A Nod to Pan-Asian Modernity: A UNESCO Tag for Santiniketan Was Long Overdue

In late 2009, the Visva-Bharati University decided that it would apply for the world heritage tag for Santiniketan.

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The journey of Santiniketan earning a place on UNESCO's World Heritage List was a long and arduous one.

It all started in 2005, when many intellectuals, including writer Mahasweta Devi, took note of the progressive decay of the environment in and around Santiniketan, thanks to the real-estate sharks who were building townships and houses indiscriminately. That very year, the Supreme Court passed an Act barring indiscriminate construction in the popular West Bengal town, where Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore established the Visva-Bharati University over a century ago.

It was the same university that decided to apply for the prestigious UNESCO tag in 2009.

Accordingly, the Visva-Bharati dossier was prepared by the university – and it was proposed that the areas of Santiniketan, Sriniketan (a neighbourhood adjacent to Santiniketan), and Khoai (town near Santiniketan) be designated the heritage tag.

However, the inspection team from UNESCO noted some factors as being detrimental to the awarding of the tag, such as the designated area containing a lot of arterial roads, private spaces, heavy vehicular movement, and pollution. The university, hence, withdrew the application.


Try, Try, Try Again

In 2021, the university reapplied for the tag. But this time, they narrowed down the area for which they were seeking the tag to just the core area (36 hectares), which is made of three zones – Ashrama or hermitage, Uttarayan, and the areas with Kala Bhavan and Sangeet Bhavan.

In late 2009, the Visva-Bharati University decided that it would apply for the world heritage tag for Santiniketan.

The Sangeet Bhavan at VBU. 

(Photo: Twitter/ @CliosChronicles)

As the UNESCO site states, the "boundaries of the nominated property are restricted to those areas within the Visva-Bharati campus that retain the highest level of integrity and the distillation of the core essence of Santiniketan."

The rest of the university campus of Visva-Bharati (537.73 hectare) forms the buffer zone of the newly inscribed World Heritage Site.

It would be safe to say that the World Heritage Committee awarded the tag when the university decided to focus on the area that the Visva-Bharati University could manage.

The justification for including Santiniketan on the World Heritage List, UNESCO says, is "the design of buildings, furniture, landscape, murals, art and sculpture in Santiniketan that is a tangible demonstration of an Asian avant-garde, representative of the early 20th century global explorations that heralded modernism."

The heritage tag is a recognition of both tangible and intangible elements that exist within the place. It is a recognition of the built environment of Santiniketan, including its architecture, woodwork, and furniture.

It is also a recognition of the traditions of Santiniketan, including its artwork, as it is one of the world's few open air museums where frescos and sculptures are put on display in the open. It also recognises the festivals of Santiniketan, including the vriksha ropan festival (which fuses environmentalism with pedagogic practices).


Santiniketan – A Blend of Modernity and Tradition

UNESCO has also repeatedly acknowledged the unique blend of modernity and traditionalism that exists in Santiniketan. And mind you, it is not European modernity that we are talking about here; it is pan-Asian modernity.

This bend towards pan-Asian modernity and fusion was initiated by none other than Tagore. He brought in batik (a method of producing coloured designs on textiles) from Java in Indonesia, dance forms from Sri Lanka, and knowledge from the Far East.

The other most important element that UNESCO has recognised is the outstanding universal values (OUV) that Santiniketan has propagated.

The motto of Visva-Bharati has always been "yatra visvam bhavatyekanidam" (where the whole world can find a nest).

In that sense, Santiniketan is being recognised not only as a physical space, but also as a cultural and ideation space of universal human values and the synthesis of world art practices.

And it was not just world art practices. Tagore was also responsible for propagating local art practices such as the alpana (a folk art form) or using local baul songs within the ambience of Santiniketan.

The local and global, universal human values, a blend of spirituality, environmentalism and pedagogy, a movement away from colonial practices, and a forging of a pan-Asian consciousness are factors that have been recognised at this point.

But what would the tag mean for Santiniketan then? It will be on the global tourist map, attract artists, academicians, visitors from all around the world and will add to the cosmopolitan quality of the university as well as help the local economy.


What Are the Challenges Ahead?

Now that I have spoken about why the tag is well-deserved, it is time to talk about the challenges in the way forward.

Santiniketan is a place that draws thousands of visitors – and mostly, it is unplanned. Therefore, there is a need to have a cohesive action plan, which addresses traffic and parking issues.

There is a need to build outer rings so that vehicles do not encroach on the buffer zone. It will require enormous coordination by the state government – and we must see to it that economic considerations of the local people do not encroach into the protection of the built environment in the heritage complex.

Also, it is important to remember that these buildings were built with little cost and are extremely expensive to maintain, and therefore, the university and the Archeological Survey of India (ASI) will need funds for proper preservation of these structures.

Third, the Visva-Bharati University is also an expanding space since it is a 'living university', and therefore, there is a need for more hostels and better infrastructure. There has to be well-laid plans in place so that the development of the university does not impinge upon the conditions of the heritage site.

The onus to preserve the sanctity and the uniqueness of Santiniketan lies not only on the Visva-Bharati University but also on the governmental machinery at the state and central levels through a cohesive and collaborative approach.

When Tagore's life was nearing its end, he wrote a letter to Mahamta Gandhi, saying, "Santiniketan is the cargo of my life's greatest treasure." Now that the treasure has been recognised worldwide, it is up to us to maintain its sanctity.

(Amrit Sen is a professor of English at Visva-Bharati University. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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