Colours of peace
Ranjita Biswas recaptures the festive spirit of Basant utsav at Santiniketan. Gurudev, inspired by the concept of joy and brotherhood of Holi, had decided to celebrate it as the festival of spring

Kala Bhavan at Visvabharati University; (left) women look resplendent in colourful saris during Basant utsav at Santiniketan
Kala Bhavan at Visvabharati University; (left) women look resplendent in colourful saris during Basant utsav at Santiniketan

Spring has brushed the trees with red now. Drinking in the vibrant beauty a flame- coloured palash and Krishnachura, my mind meanders to Santiniketan where gulal and red flowers merge into a riot of colour during the Holi festival. Rabindranath Tagore was so inspired by the concept of joy and brotherhood of Holi that he decided to introduce it as Basant utsav, festival of spring, in Santiniketan, his abode of peace.

Santiniketan beckoned me one summer to celebrate the coming of spring in the very tradition that had inspired Gurudev. Leaving behind the hustle bustle of Howrah station, the train chugged through the picturesque countryside of Birbhum district, summer-dry and dotted with date palm trees. Embarking at Bolpur station, gateway to Santiniketan, I could sense a mood of anticipation in the air. After all, Holi, or Dol in Bengali parlance, was a couple of days away. The streets of this quiet township reverberates with songs and dance on the Dol Purnima day to usher in the king of seasons — to celebrate, in Tagore’s words: Ore bhai, fagun legechche bone bone, which roughly translates into: "Come see, O brothers! How falgun has coloured the forests."

Photo: Ritusmita Biswas

For days before the D-day, the students of Visvabharati University rehearse their Rabindra Sangeet and dance at the Sangeet Bhavan. Even the rickshaw-puller, who took me around the pretty town of shaded avenues and red earth of kopai by the stream, seemed infected by the mood of festivities as he pointed out the landmarks of the town — the museum at ‘Bichitra’ building, Uttarayan complex, etc. "Didi, wait till you see the students coming out in a procession singing and dancing on the Holi day," he exclaimed.

Indeed it is a tradition that has become iconic. The campus is decorated with alpana, the Bengali style rangoli, made with rice paste and flowers, decorate the venues.

The day begins with a prayer under the shaded groove of Amrakunja with its umbrella of mango leaves. Then follows a congregation at Chhatimtola, where the poet’s father used to meditate under the shade of chhatim trees. Afterwards, the students stream out in groups dancing to the accompaniment of musical instruments, singing "Ore grihabasi, kholo dwar, kholo dwar/ laglo je dol" urging the people to open their doors and usher in dol.

The women look resplendent in their colourful cotton saris and garlands of fragrant flowers; the men also sport traditional dresses — dhotis, kurtas. Yellow dominates the attire, denoting energy, intellect and awakening of new blooms in the spring. As they progress down the streets lined with street sculptures by Ram Kinkar Baij, a legendary artist of Santiniketan, they throw colours into the air and smear each other in bonhomie. Only dry powders, abeer and gulal, are used, keeping to the spirit of friendship and hope as Gurudev had conceived it. The students sit in open-air fields to continue their music sessions or visit houses of their teachers for impromptu soirees of song and dance, sharing mishti (sweets) and food.

In the evening, as the full moon etches a silver landscape, hundreds of people gather at Chhatimtola to watch one of Tagore’s many dance dramas, enacted by the students. It creates a magical ambience of romance and ecstasy indeed.

On the note of festivities, the Pous mela, celebrated in December, is another great time to be in Santiniketan. Watch the fine arts students at work, get amazed by the terra cotta figurines created by indigenous craftsmen, and of course, listen to the Bauls, the wandering troubadours, who sing of transience of life and love for the one who presides over this universe.

To think Bolpur was once called Bhubandanga, said to be named after a local dacoit Bhuban Dakat! In 1862, Maharshi Devendranath Tagore, Rabindranath’s father, came across a landscape of red soil with rows of chhatim trees and date palms. At the forefront of the Brahmo Samaj movement, he was looking for an ideal place, where people from all religions could come for meditation and prayers. Charmed by the place, he built an ashram there in 1863, which he called Santiniketan (abode of peace).

Tagore started a school here in 1901, Patha Bhavan, on the age-old gurukul system, which morphed into Visvabharati university defined as "where the world makes a home in a nest" blending the methods of learning of the East and West.