As a guest of Visva Bharti University, I visited santiniketan along with my wife last September. I was happy to be invited as an alumni of the 1950’s to spend a week at Santiniketan and meet and interact with the students and staff who were there now. My spirits were elated to be on my way to my almamater.
Throughout the journey from Delhi to Kolkata on to Bolpur, I was recollecting and reflecting on the wonderful days spent there & wondering about the changes that might have taken place during this gap of over half a century.’ Old order changeth yielding place to new’! Change is inevitable and necessary for progress and development. We have to accept the present with an open mind. No doubt the visions of the day gone by keep haunting and flashing back creating a longing for the moments aspirations and people of the past, making one wish for the clock to turn back.
At Bolpur railway station we were received by a guide to take us to the University Guest House. The Bolpur Railway Station and the market nearby bore almost the same look but the surroundings around and along the route to the Ashram-University were beyond recognition. New buildings, shops, residences, as well as guest houses, had come up. However, what did not seem to have undergone much change were the Bengali look, style and traditions that had not succumbed to the modern western ways.
We were warmly received by Sri Amitav at the University Guest House. With a wonderful smile he expressed his happiness to welcome someone who was lucky to have been there during the time of great stalwarts of the time. We were told that all Heads of different Colleges had been informed about our visit and a lecture on SANTINIKETAN and its culture in the 1950’s had been arranged. The schedule and the itinerary were handed over to me. After a delicious lunch we settled for a midday siesta.
In the evening we went for a stroll to explore and rediscover ‘SANTINIKETAN’ as it is at present. It was a great surprise to notice that barring a few main old buildings the Ashram had undergone a tremendous change making parts of it beyond recognition. Except for Sangeet Bhavana the campus gave a totally different look with a number of new concrete structures coming up with 4 to 5 new girls hostels where as there was only one girl’s hostel – the ‘Sri Sadan’ in our days. The beautiful imposing monumental sculptures – master pieces – created by Sri Ramkinkar had got almost hidden behind the new buildings or covered by canopies. We had to look for them and get guidance to locate some of these whenever we lost our bearings. A little disappointed, we returned to the guest house.
Before dinner Shri Amitav came to find out if we were comfortable and if we needed anything else. Some old times came and joined us. During the course of conversation I was asked to narrate how I had landed up in Santiniketan all the way from Punjab in those days. A flood of memories flashed back related to my arrival and my becoming a part of this famous – Visva Bharati Vishva Vidyalaya.
In the month of September 1954 I reached Santiniketan as a young boy of 18 years of age to attend interview for admission to Sangeet Bhavana – The Music College of Visva Bharti University. My elder brothers as well as other members of the family were deadly against my giving up the engineering course to take up music as it was not considered to be a respectable profession in Punjab in those days. However, my mother gave me a sum of Rs. 100/- against everyone’s wishes and said ‘I trust your ability and have faith. Please do not come back if you do not get admission as everyone else is against your going to Santiniketan’. So, with her blessings and my only sister’s encouragement. I left Julunder (Jalandhar) for Calcutta (Kolkata) on my way to Bolpur and the Ashram. The following day I was led to the Adhyaksha’s (Principal’s) office in Sangeet Bahvana for interview. There I was asked to sing or play any instrument of my choice. Said that I had come all the way to learn and was an absolute novice. Obviously, I was refused admission. Before leaving, I hesitated and requested Shri S.R. Majumdar, the Adhyaksha to reconsider my case but to no avail. As I turned to leave I told him that returning to Punjab was out of question under the circumstances for a fatherless person due to the economic constraints of his mother in the post partition days. The only way was to end life by jumping in front of a running train. It was not said as a threat but as an emotional outburst. After a short pause Salaijda (the Adhyaksha) called me back and said. ‘You will get ‘Provisional Admission’ subject to the condition that you secure pass marks in all three subjects in the half-yearly examinations scheduled to begin just four weeks from that date’. I was overwhelmed and thanked him for his kindness and accepted the challenge as there was no other choice left.
