We alighted at Bolpur, with the blazing midday sun over our heads. While getting the baggage off the train, a small bottle of oil belonging to Makshirani fell out of the hold-all onto the railway tracks. We could see it had not broken; so we waited in the shade for the train to leave, hoping to retrieve it. A man wearing a sholah hat approached and asked me my name. We gathered he was the manager of the guest house, and had arrived to collect us from the station. The train left, the bottle was retrieved; we emerged from the station to find there were no taxis. There were quite a few cars, but none of them functional. Only one was still capable of mobility; it had taken some passengers to Santiniketan and was expected back immediately. Twenty minutes passed. We waited in the shade making small talk to the manager. I noticed that the temperature did not match the intensity of heat we had expected; rather given the time of day, it felt cooler than in Kolkata. Apparently it had rained the day before, therefore the kind weather. We were lucky.
A ramshackle car appeared, we got in. Jyotirmoybabu had once told us about a certain car---all its body parts sounded except the horn. This one was a little different, the horn also capable of plenty of cacophony. The car took us to the Ratan Kuthi, earlier called the Tata Building. Sudhakantababu waited on the veranda, his face all smiles and welcome. Shyamali was not in perfect shape, so we were to be put up in this modern guest house, The arrangements were pleasing; the immense central hall fell to us, and Jyotirmoybabu was given a smaller side-room. The rooms were amply and innovatively furnished, but we were hardly ever inside them, for we spent all our time out on the veranda. The Ratan Kuthi was an enormous house, semi-circular in shape, a long wide veranda running all the way round it. The front opened to the south, open expanses lay to the sides; in the north and the east lay the scraggy desert-yellow terrain, the shrivelled dry lines of the cracking Khowai, in the distance clumps of tal trees, and in the northern horizon green wooded trees that made you think of hills. In that lonely tree-bereft country, in the merciless summer sunshine, the barren lands seemed to let out agonised wails---the song ‘Come come oh thirst-quenching rains’ became infinitely meaningful in that landscape. In the north-western corner, the vision racing towards the horizon stumbled at the house of the king of Awagarh; alone in the middle of the wide open spaces, the house might have been sculpted from the wind. In the south one could see the soothing green of the ancient trees in the guest house premises; at dawn and at dusk they filled up with the chirping of birds; in the west was the leafy Uttarayan, the striking Udayan building, and behind them the boundless sky. Amidst the yellow dourness, Santiniketan was a green oasis.
We were living in Ratankuthi, and the backdrops of many of Rabindranath’s songs and poems lay strewn around us. The house had been built is such a way that all rooms in its eastern wing opened equally to the south and the east, and the semi-circular veranda was such that the portion of it in front of each room easily lay out of sight of the other rooms--- at least the cot could easily be placed out of the neighbours’ views; it was possible to sleep outside the door and yet have privacy. This would be a desirable luxury in any warm country; in places where there were no alternatives to sleeping outside, it was a boon.
One late afternoon, we went to see Krishna Kripalani in his home. I have rarely seen a prettier house than the ‘Malancha’.
This is my house. In the gardenMalancha was the very image that this poem conjures up in the mind’s eye. A home for a poet, though neither Kripalani nor Nandita Debi were poets. A large well-kept garden, a red pebbly path ran through it, there were doves, rabbits, in the west the horizon. It only wanted a river. But the Mayurakshi was far away!
Bees buzz, the cuckoo sings.
We sat in the garden and talked over tea; Nandita Debi sang her grandfather’s songs, then as the sun set, the sky dissolved into iridescent clouds, the eastern sky took on the hues of a wedding night. When darkness fell, and we were contemplating departure, Kripalani took us into the house to look at some paintings. There was no electricity and we had to use flashlights; within a couple of minutes we were struck by the heat. As if trapped within the rooms were the sighs of many lovesick Yakshas pining over the ages for their beloveds. Even in Santiniketan, quite a few people agreed that such low ceilings were not conducive to comfort.
