Great writers often shape our impressions of a place. Steinbeck and Dust Bowl Oklahoma, for instance. Sometimes a writer might even define a place, as Hemingway did for 1920s Paris. Rarely, though, does a writer create a place. Yet that is what the Indian poet and Nobel Prize winner Rabindranath Tagore did with a town called Shantiniketan, or “Abode of Peace." Without Tagore’s tireless efforts, the place, home to a renowned experimental school, would not exist.
For Indians, a trip to Shantiniketan, a three-hour train ride from Kolkata, is a cultural pilgrimage. It was for me, too, when I visited last July, in the height of the monsoon season. I had long been a Tagore fan, but this was also an opportunity to explore a side of India I had overlooked: its small towns. It was in places like Shantiniketan, with a population of some 10,000, that Tagore — along with his contemporary Mohandas Gandhi — believed India’s greatness could be found.
As I boarded the train at Kolkata’s riotous Howrah Station, there was no mistaking my destination, nor its famous resident. At the front of the antiquated car hung two photos of an elderly Tagore. With his long beard, dark eyes and black robe, the poet and polymath, who died in 1941, looked like a benevolent, aloof sage, an Indian Albus Dumbledore. At the rear of the car were two of his paintings, one a self-portrait, the other a veiled woman. Darkness infused them, as it does much of Tagore’s artwork, unlike his poems, which are filled with rapturous descriptions of nature. As the train ambled through the countryside, Tagore’s words echoed in my head. “Give us back that forest, take this city away," he pleaded in one poem.
The son of a Brahmin landlord, Tagore was born in Calcutta, as Kolkata was called back then, in 1861. He began writing poetry at age 8. In 1913, he became the first non-Westerner to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature. The committee cited a collection of spiritual poems called “Gitanjali," or song offerings. The verses soar.
“The traveler has to knock at every alien door to come to his own, and one has to wander through all the outer worlds to reach the innermost shrine at the end," reads one.
Tagore became an instant international celebrity, discussed in the salons of London and New York. Today, Tagore is not read much in the West, but in India, and particularly in West Bengal, his home state, he remains as popular — and revered — as ever. For Bengalis, Tagore is Mark Twain, Walt Whitman, Andy Warhol and Steven Sondheim — with a dash of Martin Luther King Jr. — rolled into one.
A daring experiment
Poet, artist, novelist, composer, essayist, educator, Tagore was India’s Renaissance man. He was also a humanist, driven by a desire to change the world, which is what he intended to do in Shantiniketan. Upset with what he saw as an India that mooched off other cultures — “the eternal ragpickers of other people’s dustbins," he said — he imagined a school modeled after the ancient Indian tapovans, or forest colonies, where young men meditated and engaged in other spiritual practices. His school would eschew rote learning and foster “an atmosphere of living aspiration."
Equipped with this vision — and unhappy with Calcutta’s transformation from a place where “the days went by in leisurely fashion," to the churning, chaotic city that it is today — Tagore decamped in 1901 to a barren plain about 100 miles north of Calcutta. Tagore’s father owned land there and on one visit experienced a moment of unexpected bliss. He built a hut to mark the spot, but other than that and a few trees, the young Tagore found only “a vast open country."
Undaunted, he opened his school later that year, readily admitting that it was “the product of daring inexperience." There was a small library, lush gardens and a marble-floored prayer hall. It began as a primary school; only a few students attended at first, and one of those was his son. Living conditions were Spartan. Students went barefoot and meals, which consisted of dal (lentils) and rice, were “comparable to jail diet," recalled Tagore, who believed that luxuries interfered with learning. “Those who own much have much to fear," he would say.
Leaving the chaos
Shantiniketan and its school represented an idea as much as a place: People do their best learning and thinking when they divorce themselves from the distractions of urban life and reconnect with their natural environment. That’s not easy to do in India. As my train trundled past rice fields and open space, I was inundated with offers of a shoeshine, pens, biscuits, flowers, jhalmuri (puffed rice), newspapers, musical performances and a magic show that featured the transformation of a Pepsi bottle into a bouquet of flowers.
Before I knew it, the train pulled into a tiny station, and the touts and hawkers were replaced by a few young men meekly asking if I needed a taxi. We drove past a moving collage of small-town India: squat buildings, women in saris riding sidesaddle on motor scooters, men in rickshaws selling banners emblazoned with verses from the Great Poet, tailors working from sidewalk shops, a sign for the “Tagore Institute of Management for Excellence." Fifteen minutes later, I entered the lush grounds of the Mitali inn — and exhaled. India often takes your breath away; rarely does it give it back.
