Shantiniketan and Twilight Years of Rabindranath Tagore

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Shantiniketan and Twilight Years of Rabindranath Tagore


“I have it in mind to make Shantiniketan the connecting thread between India and the world. I want to make this place somewhat beyond the limits of nations and geography. ” -Rabindranath Tagore
Shantiniketan and Twilight Years of Rabindranath Tagore 1
Shantiniketan is a small town near Bolpur in Birbhum district of West Bengal, India and is located at a distance of about 175 Kilometres from Kolkata (formerly Calcutta). Santiniketan was previously called Bhubandanga and owned by the Tagore family. Rabindranath’s father Maharshi Debendranath Tagore found it very peaceful and renamed it Shantiniketan, meaning abode (niketan) of peace (shanti).

Kala Bhavana, the art college of Shantiniketan is still considered as one of the best art colleges in the world. Today, Shantiniketan is a tourist attraction also because Rabindranath lived here and penned many of his literary classics, and his home is a place of historical importance.

The story of Shantiniketan is more than hundred years old. It was the year 1863, when Rabindranath’s father Debendranath Tagore, on one of his journeys, stopped at Shantiniketan, to take rest under one of the trees that existed there at that time. Although the area was desolate, barren and denuded, Debendranath was charmed by the solitude and the aloofness of the place and bought it – as a retreat for his family. Over the years, soil and plants were transported and thus began the greening of Shantiniketan.

In 1901, Rabindranath, at the age of forty, decided to make Shantiniketan his home. In the same year, he started Patha Bhavana, an experimental open-air school with just five students. It proved a success and widened the scope of studies which gradually formed the nucleus of a University.

With the financial backing of the Maharajah of Tripura, the Visva Bharati University was established in 1921. The main attractions of Shantiniketan include the various buildings of the Visva Bharati campus.

The sprawling Visva Bharati University campus is amidst verdant green. School students in orange uniforms can be seen studying under the cool shade of trees, formal classes are held outdoors, just as Tagore had intended it to be. India’s first Nobel Laureate, Tagore, had dropped out from school as he felt claustrophobic within the four walls of the classroom. He felt that students should be close to nature. Tagore was not a mere dreamer, he was a visionary with the will power to translate them to reality. Visva Bharati University is proof of that.

The poet lived in the Uttarayan Complex that is comprised of several buildings, such as Udayan, Konark, Shyamali and Punascha Udichi. The Bichitra Bhavan was itself designed by Rabindranath Tagore. Also known as the Rabindra Bhavan it houses a research institute and a museum.

In the year 1922, Rabindranath started another rural reconstruction centre at Sriniketan, 3 km. from Shantiniketan. Later some other institutions have come up here- Siksha Satra, Silpa Sadana, Palli Siksha Bhavana, Santosh pathshala etc.

The other buildings include China Bhavan (Chinese faculty), Kala Bhavan (college of arts and crafts), Sangeet Bhavan (school of dance and music) nnd the prayer hall.

The Kala Bhavan gallery has paintings by Bengal’s renowned artists like Rabindranath Tagore, Gaganendranath Tagore and Nandalal Bose. The sculptures of Ramkinkar Baiz are also amongst the attractions of Shantiniketan.

Some notable places of historical and cultural interest are Shantiniketan Griha – the building where most poems of Gitanjali were composed, the Upasana Griha – a deityless Belgium glass temple, the Amra Kunja (mangrove) where spring festivals are held, Dinantika – the tea club where teachers and staff would gather for a chat and Tin Pahar – where the infant Tagore had once made three hillocks of pebbles.

The Rabindra Museum, inaugurated by Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru in 1961 has manuscripts, letters, paintings and gifts presented by various dignitaries of foreign countries.

There are also other centres, affiliated to major institutions such as Nippon Bhavana, Indira Gandhi Centre for National Integration, Rural Extension Centre, Silpa Sadana; Centre for Rural Craft, Technology and Design, Palli-Charcha Kendra; Centre for Social Studies and Rural Development, Centre for Biotechnology, Centre for Mathematics Education, Centre for Environmental Studies, Computer Centre and Indira Gandhi Centre for National Integration. Other than Patha-Bhavana, there are two schools for kindergarten level education; Mrinalini Ananda Pathsala, Santosh Pathsala; another school of primary and secondary education known as Shiksha Satra and lastly a school of higher secondary education known as Uttar-Shiksha Sadana.

