As Abanindranath and figures associated with the Swadeshi movement rejected Western-style art and art schools in Calcutta, Rabindranath Tagore (Abanindranath’s uncle) had begun an experimental and radical approach to art and education 150 kilometers to the north, at Santiniketan. Though he is best known as a poet and writer, Rabindranath was a polymath and a complex figure. He was critical of nationalism, seeing it in relation to imperialism, and endeavored to shape a truly internationalist vision in his own creative work and the institution he built.
The Foundations of Santiniketan
The bucolic site of Santiniketan was first founded as an ashram by Rabindranath’s father Debendranath in 1862. In 1901, Rabindranath transformed the site into a school, with five teachers leading five students — including his own son — for an open air education. Tagore saw the school as an ideal extension of the tradition of the ashram in the forest, from which great texts such as the Upanishads evolved. Nature, and especially the trees enveloping the site, were central to the school’s approach, encouraging students to feel free in spite of a formal learning environment. Engagement with daily life also freed the school and students from the lineage of the Bengal School movement, as students and artists could look beyond mythology, religious figures, and narratives for inspiration for their work. Tagore sought to soften the boundaries between art and craft, promoting applied arts alongside fine arts in creation of a new visual culture. Textiles, book illustrations, murals, and decorations for festivals became important elements of this new language. He also took up rural reconstruction through the nearby site of Sriniketan.
Looking at the school in relation to the European models introduced by the British in the second half of the 19th century, Tagore’s vision is radically different. In 1921, the school transformed into Visva Bharati, which was a college until it was declared a central university in 1951. During these early years of organic growth, Tagore became the first non-European winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature (in 1913), which would bring attention to Santiniketan and all of his endeavors. The Nobel Prize and translations of Tagore’s poetry helped to finance the school, though inadequately, as Tagore refused to accept monies from the colonial government. In time, the art school Kala Bhavana at Visva Bharati would become a key site for progressive art education, with a number of India’s most important 20th century artists, including Nandalal Bose, K.G. Subramanyan, Ramkinker Baij, and K.G. Subramanyan studying and teaching at the school. Interestingly, Tagore was not yet a practicing artist at this time, as he took up an ink based painting practice only towards the end of his career.
Confluences with the European Art World
Tagore was a modernist and internationalist across all of his work, whether in the language of his poetry or the administration of his school. A particularly impactful example of this is in his meeting and cultivation of Viennese art historian Stella Kramrisch. Tagore met Kramrisch in England in 1919, and invited her to teach at the Kala Bhavana, which she accepted. While she arrived with expertise in Western art, Kramrisch’s stay in India led to inimitable and historic contributions to the field of Indian art history over the next seventy years.
More immediately, her arrival in India also brought the avant garde modernist Bauhaus movement to Calcutta in 1922 and fostered a new level of international and cross-cultural dialogue that followed Tagore’s ideals. Significantly, the Bauhaus Schools’s first international presentation ever was in Calcutta and this exhibition presented works by leading European modernists such as Paul Klee (who would have a lasting influence on Indian modernist artists), alongside leading artists in India. There were structural, pedagogical, and artistic parallels between the Bauhaus School founded in Weimar, some 300 km from Berlin, and Tagore’s Santiniketan, though a critical difference was that the Bauhaus had a defined philosophy and perspective expressed through a manifesto, while Tagore’s Santiniketan was responsive and receptive to organic evolution. Kramrisch was instrumental at a practical level in bringing the Bauhaus works to India through her connection to artist and theorist Johannes Itten; and on a symbolic level her enduring presence in India engendered an international, even global, dialogue between Indian and Western art and artists.
Even as Santiniketan has been absorbed into India’s formal university system, Tagore’s pioneering, prescient, and unique vision of learning among nature continues to be influential in India and globally today. The academic model at Santiniketan and the extraordinary artistic and cultural exchanges he fostered foregrounded several key moments and movements to come in Indian art as Independence approached and beyond.