Santiniketan through a historic photographers` lens

Updated: Oct 11, 2011, 18:34 PM IST

New Delhi: Visva Bharati University in Santiniketan, the idyllic academic hub that Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore set up in the heart of rural West Bengal in the early 20th century, is a photographers` dream.

An exhibition, "Tagore: The Universal Message", curated by contemporary history scholar Samuel Berthet, a French national, has brought 97 vintage snapshots of Santiniketan and Visva Bharati in its early years from the archive of noted Italian photographer Alain Danielou to comment on Tagore`s approach to universality in education.

The black and white photographs are on display at Azad Bhavan at the Indian Council for Cultural Relations (ICCR) that is hosting an international conference on "Tagore`s Vision of the Contemporary World" Oct 10-12 on his 150th birth anniversary. The photos would be on display till Oct 21.

The photographs explore the spirit of the sprawling university town as a panoramic semi-urban settlements with an idyllic existence and an inclusive intellectual environment that flourished on cross-cultural assimilation and globalisation.

Santiniketan is dotted with tree-lined avenues, colonial style portals, cottages, open-air classrooms, Tagore`s home-turned-museum and an interactive arts education centre - Kala Bhavan, which has an annexe sculpture court.

The town nestles in a mystic haze of light and shade for at least six months in a year barring the blistering summer when the red earth of Bolpur - where Santiniketan is located - cracks with the sun.

The photographs were shot between 1932 and 1940 - the period when Alain Danielou and his companion Raymond Burnier travelled between Europe and the sub-continent and lived in Santiniketan, curator Samuel Berthet said.

"Danielou and Burnier made Santiniketan their home and over the years built one of the first collections of arts photograph themed on life at Santiniketan, Varanasi and several other Indian temple towns where the duo lived," Berthet told reporters.

Danielou forged a lifelong friendship with Tagore. He shot nearly 8,000 photographs of India, with Burnier, who was an ace photographer.

"I started working on the exhibition in 2010 as part of a year-long programme coordinated by Alliance Francaise de Chittagong. I wanted to translate the soul and construction of the university at Santiniketan into Tagore`s notion of world heritage as an proactive intangible heritage," Berthet said.

Berthet, the director of Alliance Francaise in Chittagong in Bangladesh, had earlier curated an exhibition "Indian Musicians" in Varanasi and Bangladesh. Berthet said he came across 120 photographs at the Alain Danielou archives in Italy.

The photographs also include those of Sri Niketan, India`s pioneering agricultural and rural crafts university which Tagore built adjacent to Santiniketan.

"The most striking feature of the photographs is that they are natural - not posed or artificially arranged. Everyone smiles spontaneously into the lens indicating overall well-being and happiness in the town. It is India`s first collection of arts photography," he said.

Tagore, who was always receptive to cross-cultural ideas, included artists and scholars in his entourage when he went abroad. They returned with knowledge of architecture and modified them to suit the sensibilities at Santiniketan.

A large expanse of open space was kept around the constructions because of the tropical climate and the buildings were circled with open verandahs. Thatched cottages from rural Bengal fitted into the "pucca" university landscape in a merging of the rural and the urban ethos, the curator said.

The exhibition will travel to Europe later this year.

IANS