All teachers were surprised at the strange ‘Provisional Admission’ and refused to take the responsibility to help me except Shri Ashesh Chandra Banerjee.. He accepted me and became my mentor. He guided and encouraged me to have confidence and do my best.
For those four weeks I worked hard and put in almost 18 hours a day for learning and riaz. So much so that I never thought of going round to explore the campus. With the blessings and guidance from Ashesh Da, I not only passed but topped in all subjects securing 94% marks which was a great surprise. The university granted me free ship on the basis of my results. My hostel expenses were met by tuitions which became a part of my daily routine.
The environment at SANTINIKETAN – ‘the abode of peace’ – was very quiet and serene. The campus was full of greenery, the teacher-taught the relationships were very warm and family like. Teachers were addressed affectionately with a suffix ‘da’ or ‘di’ i.e. Ashish Da, Sushil Da or Mohar Di. Students would bow down and touch their teacher’s-Guru’s – feet and seek blessings. Classes were generally held in the open under those wonderful shady trees-except for the music classes. No attendance of any kind was taken, yet there was no absenteeism. Students used to carry their own ‘asanas’ – cloth mats – to spread and sit on during lessons. The atmosphere was extremely homely. There were very few buildings i.e.- a common dining hall, a huge library, offices of different departments and a small number of hostels.
Interaction and mingling between students of various colleges was quite common and relationships very cordial. Students from Hindi Bhawana, China Bhawana, Shiksha Bhawana, Vidya Bhawana, Kala Bhawana, would come to Sangeet Bhawan for music lessons in the afternoons while some would go to the Arts College to watch or learn there; Morning Assembly was conducted after the morning – tiffin where attendance was not compulsory yet most people were present voluntarily. Students from different colleges- (Bhawans) would take the responsibility of holding and organizing the morning assembly for a week in rotation. The programme would culminate on Wednesdays with a sermon by Gosain ji and devotional songs from Rabindra Sangeet in the Mandir. The atmosphere there would be very peaceful and sublime.
There were only seven main buildings in all. These were- Patha Bhawan (school for children) Shiksha Bhawan ( the intermediate college) Vidya Bhawan ( the graduate and post graduate college) and Kala Bhawan ( The Fine Arts College), China Bhawan, Hindi Bhawan and Sangeet Bhawan (the music college).
The University Dining hall consisted of three big halls attached to the kitchen. One on the left was meant for the staff and students of the Patha Bhawan while the hall on the right was for the non vegetarian college inmates. The other hall was for the girls. Right at the end there was a rectangular portion meant for the vegetarians. There was no restriction on the quantity of the delicious food. Vegetarians were served Paneer (cottage cheese) along with extra pure 'Desi Ghee'.
The campus was perpetually humming with one or the other creative activity as Functions and Festivals or preparations for these were always going on. Every Purnima – the full moon night – Students would get together to sing songs from Rabindra Sangeet accompanied by dancing and go around the campus. It was very special during the Shrawana Purnima as well as Holi. Girls would dress and dance in very traditional Santiniketan style. Like the present day School Fetes the 'Anand Bazar Mela' would fascinate all with the beautiful stalls. Off all festivals 'Paush Mela' was the most fascinating three-day festival with day and night programs at the convocation 'time which was invariably addressed by the P.M. Stalls selling beautifully crafted ware from different parts of Bengal were set up for visitors from all over the country and abroad. Handloom sarees, bedding items and accessories: Batik work: leather goods, earthen ware etc were tastefully displayed.
I spent the night reliving those nostalgic moment of life spent there in my student days and shared those with my wife. Next morning when we visited 'Sangeet Bhawana' I found that the Principal's office had been shifted to the newly constructed room on the first floor. The look was quite different from my days there as the students as well as most of the teachers and musicians were in trousers or wore jeans. I wondered if they would feel comfortable playing Indian instruments or dancing Kathakali or Manipuri steps in this attire.
