When we joined Visva-Bharati University’s anthropology department – as teacher and students – the campus was reopening in February after the lockdown. Santiniketan, in West Bengal’s Bolpur town of Birbhum district where Visva-Bharati University is located, had begun welcoming visitors from across the state, especially on the weekends.

For a long time, visitors had flocked to Visva-Bharati to attend institutional celebrations such as the Poush Utsav, which begins late in December and marks the harvest season, and Basanta Utsav. Though we were aware of the cultural significance of Santiniketan and its deep association with Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore, we, as students of anthropology, had a question.

What makes Santiniketan so unique in the imagination of the people of Bengal that it receives such a high number of visitors?

Vacations are usually taken in hill stations, mountains, beaches or to museums – places where one enjoys natural beauty or gains something. Visitors take home experiences and memories.

But what do visitors come away with when they visit Santiniketan? Do they get to feel the presence of Tagore or get an understanding of his greatest social-educational experiment, the Visva-Bharati University?

If the aim is to get a better understanding of Tagore’s literary legacy, wouldn’t it be easier to read his poems, stories, dramas and non-fiction? This could be done anywhere. In addition, there are few chances for anyone to engage with the university as an educational institution unless one is a student or a teacher, aware of Tagore’s thoughts of how Visva-Bharati came to be created as an educational experiment.

Why then do the people of Bengal dream of coming here?

A cultural imprint

The idea of Santiniketan in the Bengali imagination begins to be formed at a young age, when children read Tagore’s stories as a part of the school curriculum. While singing the national anthem, many of them think, “Tagore taught Bengali to India.”

There is a primordial attachment to a poet who wrote poems in your mother tongue and then won a Nobel prize – the first non-European to win the Nobel Prize in Literature. Tagore’s work, life and portrait are iconic, synonymous with Bengali pride, and incorporated into the daily cultural imagination.

Rabindranath Tagore’s father, Debendranath Tagore – fondly called Maharshi – established the ashram Santiniketan, or abode of peace, in 1863 and invited other like-minded people. Rabindranath Tagore took on his father’s mantle and amplified the aura of Santiniketan by establishing the Visva-Bharati University in 1921.

Its students have included Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, director Satyajit Ray, author Mahasweta Devi and economist Amartya Sen, who have publicly expressed their gratitude for the institution shaped their work. This too has contributed towards increasing Santiniketan’s prestige in the imagination of the residents of Bengal.

Credut: Post of India, GODL-India, via Wikimedia Commons.

Arriving at Santiniketan

Upon arriving at the Bolpur-Santiniketan railway station, Rabindra Sangeet can be heard from loudspeakers in the background. Pictures and paintings of Tagore and his universe are on display, welcoming visitors into his world. Outside the station, the toto, or electric-rickshaw, drivers take visitors on a slow ride through Santiniketan, with the narrow, crowded roads of the market area easing them into Tagore’s universe.

The toto is the only mode of transport for visitors. Even if visitors arrive in their own vehicles, the toto drivers’ associations insist they hire them to get around. The toto drivers also act as informal guides. The toto drivers have rich oral narrations that cannot be verified but play a significant role in helping tourists connect deeply with Santiniketan.

When they take visitors to Hati Pukur – a pond bank with elephant sculptures – they claim elephants visited the pond while Tagore was sitting there and the memory of this incident gave form to the sculpture. Elephants from nearby forests are often sighted in Bolpur.

As visitors near the big banyan tree, or Tinpahar, toto drivers narrate different versions of its association with Tagore: “Tagore was born here”, “Tagore got married here”, or “Tagore wrote Geetanjali under this banyan tree”. Though these stories are unverified, and some may argue they are not true, they help a visitor relate to Santiniketan. The stories give visitors a unique peek into Tagore’s world, even if they are just illusions created by the toto drivers.

They see shops and establishments named after characters and stories from Tagore’s world – Sonartari, Sonarkella, Geetanjali and Bichitra. Busts of Tagore can be spotted everywhere. In fact, it would be difficult to find a shop without Tagore’s portrait. These things reassure visitors that they are indeed in the place they have dreamt of for long.

The Kala Bhavana. Credit: SuparnaRoyChowdhury, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

Santiniketan appears straight out of Tagore’s books with red soil, huge banyan trees and their hanging roots and well-maintained gated gardens. The aroma of scented flowers lingers in the air. Flora carpets the area as many visitors, at Tagore’s behest, have brought and planted different varieties of seeds here. This has turned Santiniketan into a paradise for bird lovers as well. The chirps and trills of birds in the background are hard to miss.

Amid the serenity of nature in Santiniketan, there is the glass temple – kaach mandir or prayer/meditation hall – where many have meditated. A little ahead is Chhatimtala – which also houses the ashram, the heart of Santiniketan – where Tagore’s father meditated and is believed to have gained enlightenment. Opposite Chhatimtala is the Uttaryan where Tagore lived. It has now been turned into a museum, offering visual satisfaction and allowing one to immerse themselves in Tagore’s world.

Further ahead is the Kala Bhavana and Sangit Bhavana, where luminaries taught or studied art. At an old house with a sign saying “AT Sen”, there is usually a crowd taking selfies. It is the home of Amartya Sen. Visitors can also see the rural development experiment – Sriniketan – at the arts and crafts emporium Srijani.

On the streets, students can be seen cycling around, dressed in their attire for dance class or walking with tablas, veenas and sitar.

There are also other beauties of Tagore’s world for visitors to delight in. They take trips to Kopai river and from the bridge witness the flowing waters. To reach the Kopai river, they pass across the bridge, or jorasanko, that helped make Bolpur agriculturally fertile through the intervention of Tagore. Jorsanko is also the name of the Kolkata neighbourhood in which the Tagores lived.

On their way back, visitors make purchases at the Sonajhuri hat – popularly known as the Sanivar hat – an initiative by Tagore for the locals, mostly for tribals, to earn an income. Though many believe the market actually sells wares brought from Kolkata, that they are being sold in Santiniketan place makes the items special, akin to food turning into prasad once it is offered to a deity.

An Indian street vendor sells photographs of Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore on a pavement during celebrations of his 145th birth anniversary in Kolkata May 9, 2006. Nobel Prize winning poet Rabindranath Tagore's birth anniversary was celebrated across West Bengal, with a university set up by him breaking tradition and marking the occasion with songs, dances and poetry. REUTERS/Jayanta Shaw

Places are made up of their residents. In Santiniketan, it is common to see Adivasi women wearing their traditional sarees and riding bicycles as they commute to work. Hawkers sell fruit on the roadside. Locals make unique, traditional ornaments for sale. The Bauls – Birbhum district is considered Baul Desh – singing their hearts out at the markets adds to the mystic atmosphere. The cattle grazers of Bolpur driving their herds back home are hard to miss.

For many, visiting Santiniketan is an act of cultural reverence – just as Tagore intended. Writer Uma Das Gupta, who has extensively researched Tagore, quotes him as saying: “[Visva-Bharati] will not be a mere school; it will be a pilgrimage. Let those coming to it say, oh, what a relief it is to be away from narrow domestic walls and to behold the universe.”

They enjoy their moment and go back to their lives with the promise and hope that they will return to Santiniketan once again.

Sipoy Sarveswar teaches anthropology at Visva-Bharati, Santiniketan. His Twitter handle is @SSarveswar. Naina Das, Ankita Mukherjee and Riya Gurung were Masters students in 2020-’22 in the Department of Anthropology, Visva-Bharati.

Gandhi statue at Kala Bhavana by Ramkinkar Baij.