Two Museums at Visva-Bharati University

A review of the Tagore Museum and Research Center, Rabindra Bhavan, and the Nandan Museum, Kala Bhavan, at Visva-Bharati University (Santiniketan, West Bengal, India)

Visva-Bharati University developed out of the school that the philosopher, musician, and Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941) founded at his family home. It is located in Santiniketan, West Bengal, about 160 kilometers northwest of Kolkata. Instruction in the fine arts has been a part of the university’s curriculum since its formal inception in 1921, reflecting the central role of art and music in Tagore’s educational philosophy. During the course of the twentieth century, artists including: Rabindranath’s nephew Abanindranath Tagore (1871-1951), Nandalal Bose (1882-1966), Ramkinkar Baij (1906-1980), Benode Behari Mukherjee (1904-1980), and the filmmaker Satyajit Ray (1921-1992) studied and often went on to teach in the university’s art college, Kala Bhavan. Today, examples of work by many of them remain in the Nandan Museum at Kala Bhavan. Murals by Bose and sculptures by Baij, among others, can also be seen throughout Visva-Bharati’s Santiniketan and Sriniketan campuses. A map of both campuses and adjacent areas may be found here.

I paid two visits to Kala Bhavan before beginning the writing of my dissertation, which focuses on twentieth-century Indian art and the institutions that nurtured it. The first of my visits was in July 2011 and the second was in January 2012. Each visit lasted approximately two weeks. During my 2012 visit, I was also able to spend several days at the Rabindra Bhavan complex. This division of Visva-Bharati University serves as its institute of Tagore studies. Its grounds include five of the houses built and occupied by Rabindranath Tagore during his lifetime, which have become museum spaces, and a research center where most of his artistic and written work as well as audio recordings, photographs, and other materials pertaining to him and his family are kept. During my visit, the research center was in the midst of a major renovation meant to coincide with the sesquicentennial celebration of Tagore’s birth. The portions of the building that had reopened to visiting scholars included a new, air-conditioned reading room with three computer workstations for browsing digitized files, but access to original materials was limited.

Although they are both part of Visva-Bharati University, Rabindra Bhavan and Kala Bhavan function independently of one another. I will focus primarily on Rabindra Bhavan in this article, as Kala Bhavan is equipped and administered as a college of art, not a research facility. The Nandan Museum occupies one wing of the Kala Bhavan administration building, adjacent to the studio and workshop spaces used by students and the occasional visiting artist. When school is in session, it is extraordinarily busy; when it is not, the faculty and staff are not regularly available. Researchers needing to see works in the Nandan Museum collections should therefore be prepared to do so on more of an ad hoc basis, as described at the end of this article.

Researchers must present their passports (including visa page) and a letter of introduction at each Bhavan in order to be admitted. The letter should appear on letterhead and should be from your department chair or advisor. A letter from a representative of the American Institute of Indian Studies is also acceptable. The letter should explain the nature of your project and recommend that you be granted access to all relevant materials. I have found it helpful to carry at least two color photocopies of all of these documents with me for each institute in India that I intend to visit —  or, in the case of the letter, multiple copies bearing original signatures. It often (though not always) eliminates the need to have the originals sent away for photocopying and the delay that this entails.

As of August 2012, researchers visiting Rabindra Bhavan will need to complete an additional form and submit two passport photographs in the Indian standard size before using the archives. The background color and size of these photos differ from their American and British counterparts, but they are relatively inexpensive (averaging around 5 photos for 100 rupees, in my experience) and can be taken at a copy shop, photo shop, or (occasionally) an internet café almost anywhere in India. The form, photographs, and supporting documents will be used to issue an ID card granting researchers access to the Rabindra Bhavan archives. These cards will expire at March every year.

There is no waiting period between this registration process and gaining access to the reading room in Rabindra Bhavan. Once you are registered, coming and going involves little more than signing in and out at the complex’s main gate and leaving or retrieving your shoes and bag at the entrance to the reading room. Under new regulations linked to funding for its renovation, Rabindra Bhavan is open from 9:30 am until 1:00 pm, and again from 2:00 to 6:00 pm, five days a week (Thursday through Monday), with the exception of university festivals and holidays. A partial list of these occasions appears here, but it is not up to date. Researchers should note that Rabindra Bhavan’s pride of place in official and commemorative activities at Visva-Bharati University means that special events not appearing on the calendar — for example, diplomatic visits — might also pose conflicts. It is worth calling ahead of time, especially from within India, to check on this. Aside from these exceptions, though, Rabindra Bhavan’s operating hours are extremely reliable.

