Kala Bhavana, Shantiniketan
Established in 1919 by Rabindranath Tagore, Kala Bhavana is a school of art at Shantiniketan in present-day West Bengal. It was envisaged as an alternate model of art education that rejected Western Academic pedagogies in favour of immersive and experiential learning. Modelled after the gurukul or tapovan system and inspired by Bauhaus philosophy, it sought to reimagine the ways in which modern art was conceptualised in the early twentieth-century colonial India. The conceptual approach of the art school was informed largely by Tagore’s vision for a non-hierarchical exchange of ideas in an open environment — outside classrooms and studios — and an engagement with the immediate community. By establishing the school in the heart of rural Bengal, he also emphasised the importance of being close to nature and the necessity for bridging the urban–rural divide in order to achieve true and lasting progress. With the establishment of Visva-Bharati at Shantiniketan in 1921, Kala Bhavana — which came under its purview — became the first dedicated department of fine arts in an Indian university.
Kala Bhavana was largely a result of Tagore’s shift in politics after his withdrawal from the Swadeshi movement. Though initially supportive of the Bengal School, he increasingly felt a dissonance between the popular notions of nationalism and his own philosophy of universal Humanism. Through the establishment of Kala Bhavana, Tagore strove to emphasise the importance of cultural exchange, intellectual openness and liberal secularism for the creative imagination of the nation. The school was therefore a response not only to colonialism and modernity in India but also to the nationalist movement in which Tagore saw the dangers of a new imperialism and the growing prevalence of Hindu conservatism. The Modernism at Kala Bhavana, therefore, was neither a nostalgic Revivalist longing for an unruptured past, nor an uncritical acceptance of internationalism. Its formal language, which integrated global styles and practices with local contexts, has been described by some scholars as a form of Contextual Modernism.
In order to ground students of Kala Bhavana in Western and Indian styles and movements, Tagore invited the art historian Stella Kramrisch to give a series of lectures on the subjects. He made attendance to her lectures compulsory, often also being present in the capacity of interpreter. He also sought to make art more accessible to the community, inspired by the art practices and aesthetic credo of the Japanese, thereby succeeding, at least partially, in blurring the deeply drawn lines between art and craft. Kala Bhavana’s initial pedagogical methods were also greatly influenced by the teaching methods and practices of Nandalal Bose, Benode Behari Mukherjee and Ramkinkar Baij. Other notable alumni include Jogen Chowdhury, Somnath Hore, KG Subramanyan, R Siva Kumar, Satyajit Ray and Jayasri Burman.
Bose was invited by Tagore to teach at the school in 1919, becoming its first principal in 1922. Although Bose was originally a part of the Bengal School, his ideas of nationalism soon shifted from its Revivalist tendencies to the immediate imperatives of a living and vital art that responded to the needs of his community. He introduced art fairs that brought the students closer to the community, cultivated in his students an appreciation for nature and revived traditional art forms such as batik and alpona. During this period, several archival projects were also undertaken to build a repertoire of alternative visual material and documents to be used in daily practice, as well as for display at the Kala Bhavana Museum.
Mukherjee, one of Kala Bhavana’s first students who later began teaching there, focused on developing a linguistic rationale that reflected local realities and integration with the natural environment rather than the notions of self-definition and nationalism. Baij, also a former student, was instrumental in changing the landscape of the plastic arts at Kala Bhavana. Although a painter of considerable range and skill, his contribution to the school came in the form of monumental sculptures found all across its campus.
Kala Bhavana, unlike many of the other institutions of art and art education, did not rely on government sponsorship for its establishment or operation. Turning down financial support from the colonial government, Tagore dipped into his own funds — from his Nobel Prize and his book sales — to finance the school’s upkeep and activities until his death in 1941.
Ten years later, in 1951, the Visva-Bharati University, under which Kala Bhavana operated, was brought into the fold of the central government. This assimilation with the national education system, however, resulted in the alternative pedagogic style of the art school being constrained by a fixed syllabus and the incorporation of mainstream academic practices. Although the circumstances of the change caused it to move away from many of the core ideas with which it was built, Kala Bhavana remains an important and seminal institution in the history of art in India.
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Siva Kumar, R. “Shantiniketan: A World University.” Interview by Kathrin Rhomberg and Regina Bittner, 2019. Asia Art Archive. https://aaa.org.hk/en/ideas/ideas/shantiniketan-a-world-university.