Despite rapid growth and encroachment into the tribal Santhal habitat, the peaceful haven of SHANTINIKETAN, 136km northwest of Kolkata, remains a world away from the clamour and grime of the city. Founded by Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore in 1921 on the site of his father’s ashram, both the settlement and its liberal arts university Vishwa Bharati were designed to promote the best of Bengali culture. Towards the end of the Bengali Renaissance, Tagore’s vision and immense talent inspired a whole way of life and art; the university and school still operate under this momentum.
Centred around the Uttarayan complex of buildings, designed by Tagore, the university is very much in harmony with its surroundings, despite its recent growth as Kolkatans have settled or built holiday homes nearby. Well-known graduates include Indira Gandhi and Satyajit Ray, and departments such as Kala Bhavan (art) and Sangeet Bhavan (music) still attract students from all over the world. The Kala Bhavan Archive houses twentieth-century Bengali sculpture and painting, including works by eminent artists such as Abanendranath and Gaganendranath Tagore, Nandalal Bose and Rabindranath Tagore himself, as well as a collection of Chinese and Japanese art. The Vichitra Museum, also known as the Rabindra Bhavan Museum, captures the spirit of Tagore’s life and work with a collection of his paintings, manuscripts and personal effects.
The renowned Bauls, Bengal’s wandering minstrels who play a unique style of folk music, gather at the informal shanibarer haat (Sat market) held under the trees by Shriniketan’s canal. The large fair of Poush Mela, between December 22 and 25, attracts numerous Bauls each year.
One of the most important centres of Tantric Hinduism, TARAPITH lies 50km north of Shantiniketan and is easily visited on a daytrip. The temple and the cremation ground, in a grove beside the river littered with shrines, are popular with Tantric sadhus, and it’s not uncommon to witness rituals involving skulls and cremation ashes. The temple, in a perpetually busy courtyard, is dedicated to the mysterious and feared goddess Tara, who appears here with a silver face and large eyes.
The Bengali poet and literary giant Rabindranath Tagore (1861–1941) has inspired generations of artists, poets and musicians. He developed an early interest in theatre, and set his poems to music – now, as Rabindra Sangeet, one of the most popular musical traditions in Bengal. Introduced to England and the West by the painter William Rothenstein and the poet W.B. Yeats, Tagore had his collection of poems, Gitanjali, first published in translation in 1912, and the following year was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. Though he preferred to write in Bengali, and encouraged authors in other Indian languages, he was also a master of English prose. Not until he was in his 70s did his talent as an artist and painter emerge, developed from scribblings on the borders of his manuscripts. Tagore was an enormous inspiration to many, including his students, the illustrious painter Nandalal Bose, and later the film-maker Satyajit Ray, who based several of his films on the works of the master.