I met the Adhyaksha (Principal)- very nice gentlemen indeed- introduced me and my wife and after a brief exchange of pleasantries our meeting with the Music faculty was arranged for the next day as practicals were going on. We decided to take a round of my old hostel and found little change except that it gave a rather deserted look. I missed the vibes of the musical environment of the olden days. Perhaps it could be the result of the University Exams getting delayed because of some student unrest was in progress. I realized that the examiner was seated in a chair while in our times only the college office had two chairs – one for Sri Ashok Ghose – the office in charge and the other for the visitor who came to see him.
I was ushered into the examination room. All candidates rushed to touch my feet. I was taken by surprise – but it was a very nostalgic moment however. The examiner greeted me and requested me to ask a few questions from the candidates. The difference I noticed was that practically all singers depended on the harmonium instead of the 'Tanpura' of our days. The standard as well as knowledge was quite good.
We left Sangeet Bhavana after meeting the few teachers who were present there and moved on to 'Kala Bhavana' – where I had been lucky to watch the great Stalwarts at their best, working, lost in their own world for hours together. A mud hut black in colour – with a thatched roof called 'Kali Bari' separated the Sangeet Bhavana and Kala Bhavana. This seems to be the only building which has withstood and survived in its original form. Both its walls – the outer as well as the inner verandah wall-still bear the same look with the murals intact to remind me of the old times. Thanking God for this – we entered the main building of Kala Bhavana. I couldn't believe my eyes as it had undergone a tremendous change. Students were busy and engrossed in their variety of disciplines i.e. Painting, working on their fores cos; sculpture pieces and so on. However, their work gave a more commercial look in contrast to what we used to find in those days, yet it was a wonderful experience to find pupils engrossed in their work.
I introduced myself and my wife to the principal of Kala Bhavana – a very sincere and nice person. Who was very happy to meet an ex student of 1950s. All students and members of staff present came to the hall where I shared some anecdotes of those times when the old grand artists like Master Moshai Sjt Nand Lal Bose, Sri Ramkinkar were at work and their fascinating style of working. There were no formal time-table bound classes. Pupils kept working till late evening, some-times even at night, catching the effects of moonlight on the surroundings. My audience seemed to be quite amazed and amused to listen to all this. Although we were all enjoying the discourse we had to breakup as it was time for lunch and we had to reach the guest house.
Next day, as scheduled I addressed the faculty in the Sangeet Bhavana (the music college), shared as to how much we gained and learnt in the 'informal' learning teaching environment. Many anecdotes pertaining to our informal but very healthy and endearing relationships with our teachers were shared. We discussed old stalwarts like Sri Shanti Devi Ghose, Sri Ashesh Chandra Banerjee, Smt. Konika Banerjee (affectionately addressed as Mohr Di), Sri Wazalwar, Sri Robinder Lal Roy and many others. The listeners were all very attentive with their eyes sparkling and seemed to be fully engrossed listening about the wonderful living, learning and teaching that was there at that time.
The community dining halls are at present converted into a Mess where food is taken as if in a restaurant. However, a separate new dining hall has been constructed for the students of Patha Bhavana in the school campus itself. I had expressed my desire to have a meal with the students of Patha Bhavana in the school campus itself. I had expressed my desire to have a meal with the students of Patha Bhavana and the PRO-Sri Amitav very kindly arranged our dinner in Patha Bhavana. I really enjoyed my meal as it was a very nostalgic feeling, reminding me of the same taste of food partaken in the same style and manner.
The next evening there was an inter-house Rabindra Sangeet Competition where I was invited as Chief Guest. After the results were announced I was requested to deliver a speech. I gave a short but rather emotional speech about my days at Santiniketan.