There are several ways to search for materials at Rabindra Bhavan. In addition to the paper indices housed on site, Rabindra Bhavan publishes a series of small, paperback catalogues of portions of the collection. There are more than a dozen volumes in this “catalog-in-progress” series available for purchase at the Rabindra Bhavan visitors’ kiosk and inside the museum. While some are now incomplete, they provide a good overview of the archives’ core holdings and the ways in which they are organized. I would recommend purchasing one or more of them if you are planning to consult the portions of the collection that they cover. Reviewing them during lunch or evening hours and annotating them as items prove relevant (or not) can help to streamline the time that you spend requesting and viewing materials when Rabindra Bhavan is open.

Paper and audiovisual materials are being digitized on an ongoing basis at Rabindra Bhavan, increasingly so post-renovation. Unfortunately, the push to digitize new batches of material has not coincided with efforts to index these files or otherwise render them easy to search. Images of paintings, for example, are grouped in seemingly random batches and retain titles that end in formats such as “xxx001.jpg”, and .pdf versions of correspondence are not text-searchable. Copies of recently digitized files exist on the local disk drives of each computer in the reading room and the administrative offices. Researchers have full access to them, and may take notes on them or transcribe material by hand without special permission. However, learning if something exists in digital form —  and then locating it —  is largely guesswork based on folder names unless one seeks additional assistance from a staff member. As the atmosphere at Rabindra Bhavan is quite collegial, and the staff members are numerous, this is usually easy enough to do.

My research at Rabindra Bhavan was confined to digital reproductions of Rabindranath Tagore’s paintings and of correspondence and drawings from the E.B. Havell papers. Due to the partial closure of the museum and research center at that time, I did not request or view any original materials. My experiences are therefore unlikely to be representative of what one might find today or in the near future at the renovated Rabindra Bhavan.  As of October 2012, my understanding is that requests to view original materials are almost always honored, although the time it takes to retrieve them can vary greatly depending on where they are housed within the research center and whether the director of Rabindra Bhavan is available to approve the request right away.  Reproductions of manuscripts, photographs, and paintings may also be made once the appropriate form has been filled out.  A fee of 100 rupees per page for photographs or manuscripts and 1000 rupees per page for paintings applies.

The Nandan Museum in Kala Bhavan is a mere three-minute walk down the road from Rabindra Bhavan. It is managed by a single curator, Mr Susobhan Adhikary, and a small number of support staff.  While Kala Bhavan shares the same general hours of operation as Rabindra Bhavan, access to the museum and its collections depends on Mr Adhikary’s availability and discretion. Researchers should not count on being able to spend a full day there. One to two hours per day is more realistic; perhaps less, when school is in session. Flexibility is key. During my first visit, I was able to browse digital images of most of the collection over the course of a week, but needed to return to do in fits and spurts, at a different time each day. As the building is not climate-controlled, concerns about temperature and humidity meant that the closest I could get to certain works (especially those on paper) was a digital image, a possibility for which researchers should be prepared. One hopes that future celebrations might occasion the renovation or expansion of the Nandan Museum, allowing more of its formidable art collection to be cataloged, rehoused, and exhibited on a regular basis.

Visitors to Visva-Bharati University can find accommodations at one of several small hotels in Santiniketan and neighboring Bolpur or at the university’s own guest house. While the guest house is certainly the closest and least expensive option, its availability and amenities are limited, and visitors must submit a paper application with a cash deposit at least ten days in advance of their stay.  During both of my trips to Santiniketan, I stayed at the Banshori Lodge, located in the Ratan Palli area. Its proximity to Rabindra Bhavan and Kala Bhavan made using cycle rickshaws or renting my own bicycle to get around largely unnecessary.  (Once you are in Santiniketan, walking, renting a bicycle, or taking a cycle rickshaw are the only options for local transportation.) It was also convenient to return there during the university’s afternoon break, when the campus —  and most of the businesses in Santiniketan, save a few snack stalls —  shut down almost entirely.

Stephanie E. Rozman
Department of Art History
University of Minnesota
rozm0017@umn.edu

 

Image: Photograph of Santiniketan Road by Stephanie Rozman.

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