'(The Blog) With No Name', perhaps best described as a stream of notes and thoughts - 'remembered, recovered and (sometimes) invented'.

Friday, December 04, 2009

Santiniketan - A Pilgrimage

"Tagore was not a gifted man. He was a genius" - Gyani.

"Tagore was a great poet but a second rate playwright....People have the tendency to be reverential about people and think that they are marvellous because they got Nobel prize or something like that."- Girish Karnad on Tagore.

I am no expert on Tagore; but I have been a fan for long. Many years ago, I read his own English translation of Gitanjali (most Bengalis would say he made a meal of the translation) and a few of his stories (I found them a bit too sad; much later, I encountered his 'Nashtanirh'; it is an exceptionally subtle and not at all sad story, but I know it only thru Satyajit Ray's film interpretation). I like Rabindra Sangeet, and believe it is one of the primary well-springs of inspiration for the rich corpus of early Hindustani film music. But more than anything else, I admire the Master for his visual art - "at nearly 70 years of age, he took up painting and produced works which won him a place among India's foremost contemporary artists", as Britannica puts it (of course, I sense some backhanded-ness in the geographically limiting 'India's').

A quick day-trip to Santiniketan, Tagore's 'Karmabhoomi', happened last week.

We reached Bolpur by train on a persistently chilly mid-morning. The hallowed campus is just a couple of kilometers away and we walked down there. A traveler's guide, which we picked up upfront, lists literally scores of sites and sights to see - we did not check out more than half a dozen.

There is a museum with a lot more memorabilia and photos than the Jorasanko Thakurbari in Calcutta; it sells neat postcards of Tagore's paintings, some of which are masterpieces, plain and simple(*), some, not surprisingly, little more than 'senilia'. None of the originals is to be seen there.

The roads which crisscross the campus are treelined and reasonably well maintained; but nowhere does one see direction boards to the various 'Bhavans'. And most bhavans do not even have name name-boards, making navigation still more difficult. Colossal sculptures by Ramkinkar Baij stride across several of the grassy compounds. Further pieces of modernist sculpture sit around students' hostels.

Indeed, visual arts seems to be one area where the university is still going strong, although (I am told) the so-called 'exact sciences' have of late been sadly neglected. We saw many students at work around the 'Kala Bhavan'. Some of them were painting what looked like a medieval Persian-inspired mural on a building; another group was putting together some complex installation around a tree.

Several of the buildings had been embellished with modern art, murals... One had big black reliefs - copies of ancient masterpieces from all over the world - a Dakshinamurti Siva, a Persian lion-hunt, an Egyptian genre scene, A Kerala-mural style representation of Parvati's toilette,...

We hired a rickshaw to take us to the nearby village of Surul. On the way the driver pointed at a quiet bungalow saying : "Amartya Sen's house". Then we passed a pond, ringed by dense stands of bamboos and many huts among them. The driver pointed in that direction and declared: "Aborigines!". I asked him if they were the Santhal people who I had heard, lived in the area. He did not respond.

Surul has a temple, quite similar in design to (though much smaller than) to the Dakshineswar temple. Its facade (and the facades of some smaller shrines which flank it) has elaborate terracotta reliefs (not sure about their antiquity). The best of the lot shows a complex battle between the armies of Rama and Ravana - a medievally dressed musketeer can be seen standing behind Ravana and taking aim at Rama...

The Campus Art Gallery (named Nandan) had just a few bits of folksy sculpture and craftwork on display - no paintings by any of the masters associated with Shantiniketan - Tagore and his nephews Abanindra and Gaganendra, Nandalal Bose(**), Binod Behari Mukherji, ... . I sought an explanation and got this response:
"The paintings are in the strongroom. You may meet the curator and the principal of the arts college. If *both* agree, you can see them. But you will need to convince them that you are an expert and are doing research on arts." At any rate, nothing could be done on the day, since both gentlemen were busy with some meeting.

Later, a student we met near Kalabhavan corroborated what we had heard: "Even we need special permission to see those paintings" he informed us.

On the return journey, we got into a bit of a talk with some NRI's who too were returning from a sightseeing trip to Santiniketan.