After settling into my simple room, lined from floor to ceiling with books (including Tagore’s), I met the inn’s owner, Krishno Dey, a former United Nations official who returned to his native Bengal some years ago. Sitting in a portico with ceiling fans whirling, we dined on chom-chom, or mango pulp (it tastes better than it sounds).
“You’re not going to see much here," Dey warned me, “because there’s really not much to see."
Perfect, I thought. I had just spent three weeks in Kolkata, an unrelenting city of 13 million, and “not much" was precisely what I craved. India may have invented the concept of zero, but traveling in the country has more to do with infinity. A seemingly infinite number of people, vehicles, noises, odors, wonders and hassles. Not in Shantiniketan, thankfully, where there are just enough sights to justify a few days’ stay.
The perfect activity is to read Tagore, and that’s what I did on the veranda, where I stumbled across a poem called “The Gardener": “Let your life lightly dance on the edges of time like dew on the tip of a leaf."
A sense of wonder
Tagore, who lived on campus, produced much of his poetry in Shantiniketan (and nearly all of his paintings), taught a few courses and hosted a parade of visitors that included Ramsey MacDonald, a future British prime minister, and Gandhi.
Ridiculed at first, Tagore’s new school, which he called Patha Bhavan (“a place for the wayfarer"), became a college in 1921 and attracted thousands, including a young Indira Gandhi, the Nobel Prize winning economist Amartya Sen and Satyajit Ray, the Indian filmmaker.
“If Shantiniketan did nothing else," Ray once recalled, “it induced contemplation and a sense of wonder in the most prosaic and earthbound of minds."
Today, more than 6,000 students attend the university, which is now known as Visva-Bharati. Despite a drop in academic standards, its art school is still considered one of the best in the world.
As the school grew, so did the town. Its streets are lined with stately sal trees (some planted by Tagore), tea stalls and tiny bookstores. The poems and paintings of Tagore are everywhere.
Bicycles, which outnumber cars, are the best transportation. One day, Dey lent me his clunky bike equipped with a single gear and a bell, which came in handy given that there seem to be no passive-aggressive drivers on Indian roads, only aggressive-aggressive ones. Riding under a blanket of monsoon clouds, I passed schoolgirls in crisp blue uniforms, two or three to a bike. My destination was Rabindra Bhavan, the small museum that celebrates Tagore’s life.
Built on his former estate, it consists of a clutch of bungalows separated by raked gravel. Inside the dimly lighted exhibition hall are a few handwritten pages from “Gitanjali," Tagore’s most famous poem, and black-and-white photographs of Tagore — a few of him as a dashing young man, but most of an older Tagore with crinkly eyes, looking off into the distance.
There are photos of Tagore with Helen Keller, Freud and Gandhi. Notable for its absence is the Nobel Prize itself. It was stolen from the museum in 2004, a crime that remains unsolved and that is, some believe, emblematic of a deeper problem.
“Long before the prize was stolen, Tagore was stolen," quipped Kumar Rana, an aid worker I met. Reminiscing about Shantiniketan’s “good old days" is a popular sport here. Everyone I met told me how the air was once cleaner, the streets quieter, the people gentler.
Crazy with the love of God
Toward the end of my stay, I encountered a baul singer alongside the road, strumming an ektara, a guitarlike instrument with a single string. He waved and I steered my bike toward him.
With their unruly hair, matted beards and saffron kurtas, the singers (baul means “crazy") are difficult to miss. Neither Hindu nor Muslim, they are said to be insane with the love of God and wander the countryside, as they have for centuries, singing enigmatic songs about the blessings of madness and the life of a seeker. Tagore adored the bauls and even declared himself one of them.
I sat on the ground and listened to the hypnotic music. Bauls have grown popular in recent years and, inevitably, poseurs have tried to cash in. So when another traveler, a well-off Kolkatan with an expensive camera, joined us, I asked, “Do you think he is a real baul singer?"
Clearly displeased with my question, he said after a long pause, “He’s as real as you want him to be."
Sitting on the hard Shantiniketan earth, a breeze foreshadowing the monsoon rains, I closed my eyes, listened to the music and asked no more questions.