This is land that yields three crops in a year. Conquerors and marauders through centuries have sought its wealth. I gazed at the soil as we passed Singur, black soil on which the Tatas attempted to plant a car factory a few years ago. They were welcomed first and then driven out. Those that sent them packing have reaped plenty political mileage, my guide told me, even if all that fertile land is bare now and bereft of any crop save heaps of scrap steel that lie about, the edges of the metal sharp and jagged, a piercing sight. We drove by the place early in the day, watching the play of morning light on metal, and it was a sad sight that clear and chilly December morning.
There’s been a flight of corporate houses from Bengal, but the fecund soil has held.
After Singur the lands are again in productive use. It’s been a year of less-than-satisfactory rain on the subcontinent, and the lands have just delivered the best crop they can in the circumstance, and now they were bare and gray and brown. Rice and potato are the staple, and there are rice mills along the route to boil rice for the local palate; for potato there are barns equipped with freezing.
We were driving 200 kilometers to Shantiniketan, half of it on the Golden Quadrilateral, the rest on the State Highway. For a break we stopped by a string of stalls selling coffee and tea and many kinds of sweet Bengali mishti. Where we drank tea there was a toilet: a room in the back with footrests and nothing in between. Stuff flowed round the rests and out the room through a rough-hewn narrow groove, and down a hole outside. It wasn’t smelly though, and outside in fresh air I was able to push back the experience.
Approaching Shantiniketan, the terrain changes. The soil turns red, and there are woods with plentiful sal trees on either side of the highway. The air is different also. It’s December and there’s a nip in it, but there's also in its feel a strong suggestion of tall happenings in the woods. My guide asks permission to do a detour and takes me to a community centre, where there’s a tiny museum, with portraits of men who resisted English rule and were caught and sent to the Andamans. To the Andamans it was a dread one-way journey, but a few did return, as you can read at the bottom of a few portraits—perhaps those alive when the jail shut down.
Tourists throng to Shantiniketan, most of them Bengali. Tall and incredibly handsome Rabindranath Tagore is an enduring hero, a beloved son of Bengal, and a visit to this residence and kaaryagaar of his is a necessary spiritual excursion for the Bengali, it seems. It was Tagore’s father who founded Shantiniketan. Visiting once this area near Bolpur, being tired, he paused for rest among the chhatim trees. The aura of the place struck him, and he perceived in it a setting for great karyas. After him, Rabindranath, losing his wife early, and two children and father and a friend, suffered a catharsis that led him to focused intense activity in Shantiniketan.
He didn’t live in one single house during his long residence there. Rather, each time he tired of his current home he built a new one, and with advancing age he designed progressively smaller houses. Each is a work of art, a first-rate abode for an artist. It was possible to look into the rooms in the houses, in which there are pictures of him with guests. So many intellectuals visited him in Shantiniketan, from everywhere, all the way until his last days.
At 1:00 the open-air classes had ended, and a stroll on the campus was possible. There were few people about, all young, on foot and bicycle. The trees were old and their bases were fresh-painted black to fight termite. Sunny winter had turned the soil dry, and there was dust in the cool air, and haze from it, and acres and acres of chiarascuro carpeting, and dreamy light on strange buildings. “If we’re lucky we might find a Baul,” my guide said, and we did, right by the arts school. In that school they’d be studing and creating varied music, and in my moment there a group were working on the verandah on a Bollywood number. Round the building on the back, a Baul had settled under a tree with a dotara, before an audience of two. He was into song already, and we settled down to listen. “The guy’s authentic,” my guide whispered. The strings and the song and the chill air and the golden late-afternoon sun made a soothing blend.
It was night when we returned to my hotel in Kolkata. “You must go to Joransanko Thakur Bari,” my guide told me at the gate.
Joransanko Thakur Bari is a palace in red, evidencing the great wealth of the Tagore family. Notions of wealth linger only a moment, though, because soon the extent of intellectual and artistic action during the Bengal renaissance springs forth at you in the building, moving you, inspiring you. And you empathize with the Bengali sentiment for Rabindranath, their own Gurudev, their Poet, the P in uppercase everywhere he is referenced. Taking ill in Shantiniketan, the Poet made a last journey from there on an olive green train to Kolkata, to this ancestral home. Surrounded by love and tender caring by many hands, but feeling unbearable pain for several days, he died here.
Within this home in its large courtyard a stage had been set up for a show scheduled for the evening. Young men and women were doing last-minute rehearsals; young chaps standing beneath arches on upper balconies looked down to the women on stage with unabashed longing in their eyes. The overwhelming impression, however, was of an assured, continued creative effort hereabouts, stemming from Rabindranath Tagore, everlasting muse for so many people in creative Bengal.