Design Movement in Tagore's Santiniketan by Swati Ghosh chronicles the evolution of hand-drawn designs across nations, cultures, and time. It narrates the journey of Bengal's traditional alpanas-from a folk art to a symbol of cultural identity, from a medium of aesthetic expression to a medium of learning, in Santiniketan, under the great masters.
Set in a rich cultural landscape and a colorful art and craft panorama, this book also documents Rabindranath Tagore's constructive effort in successfully bringing about a cultural regeneration through education in art and craft in India after independence. The photographs and the hand-drawn sketches by the author attest to an aesthetic heritage which is as old as human civilization itself.
A teacher, researcher and writer, Swati Ghosh (1964) is the author of numerous articles, and is an expert in translation and transcription. She completed her master's degree in English literature from Visva Bharat' and also worked as Research Assistant in the Rabindra Bhavana Photo Archives. She has at least four published works of essays and translations in Bengali to her credit.
I did not know much about alpanas; yet I have dared to tread on this realm due to many reasons. When I was a student of Visva-Bharati, it was common practice for us to go and watch the beautiful alpanas drawn on various festivals and occasions. Naturally, I was fascinated by the beauty of the ephemeral alpanas drawn with such care and diligence. And by marriage I came into a family which has a perennial bond to this sublime art form. My father-in-law, Nani Gopal Ghosh had a collection of photographs and hand drawn copies of the most amazing masterpieces of alpana. It was a great repertoire and I felt compelled to tell the story of how this fantastic legacy of Santiniketan developed and won the admiration of the world. Those who know little like me may consider me to be their fellow learner; those who are experienced may kindly bear with my mistakes.
'Alpana' is a Bengali term for floor or wall paintings which are temporary and occasional in nature and mainly an artistic expression of creativity. Whenever we speak of alpana, its ornamental and welfare bearing characteristics come foremost to our minds. Very early on, when human settlements developed and humankind expressed its primal need for creativity through group activities and practice of aesthetics, then the women of Bengal would perform vratas as a means of wish fulfillment. Vratas are usually communal rituals aimed at fulfillment of some wishes or protection from evils; alpanas were an integral part of these vratas, where representative designs were drawn aesthetically as expressions of the women's minds. As has been said earlier, being decorative and welfare oriented in nature, alpanas were originally t-e drawn for occasions of worship, festivities and vratas, but its per aesthetic allure continued to fascinate us always.
The alpanas that are drawn on floors and walls and even o' E on roads have had their counterparts in traditions all over ancient in c India. Stella Kramrisch has called these designs timeless. They are part of our cultural heritage, and though it is difficult to date the origin, it is beyond debate that they are one of the most ancient surviving art forms. The lineage of these motifs in the cultural history of mankind is amazing. We are hardly conscious of how The these designs have indeed transformed themselves into a culture; so intricately and indispensably they have coexisted in the lives of people. It makes an interesting study to understand the cultural evolution of mankind through the study of these designs.
Like the modern human, the primitive human race also felt a primal need for self-expression and carved out pictures on cave walls. They drew motifs and designs, not always explicit, but suggestive of their way of life, their desires and dreams. This desire of expression did not let the uncivilized human stop mar at having only a coconut shell as his/her drinking cup, but s/he itself went on to inscribe designs on them. The earliest civilizations arch yield archaeological remains in potteries, textiles or other remains site that all carry on them ornamentations and designs. These or a designs contain within them age old motifs which have survived pa through alpanas.
During the primitive times, the motifs changed pattern very slowly, from depicting the hunting based lifestyle of the human race to agriculture based economy and then to trade and commerce. It is interesting to study how the motifs transformed slowly from hunting symbols to agricultural ones. Some were retained, some discarded, and some newly introduced. At that time, these patterns served as essential tools for the survival of the human race, Since they transformed very gradually, they are perfect documents of the cultural history of humankind.
This art form can never be thought of solely as folk designs of Bengal. It exists, maybe in slightly different nuances and forms, in other parts of our country as well. In Sanskrit it was termed as alimpan, alpana in Bengali, aripan in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, osa or jhangti in Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh, and kolam in Tamil Nadu and South India. In the eastern side of Uttar Pradesh, it is called sonha rakhna and it is /ikhnua in Himachal and Haryana. The people of Andhra Pradesh call the like of it mungli. In a word, alpana and its counterparts are widespread and form a popular tradition in India.
Its practice is also noticed among races and tribes outside India. From the ancient society to the tribal society; India to Central and South America, Africa; from the earliest settlements of Australia to the communal societies, we find the application of this sort of art in many regions. Researching these designs, no doubt, help us understand the evolutionary social patterns of mankind. And that is because the soul of a human or race expresses itself most simply and effectively through its art forms. For archaeologists, the most important discoveries at an excavation site are ordinary objects found in the home of an artisan like a toy or an earthen vessel, a clay doll, a small woven basket of straw, a painting on a scroll or an alpana-all living traditions that connect the past with the present.
