A Brief History

T

he contribution of the in Tagore family in the fields of literature, arts aesthetics and architecture is still relevant and need to be studied again in every aspect of the idea of the present green movement and globalization. In this regard Rabindranath’s experiment in education, art and architecture at his Santiniketan School is particularly revealing and interesting.

In the beginning of the 20thcentury the Tagore’s of Jorasanko tried to create India’s own identity in many fields. Their contributions to the field of literature, art, aesthetics and architecture are relevant aspects of our common cultural past. Much before Santiniketan shot into prominence as a cultural arena, the family of Gaganendranath and Abanindranath Tagore, also being pioneers of the neo Bengal art movement, and Samarendranath Tagore initiated the process of intercultural fusion and assimilation of ideas at their Jorasanko house.

Rabindranath Tagore sought inspiration both in the ancient Indian philosophy of the Upanishads and from the more modern sources. At least a hundred years before the present movement of environmental awareness, Rabindranath expressed his personal concern for environmental issues through his essays. In ‘Sadhana’, 1923, he writes “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 from an unwilling and alien arrangement of things…but in India the point of view was different, it included the world with man as one great truth. India puts all her emphasis on the harmony that exists between the individual and the universal. ” This is the primary ideal that was sustained, in the architectural idiom as developed at Santiniketan.

The primary school was established on some barren land in Birbhum around 1901, prior to that it was just a meditation centre that was started by Maharshi Debendranath Tagore in 1863. It had a single colonial building called the Santiniketan Griha; later on the glass Temple or the Mandir was added. These two buildings have a strong influences of design and architecture from the west. Slowly but very steadily the centre became a beginning point of the Bengal school movement.

A group of very talented people, which included Surendranath Kar, Rathindranath Tagore, Nandalal Bose, Arthhur Geddes, C.F Andrews, Ramkinar Baij and Birendramohan Sen, translated Tagore’s dreams into reality engaging with their work Tagore’s deep understanding of the concept of space an his proposition of living in nature with minimum modification to the existing landscape. Santiniketan Architecture also owes to the contribution of photographers like Shambhu Shaha and Raymond Burnier.

What we see of Santiniketan today can be divided into three major clusters of buildings : the teacher’s quarters and the student’s hostels; the institutional buildings and the Rabindranath Tagore’s many residences within the Uttarayana complex.

Rabindranath Tagore had a liking for small constructions. we can make this out from a number of letters he wrote where he described his views regarding his forever longing for a little open space. Santiniketan never had a tall, vertical structure, one of the reasons being that he and his architects did not want to break the expansive horizon with a man made vertical incongruity. The other is that the material resources available did not allow them to build gigantic structures. Around all the institutional constructions a large expanse of open space was kept, keeping in mind the tropical climate.

During Tagore’s time Santiniketan could not afford the services of a trained architect, thus artist Surendranath Kar stepped in to fill this place. Before the advent of Kar, Santiniketan architecture was devoid of any direct flavor of Indianess. He designed buildings which were adorned with an open veranda in front and a rear courtyard in accordance with traditional Bangla-type thatched cottages which allowed space and air.. Many a times the front courtyard would be surrounded by a low parapet like structure that could be used to sit on. Such an arrangement could have been a probable influence of eastern temple architecture or mughal courtyards. He also designed small integrated quarters for the Visva-Bharati teachers, many of them were clustered in a shape of an‘U’ to enhance the interaction between occupants and inculcate the feeling of a greater family.

During 1918-19, with the coming in of Nandalal Bose, Santiniketan architecture gathered a distinct and an unique character of its own. This was an eclectic mixture which was immensely influenced by the ancient Brahmanical and Buddhist temples and viharas, like in Ajanta or Ellora caves, and also design influences from far east with reference to the interior design of the buildings and the use of wood work. Not only this, Santiniketan architecture also derives much from Mughal and Sultanate architecture as well as local rural architecture.

