About the Book
Architecture of Santiniketan: Tagore’s Concept of Space is a search for the clues hidden in Rabindranath Tagore’s philosophy and architecture that will link the past with the present. This book highlights Tagore’s architectural vision through his writings.
A product of immense research and emotions gathered over fifteen years, Architecture of Santiniketan: Tagore’s Concept of Space extends beyond brick and mortar in an effort to understand the significance of the creation of space. It is an expression of the amalgamation of music, art, literature, poetry, letters and functional ornamentation. The book explains the different levels of this form of architecture and evaluates it in the context of the present artistic and cultural environment, while connecting it with the Bengal Renaissance.
About the Author
Born in 1970, Samit Das specialises in painting, photography, interactive artworks and artists’ books, and in creating multi-sensory environments through art and architectural installations and has deep interest on Archiving. He has held solo shows in Delhi, Kolkata, Chennai, Mumbai, Singapore and London. He has documented the Tagore House Museum Kolkata (1999-2000)
Samit’s research on Santiniketan’s architecture started in 1994, for his M.F.A. from Kala Bhavan, Visva Bharati and post experience programme at Camberwell College of Arts, London, with British Council Scholarship (CWIT 2001-2002). This research culminated through exhibitions, Radio Talk, Slide Shows including ‘The Idea of Space and Rabindranath Tagore: A Photographic Exhibition’ (Lalit Kala Akademi, Delhi) and ‘In Search of Frozen Music’ (Nature Morte), in 201 I. ‘The Idea of Space’ was also held at Victoria Memorial Hall, Kolkata and was part of a curated show at Freies Museum, Berlin, in 2012.
Creativity permeates every object it comes across in its process of expression. In our mundane world of experience, however, we often tend to categorise and divide the creative fields in smaller fragments and prefer to believe that any one of these is essentially incompatible with the other. We feel comfortable-and by that we do not always mean the ‘we’ of our times, it comes down from the days of Plato and further heightened by the Romantics-to believe that a poet is made of one metal and an activist of another substance. It helps us of course in categorising fields of knowledge, but misses appreciating the comprehensive mind involved in the process of creation whatever be the area of creativity. For a multi-faceted creative genius like Dante, Goethe or Tagore, such problem of categorisation becomes all the more puzzling.
Tagore had been acclaimed in his lifetime for his multifarious dimensions of ideas, expressions and actions, not to speak of his varied innovations in the domain of literature. That is one of the reasons why he had to proclaim a number of times publicly that in his essential being he was a poet. Besides the act of composition of poems that by common parlance makes one a poet, a poetic sensibility pervades all activities and expressions of Tagore. It does not pertain to mere mode or style of expression, it is embedded in the basic philosophy that works at the back of every articulation-activist or artistic. Seen from that vantage, be that in an institution building like Visva-Bharati, or a project like Rural Reconstruction, in negotiations with environmental degeneration or devising an eco-friendly architecture, the creative empathy of the poetic mind is present in every move of his.
Tagore had no formal training in many of the fields he traversed, like architecture. He virtually had little experience even in a mundane enterprise like house building till his fiftieth year, around the time he came to settle down at Santiniketan. When his own two-storeyed Bichitra building was being built within the Jorasanko premises on a plot of land endowed by his father Debendranath in I 897-Tagore was a resident at Silaidaha then-it was found on completion that there had been no space provided for the staircase! What is rather striking is that right from the early days of his transfer of residence to Santiniketan, he did not go for brick-built houses in his ash ram, rather he preferred the Santal style of mud houses-some even double-storeyed-to begin with thatched roofs-gradually accepting tin or corrugated ones to avoid the hassles of redoing these every year. Besides being comparatively less expensive in those days, these jelled perfectly well with their environs and were climate friendly in an arid laterite Birbhum countryside. Even when money was not a big constraint, he built an exquisite mud house, Shyamali, with tar finished engravings and reliefs on its external walls-a practice experimented earlier at Kala Bari, now a part of Kala-Bhavana.
The first building in Santiniketan that gave the place its name was made of brick and mortar. It is interesting to note that a spirit of assimilation of styles had been present in Santiniketan architecture right from the very beginning. The Greco-Roman column- based portico with an overlooking roof-balcony-which was subsequently enclosed as a room-looked like a nineteenth century British country house; the circular staircase was reminiscent of Dutch buildings and the long veranda connecting rooms was suggestive of the traditional Bengali dalan (a brick-built home). If we survey the structural styles deployed in Santiniketan-Sriniketan establishments during Tagore’s lifetime, the Santal house structures or the Bankura temple styles were the ones most adopted. Multiple roof-load bearing pillars around all four sides of the rooms are characteristic of traditional Indian architecture. The best example of bringing together different architectural styles, however, has been the grand Udayana in the Uttarayana complex. Buddhist, Islamic, Hindu styles exist there by the side of South-East Asian, Tibeto-Burman decorative patterns both at the exterior and the interior.
