The Colors of Tagore
Celebrating Holi at Shantiniketan: it is all about culture, celebration of life, fraternity and divinity.
By SHARBENDU DE
With a spring in my step and a song in my heart, I boarded the train with a thousand other jubilant travelers, all of whom had but one goal in mind: Dol kheltey (to play Holi) in Shantiniketan ? the Land of Tagore. And I was exhilarated. Standing three seats away from me, Narendra Mohan Babu, draped in a crisp white dhoti and kurta, burst into a rapturous song by Bhupen Hazarika. "Mora jatri ek.i tarani?.saho jatri ek.i tarani?," it went. "We're in the same boat, brother. Oh, brother!" His wife, Nandini, sitting by the window, smiled at him before turning to gaze at the enormous green expanse lying outside her window. Wrapped in nostalgia, she was searching for something.
"What happened?" I asked.
"Twenty-six years?" Taking a deep breath, she said, "Twenty-six years back, this is where I met him for the first time." After twelve years in Germany, where they now live, Narendra and Nandini Mohan Sen were returning to drown in the Colors of Tagore. And they're just two of the 100,000 to 120,000 people who throng Viswa Bharati University every year during Holi and get immersed in Tagorian hues.
The university, located in Shantiniketan (the abode of peace), is very much the culmination of a seed sown in the heart of Maharshi Devendranath Tagore. His famous son, Rabindranath Tagore, who abhorred almost all forms of conventional education behind closed chambers, was forty years old when he had this extraordinary vision of establishing a school in a natural setting. "This is Viswa-Bharati, where the world makes a home in a single nest," he wrote. "We are of the faith that truth is one and undivided, though diverse may be the ways which lead to it. Through separate paths pilgrims from different lands arrive at the same shrine of truth?" Thus even today, in Amra Kunja and Path Bhawan, classes are held regularly in the open, where the guru sits in the shade of a capacious tree, encircled by his shishyas (students). In 1913, at the age of fifty-two, Tagore won the Noble Prize in literature for his remarkable Gitanjali, a collection of poems. He was the first Asian writer to win the world's most coveted award.
"The faith waiting in the heart of a seed promises a miracle in itself, which it cannot prove..." noted Tagore, the Myriad-minded man. It's difficult to believe that such intense prose could flow from the heart of a man who'd barely studied up to class VIII and had changed his school eight times during that time. Yet he managed to leave behind an institution that has continued to enlighten the lives of many a students like Indira Gandhi, the late Indian prime minister, and Satyajit Ray, the legendary film director.
There was joy and enthusiasm all around as we approached Shantiniketan. Dhananjay Ghosal, who'd been chanting a poem, stopped to say, "Traveling leads to a spontaneous outflow of your mind and thoughts. The more culturally immersed your travels are, the broader your perspectives - the horizons of your heart." He has written a book about Shantiniketan, and his Achin pakhi (or The Unknown Bird) deals with Baul folk culture and its followers. "Bauls live as nomads, traveling to find the true man hidden within, in search of self-realization," he says. "Just like us, in terms of their philosophy, they have an irresistible affinity for infinity." He has come here on several occasions in the last fifteen years. On being asked about his experiences, he shot back, "Can you ask a painter to paint and express the beauty that lie hidden in his work? You have to explore it."
On reaching the university, I managed to find accommodations with a friend at Aamtala Hostel in Kala Bhawan, which is the fine arts division and hub for creative and intellectual activity. Satyajit Ray lived there as a student from 1940 to ?42, and not long before his death in 1992, he remarked, "I consider the three years I spent in Santiniketan as the most fruitful of my life. Santiniketan made me the combined product of East and West that I am. As a filmmaker I owe as much to Santiniketan as I do to American and European cinema. And when I made my first film Pather Panchali and embellished it with rural details which I was encountering for the first time, Tagore's little poem in my autograph album came back again and again to my mind."
"Do you know what those eight lines are?" asked Wolfgang Tanner, a painter and photographer from Austria. We were chatting and taking photographs at Gour Prangan on the morning of dol (Holi). He quoted, "I have spent a fortune traveling to distant shores and looked at lofty mountains and boundless oceans, and yet I haven't found time to take a few steps from my house to look at a single dew drop on a single blade of grass." Wolfgang was brimming with the richness of cultural immersion.
Early in the morning, Gour Prangan was teeming with a thousand vibrant figures draped in the bright hues of red, crimson, green, yellow, etc. The men were mostly attired in white kurta-pajamas whereas the ashram kanyas (female students of the university), who were clad in bright yellow saris and red blouses with little mirrors shining on their arms, had red batik-print sashes that entwined their graciously swerving hips and hung loose on the side. Garlands of fragrant palash (marigold) kissed their jet-black hair. As they approached us in dancing pairs, with a red-and-yellow striped stick in each hand, they stroked one another's stick as in a garba dance from Gujarat. The young lads, on the other hand, wore yellow-and-saffron kurta-pajamas, and had white bandannas tied to their heads and waists. The mellifluous sounds of Tagore's festive song ("Oh, the one living behind closed doors?open, open thy doors, not just of house but also hearts, for here comes Holi, the spring festival of colors. Open, open thy doors, not just of homes but also hearts?") beautifully completed this joyous spectacle.
