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100 years of art in Santiniketan

Kala Bhavana, the art school founded by Rabindranath Tagore at Santiniketan, celebrates its centenary this year. Lounge visits the campus near Kolkata to trace its evolution

The walls of ‘kalo bari’ at Visva-Bharati feature a series of asphalt-coated mud reliefs showcasing different styles of art, envisioned by Nandalal Bose and Benode Behari Mukherjee.
The walls of ‘kalo bari’ at Visva-Bharati feature a series of asphalt-coated mud reliefs showcasing different styles of art, envisioned by Nandalal Bose and Benode Behari Mukherjee. (Photo: Arijit Sen/Mint)

It’s 9.30 on a morning in mid-September but it’s sweltering. A group of young men and women are assembled on the chaataal—a raised platform—on the tree-lined campus of Kala Bhavana, the school of visual arts at Visva-Bharati in Santiniketan. The men are in white kurta-pyjama, the women in white saris with red borders. The incoming batch of freshers for the current academic year is being greeted with songs and red roses. Some teachers and non-teaching staff are gathered around. A few visitors like me lurk in the margins. As the ceremony ends, laughter and camaraderie fill the air. The newbies pose with their seniors and faculty for photographs. Selfies are taken. Gradually, the assembly disperses. The seniors march off to rehearse for the cultural programme they have planned in the evening to welcome the juniors. Classes are called off for the day.

Behind this scene stretches a century-long history. In 1919, two years before he founded Visva-Bharati, the university that was supposed to bring the world closer to India, Rabindranath Tagore set up Kala Bhavana.

The end of World War I had brought a wave of cultural ferment to Europe which spread to other parts of the world. For instance, Walter Gropius, a pioneer of modernist architecture, established the Staatliches Bauhaus in Weimar, Germany, in 1919. Until it was shut down by the Nazi regime in 1933, the Bauhaus remained one of the foremost centres for the study of art, architecture, design and typography.

For Tagore, it all began when he was 12, with a visit to Bolpur. His father Debendranath Tagore had built an ashram there on 20 acres of land. In 1888, Debendranath gave away the property and the buildings on it for a school, which his youngest son, Rabindranath, established in 1901. That school is now called Patha Bhavana. Gradually, the entire area came to be called Santiniketan, the abode of peace. This was initially the name of a guest house built there by Debendranath.

Students of Kala Bhavana at one of the many outdoor spaces on the campus
Students of Kala Bhavana at one of the many outdoor spaces on the campus (Photo: Arijit Sen/Mint)

Rabindranath Tagore’s vision for Kala Bhavana was ambitious. His school was not only meant to train a new generation to embrace the best traditions of art-making in India and beyond, it was also intended to foster a sense of community, to create self-aware and principled individuals. From the earliest days, students were required to participate in the daily life of the ashram. From pottery to weaving to agriculture, they were involved in spheres of activity that went far beyond the mandate of any art education. In 1922, Tagore established the Palli Samgathana Vibhaga (or Institute of Rural Reconstruction), devoted to issues of rural reform, with British philanthropist and agronomist Leonard K. Elmhirst as its first director. The rural development programme at Sriniketan, on the outskirts of Santiniketan, was meant to forge a connection between the students and the lived experience of the local community and villagers.

From the 1920s, as festivals, public events and other functions began to crowd the annual calendar of Kala Bhavana, students began to act, sing, dance, design props and costumes. So deep-rooted was Tagore’s interdisciplinary approach that until 1933, Kala Bhavana also included what is now known as Sangit Bhavana, the school devoted to the study of the performing arts, located a stone’s throw down the road. As the old joke goes, next to Kala Bhavana stands the gala (voice) bhavana.

Sculptor K.S. Radhakrishnan making a bust of Ramkinkar Baij in 1979.
Sculptor K.S. Radhakrishnan making a bust of Ramkinkar Baij in 1979. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

In the last hundred years, Kala Bhavana has been graced by faculty from across India and the world. The holy trinity of modernism in Bengal—Nandalal Bose, Ramkinkar Baij and Benode Behari Mukherjee—spent years there. Many eminent artists—Sarbari Roy Chowdhury, Somnath Hore, K.G. Subramanyan—joined later. Their lives and contributions were the focus last month of a photographic exhibition at Kala Bhavana, curated by artist K.S. Radhakrishnan, who is also an alumnus. The show pays homage to the “seven pillars" of the institution, from Tagore to Subramanyan.