Malancha is only an example of the architectural norms in Santiniketan. All the houses that have recently been home to the poet are unparalleled as works of art, but not in the least tempting as summer residences. Their outsides soothe the eye, once inside one is engulfed by the heat. Rabindranath is astonishingly tolerant of the summer heat; I can say with certainty that the heat in the small room in Shyamali in which I have earlier seen him working on Baishakh afternoons would have been torture to anyone else. I went inside Shyamali to have a quick look; it seemed that some changes had been made, a kitchen for the servants had been added at one end, the forgotten shade of the mango tree lay littered with fallen leaves. The poet often had these irrepressible urges for adding to and rebuilding houses; the process continued till the house became unwieldy, and it became necessary to move. Then a new house grew with its own rhythm. On the inside, the Konark no longer bore any similarity to what had been the poet’s abode, only the exterior remained the same. Now Anilbabu lived there; sometimes we would go and sit in the shade of the historical shimul-tree, its branches spread wide and entwined with madhabilata-creepers. We who have never been to paradise and never will, have an image in our mind: that secluded shady spot approximated it very closely. But the inside was ablaze with heat. There was a startling difference in temperature within the rooms and outside.
In that respect, I really liked Udichi. It was the latest house the poet had moved out of, and in my opinion, the best. Beauty and comfort have come together here. Of all the houses that have been built for the poet to live alone, this is the only one with two storeys. It is not a high building though, the lower floor is at ground level; to the east a tree climbed up the sides to the upper floor, close enough to reach out and touch. A completely different view of Santiniketan was visible from the balcony, a unique spectacle. Shyamali looked as if life had gone out of it; maybe because Udichi had been abandoned only recently, its upper floor was still bright and lively, and looked inviting.
From the architectural point of view, and that of comfort as well, it goes without saying that the best building in Santiniketan is the Udayan. One day, Rathindranath showed us around his mansion. It was a worthy experience. Amidst all the angles, curves and elevations, there was to it a balance, an unmarred grace that was clearly visible outside, and to be easily felt inside. Besides, a vast number of paintings and artworks adorned the interiors. On the walls of the drawing room and dining halls on the ground floor were Rabindranath’s paintings; elsewhere there were paintings by Abanindra, Gaganendra, Nandalal, Rathindranath, Pratima Debi and many others. A feast for the eyes lay around us; time was short, and much to see, not time enough for appreciation. All the principal artists were represented, except for Jamini Ray. Once Pratima Debi mentioned this in the course of conversation; which meant that they were fully aware of the omission and possibly intended to rectify the matter.
In Udayan, the rooms I liked best were ‘Pupedidi’s’. In their owner’s absence, the rooms were kept exactly as she would have wanted. The bedroom was open on three sides---the north, south and west; and it was the western view that was so enchanting. The bare terrain stretched to the horizon; there was nothing to spoil the vista of the north-western corner where clouds appear and from where the rain charges in. This room should have been named Shaoni after the monsoons; what a room it would be to watch the rains! Through the huge glass windows, the rainy regalement must subsume the eyes, the mind. Rathibabu told us that it was a fascinating experience to watch the giant-sized clouds appear in the corner and come rushing in.
Both Rathindranath and Pratima Debi possess many skills. Rathinbabu’s relation to plants is one of combined mastery and friendship, the proof was in his garden. In this arid, infecund land, any planting is difficult business, but he had not stopped at that. He had taken trees and shrubs from here and abroad, and with a strong hand shaped them to his will; made midgets of trees that are naturally tall, trees that stand straight were twined creeper-like, And yet, in those unnatural conditions, the plants were not in suffering; they were full of life and health, sprouting flowers, bearing fruit. A technology reminiscent of the Maydanab, all the more amazing because there was nothing magical about it, this was a real science. Two peacocks roamed the garden, two storks, like ancient sages, sat in meditation at one end of the artificial tank; on the other we saw a bare-footed English woman working on an open-mouthed Makara figure. When we talked to her, she said that no sooner did she start work than a hundred million ants would arrive and drive her insane. The ant-bites were certainly not enticing, but that apart, what could be nicer than sculpting alone in these idyllic surroundings. It gave us pleasure to stand by and watch. The sun was setting, a reddish glow had fused the sky and the earth; the waters, the trees, the land were all flushed with happiness.
In this corner of the garden was Pratima Debi’s studio. The lower floor had remained in disuse for long; recently Rathindranath had converted it into an office for himself. The room was cave-like, cramped, with low-ceilings. The walls were inlaid with rocks and creepers climbed among them, accentuating the likeness. With another room over it, it was not too warm; this was an especially secluded and charming nook. Within, there was a rather small low table, a couple of chairs and a very high cushion-strewn bed. The room had a distinct character, which it owed to something beyond the mere furnishings.
