The (Un)making of Santiniketan

An ongoing exhibition of the scrolls of Benodebehari Mukherjee prompts a reflection by Sampurna Chattarji on the fractured legacy of Tagore’s Santiniketan

A class in progress at Santiniketan, 1929  (Photo courtesy: Rabindra Bhavana, Santiniketan)
A class in progress at Santiniketan, 1929 (Photo courtesy: Rabindra Bhavana, Santiniketan)

Sampurna Chattarji

Scene 1

On a screen before me a landscape is slowly unfurling. Trees, roots, empty space. A thatched hut. More empty space. A cluster of thatched huts. A huddle of buildings. An undulation that might be a fold of land or a hint of water. A sudden stippling of colour—yellow, green. A grove startling in its density punctuating the sparseness of what comes before and after… a cart… a date palm… a person…

I am looking at Scenes from Santiniketan—the film of a scroll currently on display for the first time in Kolkata. The artist is Benodebehari Mukherjee (1904–1980), one of the first students of Kala Bhavana, who would go on to gain renown as one of the most gifted figures of the Bengal School.

For me, Benodebehari was more of a household name, heard from the time I was little. He fascinated me, not least because he was born blind in one eye, and severely myopic in another. Severely myopic in both my eyes, and living in dread of going blind, I watch the scroll—the earliest he ever painted, and the longest at almost 45 feet.

I know this place. It is the setting of my father’s youth, bedrock of his adult years as a poet and an educator, a place of attachments—to the khoai, the (river) Kopai, the red earth he walked on, barefoot, like all the others. It all comes flooding back as I watch Benodebehari’s delicate brushwork, floating across my line of vision. This newly rediscovered scroll records a century-old landscape; it predates my father’s experience by a quarter century, but that seems immaterial to the recognition it arouses. So much of what I have inherited through stories is inscribed before me, in a format that has ‘both an aesthetic and ethical underpinning’, as R. Siva Kumar points out in his curatorial essay.

1. Early Santiniketan landscape, courtesy: Rabindra Bhavana, Santiniketan 2 & 3. Segments from Scenes from Santiniketan by Benodebehari 
Mukherjee, Ink and watercolour on paper, courtesy: Gallery Rasa, Kolkata & Mrinalini Mukherjee Foundation 4. Detail from Khoai
scroll by Benodebehari Mukherjee, Tempera on Nepalese Lokta paper, courtesy: Mrinalini Mukherjee Foundation
1. Early Santiniketan landscape, courtesy: Rabindra Bhavana, Santiniketan 2 & 3. Segments from Scenes from Santiniketan by Benodebehari Mukherjee, Ink and watercolour on paper, courtesy: Gallery Rasa, Kolkata & Mrinalini Mukherjee Foundation 4. Detail from Khoai scroll by Benodebehari Mukherjee, Tempera on Nepalese Lokta paper, courtesy: Mrinalini Mukherjee Foundation

The landscape of Santiniketan—horizon to horizon—deserved, indeed demanded, that kind of uninterrupted depiction. As Siva Kumar writes: ‘Santiniketan was this grand theatre of nature for Benodebehari; he represented it not with a single image but as a sequence of events, and duration was its essence’. I watch—both anchored and adrift—my four minutes of a seamless screentime concerto, replaying the past of a rudely altered present.


Scene 2

It is Tuesday, 9 May, the third day of a sit-in to oppose the ultimatum issued by Visva-Bharati to Nobel laureate Amartya Sen—he must vacate his ancestral house Pratichi—or else. The bald hostility of the eviction order (stayed since by the Calcutta High Court pending a hearing) surprises nobody—it is very much a part of the Modi government’s playbook on dealing with influential critics, and Sen is just the kind of argumentative Indian this regime fears. Armed guards are stationed outside Pratichi. Filmmakers, artists and various shades of public intellectuals are assembled in protest, singing songs, staging scenes from Tagore’s play Rakta Karabi, women are holding hands as they form the front row of the rally.

It is Tuesday, 9 May. Union culture minister G. Kishan Reddy has tweeted: ‘Great news for India on the Jayanti of Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore. Santiniketan in West Bengal has been recommended for inscription to the World Heritage List by ICOMOS, the advisory body to UNESCO World Heritage Centre. This furthers the vision of PM Narendra Modi to showcase our rich cultural heritage to the world.’

For anyone remotely aware of this cultural heritage, the irony couldn’t be more stark: Santiniketan today retains little of its real heritage of freedom and openness, of Tagore’s great embrace of earthy nature and cultural diversity, of the spirit of fearless enquiry he and many others in his wake imbued it with, of his lyrical challenge to all forms of dogma.

