Santiniketan an architectural journey,
By Samit Das
“My mind resides at a crossroads; all my doors are always open so that all kinds of winds enter; all strangers of the night are cordially welcomed inside with warmth. There is a space called affection in man’s life – it is the spot of pain, the centre of feelings. Hence intimacy keeps creeping into this place. That play of joy and sorrow is the drama of life. Within limits, everything is to be endured. Because my guardian angel has decided to make a poet of me, he has kept my inner quarters unguarded; I have no back doors [in me], only main doors. That’s why not only the guest but also the uninvited, the unwelcome keep coming in and going from my inner quarters.”
(Pathe O Pather Prante, Pg 95, Chithi 43)
Tagore family’s contributions in the fields of literature, art, aesthetics and architecture is still relevant and need to be studied again in every aspect of the idea of present globalization. In this regard Rabindranath’s experiment in education, art and architecture at his Santiniketan School is particularly revealing.
The government system of education was not fulfilling to Tagore and he himself could not accept that in his childhood. He sought inspiration both in ancient philosophy of the Upanishad and in the modern ones, by promoting education of girls, pluri-disciplinarity, pan Asian studies and giving a central role to fine arts.
Far from deleting the natural elements the Poet incorporated them at the core of his educational system, following the ideals of ancient Indian cave temples. Rabindranath has expressed his personal concern on environmental issue through his essays ‘Sadhana’ (1923). He wrote,
“The west seems to take a pride in thinking that it is subduing nature, as if we are living in a hostile world where we have to wrest everything we want from an unwilling and alien arrangement of things…But in India the point of view was different, it included the world with the man as one great truth. India puts all her emphasis on the harmony that exists between the individual and the universal.”
As a primary school, Santiniketan was established on a barren land of Birbhum with a few pupils by 1901. Before that it was just a meditative center started in 1863 by Maharshi Debendranath Tagore. It had a single colonial building called Santiniketan house; later the glass temple, or Mandir, was added. Wide land and open nature surrounded the Ashram. Gradually the center becomes a major point of Bengal school movement, whose notion was to develop an alternative education system to make India conscious of both its legacy and its potentiality.
A group of talented personalities translated his dreams into reality such as Surendranath Kar, Rathindranath Tagore, Nandalal Bose, Arthur Geddess, C.F. Andrews, Ramkinker Baji and Birendramohon Sen. They engaged in this work with deep respect towards Tagore’s understanding of space. Though none of them was trained as an architect by profession, the outcome became a worthy area to research.
The study of Santiniketan architecture would not be possible without the visual references of great photographers especially Shambhu Shaha and Raymond Burnier. The three major clusters are: teachers quarters and student hostels the institutional buildings and the poets’ residences, in the uttarayana complex.
Two early structures, the “Santiniketan” guest-house, and the stained-glass Mandir exuded strong influences of design and craftsmanship from West. It was built before the school was set up. The architectural journey of Santiniketan under Tagore started with the construction of well and of Satya-Kutir, a boarding-house for the boys which was built out of the materials of an abandoned building. Satya-Kutir was a tile-roofed single-storey dormitory to provide a shelter the growing number of students. It was the beginning, in compliance with Tagore’s original proposition of living in nature with minimum modification in the existing landscape.
Rabindranath, always eager and extremely receptive towards cross-cultural ideas and methods had invariably included artists and scholars in his travel troupes to the foreign lands .he always reacted certain area of the particular culture what he can transformed in his Ashram.
Santiniketan never had a tall vertical structure due to two basic reasons. One, the thinkers never wanted to break the expansive horizon line with the introduction of man-made vertical incongruity; and, secondly, the material resources never allowed them to build big structures.
During Tagore’s years, Santiniketan could not retain the services of a trained and professional architect and it was artist Surendranath who had to step into that void. Around all the institutional constructions a large expanse of open space was kept, keeping in mind the tropical climate. The buildings were adorned with an open veranda on the one hand, front and rear courtyards in accordance with traditional Indian Bangla-type thatched cottages on the other hand.
In many cases, the front courtyard was encircled by a low parapet-like structure, which doubled to sit in the open during the summer evenings or to enjoy the warmth of a winter sun. Such a sitting arrangement may have been a direct adaptation from the eastern temple architectural plan or similar to the Mughal courtyards and enclosed gardens with platforms, which are known as Achabal or Chabutra.
