire about our welfare.

Kanika Banerjee, by the way, received lessons in music from none other than Rabindranath Tagore. Kanika’s original name was Anima. Tagore renamed her Kanika after one his books on poetry. She joined Sangeet Bhavana as a teacher and later became its principal. One of the teachers of Kanika Banerjee at Visva Bharati was Sailajaranjan Mazumdar. He came from a zamindar family of Mohanganj in Netrakona which is also my home town. Sailajaranjan was so fond of Mohanganj that he used to visit his ancestral home regularly even at his old age. He last visited Netrakona in 1987 at the age of 87 but could not proceed to Mohanganj due to ill health. I remember having seen one of his cousins, Durga Das Majumdar, at our ancestral home several times when I was very young.

The following morning, we went to Sriniketan (abode of welfare) where Tagore founded an Institute for Rural Reconstruction in 1922. It also houses a centre for village crafts, a centre for education for village folk including children, and the Rural Extension Centre that conducts research in farming techniques and animal husbandry. These institutes reveal Tagore’s dream for rural development through education, self-help, agricultural innovations and cooperatives. Modern-day non-government organisations (NGOs) must have been inspired by Tagore’s ideas and thoughts on rural development. Here we see another side of the multifarious qualities of Tagore. As we know, there is no field in literature in which he didn’t put his footsteps, be it poetry, short stories, novels, plays, essays, travel stories, dance dramas, lyrics etc. He was a singer, an artist, an actor, a teacher, a philosopher, social reformer, an agriculturist, an environmentalist, a politician, and what not?

We also visited the Amar Kuthir Society for Rural Development, now a centre for development of crafts that was founded to realise the ideals of Mahatma Gandhi and Tagore for rural development through self-help. We bought some kantha-stitched sarees and handicrafts from the showroom of the society. The Shilpagram is a beautiful park to visit in Sriniketan. It has a collection of traditional houses of the tribal and ethnic groups in the eastern region of India including Bihar, Assam, Orissa, Manipur, Andaman, and Jharkhand. The walls of the houses are decorated with paintings. Traditional artifacts used by the ethnic groups are exhibited inside the houses. Murals and statues of tribal people in their traditional dresses decorate the whole complex. Handicrafts are also manufactured and sold inside the complex.

On the same day in the afternoon, we went to see the Uttarayan Complex, perhaps the most beautiful part of the Viswa Bharati, comprising five buildings where the poet lived. The houses are named Udayana, Konarka, Shyamali, Punascha, and Udichi. These houses plus the Rabindra Bhaban, which was built after the death of the poet, are now used as museums. The houses are situated in a beautiful surrounding with gardens and parks and contain furniture, artifacts and personal belongings of Tagore. The original Nobel medal and certificate for literature received by the poet in 1913 plus some other exhibits were stolen from the museum in 2004. These articles are yet to be recovered. A replica of the medal and a copy of the certificate are now exhibited in the museum. The gardens and trees of Uttarayana and the adjoining areas were designed and planted by the poet’s son, Rathindranath, who was a horticulturist. Santiniketan wears a festive mood during Basanta Utsab (Spring Festival) and Poush Mela (Winter Fair).

Many of Tagore’s literary and art works were done in Santiniketan. It is an epitome of his life, thoughts, and philosophy and a centre for development of human values in their best forms. In his last letter to Mahatma Gandhi, the poet wrote, “‘Visva Varati is like a vessel carrying the cargo of my life’s best treasure and I hope it may claim special care from my countrymen for its preservation.”

There is no doubt that the Visva Varati is being looked after very well. It receives thousands of visitors every day, not only from India but also from all over the world. To any fan of Tagore, a visit to Santiniketan is like a pilgrimage. His presence is felt all over the small town. Even commercial shop in the nearby market bear the names of his works – poems, dance-dramas, or books. A makeshift tea shop under a tree at Bolpur is also named after the poet.

Next morning, we left Santiniketan for Kolkata. Even though our visit was short, I was happy to have fulfilled one of my cherished dreams. The memories of Santiniketan will linger in our minds for a long time for its uniqueness, beauty, serenity, and in particular, the love and affection of Ushadi.

We had a pleasant journey back to Kolkata. While passing through Chowrangee, we could hear the recorded speech of Mamata Banerjee which we had missed on the day we went to Santiniketan. Mamata was speaking clearly, loudly, and emphatically. With a firm grip on Paschimbanga, Mamata now wants to extend her influence up to Delhi. She practically thundered, “Chalo, Delhi chalo.” She said, “BJP is not the alternative to Congress. Trinamul is the only alternative at the Centre.” Without naming anyone, she denounced dynasty and danga (riot) but expressed the desire to rule Delhi.

As we were passing through the streets of Kolkata, we noticed new banners inviting people to join another meeting scheduled at the Brigade ground on February 5, even though the old banners of Mamata Banerjee were still in place. This was to be addressed by Narendra Modi of Bharatio Janata Party (BJP), another aspirant for the coveted post of the prime minister of India. This means more processions, more slogans, more speeches, and of course, another traffic jam.

During the time of Tagore, Kolkata was not perhaps as noisy as it is today. Yet the poet looked for a retreat for peace and solitude that he found at Santiniketan. He made it “the connecting thread between India and the world” and founded “a world center for the study of humanity somewhere beyond the limits of nation and geography.”

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