Note: As promised in our last blog about our visit to Jaipur, Advaya Tales is back with lots of stories and historical explorations from a long trip to Kolkata, the City of Joy. Yet I find no better way to begin describe my findings, other than by first recounting the history of the name – whose timeless writings, poems, songs and stories – the glories of Bengal are remembered by, i.e. Rabindranath Tagore – the Bard of Bengal himself. While my next blog describes the many other places that define Bengal, this blog explores Tagore’s legacy, Shantiniketan & the rural paradise he grew up in.
FROM BHUBANDANGA TO SHANTINIKETAN
Shantiniketan – Image found on Google
The story of Bhubandanga’s transformation, from being named after a local dacoit – Bhuban Dakat, to being named an Abode of Peace, goes back to 1862. It is said that Maharshi Devendranath Tagore (Rabindranath Tagore’s father) while on a boat journey to Raipur, came across a landscape with red soil and meadows of lush green paddy fields. Rows of chhatim trees (commonly known as the Devil tree) and date palms charmed him. He stopped to look, decided to plant more saplings and built a small house. He called his home Shantiniketan (abode of peace). Shantiniketan became a spiritual centre where people from all religions were invited to join for meditation and prayers. He founded an ‘Ashram’ here in 1863 and being a deeply religious man, became the re-initiator of the Brahmo Samaj (formed in 1843). The Bramho Sabha, started by Raja Ram Mohan Roy, had fallen away from its original practice and aiming to revive it, Devandranath Tagore merged his Tattwabodhini Sabha with the Brahmo Sabha.
BOLPUR – ADVAYA TALES®
Shantiniketan today is a town situated near Bolpur, a tribal area well known for its handicrafts, remembered as a place where music flows and where the famous Rabindranath Tagore spent his precious years preaching love, music and life without measure. Home to the world famous Biswa Bharti University, which is surrounded by a large wooded area, densely populated with Eucalyptus trees and other trees commonly known as “Shalbon”, recognized by their big leaves. The plentiful flora and fauna of this place has for years given shade, solace and inspiration to many budding writers and creative minds.
THE SHONAJHURI HAAT AT KOPAI
“Gram chhara oi ranga matir path (the red path beyond my village)” – Rabindranath Tagore
Exploring the landscape and people that inspired the Nobel Laureate, led me to one of the area’s main highlights – the Saturday Tribal Haat, commonly known as Shonajhuri haat, which takes place near the Kopai River. Popularly known as Khoai, immortalized as having deeply inspired Tagore’s poetry, the area around the river has red soil that forms ravines on the river bank with weathering.
The Shonajhuri Haat – ADVAYA TALES®
The Haat is a gathering for the local tribal folk to sell their hand-made products. These are hardworking people that make their living through their handicrafts and jewelry made from natural produce like seeds, flowers, leaves. The surrounding greenery teaming with the tribal song and dance during the Haat left me tapping my feet spell bound. Dusky beauties with their tribal jewelry, balancing a pot of water on their head looked so graceful and mesmerizing. Conversations with them revealed that while they were happy to ply they’re art to earn a living, there have been many instances where they have been duped, their products bought with promises of huge business, which never materialized.
Shonajhuri Haat: Song & Dance – ADVAYA TALES®
Nonetheless, a clear blue sky, lush green fields awaiting harvest next season and women selling local delights made in the village, made visiting the Haat a pleasant treat to the senses.
“Here my neighbour is the river Kopai… Associated with the cacophony of the Santhal woman of age old times… Her treasures are humble, but her poverty is not pale…”
– Rabindranath Tagore, ‘Kopai’, Rachanavali, VIII, 234.
A TASTE OF TRIBAL LIFE
Unexpectedly chancing upon the nearing tribal village, I decided to explore. Picture – mud thatched roofs, woman carrying pots of water on their head, while the men readied themselves for work even on a Sunday.
“They hunt for small fishes using their clothes as nets.