By 1918-19, the architecture in Santiniketan bears a distinct character, which was partly influenced by classical Hindu-Buddhist temples, chaityas and viharas in the Ajanta or Ellora style with some major influences from far East in case of interior and wood work, as well as inspiration from Mughal and Sultanate architecture, references to ancient civilizations and also decisive experiments with local rural architecture. Among the other distinctive and characteristic features are roofless enclosures with door and window apertures, sloping walls, cornice and ornamental niche on the interior and exterior wall surface. What is most interesting is perhaps the introduction of a typical style of roof-laying where instead of a single level of roof for the entire structure it was done in multiple levels, as if in congruence with the undulating stark landscape around Santiniketan and also money constrain. One can feel that each and every part is integrated with daily life, surroundings locality, weather and of course vast nature.
Kala Bhavan hostel may have been constructed under the distinct influence of ancient Indian cave-temples. A flight of stairs leads to a covered and pillared veranda. The entire ceiling and the walls of the veranda are decorated with murals by Binodebehari Mukhopadhyay (1904-1980) based on the themes of local life in and around Santiniketan. In this connection one recalls the mural decorations at Ajanta, where subjects from the daily life were depicted in the murals.
Surendranath also designed the small integrated quarters for the Visva-Bharati teachers. In more than one instances the quarters were clustered in the shape of a “U” to enhance the interaction between the occupants to inculcate the feeling of a greater family. If we compare the Santiniketan arrangement with most of the colonial architecture, one immediately notices the difference.
Rabindranath had a liking for small constructions. In a number of letters he had expressed his views regarding this—forever longing for a little of open space—no drawing-rooms or dining space or the show-offs of wealth. His own house at Santiniketan—called “Dehali”—was stark with a minimum of architecture, yet not without grace. Similarly, the early Santiniketan buildings though displayed austerity, were not devoid of beauty.
In the year 1928, Surendranath designed and supervised the building of Sinhasadana. The architecture of this construction distinctly bears the influence of Atala Mosque of Jaunpur. The domineering façade with an arched gateway and multiple niches presently bears the bell-tower of the Ashrama. By the side of imposing Sinhasadana are two arched and niched ornamental gateways or “Torana”. According to their position in relation to the Sinhasadana—these are called Purva-Torana and Paschim-Torama or the eastern gateway and the western gateway. However, interestingly, they do not possess an east-west orientation of entrances. They provide a unique symmetrical stability to the central building of “Sinhasadana”.
If the geographical centre of Ashrama is the Gour-Prangana, or the central open space at the heart of the Ashrama, so essential in Tagore’s philosophy—then to its immediate north is the Shal-Bithi or the avenue lined with rustic and ancient Shorea Robusta, leading first to the Ghanta-tala and Madhabi-Bitan, both under a massive banyan tree; and then finally, to the old library building (presently the office of Patha-Bhavana) and the Balavi-Kutir on its second storey. This building has an open south-facing covered veranda, profusely decorated with the frescoes in Jaipur-style by Nandalal Bose and his students—which doubles as the raised stage from where the morning prayer-service or Baitalik is performed every morning with Vedic hymns and Rabindra-sangeet.
Surendranath’s architecture had transformed and adapted a number of elements directly from local nature. Various floral patterns were transformed into architectural designs very successfully. On the path leading towards Gurupalli, and right after Nichu-Bangla—where Tagore’s eldest brother Dwijendranath (1840-1926) once lived—is a structure built to provide water to stray birds. Here the receptacle was constructed in the design of a blossoming lotus flower. Similarly, near the old Pantha-Nivas or the traveler’s resting lodge (presently occupied by “Subarnarekha”, the bookshop) is a cluster of constructions for the watering of travelers and domestic animal of burden on their way back to a long way to villages. At Pantha-Nivas, the well that was sunk for potable water and the adjacent troughs for the animals were all decorated in a most pleasing manner owing to a successful mixture of utility with aesthetic presence .
Being a sensible artist himself and trained in the refined tastes of Bengal School, Surendranath was ever awake to the needs of the purpose and utility, and the demands of a sound and pleasing design.
Two examples of simplification of traditional architecture are found in the plans of Hindi-Bhavana and Cheena-Bhavana. These bear a striking visual resemblance to Daulat-Khana or the Emperor Akbar’s private chambers at Fatehpur Sikri from front.
