Art Institutions

The history of Kala Bhavan is rooted in the multiple ideas and origins associated with Santiniketan itself. Established in 1901, Santiniketan was borne as a site for Rabindranath Tagore’s experiments in an effort to counter colonial education by steering teaching away from the confinement of four walls to the lap of nature. Tagore’s involvement with the burgeoning Swadeshi movement, which had captured Bengal and other parts of the nation in its searing call for anti-colonial resistance, turned his attention with the realisation that an alternate culture would not be possible without an alternate education.

The Swadeshi movement turned Tagore’s interest towards the initiatives of his own family at Jorasanko, led by Abanindranath and Gaganendranath Tagore at the forefront. His stay in the rural district of Sealdah, where he went to look after his father’s extensive properties, was pivotal in centering the role of close contact with nature in shaping his worldview as a modern writer; his finest writing was done during his retreat into this rural and natural landscape. Tagore believed that such a perspective would be beneficial to young artists, while envisaging an education model that emphasized global interconnectedness and harmony. [1] Further his travels to Japan and America in 1916 fostered his conviction that aesthetic practices could be communicated only through a lived, educational experience.

Tagore invited the artist Nandalal Bose to take charge of the new art school, which was established in 1919. Bose had been involved with the art classes at Santiniketan School prior to the establishment of Kala Bhavan, and his own experiences with ideas around tradition, an indigenous style, materials and methods prepared him to lead the alternate pedagogical approach that Tagore had envisioned. Bose was a student of Abanindranath Tagore, considered one of the pioneers of the Bengal school, and began his artistic practice by painting historical themes.

His rethinking of tradition, prompted by his contact with Ananda Coomaraswamy, as well as his visit to Ajanta Caves in 1910-11 and to Orissa dictated his changed perception of how diverse visual languages had their own functions and could work in tandem with each other. He accompanied Tagore on a trip to Japan, where the Japanese engagement of aesthetic values to everyday life had a profound influence on Tagore. Bose’s meeting with Japanese scholar Okakura Kazuo, a vigorous proponent of Pan-Asianism and Japanese traditional art, had a inspired his thinking on tradition within the purview of his own artistic aspirations. These influences became the guiding principles in Bose’s career, both as an artist and a teacher, garnering a complementary drive to Tagore’s ideas around art education [2]. Bose insisted on developing an emphatic and personal response to nature, urging his students to capture facts through rigorous observation. Kala Bhavan also encouraged students engage in community projects which formed another important part of socially relevant art, with stress on mural painting and collective working. Santiniketan therefore harbours a rich repository of murals and monumental sculptures, the site doubling as a gallery of modern Indian art. Nandalal Bose integrated the rural reconstruction programmes at Santiniketan to guide his students to learn from rural craftsmen and encouraged the practice of crafts as a vocation and an aesthetic response. [3]

R. Siva Kumar writes on Santiniketan, “...One of the major achievements of Santiniketan was to effect a shift from a notion of cultural identity based on an invariable national essence to a notion of historical authenticity based on environmental response and contextual relevance.” Tagore’s rechristening of Santiniketan to Viswa-Bharati in 1921 was a response to his growing disillusion with the cause of nationalism, grounding the university in his ideas of internationalism and cross-cultural exchange beyond Pan-Asianism. He invited the young Austrian scholar Stella Kramrisch to the university where she taught the faculty and students western art from 1922-23. He was also instrumental in bringing the exhibition of Bauhaus artists to Calcutta in 1922. Thus, issues of nationalism and modernism ran parallel in Santiniketan, while giving its students a shared artistic language that was informed by its key ideas. Santiniketan marked a departure from the Bengal school, instead fostering creativity and self-expression through a “structured and shared art language,” [4] giving a distinct unity to the artists and students.

Visva-Bharati was converted into a central university in 1951, following the Independence of India. As the university gradually adapted to the rules and grants from the UGC, the central ethos of the space as envisioned by Tagore has remained. The Santiniketan campus was designed to be sustainable, working in close tandem with its environment and the neighbouring villages. Environmentally friendly materials were utilised to build the core Ashram architecture, reflecting the architectural affinity with its surroundings. The focus on community-based activities were the basis of not only their method of teaching but integrated into everyday life. The Basant Utsab and Poush Utsab and Mela are seasonal community festivals that were instituted to bring together and encourage economic, social and cultural interaction between the varsity and its neighbouring villages. [5] The Basant Utsab takes place in the month of March as a celebration of Spring, while the Poush Utsab in December, accompanied by a large scale annual Mela or fair would see participation by the tribal communities around Santiniketan to showcase their art and artefacts as well as live folk performances.

The past few months have seen the university embroiled in various controversies regarding the cancellation of Basant Utsab and the Poush Mela by the university administration. The Vice-Chancellor’s decision was deemed a “culture shock” [6] by many and an affront to the ideals on which the university stood. Visva-Bharati has also seen a decline in the National Institutional Ranking Framework (NIRF) over the last few years, bringing to question the criteria by which a university like Viswa-Bharati, constructed on the lines of redefining education, can compete with the pressures of private funding and standardised education systems.

With the university’s decision to mount a boundary wall on the Poush mela grounds despite opposition from local residents, students and alumni of the university, the established ideas around Santiniketan’s experiments with modernity faced a critical challenge. However, the inherent ideals of universalism and unity that Tagore envisioned have endured over the years. Kala Bhavan has harboured these in its pedagogy throughout its history as a reflection of the spirit with which Tagore had instituted the university.

Notes

[1]KathleenM. O’Connell, “Education at Santiniketan: 1902-1920” in India International Centre Quarterly, Vol. 38, no. 1 (Summer 2011), 28.

[2] R. Siva Kumar, “Santiniketan: A Community of Arts and Ideas,” in Indian Art: An Overview, ed. Gayatri Sinha (New Delhi: Rupa, 2003), pp. 77.

[3] Ibid., 72.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Aurobindo Ghosh, “Why the decision to cancel Visva-Bharati’s spring and winter festivals is disturbing” in Indian Express, August 10, 2020.

[6] Madhuparna Das, “Visva-Bharati cancels 125-year-old annual Poush Mela, and it’s not because of Covid-19” in The Print, July 5, 2020.

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