As regards the structures of buildings in Santiniketan and Sriniketan, certain features come to the fore. The first and the most important one was to give the habitations an ecological balance and sustainability. The story of Santiniketan’s metamorphosis, from a scarce rain zone to a rain prone one, had been the result of programmed plantation of trees, efforts undertaken by Tagore and his institution. He felt the buildings should not stare out rudely from their surroundings, rather remain camouflaged amidst trees around them. He is reported to have said that the height of any building should not have gone above that of the tallest trees in the vicinity.
The second notable feature is the manipulation of open space. This relates on the one hand to the ratio of occupied building space vis-a-vis the open space, which is a few times more than the former, and on the other to giving a sense of freedom, of release from an enclosure. Space in architecture was for him like leisure in a work crammed life. And space was also of greater consequence in positioning the object in a proper frame, in giving it its due perspective. Frames such as these mostly conformed to geometric designs and proportions, but Udayana stands out as an example of asymmetric structures also. We know that the huge building was built in stages due to paucity of funds at times. This led to additions and extensions of structures as a result of which at places split levels became an unavoidable option. But the artist in Tagore made full use of it by turning the inadequacy into an aesthetic feature.
Innovations in planning and designing of the ash ram as well as the Uttarayana compounds are indeed too many to be mentioned. In both these areas doorless brick or concrete gateways were used at times as dividing lines between two or more zones in the complex, at others to hold creepers and let them run along these, adding an additional beauty to the surroundings as also to offer shade during the summer days.
The Lily Pool or the Pampa Lake at the backyard of Udayana, with the serpentine lanes and collection of exotic bushes, herbs, creepers and flowers under the shadow of huge age-old asvathva (peepul tree), bat (banyan tree) and pakud (species of a fig tree) with their verdurous riot of moist smell transport the visitors as it were to a mesmeric sylvan retreat. Chitrabhanu and Guhaghar (cave dwelling)-the first floor wooden apartment and the cavern-though artificially created, along the greenery and the water body-stand out as an example of perfect symbiosis of nature and art.
Even chimneys or wells were stylised and designed in such a way that, freed from their utilitarian purposes, these became objects of aesthetic joy. With minor mutations in projection and shorn of ornamentation, the columns and pillars in general were stylised, giving these almost an ascetic impression. The private bathroom in Udayana, with a combination of improvised western and Indian amenities, attests to the artistic taste transforms an object of utility to an aesthetic article. While the courtyard in the kitchen was a true type Indian attribute, the Mrinmayi patio was a marvellous structure without any boundary walls. The expansive space with built seats on the sides had also been witness to innumerable rehearsals and programmes, specially under the direction of Pratima Devi.
The linear portico of Konark, with a lined-up row of pillars and roof overhead, also provided the venue for many performances as did the then library (now Patha-Bhavana office) or the Udayana porticos.
The roofless extended veranda with a window on the seemingly unfinished wall at Punashcha or the external staircase resembling a cubic net design at Udichi reveal the mind of an artist with an insatiable appetite for forms and beauty. How far these buildings were habitable for everyday routine use may be a matter of speculation, but these creations bring to light the abundance of poetic energy that found expression even in edifices of brick and mortar.
The major frescoes and murals in Santiniketan at Cheena-Bhavana. Hindi-Bhavana, Patha-Bhavana and Santoshalaya add much to the artistic ambience of the place. Even a less important venue like the Panthanivas or Dinantika was decorated with wall paintings, perhaps only to impress on the growing minds of the students an appreciation for any good work of art. Sriniketan can certainly boast of an excellent mural on Vriksharopana (tree planting ceremony) by Nandalal Bose on a hoodless bare wall (recently covered and put under collapsible doors) overseeing the open performance ground, unfortunately though the place has been largely deprived of artistic and architectural installations.
Kala-Bhavana, quite justifiably, has been the nursery of artistic and architectural creativity and innovations in Santiniketan. In fact, what was once confined to the enterprises of the institution and its inmates has by now reached the circle of inhabitants of the locality and its vicinity with a renewed interest.