Since its inception, Kala Bhavana has kept its doors open to international scholars and artists. As early as 1922, Tagore invited the Viennese art historian, curator and Indologist Stella Kramrisch to teach there. She lectured on movements in art that were sweeping the West (cubism, for example, about which many in India were not fully aware at the time) as well as on various aspects of Indian art. In 1939, Xu Beihong, a well-known painter from China, brought in influences from the Far East. Tagore also got Narasingh Lal, an expert in the fresco style of Jaipur, to teach at Kala Bhavana twice, in 1927-28 and 1933.

Visitors from far and near still enrich and amplify the cosmopolitanism of Kala Bhavana but much has changed, especially since 1951, the year Visva-Bharati became a Centrally funded university. Santiniketan isn’t the pastoral idyll that once enchanted Tagore. Bolpur, the city closest to it, bustles with traffic and tourists. Every winter, thousands flock to the Nandan Mela, the annual art and crafts fair that started in 1973 and is now an international tourist attraction. The university has erected walls around its properties over the years for safety and crowd management. In Tagore’s days, the place had neither fortifications nor much appeal as a popular weekend destination. But then, no one in his time would have worried that his Nobel Prize medal might be stolen one day—as did happen in 2004.

To trace the evolution of Kala Bhavana over the last hundred years is to reckon, therefore, not only with the shifts from its past and pedagogy, but also the changes in the spirit of the place that incubated and nurtured it.

The golden age

One of the best living historians of Kala Bhavana is R. Siva Kumar, who arrived in 1974 as a student and hasn’t left since. On the morning of the freshers’ welcome, I meet him at the department of history of art, where he teaches, an elegant single-storey structure near the chaataal. Designed in 2011 by Subramanyan, a beloved teacher at Kala Bhavana who was known as Mani da to one and all, its outer walls are covered with motifs in the style of Warli paintings. The legendary cheena-bot (Chinese banyan) tree, provider of shade to generations of students and faculty, stands nearby. Along with the iconic kalo bari (black house) and the many works of art strewn all over the campus, the tree is now part of Kala Bhavana’s illustrious history.

“The golden age of Kala Bhavana was its first 30 years, till 1951, when Nandalal Bose retired," says Siva Kumar. Universally known as mastermoshai, Bose was among the earliest recruits at Kala Bhavana, brought in by Tagore himself, who had to convince his nephew and Bose’s mentor, Abanindranath, to let go of his protégé. Artist, writer and educator, Abanindranath advocated the revival of classical traditions of image-making. He turned art into a tool of colonial resistance, rejecting what he thought was the materialism of the West. In contrast, his uncle believed in a more cosmopolitan outlook and defied rigid formalism.

Student working on a mural painting
Student working on a mural painting (Photo: Arijit Sen/Mint)

Bose, Siva Kumar adds, was the ideal candidate to lead Kala Bhavana. With his gift for synthesizing disparate streams of thought, he forged a curriculum that was rooted in Indian realities and fluid enough to accommodate “foreign" influences. More crucially, he believed in Tagore’s dream of imparting education outside the conventional schooling system. If he introduced mural painting following Abanindranath’s pedagogy, Bose also took students out of the classrooms to practise and study in nature, under the open sky, part of Rabindranath Tagore’s original vision for Visva-Bharati. Outdoor classes remain intrinsic to the experience of studying at Kala Bhavana.

“Unlike art colleges in other urban centres, students and teachers here have no or little commute," says Anshuman Das Gupta, who teaches at the department of history of art. “So we can arrange classes flexibly." It isn’t unusual for a lesson to be conducted under a tree, or on the porch of a building. The relatively small scale of Santiniketan also continues to foster the sense of a close-knit community, Das Gupta adds—another enduring legacy.

“It was like a guild in the early days," says Siva Kumar, “with teachers and students working together, collaborating on murals or in making prints." In a series of autobiographical essays written in Bengali, artist Somnath Hore reminisces about the special bonhomie Kala Bhavana encouraged. He recalls, for instance, students pooling money to buy Horlicks to feed the stray dogs that lived on the campus in the 1980s. When a student from Andaman lost his father, funds were raised by the faculty to send him home by air, a mode of travel that was prohibitively expensive in those days.

Bose passed on his legacy to two of his most outstanding students, Baij and Mukherjee, who, in turn, left their imprints on the institution. In an extended interview with Siva Kumar in 1997, Subramanyan outlined the contributions of Baij and Mukherjee, both of whom had taught him at Kala Bhavana from 1944-48.

