In Santiniketan, a global sustainability movement amplified by the pandemic, has urged a community of like-minded individuals to champion Tagore’s philosophy
The road was always green, and the air crisp. The many hues of the sal forest—seeming to find solace in the coarse murram, the characteristic red soil of the region—gave away the season. As a child growing up in the late 1980s, the forest intrigued me every time our Maruti 800 drove past the canopy of trees, into the leafy town of Bolpur in West Bengal. It was here we spent our Christmas day taking in the sights and sounds of Poush Mela, the Boho-like annual winter fair. These scenes remain my fondest memories of the university town of Santiniketan.
The wilderness inspired Rabindranath Tagore in more ways than one. As a child in the second half of the 19th century, he was drawn by the wonders of the natural world, which gave him the seed of an idea: to build a school for alternative education, where students would have access to open spaces. In September, Santiniketan made it to Unesco’s list of World Heritage Sites, the recognition honouring Tagore’s philosophy, vision and works of a world university.
Santiniketan was once a nondescript village by the name of Bhubandanga. In 1863, Rabindranath Tagore’s father, Debendranath, acquired it from a local zamindar. It was about 150km from the bustle of Kolkata, and ideal for his spiritual sojourns, especially after the death of his industrialist father, Dwarakanath. He built an ashram complete with a garden, and named it Santiniketan, or “abode of peace”.
When 12-year-old Rabindranath Tagore accompanied his father to Santiniketan, he was overjoyed. Living in the affluent family mansion of Jorasanko in Kolkata, he craved open spaces and became opposed to the rigours of formal learning. In 1878, he left for London to study law but instead of getting his degree, he travelled across Europe, the Americas and South-East Asia in the early 20th century, meeting artists and thinkers. Building Santiniketan as an institution that was global in spirit, and yet rooted in Indian ethos, became the greater purpose of his life. In 1901, he started a school on the model of a gurukul, and it became Patha Bhavan in 1925. Visva-Bharati University was recognised as a Central university in 1951.
Santiniketan is India’s 41st Unesco World Heritage Site. The area covers the cluster of “historic buildings, landscapes and gardens, pavilions and artworks” within the campus featuring the Ashram, the Uttarayan complex, where Tagore lived, and Kala Bhavan, or the institute of fine arts, the Unesco website mentions. The listing maintains that the architectural style and environmental art play a key role in understanding the campus as a space. One of the many striking features is the natural folk style and artistry of the indigenous tribal community in the form of murals, and mud houses with thatched roofs that exude an environmentally conscious approach.
Although the academic atmosphere, laid-back neighbourhoods and bucolic scenes have helped retain the original charm of Santiniketan, rapid urbanisation has had a huge impact on thse social, economic and cultural landscape of Bolpur. With a population of over a 100,000 (2011 census), the town is largely dependent on tourism, which has boosted the local economy with resorts and restaurants, and a buzzing haat or handicrafts fair. Yet, Tagore’s spirit has been kept alive.
Over the last few years, a global sustainability movement amplified by the pandemic has urged a community of like-minded individuals to champion Tagore’s philosophy in the town. Many of them grew up in Santiniketan, but lived away for years, and have returned to revive the spirit of slow living and acknowledgement of nature’s role in life. The town has grown into an eclectic space, steering contemporary ideas through initiatives with environmental conservation at its core. We spoke to some of these entrepreneurs.
(Image: Deepanjana Sarkar)
LIPI BISWAS, 50 | CERAMIC ARTIST
“I am an earth person,” says Lipi Biswas, explaining why she chose to settle in an Adivasi Santhal village in Santiniketan in 1996 along with her architect husband Bidyut Roy. Away from the busy campus, near Sonajhuri forest, lies her mud and brick studio Boner Pukur Danga, where the facade is lush green, with creepers and gourds invading the tiled roofs.
Biswas was born in Patna, Bihar, and went to college at Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda, where she met Roy. But it was in Santiniketan she found an environment that was minimal, raw and elemental to inspire her work. A self-trained potter, she specialises in pinch clay, a technique that requires pinching the clay to create the desired shape and form. The fine arts graduate, who uses only natural materials, also conducts workshops occasionally at her studio.
Biswas derives inspiration by interacting with the indigenous communities—the Santhals, and the Bauls, or the wandering minstrels—and from Tagore’s songs and prose that glorify nature. “If you notice closely, it lies in the environment we live in. The green foliage, the new buds, and bugs, and even the moss touch me daily in some way or the other,” she says.
AMRITA BHATTACHARYA, 39 | ACADEMIC AND HOME CHEF
In a sea of restaurants serving popular Bengali food in Santiniketan, Amrita Bhattacharya’s one-year-old home venture Handpicked by Amrita stands out for serving the little-known gems of the cuisine.
Bhattacharya was born in Kolkata, but losing her mother young transformed her sensibilities. She spent a few years with her father in the Bengal hinterland, where he took up farming and pisciculture, and ensured she was close to nature. At age 7, she moved to Santiniketan to study at Patha Bhavan. After completing college from Visva-Bharati, she moved to Kolkata to teach. “But something was missing. I craved to be in nature, and live a slow life,” she says.