In 1928, Surendranath Kar supervised the building of Simhasadana. Its architecture bears the influence of Atala mosque of Jaunpur, with a domineering façade and an arched gateway. The building also has two ornamental gateways, with toranas that provide a unique symmetrical stability to the central building.

The geographical centre of the Ashram has a central open space called Gaur Prangana, very essential to Tagore’s philosophy. There are few buildings near the Gaur Prangana and one of them is the old Library Building, which has an open south facing veranda, profusely decorated with frescos in Jaipur style by Nandalal Bose and his students. Kar’s architecture adapted a number of elements directly from the present local nature, and we can see this in the way he utilized various floral patterns as architectural designs with ease, giving the structures interesting aesthetic qualities. In his architectural design he combined a sound and pleasing design within a mould of utility.

The black house shows a striking assimilation of cross cultural ideas with local building material. Its external walls are profusely decorated with bas-reliefs from Bhahrut, Mahabalipuram, Egyptian and Assyrian motifs by Ramkinar Baij and Prabhas Sen, and many others.

Rabindranath never quite liked to live in the same house for long and thus for this reason the Uttarayana compound comprises five separate residences of Tagore namely, Udayan, Konarka, Shyamali, Punascha and Udichi, along with a rose garden and an artificial pond with a built up island with weeping willows.

Keeping in mind the unhindered horizon line of Santiniketan landscape, the Uttarayana grew up gradually on a horizontal plane- in tune with the subtle wave like undulations of the Khoai around.

Udayan, the largest house in the Uttarayana cluster was built gradually over a period of nine years from 1919 onwards till 1929. The interior of Udayan is a fine blend of far eastern and Buddhist caves in spirit. While the many pillars that support the veranda are styled as a fusion of ancient Indian cave monastery pillars and various style of Jharokhas found in some old havelis at Gujarat, with the main room on the ground floor having a wooden ceiling and interior pillars that speak of influence from caves of Ajanta, Bagh and Ellora, the use of timber paneling and internal wooden pillars is essentially Japanese in flavor. The set of wooden railings in front and back on the ground floor has hints of Angkor Vat to some extent.

Konark is unique in a way that the floors and the roofs are not on one uniform plane here. There are 14 planes on the roof at the top, and this gives the feeling of establishing a contact with nature from all possible angles. In 1934 Nandalal Bose constructed an unique Chaitya style construction used to display artworks, Rabindranath was so impressed with this Chaitya that he put forward a wish to have a similar mud hut built for his residence. That come into being as Shyamali. Shyamali has a number of bas reliefs by Nandalal Bose and Ramkinar Baij, and the certain frontality that we find in Shyamali essentially speaks of the influence of ancient Buddhist cave architecture.

In conclusion we can say that in India, the Santiniketan style of architecture brought back a sense of Indianess, deriving from a vast history of design and architecture in India. This was in an era where many welcomed and followed the cultural hegemony of the west. The study of Santiniketan architecture is important to the understanding of Tagore’s philosophy, it is a little window into the mind of the great and many faceted artist that Tagore was. It is important to return to the study of Santiniketan architecture and to appreciate it to reflect upon the intricacies of the man- environment relationship, especially in modern times when our ecology has been badly destroyed by man. Santiniketan architecture is an eclectic fusion of art and design influenced from multiple lands ranging from countries far away like Japan to local Bangla type traditional households, and multiple time periods in Indian history, from ancient Buddhist and Brahmanical caves of Ajanta and Ellora to the Sultanate and Mughal architecture. It is a unique example of a beautiful blend of various cultural influences, and this blend gives Santiniketan a character of its own that makes it stand out aesthetically and philosophically. It is very important that we return to appreciating it and studying for its purely aesthetic qualities and also as a model of architecture that is in a constant dialogical relationship with nature and ecology, where the man made constructions stand one with nature and not as an intrusion into it.

Text - Samit Das
Text Editor - Smt. Suchhanda Sarkar
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