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The Art Hubs of India: Part II – Santiniketan

Nandalal Bose teaching a student at Kala Bhavana, Santiniketan. Source: Delhi Art Gallery

The Art Hubs of India: Part II – Santiniketan

Nestled amidst the verdant expanse of West Bengal, Santiniketan whispers tales of artistic expression that have captivated hearts for over a century. It’s more than just a location; it’s a philosophy – one that celebrates the embrace of nature, the vibrancy of Indian culture, and the pursuit of artistic expression in its purest form. This article delves deeper into the fascinating journey of Santiniketan’s rise as a major art hub in India.

Setting the Historical Context

The artistic spirit that thrives in Santiniketan today has deep roots that extend far back in time.  Even long before the establishment of Rabindranath Tagore’s experimental school, the Bengal region boasted a flourishing artistic tradition. Centuries ago, skilled artists across Bengal were creating stunning works that lay the groundwork for the unique style that would later emerge from Santiniketan.

A Bengali Pattachitra of Naya village. Image credit: Jean-Pierre Dalbéra

Examples of this rich pre-colonial artistic heritage include ancient temple sculptures and carvings, often depicting Hindu deities and mythological scenes. These early works showcased a remarkable mastery of form and storytelling. Additionally, there was Bengal’s vibrant tradition of folk art, encompassing Kalighat pat paintings with their bold lines and narrative style, and pattachitra, the cloth-based scroll paintings depicting mythological stories. These established art forms would become a cornerstone for the artistic identity that would blossom at Santiniketan.

Rabindranath Tagore and the Seeds of Artistic Awakening

Rabindranath Tagore at Santiniketan. Source: The Scottish Centre of Tagore Studies

Enter Rabindranath Tagore, the iconic poet, Nobel laureate, and a visionary educator. Deeply dissatisfied with the rigid structure of colonial education, Tagore envisioned a holistic learning environment that nurtured creativity and fostered a connection with the natural world. In 1901, he established an experimental school in Santiniketan, a place of peace and tranquillity, far removed from the bustle of colonial Calcutta.  Eighteen years later, in 1919, Kala Bhavana, the College of Fine Arts, was established as an integral part of Visva-Bharati University. It was Tagore’s brainchild. This marked a pivotal moment in Indian art history, as Kala Bhavana became a sanctuary for artistic expression and the cradle of the Santiniketan School of Art.

The Santiniketan School of Art

Kala Bhavana. Source: The Santiniketan Website

The Santiniketan School of Art carved a niche distinct from prevailing art movements like the Bengal School of Art. While the Bengal School championed the revival of classical Indian art forms with a nationalistic fervour, Santiniketan adopted a more personal and spiritual approach. Drawing inspiration from the surrounding natural world, folk art traditions and Mughal miniatures, artists at Kala Bhavana developed a lyrical and expressive style. Emphasis was placed on capturing emotions and experiences rather than strict adherence to form. 

Unlike the Bengal School’s focus on mythological and historical themes, Santiniketan artists explored a wider range of subjects – the beauty of everyday life, the human condition and the spiritual connection with nature. This can be seen in the evocative landscapes of Binodbihari Mukhopadhyay, the powerful sculptures of Ramkinkar Baij, and the graceful human figures depicted by Rabindranath Tagore himself in his numerous sketches and paintings. 

The Pioneers and Pathfinders of Santiniketan

Kala Bhavana attracted a constellation of talented artists, both male and female, each contributing significantly to the institution’s unique identity. These artists not only created their own masterpieces but also nurtured the next generation of artists, fostering a vibrant community of artistic exchange.

Nandalal Bose, a key figure in the early years, played a pivotal role. He emphasised the importance of traditional Indian art techniques while encouraging experimentation and a connection to nature. This foundation in both heritage and exploration became a hallmark of the Santiniketan School. His influence can be seen in the works of his students, including women artists like Amala Sarkar, who not only studied painting but also became a prolific singer, performing with Tagore’s dance-drama troupe.

Somnath Hore also built upon his foundation. While acknowledging the beauty of traditional Indian art, as championed by Bose, Hore felt compelled to address the social and political realities of his time. His powerful paintings, depicting themes of poverty and oppression, resonated with audiences not just in India but also internationally. 