She returned to Santiniketan with her husband, ad film-maker Amit Sen, in 2022. Bhattacharya wished to pursue a food venture but wanted to treat it through the lens of caste, class, religion and gender, and delve into the politics of food. The couple built a house blending the local architecture on the periphery of Ballavpur forest, and started growing heirloom rice and seasonal greens and vegetables. “The rural life, the trees and the unending horizon have always been a huge comfort for me. Moreover, Santiniketan allows me to notice the seasons change, which is critical to what we cook and eat,” she says. The focus is on rare ingredients such as foraged greens, gugli or pond snails, and dishes made with fish scales, such as aash borta. “Since these are not available at traditional Bengali restaurants, most are open to trying something new,” she says of her guests.
SHARMISHTHA DATTAGUPTA, 47 | LEADERSHIP COACH
Sharmishtha Dattagupta, who runs Dularia, a socio-environmental for-profit that empowers Santhal communities to generate livelihoods, believes in integrating her work with nature. With a PhD in biology from the Pennsylvania State University in the US, she was an associate professor at Göttingen University in Germany, where she taught geobiology.
Around 2014, during a break at her parents’ home in Santiniketan, she signed up as a volunteer in a local school for Santhal children, where she became interested in their way of life, especially the way they foraged food, and built homes using natural materials. For the next four years, she was actively involved with the community, and conducted workshops in Jharkhand about building self-confidence among farmers, and social workers supporting mining communities. “Their relationship with nature, and the general lack of appreciation for their knowledge, nudged me to start Dularia in 2018. The idea was to preserve their innate wisdom, while empowering them with new knowledge relevant for modern society,” says Dattagupta, who shuttles between Santiniketan and Himachal Pradesh.
Today, Dularia is run by a small team of Santhal members, who manage various initiatives such as natural building and permaculture workshops, developing entrepreneurial skills, and creating experiential stays.
Sanyati Chowdhury with her husband Suman.
SANYATI CHOWDHURY, 30 | TEXTILE ARTIST
In a world of fast fashion, Sanyati Chowdhury wants to make chemical-free, upcycled, 100% natural clothing a timeless trend. In 2019, she, along with her husband Suman Majumder, set up Dorji Shantiniketan, a bespoke casual wear brand that uses natural dyes extracted from fruits, flowers and mud. Dorji opened its first store recently near Prantik, selling kimonos, stoles, jackets, saris and coord sets.
Chowdhury was born and raised in Santiniketan and studied at Sangit Bhavan, the music and dance wing of Visva-Bharati. On the side, she ran a venture designing clothes from textile waste. Tagore’s work has shaped hers because “even he was inspired by the aesthetics of the tribal communities”. Chowdhury creates eco-prints from fallen flowers, such as the palash or flame of the forest, synonymous with spring in Santiniketan, and the fragrant madhabilata, or Rangoon creeper. While the base dyes are prepared using catechu, an extract from acacia trees, and haritaki or myrobalan, a fruit known for its rich teal colour, indigo is sourced from a small farming community in Tamil Nadu. “I hope we can farm it here someday,” she says.
Bidisha Tagore with her husband Aloke Ghosh.
BIDISHA TAGORE, 60 | INTERIOR DESIGNER
The great granddaughter of Gaganendranath Tagore, the pioneer of Indian cubism, and nephew of Rabindranath Tagore, interior designer Bidisha Tagore runs Amoli, a boutique homestay complete with a café and bakery. Bidisha, who has a degree in fine arts from Kala Bhavan, moved back to Santiniketan in 2018 after living in Mumbai for over two decades, where her husband Aloke Ghosh worked. “My mother wished to spend the rest of her life here, and so did we. And we knew we wanted to get back to our roots, and give back to society,” she says.
The exposed brick facade and contemporary design of the homestay that includes earthy aesthetics, airy balconies, walk-in closets and en-suite bathrooms are rare for a place like Santiniketan. The furniture is mostly refurbished, and sourced from the couple’s travels across the world. Bidisha’s most prized artefact happens to be Birpurush, a boy on horseback made of iron and wood inspired by Tagore’s legendary poem, and sculpted by installation artist Narayan Sinha. The café serves Western favourites like pies, quiches, Thai curries, salads and pizza.
“Creating an oasis for art to thrive without boundaries is what we wish for,” she says. The space also doubles up as a platform to host art and craft exhibitions, pottery workshops, and music performances by Baul singers and local artists.
Aparajita Sengupta and Debal Mazumder with their daughter.
APARAJITA SENGUPTA, 44 & DEBAL MAZUMDER, 49 | PERMACULTURE FARMERS
Aparajita Sengupta and Debal Mazumder are full-time permaculture farmers, who run a two-acre regenerative family farm, Smell of the Earth, in Ruppur, about 10km from Bolpur town. Born and raised in Kolkata, Mazumder studied engineering from Jadavpur University, and moved to the US with a job as a software developer in 2000. Sengupta joined him in 2004 to pursue a PhD from the University of Kentucky.
“Life there was hectic, and we rarely paid attention to what we ate. But we slowly realised supermarket food was full of chemicals,” says Sengupta, who became a member of Community-Supported Agriculture (or CSA), a model that connects food growers and citizens. In 2011, the couple returned to India, and did a certificate course in permaculture from Darjeeling in 2012. Two years later, they bought a plot of land in Santiniketan to set up Smell of the Earth. The aim was to grow pesticide-free food following permaculture principles. Today, Sengupta and Mazumder grow almost everything they eat—wheat, rice, lentils, potatoes, garlic, seasonal fruits and vegetables. They sell some excess, but mostly in the form of jams, jellies and rice. The couple hosts week-long natural farming workshops, with a focus on urban gardening, permaculture design, composting and water management.
Rituparna Roy is a Mumbai-based independent features writer.