In Santiniketan, the houses are built low, the windows are set low in the walls; the furniture within the rooms are low. But I have to extol the windows. Nowhere else in our country have I seen such big open windows. Since there are no thieves, there are no window bars; the windows are freeways for the winds, the fields and the sky outside an unmarred panorama. One day in Malancha, I sat at a window looking to the west. It was a sunless day; the eyes raced over an endless vista, as if beyond was the edge of the earth, and beyond that nothing. It reminded me of the Nilkhet in Ramna, but where in East Bengal would you find such endless emptiness! There, the vision would, in the very least, be impeded by clusters of trees.
Our room in Ratankuthi had a large window that opened to the east. We had found it closed ever since we arrived, and had left it unopened. We were hardly ever in the rooms, and had paid scant heed to it. One afternoon, I was working at the table, plenty of wind blew in through the door in the south, yet it was very warm. Suddenly Makshirani came in and threw the window open. At once, great gusts of the untamed east winds blew away my papers, and amazed, we discovered a spectacular view lay before us. Alas, all those days we had left the window shut, and unminding robbed ourselves of such a feast that was ours for the taking. And now we were leaving, the very next day. But happily, we did not; we stayed on for a few more days and enjoyed the view.
After the discovery of the window, it became a regular game for our little girl to repeatedly open and shut it. The attraction lay in the fact that the window was so low that she could reach it unaided. Had I asked her to open and close it interminably, she would have been pleased to exercise her new ability, but her happiness was considerably marred by the foolish proclivity of the aged for the status quo. The furniture was so low that even Madam Tiny could make some independent use of them, and we were always in fear for the safety of her body parts and other breakable items. The distinctiveness of the furniture struck one at first sight. In Santiniketan, I did not see the smallest item of use that was not also pretty. Not only pretty, but also original; not only original, but with a distinctive character. Each item seemed to possess a strong identity. Chairs, tables, beds, curtains, all had a certain trimness, a complete lack of ostentation; here too the east and west had come together. The structure was English, but they had been built to an Indian meter; the dining chairs lacked backs and in attempting to lean back, we had been fooled many a time--- the purpose was probably to encourage the Indian practice of sitting cross-legged on the floor to eat. And the same chairs could easily be used in the morning and evenings as tea-tables; the dresser could easily hoard the provisions for a small family. The multi-purpose furniture exhibited an elegant economy in the management of space and objects; none of the rooms seemed overcrowded, yet lacked nothing. I had often noticed, in the poet’s many homes, concrete benches fixed to the walls--- they could serve as shelves for books and papers, or a place to sit on if somebody dropped by. There were cupboards hidden in the walls too; you could sit on the windows and enjoy the view, and stow away things in the dark cavity beneath. No doubt, if ever such architectural norms become prevalent in the Calcutta apartments, we might be able to best utilise the limited space available to us here.
What is most pleasing is the absence of ostentation in the furniture. In their ability to dazzle the eye with their magnificence, no doubt they would play second fiddle to expensive, imported furniture. But when the Calcutta rich furnish their homes with pieces from the Army and Navy stores, it might evoke our jealousy, but not our respect, for we know that he has come to possess all that by dint of mere money, and if tomorrow I come by riches, I might come to own fancier stuff. Their glory lies in their price tags. But the Santiniketan pieces cannot be weighed in terms of money; what is unique is the creativity and artistry behind their design. No matter what their monetary value, the beauty and functionality remains; wherever I go I am impressed by the simple tasteful charm I see around me. Not flashy, nor plain; everything delights. In the poet’s bedroom in Udichi, four packing cases had been put together to make a bed; it could make a place for itself beside a royal couch because of the skill that had gone into its creation. The utilisation of what is ordinarily discarded shows creativity, just as proof of culinary expertise is not in making pulao korma but a tasty dish from vegetable peelings. What is tasty to begin with can be spiced up anyhow into a delectable dish, but it is not easy to make discarded vegetable peels edible. Making priceless furniture out of the best ingredients following traditionally-prescribed formulae, and to create something according to one’s personal tasted and needs from whatever is at hand---how can the two be comparable! Santiniketan furniture does not follow any laid-down rules---they are cut trimmed and built according to the need at hand. For example, there could be a cove built into the bed, where you could put your bedside reading, or maybe two shelves at the head of the bed where you could put a glass of water, cigarette tin, books, pens, papers--- whatever your needs. Because they are not slave to any flimsy fashion, they are not in the danger of becoming outdated, the stamp of character they bear will withstand time.
Published December 15, 2004