Through the vratas and the alpanas associated with them, the Hindu society preserved and passed on to its children in each generation the practice of social relationships or manners. Some of them set out on the elements of geography and astronomy or with an air of desiring to impart secular knowledge. They are fact like the surviving fragments of an old educational scheme. The simple village women initially drew alpanas as a means of wish fulfillment just like our ancestors would draw inside the caves, the picture of a wild boar or a deer with the desire of hunting it. Only the objects of desire and need changed into ornaments, blankets and utensils, or maybe the deity's throne.
The needs could be collective, for instance, when the vratas would be in pursuit of a good harvest so that grains overflow from granaries with footprints of birds and rats around them, or even the footprints could belong to the goddess of plenitude, Lakshmi. Footprints have somehow remained permanently through ages, through hunting periods and agricultural times. This is indeed to say that women have continued to give expression to this wonderful creative force in them through alpanas. And since alpanas are designs drawn by the housewives or the young girls of the family, they have served as a way of documenting the fine details of humankind's evolutionary history. Amazing though they are in the way they have transcended the limits of being just maps and developing into real art forms, they have actually served a great role in being the reflectors of humankind's social survival. They have been magnificent expressions, sources of joy and at the same time social contributors.
This short introduction to Swati Ghosh's book on the handicraft and design movement in Santiniketan attempts to give my personal reading of its origin and growth. That some members of the Tagore family and their close associates tried to bring about a change in the tastes of the cultivated Indian in the early years of the last century, is now well known. It was initially part of the nationalist wave and a widespread effort in the country to reassert its cultural identity. But it also came out of their sense of outrage at the partiality shown by the newly educated Indian for imported goods that were inferior in both looks and function to goods available in the country. That this country had an astonishingly large and flourishing functional art scene was within everyone's knowledge. Its products met every demand of the traditional Indian, rich or poor. And most of these products bore such refinements in image and craftsmanship that they were eagerly sought by museums for their collections. They also earned the admiration of some of the country's colonial rulers and their officials. One of them even came out with a public statement that strongly deplored the Indian consumer's neglect of their beautiful handcrafted goods and exhorted them to go back to their use.
The Tagores could, however, see the dilemma of the new Indian consumers. The newly educated Indian wanted products that were less ornate and iconic and more utility specific. Rabindranath Tagore had, during his travels, seen Japanese products that were simple, functional and aesthetic at the same time. It was a time when people from other parts of the world were also admiring various aspects of Japanese culture-its architecture, gardens, pottery and household wares. These made a big impact on their notions of design. No wonder they impressed the Tagores as well. The visit of the Japanese aesthete Okakura Kakuzo, and a little later, his artist friends laid the ground for a many-sided connection between Japan and the Tagores-initially between Rabindranath's relations-Surendranath, Abanindranath and Gaganendranath; later Rabindranath himself.
Rabindranath visited Japan in the following decade and was bowled over by that country's cultural scenery. He sought to establish links between artists and craftsmen of Japan and those of his neighborhood. This interaction brought some change in the local art and design scene, specially the latter. It gave rise to a desire to interweave interior and exterior spaces in architecture, plain austere but aesthetic interiors using bamboo, wood and grass mats in their natural textures and design, a whole line of low-level furniture that carried resemblances to Japanese and Art Nouveau prototypes.
But Rabindranath's vision went much further. He had already started a new educational experiment in Santiniketan to bring about a basic change in the country's educational and cultural perspectives and through its life values. Against this background the handicraft and design movement he had visualized, gained a new breadth and gravity, and a larger context. Looking at it in retrospect, across a hundred years, we can discern in it a distinct pattern of intention.
While many of his contemporaries were working towards the country's political independence, Rabindranath gave his attention to the country's cultural regeneration-namely expanding and refurbishing its intellectual resources and awakening its creative potential. He believed that this alone could safeguard this independence and shape its forward horizons. His educational experiments in Santiniketan and Sriniketan were obviously meant to lead in this direction. He wanted to counteract through these, the sense of alienation that was settling on the Indian youth after more than two centuries of colonial rule and exposure to a limited educational system that distanced them, to a greater or lesser degree, from their cultural antecedents and their immediate environment; and weakened in the process their faith in their inner potential. So these gained special emphasis in the programmed he envisaged; he sought to motivate the youth to understand their antecedents, respond to their environment and acquire the needed self-confidence and initiative to reshape their future.
Although this country had (and still has) a rich cultural landscape and a colorful art and craft panorama, the newly educated youth were losing contact with it, and with that their aesthetic sensibilities. To Rabindranath, who thought that human fulfillment lay in raising each human activity to the level of art, this was a sorry circumstance. His ambition was to aestheticism the whole environment if he could, by planning a whole line of activates that would key up the responses of individuals to things around and encourage various categories of aesthetic expression.
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