First-time visitors to Mitali are generally drawn by their desire to visit the cultural and academic centre of Shantiniketan. It lies in Birbhum District next to the small town of Bolpur, (current population of the urban settlement of Bolpur is about 100,000, with Shantiniketan itself not much more than a tenth of that figure) some 160 kms North-West from the metropolis of Kolkata (16 million urban concentration) and 50 kms from the border with the State of Jharkhand.
Shantiniketan has become famous as a major tourist attraction of West Bengal uniquely owing to the towering influence and personality of just one man: Rabindranath Tagore. Poet, novelist, dramatist, composer, educationist, social and political thinker, and artist, Tagore (1861-1947) was one of India’s most outstanding personalities throughout the first half of the Twentieth Century. The central figure of what is known as the Bengal Renaissance, awarded the first non-European Nobel Prize for Literature in 1913, Tagore’s global reach remains amazingly broad and deep, in what is now the 150th Anniversary of his birth. In some ways, the acceptance of his ideas among Indians and Bengalis has increased even more than during his own lifetime, to the point where he has virtually been deified as “Gurudev”. Of two other Bengali figures who emerged to worldwide distinction after studying at Shantiniketan, one was the film director of many classics (the “Apu” trilogy) inspired by his sojourn, Satyajit Ray, and today’s economist-philosopher and Nobel laureate Amartya Sen.
Shantiniketan owes its current fame to Tagore, its origin to his father, Debendranath Tagore, leader of the Brahmo Samaj reformist breakaway from the Hindu mainstream, who first acquired some land and established a small meditation centre called the “Ashram” or Hermitage in 1863. It was located in open, natural surroundings that were quite barren and dry at the time. The settlement came alive, however, nearly 40 years later, after the turn of the Century, when Rabindranath set up his school, later his University, called Viswa Bharati. The residential settlements of Shantiniketan today still revolve around the academic campus, the heart of which remains the Ashram.
The first stop for visitors to roam, then, is the green Ashram area, which lies some 3 kilometres along the road from the Bolpur-Shantinketan Railway Station. The initial impressions are the bustle, noise and dust of Bolpur town, typical of small-town India. As one passes the first university buildings, it is quite a relief to pass through the much cooler serenity of the Ashram before crossing an irrigation canal, and then turning right after the small bridge towards Prantik, the second, much pleasanter Railway Station 2 kilometres away. (On the way to Prantik, one turns off the road just a half-kilometre from the bridge, to the Santhal village of Phuldanga, and the home of Mitali).
Of other places associated with Tagore’s Shantiniketan, the first that comes to mind is Sriniketan, a training centre for surrounding villages in crafts and practical skills that was supposed to act as a dynamic and tow-way link between the urban academic world of Viswa Bharati and the neglected rural majority. Sriniketan, unfortunately, has itself experienced a long period of neglect, and there is not much that the casual visitor can see there other than the glimpse provided by a brief drive around the area, visualising people such as Leonard Elmhirst who had brought it to life in the 1930s. In considering the Viswa Bharati University, the two centres that have contributed most to modern Indian culture are the Art School, “Kala Bhavan”, and the Music School, Sangeet Bhavan, the first of which is renowned throughout India and abroad for having set new trends in modern Indian painting, sculpture, etc. The songs composed by Tagore himself – over 2400 – form the core of Rabindra Sangeet, which is a recognized school of music by itself. Through contacts established by Tagore’s own visits to the Far East, the first language and cultural schools in India of Chinese and Japanese were established as Cheena Bhavan and Nippon Bhavan. All these, together with the original meditation site of Chateem Tala, and the sites of the secondary school of Patha Bhavan where the children still study in the open under the trees, are worth seeing, if only from a distance. The Uttarayan Complex houses the five homes where Tagore himself lived while in Shantiniketan, as well as the Museum which displays many photographs of the Poet and his family, as well of his visits and meetings with the personalities of the day. The gracious houses and gardens of Purvapalli are also worth strolling through. This is the residential area close to the campus, to live in which Tagore invited his acquaintances and friends, and which has changed the least since his time, a glimpse of the ‘old Shantiniketan’ precious to many.
Today’s Shantiniketan is much larger in area, and the modern tourist is attracted to places such as the Deer Park (especially for children), part of the nature reserve of Ballavpur, the craft centre of Amar Kutir reached by going through the ‘Sonajhuri’ forest along the Irrigation Canal and seeing the “Khoai”, and also a visit to the Saturday Craft Bazaar, Sanibar Haat. There is also the Eastern Zone Cultural Complex of Srijoni where the architecture and designs of products associated with the various states of Eastern and North-Eastern India are on display. While there are a multitude of tourist shops displaying craft items produced in the vicinity, especially in the Bhubandanga area on the main Shantiniketan Road from Bolpur Station, two craft outlets are to be noted for the original designs and high quality of the handwoven textiles (Alcha) and handmade pottery (Lipi’s) displayed. The former is located in the residential and market area of Ratan Kutir frequented by University students and also has an outdoor vegetarian cafe. The latter is situated in the picturesque Santhal village of Bonerpukurdanga. For tourists (both domestic as well as foreign), it might be well worth driving to one of the nearby villages to catch a glimpse of rural life and cultivation practices among the paddy fields and palm trees typical of Birbhum.
It is possible to visit all the places mentioned in Tagore’s Shantiniketan in a half-day, the remaining sites of Today’s Shantiniketan in another half-day, the radius of all the sites being not more than 10 kilometres from the Campus. One needs to remember that Wednesdays (not Sundays) are the University and Shantiniketan weekly holidays, and the timings of opening and closing need to be checked with local hosts beforehand. (For instance, the Tagore Museum has been closed for the past many months for restoration and renovation by the Archaeological Survey of India, and when it might open remains a mystery.) In theory, therefore, a ‘sightseeing trip’ to Shantiniketan can be completed in a day, but one would not be able to absorb the atmosphere of the place without more time for leisurely strolls and meeting local people and students. Ideally, therefore a two-night stay is the recommended minimum. This would also allow visitors to try out Bengali food at leisure, and, above all, to arrange a musical session with the famous Bauls of Birbhum, wandering minstrels who have chosen to follow an ascetic way of life, and sing deeply philosophical songs that have come down over the centuries for their livelihood.