Tagore’s 'abode of peace': An opportunity lost

Rabindranath Tagore is to Bengal what Shakespeare is to England. But while three million foreign tourists annually visit Stratford-on-Avon Santiniketan draws only a handful of them

Tagore’s 'abode of peace': An opportunity lost

Ashis Ray

It’s a matter of opinion whether William Shakespeare was the white Tagore or the latter the brown Shakespeare.

What is beyond doubt is that the Indian effortlessly and prolifically composed dizzying poetry and lyrics, embellished these with a spate of novels, music and plays; and choreographed dance for his dramas. He was additionally an artist and sculptor.

It is, of course, understandable that the emergence of the English language as by far the world’s leading medium of communication and Britain spotting Shakespeare as an extraordinary asset and therefore promoting him and his works as a major commercial proposition, has rendered the bard an unmatched global status.

In 2011, the British Museum invited Nobel Prize winning economist Amartya Sen to deliver a lecture to mark Tagore’s 150th birth anniversary. Sen had studied at the poet’s Patha Bhavan school in Santiniketan and was in fact named by the poet.

He said: “For many years, Tagore was something of a rage in many European countries and his meetings were always overpacked with people wanting to hear him.” But he explained his patrons in the West “depicted Tagore in the light of a mystical religiosity that went sharply against the overall balance of Tagore’s works”. He lamented that the excitement over the genius of Tagore’s arts was restricted primarily among Bengalis.

The total number of foreign tourists arriving in India is around 10 million a year. The small town of Stratford-upon-Avon, Shakespeare’s birthplace, alone plays host to three million visitors per annum.

And it’s a quality influx, reflecting the curious from far beyond English-speaking countries who zero in to marvel at a literary icon of a language quite alien to them. Indeed, tourism is the backbone of the town’s economy.

In sharp contrast, Santiniketan, Tagore’s “Abode of Peace” and his Visva Bharati University, which he established here, is not a patch on its English counterpart.

Re-visiting it more than half a century after I first set foot on it, I discovered that, if anything, it has altered for the worse and changed little other than mushrooming holiday homes for Kolkatans seeking an escape from the humdrum life and pollution of the eastern metropolis.

Quite basic trains operate from Kolkata. But Santiniketan’s railway station in adjacent Bolpur demands attention; besides, the meander through its congested, dirty and squiggly lanes is uninviting. Otherwise, an expressway – actually a mere two-lane road- inferior to such infrastructure in most Asian countries, not to mention some other parts of India, links the city with the town.

A 100-mile journey consumes at least three and a half hours. To the uninitiated it’s an unnerving experience, with people behind the wheel having no knowledge or respect for the highway driving code.

Stratford-upon-Avon nestles in the English Midlands county of Warwickshire, a little over 100 miles north-west of London. It’s a two-hour journey by either train or car – the latter along a fast three-lane motorway.

The 800-year-old town has numerous buildings connected with Shakespeare as well as those he would have been familiar with in his time – an explorer’s delight.

But it also presents value addition of high-class hotels, leisure and shopping experiences, not to mention the home of the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC), with its daily sell-out enactment of the writer’s plays. [In the back garden of the bard’s birthplace, rather obscurely behind bushes and trees, you might accidentally bump into a bust of Tagore installed when Jyoti Basu of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) was West Bengal’s chief minister.

Reverence for Tagore was heart-felt among leaders of the Indian National Congress during India’s freedom movement. Mahatma Gandhi respectfully addressed him as “Gurudev”, Jawaharlal Nehru sent his daughter Indira to study at Santiniketan and Subhas Bose was ordained “Desh-o-Nayak” or leader of Bengal by the sage. But the fact is Congress hasn’t been in government in West Bengal since 1977.

The Marxists who ruled the roost in the state for 34 years thereafter were ambivalent in their admiration for the artistic genius of Tagore. Indeed, a section disparaged him as a “bourgeoise nationalist”.

Under the CPI(M)’s iron grip over West Bengal, students at Visva Bharati, hitherto largely apolitical, became politicised, thereby commencing a dilution of its unique cultural ethos. Subsequently, populist Mamata Banerjee has done little to correct the status quo. More recently, the appointment of an allegedly RSS leaning vice-chancellor of what is a centrally funded university presents a danger of further deterioration.

In 2010, an application was submitted by the Archaeological Survey of India to grant Santiniketan UNESCO World Heritage Site status. This is yet to be approved.

Santiniketan admittedly boasts a plethora of cheap and cheerful hotels, guesthouses and bed and breakfast facilities; but none of international standard. They generally fail to tap high spenders or foreign tourists, other than Bangladeshis, who adore Tagore. Very few properties blend into the formative architecture or epitomise imaginative period character.

The iconic Kalor Dokan or Kalo’s Shop, once a groovy thatched hut serving tea, samosas and Bengali sweets, is defunct. Almost nothing creative or eye-catching has arisen by way of cafes, parlours and restaurants serving local cuisine or refreshments in a salubrious or Santiniketan way.

Strangely, a co-operative meant to sell local products was shut during the peak of the age-old Poush Mela or a fair in the month of Poush around Christmas.

Santiniketan’s attractions include Chhatimtala or a spot under a tree where Tagore’s father Devendranath meditated and drew inspiration. A glass temple without idols reflects the Brahmo faith, which the Tagores followed. Then there is the Uttarayan, a complex of houses where Tagore lived or used.

Notable among the university buildings are Kala Bhavan or a college of fine arts and crafts – in consonance with the curriculum Tagore wished to offer – and Cheena Bhavan or China Centre, set up while the founder was still alive and in effect emphasising his international outlook. And there is a modest museum, which contains a replica of the Nobel Prize medallion, since the original mysteriously disappeared and is yet to be recovered.

Most such edifices are, however, in a state of disrepair, sorely in need of restoration and internal upgradation - unappealing other than to the undiscerning. Among the thousands who were swarming Uttarayan one morning, only three appeared to be foreigners.

Seasonal fairs and festivals possess great potential. Among them, Vasanta Utsav held in spring around Holi and Varshamangal to embrace the monsoon after a scorching summer. But the Poush Mela conceived to showcase the arts, crafts, folk songs and dances of the area, has degenerated into a detached version of its original design.

Conspicuously, there are no high-profile or sustained performances to entice and entertain lovers of Tagore’s music and dance, let alone an effort to erect an audience among non-Bengalis. Dramas and songs bolstered by multi-lingual translations could reach out to a whole new market.

Where Santiniketan should be the ultimate stage for leading Rabindrasangeet singers and the finest classical dancers, there doesn’t exist a single dedicated all-weather theatre; and no institution like the RSC.

In short, Santiniketan is a cultural, economic, soft power and tourism opportunity unrealised by West Bengal and India.

The onus is really on Bengalis. Their tendency to be easily satisfied and unambitious has often been their undoing. The international propensities of Tagore is a victim of this lack of enterprise.

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