Other luminaries like Jyoti Bhatt, known for his stark black and white photographs documenting marginalised communities, and Shanti Dave, whose artistic expression focused on human rights and social justice, further expanded on this commitment to social awareness, employing different artistic mediums. Kiron Bala Sena, a talented sculptor who honed her skills under the guidance of Sukumari Devi and later Nandalal Bose, broadened the artistic landscape. Her sculptures showcased a unique blend of traditional Indian forms with a contemporary sensibility. Dinkar Kowshik, who explored the human form with a cubist influence, and K.G. Subramanyan further enriched the artistic tapestry of Santiniketan with their unique styles. These artists not only created their own masterpieces but also nurtured the next generation of artists, fostering a vibrant community of artistic exchange.

Women at Santiniketan

Kala Bhavana’s emphasis on capturing the essence of a subject, rather than rigid adherence to form, resonated deeply with many artists. This approach fostered a fertile ground for experimentation and self-expression, and it proved particularly liberating for women artists who were breaking free from societal constraints. Santiniketan wasn’t just a haven for male artists; right from the early years, it nurtured the talents of women artists, becoming a beacon of progressive ideals within Indian art education.

One such pioneer was Chitranibha Chowdhury, the first woman painter of Bangladesh and Santiniketan’s first female professor. She honed her skills under the guidance of Nandalal Bose, learning painting, batik, woodcarving, pottery, and alpona (a floor art form). Chitranibha, along with Sukumari Devi, another early woman artist, not only excelled in their own artistic endeavours but also became educators, inspiring future generations of women artists.

Chitranibha Chowdhury working on an alpona design. Source: Kolkata Korcha

Sukumari Devi, who was also skilled in the Bengali art form of alpona, was instrumental in reviving and formalising its teaching at Kala Bhavana. Other women artists like Gauri Bhanja and Jamuna Sen championed the cause of traditional Indian crafts, such as batik, weaving and embroidery, establishing workshops to empower local women. Arpita Chatterjee explored themes of nature and human emotions through her evocative paintings, whereas Shanta Devi Malik, a renowned potter, breathed new life into traditional pottery techniques, creating functional and aesthetically pleasing pieces. These women and others mentioned in this article constitute only a fraction of the great female artists that Santiniketan has nurtured. 

This focus on inclusivity and the encouragement of diverse artistic voices continues to be a hallmark of the Santiniketan School of Art. 

Beyond the Canvas: A Multifaceted Approach to Artistic Expression

Beyond the visual arts, music and dance were also integral aspects of the curriculum at Kala Bhavana, fostering a holistic understanding of artistic expression. As we know, Tagore himself was a prolific composer of songs and plays, further blurring the lines between different art forms. The institution actively encouraged experimentation in music, with artists like Shantidev Ghosh incorporating Western musical elements into their compositions. 

A still from a performance of Rabindra Nithya. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Dance, too, found a thriving space at Santiniketan. Tagore created Rabindra Nritya, a dance form characterised by its graceful movements and its emphasis on emotional expression. Women like Indira Devi Chaudhurani, a renowned Rabindra Sangeet singer played a pivotal role in popularising this dance form. This interdisciplinary approach, where visual arts coexisted and interacted with music and dance, continues to be a defining characteristic of the Santiniketan School of Art.

Santiniketan Beyond Kala Bhavana

The artistic spirit of Santiniketan extends far beyond the walls of Kala Bhavana. The town itself has blossomed into a vibrant hub for artistic exploration, fostering a thriving ecosystem that complements the esteemed institution. Independent artists have chosen Santiniketan as their home, experimenting with various forms of expression, from traditional crafts like pottery and batik to contemporary installations and photography.

A treasure trove of art galleries line Santiniketan’s streets, showcasing diverse artistic styles – from traditional pattachitra to contemporary works. These galleries support both established and emerging artists, offering them a platform to connect with art enthusiasts.

However, Santiniketan’s artistic energy isn’t confined to galleries. Workshops tucked away in quiet corners offer opportunities for visitors and locals alike to delve into various art forms. Tucked away corners hold workshops where visitors and locals can delve into various art forms. These workshops offer not just a creative outlet but also a chance to connect with the artistic community and share the passion for art.

Poush Mela in full swing at Santiniketan, 2023. Source: The Telegraph

Further, the annual Utsav celebrations, held during the Bengali month of Poush (December-January), showcase a variety of art forms, attracting visitors from around the world. During this vibrant festival, the streets teem with stalls showcasing diverse art forms, from traditional textiles and metalwork to contemporary paintings and installations. Local musicians and performers fill the air with music and dance, creating a truly immersive experience. The Utsav celebrations are a testament to the holistic approach to art that Santiniketan champions, blurring the lines between different art forms and fostering a sense of artistic exchange between artists and the wider community.

Written by Lakshmi Nagaraj, an independent mixed-media artist and arts professional working towards pushing the boundaries of art practices and including marginalised voices while doing so.

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