The university departments are shut. There are locks on every gate and high walls imprison once-open grounds. I think of the afternoon Eurig Salisbury, a Welsh poet friend, and I wandered into the university campus, and found ourselves locked out of most places I’d thought we’d pop into. What, he said, ruefully, would the great poet have made of this violation? What, indeed.


Scene 3

I am talking to my friend, the artist and writer, Manjari Chakravarti. She joined Kala Bhavana as a first-year BFA (Bachelor of Fine Arts) student in 1983 and forty years later, calls Santiniketan home. More than me, who comes and goes, she feels keenly the other rude irony of the so-called custodians of Tagore’s legacy being the ones to strike at it. ‘Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high’—that line all schoolchildren once knew—no more than a tattered unspoken loss.

When I ask what the breakdown of the idea and the idyll means to her, she says, in a burst of anguish: “How can an outsider visualise this place as it once was, as it was meant to be? Santiniketan’s anthem speaks of khola maather khela (playing in open fields), but where are they? The common areas that were everybody’s to enjoy and nobody’s to own no longer exist. These were the areas where children played, students met for adda, families spent a few hours enjoying the evening breeze… where meetings took place, where films were screened.

Pratichi, Amartya Sen’s house in Santiniketan
Pratichi, Amartya Sen’s house in Santiniketan

“These open areas are now firmly barricaded, there is no entry. There is a firm demarcation between the university and everything not associated with it. The public has little or no access. When I go for a walk, I feel like a lab rat, walking narrow roads between fences and walls. For an outsider, this may be insignificant, but in Santiniketan, it strikes at the heart of Tagore’s philosophy of inclusion and freedom of movement in every way conceivable.”

Is there no way to fight back? Manjari’s contemplative reply takes me right back to the locale: “All the places Benode-da stayed in, or went travelling to, found an integral place in his works, through the landscape, the people. The brevity, boldness and truth of his lines and strokes, the delicacy of his keen observation, and the making of his language were deeply inspirational to me as a student and remains so to this day.

“The fact is, nothing can stop thought and the spirit of creation. Like seeds that persevere, and find sustenance in the smallest of crevices and grow in strength over time, I hope that something of Santiniketan remains for future generations.”


Scene 4

Will it? I am walking through a grove of trees, many of them merely saplings. The chief gardener—for that is how I like to think of this great-great-grandson of Satyendranath Tagore—is naming the plants as we walk. Behind us, ebullient kids are diligently removing any scrap of plastic they spot. Orphaned or abandoned, they live and school here, in Santiniketan Sishutirtha, a small ashram built by educationist Sudripta Tagore’s family.

The unique Kalo Bari, envisioned by Nandalal Bose
The unique Kalo Bari, envisioned by Nandalal Bose
Kala Bhavana, with murals by K.G. Subramanyan
Kala Bhavana, with murals by K.G. Subramanyan

Sudripta-da is talking about Rabindranath. “So much of his imagery revolves around flowers, trees, nature in Bengal, and more specifically in Santiniketan. If the trees disappear, this imagery becomes obsolete. We are trying to preserve each and every one of the trees mentioned in his creations; if nothing else, let the poet’s legacy survive in the poems and the trees.”


Scene 5

I am looking at what Benodebehari would have seen from ‘the first floor of the old library building where Kala Bhavana and his working space were then situated.’ (Siva Kumar). But I am, in fact, seeing what is not there. The iconic Santiniketan building, the glass mandir or meditation hall, memories of early morning song.

I imagine two boys: Rabindranath, age twelve, on his first-ever visit to Santiniketan in 1873 with his father, and Benodebehari, age thirteen, when he arrived in Santiniketan in 1917. Rabindranath took forty years to record those unforgettable impressions. Benodebehari only seven to paint with ‘loving attention what he saw.’

While Rabindranath expressed boundless freedom and joy, Benodebehari captured a haunting isolation. ‘By then,’ he wrote, ‘a kind of distance had grown between the old and the new. None of my old friends were around; I was alone. Khoai, the sal forest of Surul, the banks of the Kopai river—these were my steadfast companions.’

What would this blind visionary have made of the distance between the old and the new we are witnessing now? Would he have found, as I do, consolation in Manjari’s quiet resistance through her art and her writing, in Sudripta-da’s labour of love, his enterprise to grow, one tree at a time, a living text of the flowers found in Tagore’s songs?

Is it naïve of me to believe that the legacy will endure, if nowhere else, then in the art that could not have sprung from any other site but this one?


(The exhibition ‘Scenes from Santiniketan and Benodebehari’s Handscrolls’, curated by R. Siva Kumar and organised in collaboration with Gallery Rasa, can be viewed at Kolkata Centre for Creativity till June 20, after which it moves to Santiniketan in July and Kochi in August)

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