The next day we were scheduled to visit Sriniketan – the institute for Rural Development and Higher Education. This is about 5 Km away from the main Ashram. Although there was a regular bus service for Sriniketan but we chose to go by a rickshaw so that we could enjoy the natural beauty around. The road was red road with small pebbles and red sand-which was so different from the main or link road in Punjab which are generally metalled. The passage between Santiniketan and Sriniketan was almost the same as it used to be in the earlier days very anxious to reach the institution. We reached the Adhyaksha's office. Mr. Mukhrjee was deputed to take us around. After a very warm welcome and informal chit chat with the faculty we expressed that we were pleased to see and meet the simple people dressed in their simple clothes. Different craft classes in their traditional manner were in progress. Very interesting wood work, clay modeling, batik work, weaving work pieces were very beautiful and impressive.
Mr. Mukhrjee got special permission to take us to see Gurudev's personal room on the first floor-a 25'X25 room with an attached washroom was self sufficient in itself with his bed very close to the bathroom, a dining table for four on the other side. Gurudev's work table, a sofa-set along with a few chairs placed very well, making a complete house all under one roof.
After purchasing a few cottage industry items from the outlet shops at Sriniketan and enjoying a nice traditional lunch we thanked the lady Adhyaksha for the hospitality shown to us and Mr. Mukerjee for his kind and wonderful guidance we returned to the Guest House. This visit to Sriniketan had been very refreshing and rejuvenating as it filled my mind with the happy memories of my days at the Ashram.
That evening we decided to have a look around and visit the staff quarters where I had earlier visited my teachers and met their families along with my wife after I got married. The area seemed to have changed a little but the present day residents were kind enough to let us know where the families had moved now. Most of them had now moved into their own houses. Then we visited the post-office and the meeting place of all hostellers – 'the tea-stall'. It was a pleasure of to find 'Kaloda's shop'. Kaloda had passed away. But his son was carrying on the traditional tea-stall with the same thatched roof. The place was still pulsating with life as the of timers found time to come and be with friends, share experiences, recite their new compositions discuss day to day problems etc. Quite a few new shops had come up and filled the market place. Gathering information about my old friends and their families from friends at the tea-stall, I contacted some of my old friends and visited just a few of them. We visited Sh. Supriyo Tagore grandson of Guru Dev and Shubhra his wife. It was a pleasure to be invited to visit his wonderful school and watch the children display their skills. Simple, sweet but a long lasting happy experience. We also visited Sh. Brijinder Singh (Bir Bhai) and his wife who were still running a tea-stall in the vicinity of their house. He was a student during my stay at Santiniketan. An imposing tall fellow who belonged to a very well known Punjabi family in the shipping trade. Later we visited Ashesh Chandra Banerjee's family. It was such a pleasure to meet Baodi (Bhabhi) along with her lovely daughter-in-law, her son and Labu-her daughter.
Later we went around the Hospital Compound. Renovation work was going on but the main structure was still intact. I told my wife about the dedication with which the staff used to work and look after the indoor patients and attend to need of the outdoor patients of the Ashram as well as the entire area around. It was such a boon for the people of the otherwise backward poor inhabitants of the region.
I was eagerly looking forward to our visit to 'Uttrayana' which used to be the hub of all activities of Viswa Bharti. All offices were located there. It was a typical, traditional yet quite modern architectural campus. There was small lake with an island connected with a narrow bridge. A small night lamp was still hanging there. It was the place where Gurudev Rabindra Nath Tagore often sat and wrote. However, I was rather sorry to note that place looked to be in a state of neglect at present. A small portion of the main building was still left for the private use of Gurudev's daughter-in-law and family. The magnificent hall at the rear of the building is still being maintained for the stay of the VIPs. I recalled the golden opportunity to have performed for Pt. Jawahar Lal Nehru when we presented a fascinating program of Music and Dance to entertain Panditji along with other dignitaries.