Baij, Subramanyan said, was the archetypal artist (the sort the British poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge described as having “flashing eyes" and “floating hair" in his poem Kubla Khan). Born into an economically modest family, he was groomed as an artist by Bose. Baij’s bohemian lifestyle, addiction to alcohol and alleged multiple relationships with women are now part of the mystique around him. His story fascinated the Bengali writer Samaresh Basu, who began writing a novel about Baij’s life but died before he could finish it. To this day, local guides fabricate tall tales about Baij’s mercurial temperament as they point to his concrete sculptures on the premises of Kala Bhavana.

Mukherjee, a close associate of Baij, was an unlikely artist. Born with poor eyesight, he turned blind later, but didn’t stop making art. Some of the walls on the Kala Bhavana campus bear evidence of his exquisite collages. With his sharp analytical mind and erudition, Mukherjee was a counterpoint to Baij. But together they induced a creative alchemy of theory and practice, which set the foundation for some of the best artistic minds in the country.

Artist Shreyasi Chatterjee, who teaches history of art at the Rabindra Bharati University in Kolkata, acknowledges her debt to this pedagogic tradition, passed on to her by Subramanyan. “I still remember Mani da’s classes vividly, and the sheer originality of his thinking," Chatterjee says. “When he taught collage, for instance, he opened my eyes to a new world. For him, a wall splattered with cow-dung cakes and film posters also qualified as collage." Collage would become integral to a large body of work Chatterjee herself made and showed in Kolkata in 2010.

A sculpture of Mahatma Gandhi made by Ramkinkar Baij and his students.
A sculpture of Mahatma Gandhi made by Ramkinkar Baij and his students. (Photo: Arijit Sen/Mint)

Trials and transitions

Tagore knew his utopia wouldn’t last forever. In 1940, when M.K. Gandhi came to Santiniketan to see him, the critically ill Tagore urged him to take charge of Visva-Bharati after he was gone. Tagore died the following year. Until Gandhi was assassinated in 1948, he acted as a guardian of the institution.

Funded by Tagore with his own income and money raised from friends and well-wishers, Visva-Bharati’s finances were always wobbly. By the end of the 1940s, the administrators felt it prudent to put the institution under the control of the Union government. Jawaharlal Nehru, the first prime minister of independent India, who was urged by Gandhi to look after Visva-Bharati, facilitated the transition in 1951.

The year became a turning point in the life of the institution, more so because the authorities at the time didn’t bargain for any special privileges or a semi-autonomous status. The rule-bound bureaucratic system of education that Tagore had deplored began to dig its talons into Visva-Bharati. Central control has only grown over the decades. Currently, the departments under Kala Bhavana are expected to follow a syllabus set by the University Grants Commission (UGC), like all the other institutions it governs. Teachers are allowed to deviate from it by 30%. On Tagore’s watch, such a policy would have been unthinkable, a sacrilege.

In spite of these developments, Kala Bhavana has seen a steady influx of extraordinary teachers through the decades. In the 1970s, Dinkar Kowshik, then principal, brought in Somnath Hore, Lalu Prasad Shaw, Sarbari Roy Chowdhury and Sanat Kar. Jogen Chowdhury joined in 1987, after a 15-year stint as curator at the presidential estate, Rashtrapati Bhavan, in Delhi. As the faculty grew, so did the number of students, and a diversity of styles and interests began to shape the curriculum. Every year, roughly 1,000-1,500 candidates apply for admission to Kala Bhavana, of which only 55-60 are admitted. Aspirants have to clear practical and written tests, then an interview, before they can get in.

Gone are the days when students sat on the floor and painted on cosy, horizontal surfaces such as desks and boards. With the introduction of oil painting, easels came into the picture, as did new techniques and practices. “When I joined, I found that the students were skilled but their work lacked clarity," Jogen Chowdhury says. “I opened out the field for them, encouraged them to draw freehand and to learn to capture the essence of forms."

Artist Sanchayan Ghosh, an alumnus of the painting department who teaches there now, believes access to information has also changed teaching methods drastically. “With the internet, there has been a major shift in pedagogy since the early 2000s," he says. “There is a deeper engagement with libraries, archives and photographs, resulting in more layering and multiplicity in the work of our students."

Compared to other art colleges in India, such as the Sir JJ School of Art in Mumbai or MS University (MSU) in Baroda (now Vadodara), Kala Bhavana retains a character of its own by virtue of its location away from a big city.