Tagore’s hand written letter refusing to accept Knighthood, his Nobel Prize medallion and citation, and personal items of the poet can be seen here. In the video parlour Tagore’s voice can also be heard.

Visva Bharati is proud of its alumni which includes Indira Gandhi, Amartya Sen and Satyajit Ray. Tagore fondly called Indira Gandhi Priyadarshini. She ate the same food as the other girls, cooked meals at the hostel and dressed in the coarsest khaddar, with a natural ease.

Fairs and festivals are another great features of Shantiniketan’s life. Rabindranath’s birth anniversary is observed on Bengali New Year. Brikshropan Utsav is observed on the day of Tagore’s death by the planting of saplings. The fields are ploughed through songs and recitation on Halakarshan Utsav.

Maghotsav during the month of Magh, in January, is the celebration of the anniversary of the foundation of Brahmo Samaj.

Sarodotsav is an autumnal festival celebrated just before the University closes for the Puja vacation; songs, dances and plays accompany it.

The most important fairs of Shantiniketan are Pous Utsav and Vasanta Utsav. Pous Utsav coincides with the foundation day of Visva Bharati; tribal songs, dances and folk songs are put up. Vasanta Utsav is celebrated on Holi, students don colourful costumes and hold a variety of open air programmes.

In 1940, Oxford University arranged a special ceremony in Shantiniketan and awarded Rabindranath Tagore with Doctorate of Literature.

Shantiniketan has metamorphosed from the days of Tagore. Although Visva-Bharati University continues to play an active role, Shantiniketan has become a heaven for India. They have built huge houses on what used to be a barren land. Beautiful khoai (rust coloured) and ugly expensive condominiums are becoming a common place. Still, travel a bit beyond the outskirts of the ever- expanding “small town” and village India returns in its pristine form, without the trappings of Internet cafes and satellite dishes.

Twilight Years

Till the last years of his life, Rabindranath continued to compose countless poems, songs, dance dramas, critical essays, novels and prose pieces.

These preoccupations are reflected in the volume titled Prantik. But his imagination also took in the world of men and women, that of fairy tales, and seemed bent on the pursuit of the inner being as in the songs of the mystical Baul singers of Bengal.

Before his death, however, Rabindranath, truly a poet with an international perspective, witnessed the grave crisis of values in the world manifested in the Second World War. Nevertheless, Rabindranath continued to believe in the greatness of mankind.

His faith in humanity is reflected in the volume Kalantar and Sabhyatar Sankat. The latter embodies his final message for humanity and is based on a speech he read on the last birthday anniversary organised for him when he had completed his eightieth year. In 1940, the poet had become seriously ill while on a visit to Kalimpong. From then on his health declined steadily. He died on August 7, 1941 in the Jorasanko Tagore’s home.

Rabindranath was a poet of inexhaustible vitality, immense humanism, and a writer enthralled by nature’s timeless beauty. He saw death as a stopping station on the way to eternity. Life and death and the world itself were manifested to him as one. That is why he had composed the following lines in a song that encapsulates his philosophy of life: ‘Full of sorrow, full of death, and the pain of separation/Still bliss, happiness, and delight keep emerging within us’.

In his last decade, Tagore continued to compose countless poems, songs, dance dramas, critical essays, novels and prose pieces. In the work, he did in the last decade of his literary career, he showed the impact of the new age in literature.

At this time he composed fifteen volumes of verse. Among them Punashcha, Shes Saptak, Patraput and Shyamali are basically prose poems. Now there was a profound change too in the poet’s mentality.

The poet became more conscious about adopting a scientific outlook and seemed to have become more detached from worldly concerns. The poems increasingly became more spare and meditative. He appeared to be thinking more and more about death. These preoccupations are reflected in the volume titled Prantik. But his imagination also took in the world of men and women, that of fairy tales, and seemed bent on the pursuit of the inner being as in the songs of the mystical Baul singers of Bengal.

He also went back to his childhood memories as well as the pain of the oppressed and of ordinary people. He continued, too, with his literary experiments and dedicated himself to the creation of new forms. For example, he now wrote some prose songs. The novels that he wrote in the last decades of his life are Dui Bon (1933), Malancha, and Char Adhyay.

Tagore’s last four years were marked by chronic pain and two long periods of illness. These began when Tagore lost consciousness in late 1937; he remained comatose and near death for an extended period. This was followed three years later in late 1940 by a similar spell, from which he never recovered.