A trip to Tagore’s Shantiniketan

When I saw Tagore’s photos with Albert Einstein, with Sigmund Freud and Gandhi, I wondered what they talked about. I know Tagore and Gandhi didn’t agree on their ideas of nationalism. Did they fight?

A trip to Tagore’s Shantiniketan
user

Manjiri Indurkar

The day I landed in Shantiniketan, it was already late afternoon. I was a bit tired because I hadn’t gotten proper sleep the night before. I was feeling dirty, not having taken a shower. And I was famished, not having eaten anything since the 7am breakfast. The first thing I did after dumping my luggage in my room and taking a bath, was to leave my room and start hunting for food. I looked up restaurants on Google, and walked to the nearest one. A lovely café called Ocampo, run a sweet Bengali aunty from Bihar.

I ordered a Bengali thali — aloo poshto, begun bhaja, daal, sukto, rice, papad, pickle, ghee, raw onions. And one whole nolen gur roshogulla. After polishing off my plate, I sat in the sun on the terrace of the café for a bit, and I was off again.

I hadn’t come to Shantiniketan with any tourist agendas in mind. I just wanted to be with myself, and away from the stress of writing my whole life that would be packaged in a book and presented to the world soon enough—my memoir. I was expecting to see a university town, where you’d find young artists roaming around, going about their lives, having conversations, creating art. What I didn’t except was the mindless cacophony of loud tourists. I was looking for solitude and what better than a town that carries silence in its name? Now that I was here, and was aimless, I decided to take a walk. I had the next three days to hit the university campus, to explore the other big and small places. Today was just about walking, wherever my feet took me.

I took a road that promised me a trip to the deer park. Which I am sure it would have taken me to, but I gave up too soon. Tired, I turned back, bought some milk, tea leaves, ginger, bread, two packets of Maggi, and eggs. My room came with a small kitchen, where I made tea for myself, took out Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, sat on the terrace, and read till sun down. For dinner I made myself some Maggi, and called it a night.

Next morning I was up early, I made myself breakfast and chai, and soon enough I was out of the BnB, walking towards the university which was hardly 1.5 km away from where I was staying. When I reached the university, I found out that most of the campus doesn’t open for outsiders till 2 PM. But the guards told me I was allowed to visit the Uttarayan Rabindra Museum. So, I bought the ticket for 50 bucks and soon enough I was in.

The museum is a neat division of the man’s life in parts that all fit. The first thing you see is a house that keeps his writings, his manuscripts, his Nobel Prize, his pictures, pictures of his family with their tragic stories, his paintings, paintings by other painters, his shoes, his combs, his cups, everything the man once used, all his object memories neatly stacked for all the consumers of Tagore’s life. What, I wondered, was the purpose of this place? When I walked out of that house, and moved to the next building—the complex houses five homes where Tagore stayed at various stages of his life—where Tagore’s car was parked, a man shouted in chaste Bangla, calling for his son to stand in front of the car so he can click a picture.

This picture I imagined would be shared on social media and liked by friends and relatives. Tagore, somehow, will still remain invisible.

When I saw Tagore’s photos with Albert Einstein, with Sigmund Freud, with Gandhi, I wondered what they talked about. I know Tagore and Gandhi did not agree on their ideas of nationalism. Did they fight? We don’t really know, not by looking at those pictures of famous men standing next to each other as the world around them burns. Then the famous friends of Tagore, WB Yeats, Satyendra Nath Bose and others, whose photos adorn the walls of the museum, how close were they to Tagore? Were they helping him build Visva Bharti, did he have any non-famous friends? Did Tagore break down in front of these friends when he lost his children? I saw the rooms where Tagore had his literary gatherings, I saw his bedroom but no one told me where he went to cry when his wife Mrinalini Devi died. I later found out that Mrinalini Devi wasn’t too pleased with Tagore spending all his days in Shantiniketan, leaving Calcutta behind, where all her friends lived, where she had a life. Where did Tagore fight with his wife when she resented him for upending her life and moving her to an infinitely miniscule town which wasn’t even a town then?

The museum cannot show us the grief corners, the spaces of reflections. Surrounded by loud tourists who have come for a quick weekend getaway, looking for some culture capital in this holiday season, I found Tagore to be a lonely, almost invisible figure. I don’t think he would want us to focus on his car or his comb. He would be grateful if we read what he wrote, gave the kind of education he envisioned for all to our kids. But in the absence of that, we must make do with a selfie or two in front of his stolen Nobel Prize replacement.

Walking around the museum made me hungry. It was a Saturday and I had the Shanivar Haat on my mind. I would return to the university the next day, and the day after, this time avoiding the museum. I got out of the museum complex, sat in a Toto, and asked the Toto man to take me to the Shanivaar Haat. On the way to the haat, we ended up chatting and he became my Toto guy for the whole day. He told me how much he did not like Kolkata, too crowded, too big and scary. This was nicer, quieter and calmer. At the haat, I bought myself some handmade jewellery and a grey saree. I listened to some Baul music, grabbed a quick bite and I was off to Amar Kutir. Amar Kutir, which translates to my cottage, is a corporative society that promotes arts and crafts. It had a lot of lovely cotton kurtas, bags, jewellery, home décor things. I ended up spending a large chunk of my money there without any regrets. By then, it was late evening and I was ready to head back to my Bnb, where my chai and my book waited for me.

Next day was a Sunday. I woke up a little late, I got ready, and I left for the University again. This time, the guard let me in. I walked straight to Kala Bhawan, checking off the first thing on my list, all the Ramkinker Baij sculptures. After that, I just walked and walked looking at all the other installations, sculptures, paintings on the walls. Art is embracing you from all ends. The sprawling campus that has a lot of trees and benches underneath them where all the classes happen, I sat on one of the benches, took out my journal and I wrote for a good hour. The first thought that hit me while I was sitting there, thinking with the kind of clarity I hadn’t had in years that I need to come back to this place again, to work on my next book. I ended up making notes on the idea for the next book while sitting under one of those trees, in, at the risk of sounding too corny, Tagore’s embrace.

Next day was a Sunday. I woke up a little late, I got ready, and I left for the University again. This time, the guard let me in. I walked straight to Kala Bhawan, checking off the first thing on my list, all the Ramkinker Baij sculptures. After that, I just walked and walked looking at all the other installations, sculptures, paintings on the walls. Art is embracing you from all ends. The sprawling campus that has a lot of trees and benches underneath them where all the classes happen, I sat on one of the benches, took out my journal and I wrote for a good hour. The first thought that hit me while I was sitting there, thinking with the kind of clarity I hadn’t had in years that I need to come back to this place again, to work on my next book. I ended up making notes on the idea for the next book while sitting under one of those trees, in, at the risk of sounding too corny, Tagore’s embrace.

For all the latest India News, Follow India Section.