Soumik Nandy Majumdar, who teaches history of art at Kala Bhavana, completed his postgraduate studies from MSU after a bachelor’s degree from Visva-Bharati. While studying at MSU, he felt the students were more exposed to trends acceptable in the gallery circuit. Many of them tended to make art that responded to the demands of the market. In contrast, the relative insularity of Kala Bhavana left it less affected. The flip side is that students coming out of Kala Bhavana may appear less savvy than their counterparts from other institutions. “We encourage students to make individual presentations in class and talk about their work to help them become more confident," Das Gupta adds.

Prateek Raja, co-founder of the Kolkata-based Experimenter gallery, admits there is indeed a sense of place, even a strain of romanticism, in work coming out of Kala Bhavana. “It is materially different from Baroda," he says. “Students at Kala Bhavana have more access to natural substances like the laal maati (red laterite soil) of Santiniketan, so they often make work with terracotta. In Baroda, I am more likely to see works made of fibreglass."

Rakhi Sarkar, director of the Centre for Indian and Modern Art (Cima) in Kolkata, adds that students of Kala Bhavana are trained to “envision modernity in a specifically Indian context". “Some are able to internalize the Indian experience in an idiom that stands out." This training was palpable in the vibrant paintings and installations of the late artist Sumitro Basak, an alumnus of Kala Bhavana whose work is shown by Cima.

Delhi-based artist Mithu Sen, who studied at Kala Bhavana in the 1990s, is among the select alumni who have carved out an international name in the contemporary art world (her work was shown, most recently, alongside Marina Abramović’s at a group exhibition in Vienna). She remembers Kala Bhavana as a place of abundant freedom. “Even before I had joined, on the day I went for the admission test, I borrowed a bicycle and raced around the town," she says. “I developed a taste for real fearlessness when I was there. I even jumped off the second floor of a building once as a dare."

Then there were the unexpected lessons, waiting outside the thresholds of classrooms. “I was eating jaam (Indian blackberry) one day when some of the juice fell on my notebook," she remembers. “That little accident led to a new way of playing with colour and forms."

As a young city-bred woman, Amritah Sen, another alumna from the late 1990s, also remembers being startled by the natural setting of Kala Bhavana. “Until I went there, I had only read about the waning and waxing moon in geography textbooks," says the Kolkata-based artist. “The evenings in Santiniketan were so dark that the darkness seemed to stick to the skin."

Student working on a sculpture
Student working on a sculpture (Photo: Arijit Sen/Mint)

The free-spirited ambience of Kala Bhavana continues to inspire creativity in students, and help them discover their strengths. “During the foundation course, everyone is expected to work in all the departments," says Rishi Barua, who teaches sculpture. “In the later years, teachers advise students to opt for a particular specialization which may not have been their obvious choice."

Priyanka Sil, currently pursuing a master’s degree at the department of art history, says she initially wanted to study textiles but opted for painting. After a year in the painting department, she realized art history was her true calling. “At Kala Bhavana, I truly got to know myself for the first time," she says. Growing up in Chinsurah, in West Bengal, and studying at a convent school there didn’t prepare her for the absence of regimental learning or the diversity of the student population she met at Kala Bhavana.

Indeed, like Baij in his day, many students from underprivileged backgrounds continue to find a place to study at Kala Bhavana. “I remember a boy from Purulia, called Ujjwal Mahato, who worked as a daily labourer at construction sites between semesters to earn money to fund himself for the next," says Nandy Majumdar. On the other end of the spectrum are students such as Ashok Kumar from Ranchi, who realized while he was studying for a business degree that it was art he really wanted to pursue. Currently a student at the painting department, Kumar is now discovering his own visual language. “I don’t follow the usual norm of painting on canvas," he says. “I am more interested in the process, the research that precedes the work, than in the outcome."

For an institution of such eminence and eclectic promise, Kala Bhavana’s centenary celebrations do feel somewhat muted. While the odd event has been rolling out in Santiniketan since Nandan Mela in December, no major exhibition is scheduled in other parts of the country, especially in Kolkata, the city from where many of its alumni are, and Delhi, the office of the prime minister who, since Nehru, has acted as the chancellor of Visva-Bharati.

As an institution occupying a pre-eminent place in the history of modern Indian art, Kala Bhavana needs a push—both from within and from the Centre—to live up to its unique legacy more fully in the 21st century.

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