The Black-House is another indegenious feature of the Kala-Bhavana buildings. it shows striking assimilation of cross-cultural ideas with purely local building material—such as brick construction with clay bonding and plaster, coated with several layers of coal tar to make the building damp-proof. The external walls of the construction are profusely decorated with bas-reliefs Bharhut, Mahabalipuram, Egyptian and Assyrian motifs by Ramkinkar Baij and Prabhas Sen and many others.
Dinantika Cha-Chakra or the tea-club sponsored by Tagore’s grand-nephew Dinendranath’s wife Kamala is an octagonal building on an elevation from the ground level. However, the elevation is not as high as a second floor. The single octagonal room is approached by a flight of steps leading to the entrance door. The interior is lit and ventilated by a series of open windows on the facets of the octagon, while the sitting arrangement is a simple skirting of built-in continuous bench, which clings to the interior wall. This sitting arrangement was done to facilitate a frontal face-to-face communication between the members of the association. The ceiling and the upper portion of the walls are decorated with Egyptian style murals.
Rabindranath never liked to live in a same house for a too long time and uttarayana comprises five houses, gardens, a gateway and small two story studio houses, chitrabhanu and guha ghar, along with some open air sitting area. The first house udayan was built over the period of nine years. The names of the five houses in the Uttarayana Complex where Tagore resided periodically are: Udayan, Konarka, Shyamali, Punashcha and Udichi.
The inside of udayan conveys a far eastern influence along with Buddhist cave spirit. Here the floors and the roofs were laid in different plane, resulting in a unique experience of living in the interiors. With this basic resourcefulness design were added the internal wood-work, the furniture, tapestry and especially the windows to let in light and breeze—so essential requisites of a tropical existence. At the entrance is a covered veranda, balanced by the symmetry of two spacious open verandas contiguous the sides. The entrance door is a wooden one, with carvings on it. The pillars that support the roof of the veranda are styled as a fusion of ancient Indian cave-monastery pillars. There is some resemblance to the Chinese summer theatres as well. In fact, many of Tagore’s own plays were staged here once upon a time.
As a balancing element of the horizontal expansion of Udayan, some “L” shaped constructions were appended to it. These are a small number of single-storey constructions, actually the kitchen, with pillared verandas, has a strong affinity with the Great Palace Square complex at the Fatehpur-Sikri. It boasts of a unique chimney that looks like a temple top.
In 1934 Nandalal Bose had designed a unique Chaitya-style construction, which was used as art work display housing.it is located at main center of core ashram area. The raw materials used were locally prepared mud impregnated with chopped jute and other fibers to provide adhesion, and finally painted on partially with black coal-tar to provide water-proofing, as well as to enhance aesthetic appeal to contrast it against the predominant yellow ochre of the local Birbhum clay.
Rabindranath was so impressed that he wished a similar mud-hut to be built for his residence. Thus came up Shyamali in the year 1935. Though a mud-hut, Shyamali has her originalities too. The house has a front courtyard and a pradakshina or circumambulation passage in the interior. There is controversy regarding the walls of Shyamali. Some say that the walls are kept hollow by embedding earthen pitchers inside—for better thermal insulation. At places a certain usage of retaining-walls are noticed. On its exterior Shyamali has a number of bas-reliefs by Nandalal Bose and Ramkinkar Baij, based on historical as well as motifs from the Indian daily life—making it an unparalleled interface between a sculpture and architecture.
Curiously the interior of Shyamali is divided by low walls that sculpt or carve the negative-space of an empty room into several enclosures for living and reposing quarters. Therefore, it is best to say that Shyamali has a single unified space, which was given a series of shapes without destroying its inherent malleability. From the main entrance to Uttarayana Complex the path leads to Shyamali directly, through a creeper-bower. Such types of bowers are seen in other locations in Uttarayana, and in Ashrama as well.
Just a year later, in 1936, Punashcha was built near Shyamali—a little to its east. According to Tagore’s wish the eastern part of this architecture was glassed, and the west face was walled up.
After two years of living in Punashcha Rabindranath again had a new house made for him. Thus Udichi came up a little towards the south-east of Punashcha in the year 1938. The house stands on four short pillars covered by latticework. The first floor living room of Udichi is encircled by a series of glass-paned windows, which establishes a direct contact with the nature around. A covered veranda skirts this room as well. The flight of steps with railing that lead to this floor is unique in character—they do not give the idea of apparent gain of elevation. The handrails too are not abrupt, and help the visitor to gain elevation in harmony with the low flight of steps. At Udichi the stairs lead to a little covered veranda, which has glass windows and a small sitting platform of low elevation.