Ideas-some concrete, some abstract-were of course generated and encouraged by Tagore, but the execution of these were carried out mostly by people like Surendranath Kar, Rathindranath Tagore, Nandalal Bose. Benodebehari Mukhopadhyaya, Ramkinkar Baij or Vinayak Masoji and their contemporaries and students. If Tagore sought freedom from the stereotype, it should not be lost sight of that the basic principles of geometric proportions were maintained meticulously. The architecture of Udayana offers a feast in bringing out the principle of proportions, its geometry and mutations of forms still retaining a balance in distribution of space in its projection. So far, the Tagorean notion of architecture has remained a visual treat for most of us. Now, if the maths of its ratio could be worked out, then and only then would we be able to hear its music; if its geometry of proportions could be deciphered, then and only then could we appreciate its sheer poetry.
Samit Das, a former student of Kala-Bhavana, has researched on the architecture of Santiniketan. He is certainly the most qualified person to author an authentic book on the subject since he combines in his person the sensibility of an artist and acumen of a researcher. But for his insistence, I would not have contributed a foreword for this book as I feel unqualified (anadhikari) to do so. I wish him every success.
I hardly knew the meaning of the word ‘leisure’ in my early childhood, since I grew up in the small industrial town of Jamshedpur (in the state of Jharkhand), amidst beautiful natural surroundings. I began to understand the significance of the term in its true sense from the time I started studying in Government College of Arts and Crafts (Kolkata) in 1988 and began living in a college hostel. The close connection that I had built with nature in my quiet sleepy hometown got disrupted and I was thrust into the rapid current of metropolitan life. Perhaps the presence of high-rise buildings kept reminding me, even more, of the open spaces of my town.
Although the meaning of leisure was not yet clear to me, the desire to search for it grew in me. My restless mind drew me to Santiniketan (West Bengal)-Rabindranath Tagore’s ashram-in 1989. While studying at Kala-Bhavana, Santiniketan, for seven years, where the buildings and houses exist in harmony with their natural surroundings, I finally realised the true meaning of the term. To seek a clearer understanding of the term leisure, I first studied the ashrarn’s houses, and then delved into Tagore’s writings, paintings, poetry and songs. Being a student of the visual arts as well as a photographer, this introduction to the architecture of the buildings of the ashram, wrapped in an eerie interplay of light and shade, made my searching mind even more inquisitive. From photography, my visual limits extended to architecture and took shape in the form of my post-graduation thesis in 1996 as ‘Santiniketan Sthapatya 0 Surendranath Kar ‘ (Architecture of Santiniketan and Surendranath Kar [1892-1970]).
After relocating to Delhi by virtue of my profession, I got embroiled in the study of post- modern art and the trials of beginning life all over again in the capital, searching for leisure anew. Although much remains to be learnt from those discussions of post-modern art and culture and, as a contemporary artist, I even find many of these acceptable, yet a sense of inadequacy and discrepancy seemed to mark them. An analysis or criticism of contemporary Indian art is judged in comparison with instances from western art and from a western perspective. But I found this manner of appraisal unacceptable. Why can’t Indian art be evaluated from its indigenous perspective? This inquiry led me to study the history of the Bengal Renaissance and Rabindranath’s philosophy, and know more about Santiniketan and Kolkata’s jorasanko Thakur Bari (Tagore house). It is a known fact that the Tagores’ Thakur Bari (of both Jorasanko house  and Pathuriaghata house [1761)) played an important role in the creative and intellectual revolution that was the Bengal Renaissance. Unfortunately, the vision and rootedness of this vibrant era was unsettled by the aggrandising western civilisation whereby a strong tendency developed to relegate all things indigenous to the back and embrace western traditions and manners. The Renaissance made an attempt to evaluate Indian history and make Indians aware of their roots, enabling them to find a confident, contemporary identity for themselves.
Like the architecture at Santiniketan, this book, too, has developed gradually; nowhere is there a sense of definite closure. The aim is not to present a personal explanation of the culture of the Bengal Renaissance but to show how it developed to become the philosophy of an age. The Puranas and Indian folktales educate people through examples, metaphors, descriptions and the like. Similarly, in describing the history of the Bengal Renaissance, Santiniketan’s architecture perhaps acts as a metaphor, narrating in a concrete form the passage between tradition and modernity. Santiniketan’s architecture is not limited to its bricks and mortars but extends way beyond, in multiple dimensions. It is the silent expression of the coming together of music, art, literature, poetry, letters, functional ornamentation, festivals and so on. I have tried to explain in this book the different levels of this form of architecture and evaluate it in the context of the present artistic and cultural environment, while connecting it with the Bengal Renaissance.