The women wash and scrub their utensils with sand
As they wash clothes and return for household chores…”
– Choto Nadi, Rabindranath Tagore
Beyond the imaginations of most city bred folk, here was life which didn’t run on electricity, where food was cooked in the traditional “chulla” with fire and coal, where water had to be carried home from a nearby source, or where water for bath meant a dive in the pond nearby – if not the famous “Khowai” river, with folk music always playing in the background from most houses.
Bengal: Tribal Life – ADVAYA TALES®
So like a true Bengali on the quest for good food, I was treated with some amazing local recipes. The local market was buzzing with students and local eateries. While perusing through commercial crafts in the local markets, did not yield products that could be deemed value for money – in terms of quality, I was well compensated with the must-have “khullad” tea. Served in an earthen vessel, it came accompanied by a strange aroma, pouring forth nostalgic memories of my childhood holidays spent travelling.
BISWA BHARTI CAMPUS
Biswa Bharti Campus
Yet, roaming in the Biswa Bharti Campus on a full moon night had its own charm, which once again left me reminiscent of my long IIT campus walks back in Delhi. It was as though the city and I were relating life stories, as I strolled on, as it revealed small dimly lit row houses which reflected a style of living, nearly forgotten. The moonlight glistening off the tall trees, swaying with every little breeze left me convinced that I need to spend more days here.
“In the corners of my different lonely musings
Have flown her indifferent waters
As a traveller moves close by the troubles of the
Ordinary man; yet unbothered by it”
– Rabindranath Tagore’s Kopai, Rachanavali VIII, 233-4
Patha Bhavan – ADVAYA TALES®
Started years later by Rabindranath Tagore in Shantinketan, the Patha Bhavana was the school of his ideals, where the central premise is that learning in a natural environment would be more enjoyable and fruitful. After he received the Nobel Prize (1913), the school was expanded into a university in 1921 and by 1951, it had become one of India’s central universities. Throughout the year this premise is buzzing with social and cultural events like Basanta Utsav (Holi), Barsha Mangal, Sharodutsav (Durga Puja), Nandan Mela (art fair), Poush Mela (Harvest Festival), Magh Mela, Rabindra Jayanti etc. The Poush Mela in particular is the prime attraction, being a three day fair (end of December) with various artists, singers, dancers and traditional Baul taking the centre stage.
Biswa Bharati Education – Images Found on Google
THE HOUSE OF THE TAGORE’S
Jorasankho Thakurbari – ADVAYA TALES®
Jorasanko Thakurbari, aka House of Thakur’s, built by Prince Dwarkanath Tagore (grandfather of Rabindranath Tagore) in the 18th century, is situated at the Rabindra Bharti University Campus, North Calcutta. This is the house where Rabindranath Tagore was born, and the campus comprises of the residence of Tagore and the university. The house feels nothing short of time travelling into the history and the lives of the Tagores. The house gives you a glimpse into Tagore’s life, from his immeasurable personal and other contributions to the society. It’s interesting to know that apart from his literary contribution to his love for music, dance and so many other creative works, a deep passion for food walked side by side. Tales sing praise till date – about the “Thakurbarir Ranna” recipes specially made for the Tagore’s household. Most of these recipes are now lost to current generations, so like many other Bengali’s, I too had to depart with only fanciful wishes to feed my desire, to taste this food of legend.
Rabindra University, Jorasankho – ADVAYA TALES®
THE LEGACY OF TAGORE
India may have immortalized Tagore by making his song its National Anthem, but Bengal has chosen to be defined by his music, his poetry and his way of life. Till date, Tagore remains alive not just in his life’s works but most importantly in passionate conversations over tea, especially at the Adda’s – that Bengali’s are so famous for. One cannot explore Bengal, without understanding Tagore.
Rabindranath Tagore and Students, Santiniketan, 1929.
So, having paid homage like a true ‘Bangali’ – by visiting and experiencing the legacy of Rabindranath Tagore, I set out with renewed excitement and vigor to explore the ‘City of Joy’ and discover its forgotten history.
Stay tuned for Part 2 of the Bengal Diaries blog!