I turned towards Wolfgang. He wasn't smiling, but instead was gaping dumbfounded. His wide eyes were sparkling and his sun-tanned cheeks were colored red. "If the gods have ever smiled, they've smiled on you Indians," he declared. "There's so much beauty and color around, it breaks my heart with joy. I envy you!"
Buddhadeva Basu, a leading literary critic who is by no means gullible, wrote in ecstasy after a fortnight's stay in Shantiniketan: "It is remarkable how the place absorbs foreigners, at the same time teaching them true national pride: to be a true Englishman, a true Chinese, or for that matter, a true Indian; one must come to Santiniketan?The spirit of India is here, as incarnated in the life and works of Rabindranath Tagore?India is an enigma not to foreigners alone but also to ourselves?."
Holi in Shantiniketan is a carnival in itself. There are bright colors and much merry-making, and as in Mardi Gras, barriers are transcended. The only difference, perhaps, is that Mardi Gras is sensual while Holi (at least in Shantiniketan) is more ascetic, enriching the finer aspects of life.
"There is absolute integrity here," exults Radhika, a fashion designer from Calcutta. "A place where fraternity lives in its true essence, still. I've been coming here for the last five years, and with every passing year, I'm more enticed, attracted and seduced by the charm of Shantiniketan during Holi." She tries to bring new people along every time and expose them to this world of hypnotic beauty. "Beauty is all about sharing, isn't it?" she says.
"The spirit here is very positive," adds Sharmishta, a nurse in a government hospital. She'd spent four hours standing in a train to get here. "When I requested people not to put aabir (dry color powders) on my face but only my head, they obliged," she said. "I liked that immensely." It was, perhaps, only me who didn't listen to her pleas and smeared her face - all red! But Chanda Biswas, her friend, was disappointed. Although she was enjoying her first trip to Shantiniketan during Holi, she commented, "Some did not maintain discipline. Even when it was announced that playing dol with aabir hadn't started yet, they smeared me with colors!"
Amit Roy, a first year student of Kala Bhawan, had come from Darjeeling to study fine arts. On being asked about the uniqueness of Shantiniketan, he said, "Everybody! We are all together, including the foreigners, and this unity gives me sheer joy." His friend, Hindu, doing his final year in M.A. Fine Arts, is also from Darjeeling. He confidently explains, "There is a true sense of togetherness, of preserving our culture and integrity here. I love dol! " Nilmoni Chattopadhyay, a school teacher sitting beside me as she watched a mime show, contentedly remarked, "There is life here."
The mime presentation was followed by traditional Indian dances and Japanese dance sequences by Southeast Asian students. Then, amidst a riot of colors, there was much thumping and swaying as the Kala Bhawan people sang ashram sangeet and Sauntal folk numbers. "Ha..p..py!..hahaaha, ha..p..py!" stuttered Hirokokut Komoto, a student from Japan. "I feel happy. At this moment I'm a part of Shantiniketan." Tears were trickling from her round eyes. As the day wore on, the sun slowly faded from view behind a scrim of palms, and then quite suddenly, a bright moon rose in full glory from the river Kopai. Sabir Ali (my friend from Shantiniketan), his girlfriend Yogai and myself are sitting by this silent Kopai river under the grace of this purnima (full moon) night. As the moon smiles at us, Sabir takes an intent gaze at me and then at Yogai, smiles, and catches on a soft hushing song "Let all colors be pale today, in your and my sky?and no matter how tired the moons smiles be?whether it rains or not, whether the wind blows or not, whether the flower blooms or not?I will take the road, for today is basanta (Spring)"
In a letter to Mahatma Gandhi in 1940, Rabindranath Tagore wrote, "Viswa-Bharati is like a vessel which is carrying the cargo of my life's best treasures?." I began to hum one of Tagore's last three poems, which were written before his death on August 7, 1941. His shesh lekha (last writings) can be seen as a tribute to this gently flowing river.
The sun of the first day
Put the question
To the new manifestation of life -
Who are you?
There was no answer.
Years passed by.
The last sun of the last day
Littered the question on the shore of the western sea,
In the hush of evening -
Who are you?
No answer came.
Getting there: Shantiniketan, located in northwestern West Bengal, is almost 100 miles from Kolkata (Calcutta) and is easily accessible by train (from Howrah station) or by private transport. Shanitiniketan Express, Ganadevta Express and Intercity Express are some of the trains available every day.
Where to stay: There are several decent hotels, ranging from budget to 3-star. Confirm bookings 3-4 months prior to Holi, which is celebrated in March.
Camellia Hotel & Resorts, Prantik, Shantiniketan (3-star)
Tel: 91 33 22377540/1007
Fax: 91 33 22371008
Bonopulak Guest House, Shyambati, Shantiniketan
Tel: 91 33 2464 6306
Manorama Guest House, Shyambati, Shantiniketan
Tel: 91 33 24734568 (Contact Mr. Nila Bagchi)
Shanitiniketan Tourist Lodge, Bolpur
Tel: 91 33 22485917/5168
Fax: 91 33 22485168
Where to eat: In addition to the hotels, which have their own dining facilities, there are many restaurants in the area.
For more information: Contact West Bengal Tourism Development Corporation Ltd., Tel: 91 33 22487302/8286/8242; Fax: 91 33 22488290; Email: firstname.lastname@example.org; www.wbtourism.com.
Guides can be hired from Viswa Bharati University. Places worth a look include Black House, Uttarayan, Kala Bhawan, and Sreeniketan, which is rich in Tagorian history.
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