At present the entire campus of Uttarayana has been converted into a museum and there is a nominal entry fee in the form of a ticket. While the Administrative block and University offices have been shifted and moved to modern architectural buildings which to my mind don’t really blend with the original Visva Bharati structure. There is quite a lot of security at Uttrayana now. It is rather surprising that inspite of all this the prized possession of Indian heritage – The Nobel Prize Medallion – bestowed on Gurudev – the first Indian recipient of such an honor was stolen. Very strange and sad that it has not been traced yet.
However, we did not find any restriction in meeting or contacting the officer there who were all very polite, courteous and full of warmth. Quite a few of them seemed to be awe struck, happy and amazed to know about my student days at the Ashram. We returned to the Guest House after a lovely cup of tea and chit-chat.
As scheduled we were taken to visit the V.C. Prof (Dr.) Rajat Kant Ray by Sh. Amitav. After a few queries by the office staff we ushered in to Prof. Dr. R.K. Ray's room. We were greatly impressed by the admirable artistic décor of the office where works of great stalwarts like Gurudev Rabindra Nath Tagore, Sh. Abninder Nath Tagore and Shri Nand Lal Bose were on display as very precious gems ornamenting the place providing it an unparalleled aura of peace and tranquility.
Our meeting with Prof. R.K. Ray was very pleasant and interesting. After discussion and exchange of views Dr. R.K. Ray asked me to write about the Santiniketan of the 1950's and the changes I had noticed in the beginning of the 21st century. After thanking the V.C. for a very warm and affectionate welcome and a very comfortable stay we returned to the Guest House.
Next day Sh. Amitav came with a number of small but very special gifts for us. He (affectionately called 'Keru') accompanied us to the Bolpur Railway Station to see us off.
I could notice his eyes turning moist along with mine at the thought of a very emotional parting which was inevitable.
As the train chugged out of Bolpur a flood of memories came to my mind. I was overwhelmed with the vivid nostalgic thoughts of the Santinikenta of 1950s the Ashram where we lived and studied where we enjoyed and shared our joys and sorrows with our fellows. A 'Gurukul' family of about 1500 inmates. No attendance was taken yet there were no absentees, we enjoyed nature in its original form in the open. Gurudev's musical dance dramas such as : Chandalika, Chitrangada, Nater, Puja and so on were rehearsed and performed by pupils from different colleges (Bhavanas) together under the guidance of our excellent teachers who were masters of their individual arts. There were hardly any restrictions on manner functioning with great precision and punctuality. "Chaitee" the monument in from of the Dining Hall which is still there used to be the meeting point for every one of us. 'Santiniketan' was really an abode of peace (Santi) beauty Sri and tranquility, an 'Asharam' in the real sense of the world.
However as the old order changeth yielding place to new the inevitable changes have taken place and the modern ways to life have taken over the traditional ones. The campus seems to have got over crowded with many new buildings leaving little space around for enjoyment. Barring 'Path Bhavana' the school section where it was a pleasure to notice classes being held in the open under trees, in the lap of nature – rest of the academic instructions are held indoors and teaching has become rather formal. Generally people are now in western dresses. The roads are crowded with two wheelers where as every one used to walk around the area in our times. Obviously making life appear faster than in those days.
Unfortunately, the news in press related to the 150th Birth Anniversary Celebrations at the Ashram made me feel very sad and disappointed to learn that the peaceful atmosphere of the campus had been vitiated by politics and groupism at present. Two functions were organized at separate venues in the campus – one by the University and the other by some disgruntled members of staff. I wonder if this is the same Ashram of Kavi Rabindra Nath Tagore where not only the spirit of Nationalism but Internationalism was propagated and practiced. What a way of paying homage and tribute to the memory of the great son of India!! I wish and pray for better sense to prevail among the inmates that brings back the loving & harmonious atmosphere of 'Santiniketan' the Visva Bharati University.
The author an alumnus of Visva Bharati University – Santiniketna – is an eminent educationist who established over a dozen of good schools in north India. He has an experience of over 50 years in teaching and administration of Public Schools of repute – Pilani and the Punjab Public School, Nabha etc to his credit.