Bard's eye view

Jan 05, 2013, 09:23 IST | Soma Das

Few might be aware that Rabindranath Tagore was also deeply interested in architecture. In the coffee table photo essay, Architecture of Santiniketan � Tagore's Concept of Space, Samit Das explores the realisation of the Nobel laureate's vision for this temple of learning

The university town of Santiniketan shot to global prominence as a cultural centre as well as the space where Rabindranath Tagore penned most of his literary works. Conceptualised by Tagore, its architecture stays true to the vision behind Santiniketan — of a space where music, art and literature amalgamate.

In Architecture of Santiniketan — Tagore’s Concept of Space by Samit Das, he delves into the relevance of Tagore’s architecture in today’s times and also expresses concern at some of the changes within Santiniketan in recent times.

Santiniketan house, 1864, built by Debendra-nath Tagore. Earliest manmade structure at the ashram.

Explaining the purpose behind this title, Das says that it’s about returning to one’s roots: “There are many aspects related to contemporary art and architecture where Tagore’s concepts are relevant. This is a small effort to connect with our roots and to understand our history. In the name of globalisation, we are losing our inherent spirit; it’s important to re-think of this in terms of art, education and culture.” He adds that Tagore’s idea of space wasn’t limited to buildings and was propagated through his paintings and writings too.

Tagore at Surul Kuthi Bari, also known as Cheap Kuthi as it was trader John Cheap’s house. Tagore is immersed in his own world surrounded by books and strangely assembled, wooden furniture. One can see here that he was essentially an architect.

Das specialises in painting photography, interactive art works and books creating multi-sensory environments through art and architectural installations. He studied Fine Art from Santiniketan Kala Bhavan. This book took 15-16 years to complete. Das’ favourites include the frame, which shows Tagore seated in the Northern room of Udayana. Das adds that the bard had a deep involvement with that room, and he wrote a letter on the same.

Toran (a gateway type of structure for a bell) built around 1919-1920. The bell was used to indicate any activity at the ashram, such as the morning prayer. The bell rings in different tunes for each activity.

The book highlights that Santiniketan’s architecture assimilates styles from the Greco-Roman, Buddhist, Islamic as well as Santal or tribal house structures. Sustainability and harmony with the surroundings was important to Tagore who supposedly said that the “height of any building should not have gone above that of the tallest trees in the vicinity”. The book also looks at the structures within Santiniketan, its history and significance. They are interspersed with Tagore’s poems and thoughts on space.  

Prak Kutir, one of the first institutional structures at Santiniketan built around 1901

Our take
The book only has black-and-white images, and we feel some colour elements would have brought it to life. Architecture students will have much to learn; it’s also a good read for Tagore trivia seekers. What stands out are rare moments and characteristics of Tagore including his love for doodling and his long-lasting philosophy, which has withstood time. But most importantly, one is left with his all-encompassing vision of an ashram beyond bricks and mortar where boundaries of religion, language and caste didn’t matter.

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