Wednesday, January 22, 2014

India Adventure: Shantiniketan

K. Pati came out onto a balcony of her apartment building to wave when I left Calcutta, just as my grandmother would do, but from her front stoop in the US. It was so wonderful to get to spend time with K. Pati and Sowmya in Calcutta, but another chapter of the India Adventure begins.

I took a 2.5 hour train ride northwest from Calcutta, towards the Nepal border to the town of Shantiniketan. I learned from the last train experience – I looked for a train car with all women in it, hoping they would be less likely to stare and start conversations, which turned out to be true. Since it was unreserved seating, I also looked for a train car with bench seats instead of sleeper beds. There was a rack above the seats for my backpack, and I was able to open the window and watch rural India slide by the window. It was a lot of agriculture – crops and flowers. The air warmed up as the day wore on.

I exited the train in a small town, bought my next train ticket at the station, and then took a bicycle rickshaw to my hotel, Hotel Shantiniketan. A bicycle rickshaw kind of looks like a horse drawn cart, but replace the horse with a bicycle ridden by a man who pulls you to your destination.

The town of Shantiniketan and the liberal arts university in town, Vishwa Bharati were founded in 1921 by Indian Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore. (The seed funding for the university came from a Cornell University alum.) The Indian government recognized Vishwa Bharati as a Central university in 1951.
Rabindranath Tagore (1861 – 1941) was a poet, writer, artist, architect, and musician. India’s national anthem, Jana Gana Mana was composed and scored by Rabindranath Tagore. It’s the first 5 stanzas of a hymn. The song is a quest for the essence and the power that runs through the geographical and cultural divides of India. The story behind Jana Gana Mana is reflective of the feel of the entire Shantiniketan community.

Rathindranath Tagore, his son was also a man of many artistic talents, and was one of the university’s first students. Rathindranath Tagore designed a building that seems to be a manifestation of portraits drawn from a Tagore poem, Basha. Rabindranath Tagore and collaborators took pains to design campus buildings that would merge with the natural environment. He and Rathindranath were interested in agriculture and farming. I discovered, unsurprisingly since the campus is so gorgeous, that Vishhwa Bharati even has a “Garden Department.” The town and campus’ trees are labeled with the species’ name and country of origin.
Shantiniketan feels like a rural college town. The campus and museum are the main things to see and do. The businesses cater to the students and tourists, and the wide, shaded, pretty two lane roads are crowded with students commuting on foot and by bicycle, bicycle rickshaws for hire, motorcycles, and the occasional car. Graduates include Indira Gandhi and Satyajit Ray.

I spent my day and a half in Shantiniketan exploring the campus, especially the renowned art (Kala Bhavan) and music (Sangeet Bhavan) departments, which attract students from all over the world. I met a jovial retired government employee on the roadside, while walking from my hotel to campus. He was on his daily 4 km walk. The gentleman told me that Vishwa Bharati teachers teach their classes outside, sitting in the grass with their students, the way Rabindranath Tagore had envisioned when he founded the university.

I saw this quote later that same day, hanging on a wall in a museum located across from one of the campus gates: “I chose a delightful spot and used to hold my classes under some big shady tree. I taught them all I could. I played with them. In the evening I recited our ancient epics and sang my own songs. I trusted to the presence of the spirit of freedom in the atmosphere.”

It reminded me of the importance of engaging in conversation in strangers. Although there was also the innocent looking young Indian man who approached me today on the roadside, and persisted in asking me what hotel I was staying in, in town. I asked him why he wanted to know. He wanted to know the name of my hotel “for general knowledge.” I told him I was uncomfortable with that, and he walked away. Another young man, part of a school group visiting a museum, greeted me and stretched out and shook my hand. I only saw 2 other foreign tourists during my entire stay in Shantiniketan. I didn’t exactly blend in, but it’s a very friendly, peaceful college town.

The highlight of my visit was a self-guided tour of the art department. The buildings weren’t uniform in shape or style, and were interspersed with sculptures. Walls were decorated with murals. Buildings themselves were painted. I’m having problems transferring  photos from my camera to the computer but at a later date will post photos here of the Textile  and Design building, covered in large, beautiful white beings on a black background. The Artistry building is light brown, covered in white Egyptian style designs. The buildings were painted by a senior teacher at the university, KG Suvramanium.

I also really enjoyed the Rabindra Bhavan Museum, also known as the Vichitra Museum, where I saw the above quote. The museum is appropriately located across from campus, and a 5 minute walk from the University’s art and music departments. It is a collection of buildings – including 5 homes, gardens, and sculptures on a beautifully landscaped and maintained property – where the Tagores spent time. Photographs are prohibited, but I encourage you to Google it to find pictures. The architecture was simple but very detailed and lovely. The property contains a single room museum that tells the story of Rabindranath Tagore’s life in panels hung on the wall, and small items used by, and given to Tagore by well-wishers from the places around the world that Tagore visited over the course of his life. He wrote “I am a wayfarer of an endless road. My greetings of a wanderer to thee!”

The museum housed a temporary exhibit on the ground floor, Kantha as Stitch Art with Tagore As Theme, celebrating the 100th anniversary of Rabindranath Tagore’s Nobel prize. Google to see if you can find photos of the stitch art online – it was curated by the university, Self Help Enterprise (She), and Shamlu Dudeja. The walls of the temporary exhibit were covered with pieces of fabric that had been stitched in beautiful, very fine detail, illustrating some of Tagore’s works. A plaque accompanying each panel explained the story that was depicted in pictures on the panel of fabric. I liked the story Chandalika about a young, ostracized girl from India’s Untouchables cast (lowest cast) who was comforted by a Buddhist monk she met. He told her “God made all men equal and her origins were inconsequential.” My favorite panel, Pujarini coincidentally also had a Buddhist theme. The women featured in the panel are dressed in bright, intricately stitched dresses.

The Rough Guide recommended a restaurant a few blocks walk from the main streets, located in a cute house converted into a restaurant, down a narrow, dirt lane located in an upscale neighborhood. Alcha serves breakfast and lunch in a coffee house style atmosphere – small tables inside of the house, and at picnic benches underneath a bamboo covering in the backyard. The menu advises ordered meals will not be ready for 30 minutes, presumably because it’s a small kitchen where meals are prepared to order. Still unfamiliar with Indian dish names, I enjoyed the Aloo Roll, Aloo Bonda, and Aloo, Cauliflower, and Mooli Paranthas over the course of two delicious meals. Aloo is potato. Mooli is radishes. The dishes were pretty much pan-fried breads and vegetables with dipping sauces. The Aloo Roll was my favorite, with the Paranthas coming in second place. I enjoyed sitting at the picnic tables, under the lanterns hanging from the bamboo roof, with incense twisting around the tables. Very small town, relaxing feel.


It’s a walkable town – I walked everywhere. Very peaceful. The hotel staff told me I could rent a bike for the day, from a shop in town but I enjoyed slowly walking and exploring town and campus by foot. I passed so many dogs and puppies. It seemed every female dog in town was nursing a litter of puppies. I also saw large light gray monkeys with black faces and very long tails, and a few cows peacefully co-existing in the community with the other animals, students, residents, and visitors. I am really glad I visited this town. Next stop, Bodhgaya for a 10 day Tibetan Buddhism course at The Root Institute.

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