Kala Bhavana: 100 years of the arts school founded by Tagore

Photo: Sayani Chakraborty  

The cow poking its head into the canteen window is real, but the raging bull nearby isn’t — it’s made of bamboo strips. The two puppies fast asleep near a camel are real, but the camel isn’t — it’s made of junked two-wheelers. The birds on the numerous trees are real, but those countless birds on the lawn are synthetic, part of an installation. There’s an angry anaconda too, fortunately made of twigs.

One word binds it all together, the real and the unreal: creation.

It’s a word that drove as well as defined Rabindranath Tagore. In 1919, when the country was still bleeding from the massacre at Jallianwala Bagh, he planted fresh seeds of life in the soil of Santiniketan by setting up Kala Bhavana — a school of arts.

The word bhavana may bring up the image of a large building in mind, but Kala Bhavana is anything but grand. Its size lies in its expanse: low-rises dotting a vast open space landscaped with ancient trees and art installations — the bull and camel and anaconda are only some of them.


The institution is celebrating its centenary this year. No one is quite sure about the exact date Kala Bhavana was started, but art historian and Santiniketan veteran Prof. K. Siva Kumar says it was most likely in June that year, going by letters written at the time. In other words, barely weeks after Tagore had returned his knighthood in protest against the massacre.

“At the time, art in India was governed by colonial tastes and needs. This was the first institution to break away from the colonial method. It was a part of the nationalist movement, a model of anti-colonial education,” says Siva Kumar, a professor in the art history department, formerly head of the department as well as principal of the institution (in Santiniketan institutions, the posts of principal and HoD are assigned on rotational basis).

“But Tagore was not a narrow nationalist; he wanted to connect with the larger heritage of world art, including non-Western traditions such as Chinese and Japanese. At the same time, he also wanted to redefine Indian art. His stay in the villages of East Bengal was an eye-opener for him. He realised there was so much of nature to engage with, and so much of urban-rural divide that needed to be responded to,” says Siva Kumar.

Having joined Kala Bhavana as a student in 1974, Siva Kumar, a native of Kerala, is one of the very few serving teachers who has clear memories of watching legendary sculptor-painter Ramkinkar Baij at work. Today, he sees “a lot of dilution” in Tagore’s ideals. “Back then, people came to Santiniketan because they subscribed to Tagore’s ideology, but now they come for the salary and job security because this is a Central government institution.” (Visva-Bharati came under Central control in 1951.)

But Kala Bhavana, the professor insists, still remains different from other art schools because the teaching here continues, by and large, to be individual-oriented — a tradition started by Nandalal Bose — and also because of the strong inter-personal relationship between teacher and student.

Bhavna Khajuria, a former student who now teaches ceramic art, agrees. “The interaction between teachers and students extends beyond class hours,” says Khajuria, who hails from Jammu. “Students can walk into the studios of their teachers even at 1 in the morning to watch them work. There may be colleges with better infrastructure but Kala Bhavana has the best atmosphere.”

The Kala Bhavana campus is strewn with creations, from murals to sculptures, of young students.

The Kala Bhavana campus is strewn with creations, from murals to sculptures, of young students.   | Photo Credit: Sayani Chakraborty

Feet at home

Her colleague, Lawanshaiba Kharmawlong, also a former student of Kala Bhavana, quit his arts teacher job in Doon School some years ago and returned to Santiniketan as a member of the faculty. “I come from a village in Meghalaya and my family had not even heard of Tagore, leave alone Santiniketan. Then one day my father, while leafing through a booklet, came to know about Tagore and brought me to Santiniketan. Now I feel at home here — the only thing I don’t like about this place is the heat,” says Kharmawlong.

The campus is strewn with creations, most of them products of young minds. In the workshop that once served as Ramkinkar Baij’s studio, young Lakshmi from Thiruvananthapuram is busy giving finishing touches to a fish that has a human leg sprouting from it. She is so engrossed that one hesitates to initiate a conversation. On the first floor of another workshop next door, young Suchetana Das from Howrah is not so busy because she has just finished her work — Arjuna aiming at the fish’s eye — and has placed it by the window to dry in the sunlight.

“I first visited Santiniketan as a child on a family holiday. I became so enamoured with the place that I decided to study here — it has exceeded my expectations,” says Das, a second-year fine arts student.

To cap the centenary celebrations, Kala Bhavana is planning a series of camps on the campus in association with Lalit Kala Akademi, as well as two large exhibitions, one in Kolkata and another at the National Gallery of Modern Art in New Delhi. “The schedules are still being worked out. As of now we are preparing a list of former students whose works will be exhibited,” says Sanjoy Mallik, principal of Kala Bhavana.

One hundred years, times have changed, but the campus, nestled in nature, still belongs to the time of Tagore. If Tagore were to be spotted today, walking across the courtyard with his hands clasped behind him, he wouldn’t look out of place. “Tagore is always watching over us,” says Khajuria. “Even unconsciously we are conscious of his presence.”

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Printable version | Jan 19, 2021 5:53:55 PM |

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