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Finding peace in Tagore land

Santiniketan means the abode of peace; and this quaint college town continues to deliver the goods

brunch Updated: Mar 03, 2018 22:27 IST
Saubhadra Chatterji
Santhal women and men perform tribal dance at the weekly market
Santhal women and men perform tribal dance at the weekly market(Saubhadra Chatterji)

There are two kinds of intellectuals in Kolkata (it’s another matter that every Bengali thinks he’s intellectual): those who have a house in Santiniketan and those who don’t.

No love story is complete here unless the girl sings some Rabindrasangeet for the boy amid the overgrown bushes on the banks of Kopai river

I neither have a house there nor have I visited that sleepy town more than once in the first 40 years of my life. Then, during a farm holiday near Chandigarh, I meet the most decent Punjabi businessman whose late father had only one guru: ‘Gurudev’ Rabindranath Tagore. And, at a party, a classmate gulps his third peg of cheap whisky to remind me that we are “too old and anything can happen anytime.”

“Let’s plan a trip,” he asks for his fourth.

We hit a silk-smooth road after jumping (with joy) on endless potholes in stifling traffic snarls of Kolkata. But in a few hours, when bustling towns fade away and lush green fields and hamlets surrounded by palm groves and dark clouds create a collage of serenity, I’m confident that even in the company of nine raddled classmates, my holiday in Santiniketan won’t go waste. But where is Santiniketan?

Lost in place

The heart of Santiniketan (Saubhadra Chatterji)

The ‘resort’ where our ramshackle car finally stops, has nothing to do with Tagore or the land he developed as one of India’s most idyllic education centres. It’s a row of colourful huts near a pond in the middle of miles of paddy fields. “Santiniketan,” my friend Dipankar announces, “is a 30 minute-drive from here.”

Half the gang begins a debate over the choice of this place. The other half concentrates on the lunch menu. Questions like “Is the fish fresh?”, “Do you serve desi ghee?” and “Can I get sondesh as well as mishti doi?” fly in the large dining hall that also serves as a temporary reception.

Sunlight rolls into the evening when I reach the famous post office corner of Santiniketan. “Visitors don’t miss two things here,” our local guide Doom quips. “Telebhaja (fritters) and the prayer hall.”

The prayer hall – a splendid iron and glass structure – reminds me of Madrid’s Palacio de Cristal. But this one has a deeper historical and spiritual importance as Tagore and many other luminaries of India had assembled here to pray to the unknown almighty.

Fritters, along with hilsa fish, continue to hold the next position of importance after Diego Maradona in this part of the planet. At least five experts had given strict instructions about which telebhaja shop I should go to – and with no common choice. I buy two piping hot potato chops, sprinkle some rock salt on them and ride pillion on Doom’s moped towards the Kopai river.

Art of nature

Students use bicycles to go to school (Saubhadra Chatterji)

The narrow stream spanned by a dilapidated bridge still commands the fantasy of all visitors and locals. No love story is probably complete here unless the girl sings some Rabindrasangeet for the boy amid the overgrown bushes on the banks of Kopai.

But this slow-flowing river also possibly epitomises why people yearn for a weekend break in Santiniketan. A lush green town with open fields and acres of ravines. Brilliant artwork on well-preserved 20th century mansions. Earthy songs of wandering minstrels and canopied trees stooping over red soil paths – the heady cocktail of nature and a peaceful life is so enthralling that the unique charm of Santiniketan attracts even the hardcore urban mindset for a holiday amidst tranquility.

Achiransu Acharyya left his cushy job at IIM Ahmedabad to teach economics at Visva Bharati University here. He takes me around Santiniketan where classes are still held under trees and students wear khadi dresses. He points out the confluence of Japanese and Islamic architecture and to the open area that hosts the famous Holi celebrations. We get a privileged entry to the staff canteen where they serve a lip-smacking thaali before I go to meet Mihir Ghosh, a professor who made Santiniketan his home ever since he came here as a teacher of wooden art in the 1980s.

We pass by a few sculptures of Ramkinkar Baij and a tea stall that attracts creative minds throughout the day. The narrow roads are overloaded with the bungalows of A-listers from art and literary worlds.

At the end of a road, in a home insulated from all the chaos of the streets, Ghosh’s room and world are filled with splendid works of wooden art. And like many veterans of this place, Ghosh states, “If I go out of Santiniketan, I feel suffocated.”

Finding that dewdrop

The place offers lush green surroundings (Saubhadra Chatterji)

It’s evening and at Khowai, a part of the ravine, the weekly fair has just started. The local Santhal women, dressed in bright colours, are ready to dance to the tune of maadals. Shops sell a variety of handicrafts and artefacts. It’s like a mini Dilli Haat albeit in the better backdrop of nature.

Long, long ago, film-maker Satyajit Ray as a child saw an old man with a long beard commanding immense respect from others. People bowed before him with folded hands and everyone called him ‘Gurudev’.

One fine morning, Ray walked up to him with his notebook and requested an autograph.

Tagore looked at the child and asked him to leave the notebook on his table. Ray returned the next day. Tagore handed over the notebook. “I have written something for you. But when you grow up, you will understand its meaning,” he said.

The short poem for the small boy said: “You may spend a lot and travel many miles over several days to see the mountains and the oceans in different countries. But you haven’t opened your eyes to see a dewdrop on the tip of a paddy stalk near your home.”

Santiniketan is like those dewdrops. It moistens your soul. And there are two kinds of people in our lands: ones who love Santiniketan and the ones who don’t.

From HT Brunch, March 4, 2018

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