The contributions that Rabindranath Tagore made to Indian literature, arts and culture are too numerous to take any real account of. The Nobel laureate’s legacy is colossal to say the least, and his writings, paintings and music remain timeless.
Tagore was also a great educationist. And one of the many artists trained at Visva Bharati in Santiniketan—an institution of alternative learning set up by Tagore—was Samit Das, whose work revolves around the idea of architecture and he is heavily influenced by the life of “Gurudev”.
Last week, Das curated an exhibition at Kolkata’s Bol-Chitra gallery, which establishes several links between the art and the architectural imagination (actualised in Santiniketan) of Tagore. The exhibition was also accompanied by a short talk by Das where he spoke about the life and work of the four Tagores—Rabindranath, Abanindranth, Gaganendranath and Rathindranath.
When Das was a student at Santiniketan, from 1989-1996, he found himself deeply engaged with the architecture of the place. He says, “I wanted to understand how space could be an important mechanism for the educational system. Within a very limited number of visuals, I have tried to come up with a brief presentation of Tagore’s idea of space and architecture through the architecture of Santiniketan.”
The 115 images in the exhibition are divided into various categories which introduce the viewer to the architecture of Tagore’s ancestral home in Jorasanko, his influences while he was staying in Bangladesh, and finally the design of Santiniketan.
Das, in this exhibition, has used a lot of images from the archives and photographs which he has shot from 1993 to 2010. He says, “In the show, one can see the architecture of the Jorasanko house and the interior it had before the advent of ‘Swadeshi’ and how it came to look post-Swadeshi. An intervention to create a hybrid culture and the influence of Japanese culture resulted in a variety of transformations within the Jorasanko house. The Tagores, living in number 5 Jorasanko, took the initiative (Abanindranath Tagore, Gaganendranath Tagore, Samarendranath Tagore). A few great scholars visited the house, they were Okakura, Taikan, Sister Nivedita, and Rothenstein etc. Later, the spirit of this change expanded to include Jorasanko number 6 as well, where Rabindranath Tagore lived.”
According to Das, the transformation in Tagore’s ideas on architecture was occasioned by what he saw in Bangladesh. Tagore was close to nature and realised the meaning of the vastness of space. Das says, “The endless depth of the sky, the vastness of the forever extending wide horizon took him to a different land, beyond everything. He felt that here one could breathe freely, live without constraints and could realise nature in its entirety. We can get a glimpse of that vastness of the sheer beauty of nature through some of the great masters’ works—of Abanindranath Tagore, Gaganendranath Tagore, Nandalal Bose and Mukul Dey, to name a few. And needless to mention Rabindranath’s series of letters called ‘Chinnapatraboli’.”
In the Santiniketan section of the exhibition, one can see how Tagore’s architectural dream really took shape. Glimpses of the early Santiniketan are available here—what it looked like as a small school, and not as a big university. Das said, “Tagore had deep respect for the Upanishad. He derived major philosophies from the same. He was deeply influenced, he also tried to implement them in his own life and within his ashrama Santiniketan. Keeping all this in thorough consideration, he tried to build each and every corner of Santiniketan from the barren raw land that existed. He had a clear idea about his concept of the ashrama. He did not want one similar to the ancient ‘Tapovan’ but a different modern version of it. Tagore never had a liking for a man-made garden, but rather desired one that interacted with nature. He wanted a delicate integrity to prosper between man’s creation and nature.”
The exhibition also featured various poems, letters and paintings on space by Tagore, which resonate harmoniously with Rabindranath’s architectural blueprints for Santiniketan.