"Santiniketan looks most beautiful when it rains," said my guide, the Station House Officer (SHO) of the local police station. When he offered to take me around, I was reluctant, but he assured me that as alumni of the place, he knows more about Santiniketan than a tourist guide. I willingly accepted his offer.
As we entered the famous Kala Bhavan Complex, rains intensified. We entered the sculpture department to avoid getting drenched. The lecturer present there recognised his old student and showed us round.
Students were working on different types of materials, wood, bamboo, iron, glass, mud, ceramic etc., An animal made of old nuts and bolts caught my fancy. "Did you know that Tagore was keen to bring together different forms of art and wanted artists from all over India and the world to stay here? Kala Bhavan is the result of this experiment. The famous painter Nandalal Bose was Head of Kala Bhavan in 1922," said the lecturer. Students who joined us proudly recounted famous Indian artistes who had studied there. I was surprised to learn that the studios are open 24x7.
When the rain stopped, we went to the nearby canteen to eat "pav-bhaji" and sip hot "chai" and continued our discussion. Students had come from all parts of the world and were very proud to be associated with Santiniketan. They said the atmosphere was most conducive for learning and they are encouraged to become more and more creative. One of them told me that Santiniketan was established in 1863 and became Visva-Bharati University in 1921 and is now a central university.
We continued our stroll round the campus. "Where is the famous Open Air School?" I asked my guide. He took me to a tree-filled area with circular shaped classrooms. "This is the famous Patha Bhavan, the first institution set up by "Gurudev" as an experimental school in 1901. He wanted the students to be one with nature and learn without any barriers between the teachers and the taught," he said. "Where are the students," I asked. "They have all gone away because of rain," said the guide. He quickly pointed that Satyajit Ray and Indira Gandhi were alumni of this school. "Sir, every year I get phone calls from senior officers for getting their children and grandchildren admitted here," the guide said.
From there we went to see the Upasana Ghar or Prayer Hall. Made purely out of glass, this hall has no deity. Prayers are held every Wednesday. Close by is Santiniketan Gruha, a two- storeyed building where Rabindranath's father Debendranath Tagore used to stay.
Across the road are located Rabindra Bhavan, a museum, and Tagore's ashram in Uttarayana Complex. Tagore's Nobel Prize Medal used to be displayed in the museum, but since it was stolen in 2004, a replica has been kept now. The museum has Tagore's manuscripts and sketches. It has 1,600 paintings and 11,000 photographs apart from a library which includes the personal books of Tagore.
In the same complex are located five houses where Tagore lived. The first house is Konark, which Tagore used for poetry recitation, the second is Shamali, a mud house, the third is Udayan, and remaining two are Malancha and Punascha.
We visited Sangeetha Bhavan next. This houses the music department and, like Kala Bhavan, was close to Tagore's heart. We could hear the students rehearsing for a forthcoming program. Eminent Bengali Musicians were trained here.
By the time we finished seeing Sangeetha Bhavan, it was lunch time. We had a quick Bengali lunch in a nearby restaurant and went to see Amar Kuteer.
On the way, I asked the SHO to tell us something about how Santiniketan came to be established. He said, "When Maharishi Debendranath Tagore was on a tour in Birbhum in 1862, he came across this place which captivated him because of its beauty. He bought land here and named the place as Santiniketan. In the initial stages it was a spiritual centre. Later, in 1901, Rabindranath Tagore developed it by setting up the school and other institutions." On the way when the SHO pointed out at the residence of Amartya Sen, I exclaimed, "Oh, Santiniketan is home to two Nobel laureates!"
Amar Kuteer, located six kms from Santiniketan, is home to a co-operative society established in 1920 to encourage production of handicrafts. Painted leather articles, printed and painted cotton clothing, wooden and metallic pieces are made, exhibited and sold. The articles are very reasonably priced and we purchased some interesting items. Santiniketan has many open air "haats" where local artisans display and sell their products.
As it was getting dark, we left to catch our train back to Kolkata. There are a number of interesting places around Santiniketan but constraints of time prevented us from visiting them.
There are a number of fast trains daily from Kolkata to Santiniketan (Bolpur Railway Station) and one can conveniently cover Santiniketan in a day. On our way back I could not but feel happy about our decision to visit this abode of peace.