THE END OF ARCADIA - A visit to Santiniketan provokes some unsettling questions

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By The Thin Edge - Ruchir Joshi
  • Published 23.12.07

Visiting Santiniketan recently, I was overcome by a strange emotion. I tried to decipher this alien mood that had settled on me and it took me a while before I recognized it as melancholy — a kind of ruthlessly depressing melancholy with no escape valves that, in my experience, only drops around a person when they are thinking about Bengal. Admittedly, I was visiting the campus on a Wednesday, when everything was shut and the students had vapourized, but the pall of decay, the smell of an impending end, the finish of whimpers, of defeatist quietude, ran a slow riot through my being.

In retrospect, what was shocking was how something created with such intense attention to beauty and simplicity could be transformed into something so ugly. Proper ruins have their own power: a pull that comes from us being able to see the bare bones of a past civilization, the armature of the logic that held a place together. Here, precisely because this place belongs to the un-dead, there are live layers of horror and grotesquery. There is a shanti here alright, but it is the shanti of a seething graveyard.

Perhaps there are people already reaching for their pens and keyboards as they finish reading the previous paragraph; perhaps I am about to be inundated with letters pointing out the great plans under way to restore the glory of Tagore’s vision; I do hope so. But the bald, unavoidable question is, how did things come to such a pass in the first place?

What happened to the murals in China Bhavan? How does the beautiful house painted only a few years ago by K.G. Subramanyan come to resemble the fading, crumbling, work of Nandalal Bose from, what, eighty years ago? Why is the whole place laced with barbed wire when there is nothing left to protect? Which outside barbarian is the wire meant to dissuade when, clearly, the vandals have themselves been in charge of the plant for ages? At whose door do we put the responsibility? The famous aesthetes who’ve run the state government for one-third of a century, that is, for nearly half the time that has elapsed since the death of Rabindranath? The dog-in-the-manger Gurudeb Mafia, who will do nothing useful themselves nor let anyone else do anything dynamic? The great, imperial, cultural agencies of New Delhi, whose job it surely also was to look after the one modern Indian experiment in imparting a sanskar of love and beauty? Who, or rather, which coalition of gangs, was it that put Santiniketan in this coma?

As I wandered around the grounds, I found myself blaming a particular pair of ex-students, an odd couple if ever there was one, but it was definitely and undeniably the fault of those two old pals, the Goopy and Bagha de nos jours, Indira and Ritwik. How much more constructive her life would have been if Indu had moved away from the sewer-corridors of Delhi politics and taken over Santiniketan! Chances are she would have lived a lot longer, so would a whole host of others, and so would have this place. And what if Ghatak-babu had come here and joined her, been the aesthetic and cultural partner to her administrative one? Unlike Satyajit Ray, Ghatak was a natural and generous teacher who believed in passing on his vision and his insights; a well-run, well-maintained Santiniketan under these two would have been a treasure, not just of India but of the world, exactly as Rabindranath had intended. Yes, we might have had fewer films from Ritwik, but on the other hand, perhaps not: under the firm friendship of Indira he might have been less frustrated, less dependent on booze, and in the long run, far more productive. Indira would have removed the Legacy-zamindars and Ritwik would have made sure no cobwebs settled on Tagore, he would have helped create the living aesthetic he strove all his life to reach. It was a fantastical thought, of course, but in its opposite reflection not all that far-fetched — both the idea and the physical place of Santiniketan have fallen into the crevice created by the indifference of political leaders (the ones who did know better) and the over-riding personal ambitions of the artists (who should have been more aware).

There was one artist who never left Santiniketan, and his presence was very strong in the area near the Kala Bhavan. I’ve never managed to like the work of Ramkinkar Baij. People have tried to open me up to it, or told me how I am so removed from the agrarian graphic and plastic sculptural sensibility of echt-Bengal that I am sorely ill-equipped to understand what the man achieved and what he was trying to do. But, like it or not, beholden to that famous bad marriage between Rodin and Soviet Social Realism or not, Ramkinkar still represents a complete sensibility, he’s still the author of an an oeuvre in the full sense of the word, a life-effort of long struggle, no matter how self-indulgent and chullu-drenched.

Today, Ramkinkar’s Buddha has a pigeon defecating in its lap; the two great tribal sculptures are covered by ghastly tin-sheds taking away the very light in which they were meant to be viewed; the small piece in front of the main Tagore house has a stalk of a plant curving out of the concrete; the large Gandhi looks ever more truculent and as if it’s been fired in a pit of grime. It should be possible to assess figures such as Ramkinkar and others, the creators of our Indian Modernism, in a calm, dispassionate way, to critically weigh what they’ve given us, but in order to do this we need, the people in general need, to be able to actually see and experience the work. What has happened under the larger defacement of Tagore is a whole host of smaller erasures of artists who came to light under his influence, and that, too, is part of the tragedy of Santiniketan.

To read or to listen to Tagore is to, ultimately, be immersed in optimism, in the unshakeable belief that deep joy is the birthright of every human being and an attainable one. So I try and change what I’m looking at and the way I am seeing things: the trees around the campus are still lovely in the winter light; there are couples scattered in the nooks and crannies of the crumbling buildings, like birds about to mate; the forest around the khoai ripples with natural sounds; cycling through a santhal village, I see a modern building made using traditional local materials, a ceramic shop with some very nice things, and for a moment I could be in Goa or Auroville.

As I head for the station a thought passes through my head: we cannot escape the great Bengalis, but can they escape us? Aurobindo certainly made it, but outside Bengal; now, what about Rabindranath?