Although the methodology of looking into our historical past in search of cultural roots and our ways of interpreting nationalism change from age to age, yet with time it is always necessary to compare the thought process of the past with the present. This trend is evident in the activities of the Bengal School: whose ambit extended from the Bichitra Sabha (1915), the Bichitra studio for artists of the Neo-Bengal School. Rabindranath named it Bichitra. It was an avant garde cultural activity (a new model of the educational system) started at Jorasanko. Many foreigners used to support it. They held several theatre shows, conversations, poetry recitations, different activity classes and so on. Even though it lasted only a year or so, it planted the seed of the later nationalistic movement, Bichitra Sabha, in Santiniketan and brought together painting, sculpture, music, dance, drama, ornamentation and functional decoration (furniture and interior decoration). Such a mingling was the result of the coming together of various intellectuals from India and abroad and of their attempt to reassess ancient Indian culture.
In writing this book, I have felt as if I have been constructing a house with split-level floors as found in Santiniketan, since this work is the product of facts and feelings gathered over fifteen years. Its first stage was the post-graduate research paper presented in 1994-96. Then, as my familiarity with the subject increased, the language of approaching it also underwent a change. Visiting Santiniketan time and again, establishing a relationship with the ashram and various buildings, analysing talks gleaned from memory and hearsay, studying paintings and letters from the archives of visva-Bharati’s Rabindra-Bhavana-all these gradually created a collage in my mind of different components, adding new layers of meaning to the whole. Each step brought me face-to-face with new questions. I tried to go back and study the history of the Thakur Baris of Jorasanko and Pathuriaghata. Here what is more important than the contribution of an individual person is the diligence and respect for the nation inherent in that age. I stress the word ‘diligence’. Thus my quest for the meaning of leisure was no longer confined within the four walls of the house in Santiniketan but surged ahead at different levels.
In the final stage of my research, when I was feasting my eyes on the thousands of photographs in the archives of Visva-Bharati’s Rabindra-Bhavana, the continuity of that collection made me realise the diligence and respect of the people of that age towards their nation. One can get a live picture of the people, houses, nature, festivals and so on from these photographs of those times. I sensed a missing link, preventing me from connecting those images with present reality. I now felt the need for building an invisible bridge.
What was clear to me was that though the picture frame in my own mind was that of Santiniketan’s architecture, its roots went far back in time. The history of that construction and destruction started from the Jorasanko house on the banks of the Ganges and the Pathuriaghata house. Each step of progress created its own architecture. The play of light and shade or the position of the rooms in Jorasanko and Santiniketan created a unique sense of mystery, which later found visual form in the paintings of Rabindranath and Gaganendranath(1867-1938). The sympathetic appeal of these two houses (in Jorasanko and Pathuriaghata) was expressed in the actions of the people involved and in their language and culture. For finding a pure idiom, they went back to ancient Indian culture, which they did not imitate blindly but moulded it in a way suitable for contemporary times. What was needed for this huge endeavour was a prolific mind, more than money and people working to transform this dream into a reality while fighting against financial odds. But against those hardships, the image of Santiniketan ashram that takes shape speaks only of a deep love of art, a way of life, soaked in nationalist feelings.
As a student of Santiniketan, it was not difficult for me to realise how, in the field of education, architecture can combine with nature and the human spirit to take an intimate form. The appeal of the ash ram is that it is never confined to itself but is a combination of its surroundings, which include the houses. Festivals, plans for the ashram’s different programmes and the attempt to artistically present each day in a colour of its own. In this book, I have tried to highlight those letters, poems or conversations where Rabindranath talks of his architectural vision. A unique form of frozen music can also be found in Rabindranaths paintings. A vision of limitless leisure breaks through the surface of the paintings. On the other hand, the houses of Santiniketan seem to change visually with the change of seasons. This constitutes an unusual coming together of painting and sculpture against the background of nature. In Rabindranath’s letters one also finds a combination of facts and philosophy, which is very important for constructing a picture of that age.
It has been observed that Rabindranath has written a few lines combined with frescoes on the walls created in Santiniketan. This is especially true of the old library His preface was later added as Duwar (Door) in the poetry collection. Parishesh (1928). The following poem, post-Santiniketan, is a living example of the way literature and the visual arts were brought together to create a picture of unity:
Foreword by Professor Swapan Majumdar
Visva - Bharati and the Universal Soul
From Jorasanko to Santiniketan
Rabindranath’s Santiniketan and its Natural Surroundings
Santiniketan’s Architecture: From Dream to Reality
Uttarayana and Rabindranath
Beyond the Madhabilata Bower: Influence of Nature in Literature
Beyond the Architectural Motifs
The Pictorial Shifts in Santiniketan
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