A gentleman: How did you guys like the place? I found it nice, very nice.

Self: The place is of course, nice; but it was a bit disappointing not to see all those paintings; none of the masters..."

The gentleman: Paintings? We did not see any either, (to a lady, who was with him) Right?

The lady (who probably was his guide/hostess): Oh, you can't see them these days... they stole his medal you know (***)... and then, they locked up everything!

Another lady (who probably was the gentleman's wife): Oh, yeah, I remember now, the Nobel thing! ... The two theys were different, right, like, the they who stole and the they who locked?!


After getting back, I spent a while collecting biographical details about the Man behind the Tagore Myth. There is plenty about him that is reminiscent of Tolstoy - the landed gentry-background, his empathy for serfs (although, some sources allege that Tagore was just another money-minded Bhadralok Zamindar who had no qualms about rack-renting his mostly Muslim tenants in Kushtia, present-day Bangladesh), his experiments with evolving a commune, the pathos-tinted realism of his stories... and of course, a comparably robust beard(****)!

Like most long-lived great men, Tagore evolved a lot over his life. Our travel guide has this strange bit to say about the early days of Santiniketan:

Tagore did not ... allow any form of non-Vedic or non-Hindu activity to disrupt the functioning of the Ashrama (he had created). In early days, he was rather hesitant to allow Brahmin pupils to touch the feet of non-Brahmin teachers as a mark of respect. The Brahmin students also had a specially demarcated dining area. But with time, all divisions gradually vanished. Non-Bengali and non-Hindu students were heartily welcomed in the Ashrama. The rigid attitudes of the poet underwent a drastic change. But he never imposed his opinion or ideology on anyone.

Whatever be the truth value of the above bit (I find it rather dubious and the last sentence, almost hilarious!), Tagore's trajectory does show a transformation from a confused mishmash of Brahmo-influenced liberalism and conservatism to a world-view broad enough to encompass the world itself. For example, several of his elder sisters and sisters-in-law led very visible public lives and were intellectuals in their own right, but the poet does not appear to have encouraged his wife (whom he married when she was just over 11 years of age) to follow their lead. More tellingly, he did not educate his three daughters at Santiniketan and arranged marriages for them at ages 14, 10(horror!) and 13 respectively. All one can say in his defense is that at that stage, almost half his life remained to be lived out...

The abiding memory of this pilgrimage might well be a photo, taken around 1900, showing four of Tagore's children. Within a few years thereafter, three of them - and their mother - would die and over another generation, his lineage would be totally extinct. Even the larger Tagore clan, once such a galaxy of brilliant men and women, has no presence worth mentioning in today's cultural scene - unless one considers Bollywood A-lister Saif Ali Khan as a representative.

(*) My personal favorites include: the face of a lovely girl with Rapunzel-like tresses against a dreamily blue backdrop; an enigmatic, predominantly yellow, 'laughing face'; a couple of 'masks' (in these I sense a a Daumier-like quality) and of course, an amazingly elegant seal with his initials in Bengali script (to self, the only Indian script which allows genuine calligraphy - the Urdu script is an import). A set of a dozen identical b/w photographs of his own which he transformed with pen-doodles into a self-portrait gallery of sorts is also strangely interesting.

Tagore's color-schemes are often reminiscent of William Blake (although the drama and violence of Blake's visions are far removed from Tagore's quiet themes). Perhaps Blake too had a touch of color-blindness, like Wiki says, Tagore had. Less seriously, the hoary-headed poet seen staggering across the frames of Satyajit Ray's brilliant documentary cuts a figure the like of which haunts many a 'Blakean' painting!

Tagore is said to have been totally untrained as an artist. But I have never seen him listed as a 'naive master' alongside the likes of Rousseau.

(**) - Belur Math museum - a repository of holy relics with no pretense of being an art gallery - has at least a dozen of Nandalal's sketches.

(***) - Tagore's Nobel medal was stolen a few years back from the Santiniketan museum; it was never traced.

(****) Here is what the biography by Dutta and Robinson says: "Tolstoy who died in 1910 never read Tagore, far less corresponded with him; and Tagore felt no particular affinity to Tolstoy's works".