Architecture Style of Shantiniketan
Shantiniketan is an Indian hermitage (ashram), which was founded in 1863 by Devendranāth Tagore, father of the famous poet Rabindranàth Tagore, about 140 km north from the city of Kolkata, to create a quiet shelter for meditating, open to everybody. Rabindranàth Tagore in 1901 later opened here a school to restore the ancient system of Indian education, based on the communion among the teacher and his pupils and the contact with nature. In 1922 Shantiniketan received the title of University focused on a reconciliation of the Eastern civilization to the Western world.
The architectural composition of the entire Shantiniketan complex reflects the idea that Rabindranàth Tagore expressed as a main objective of the school, seeing it as a place “where the whole world can find a nest”: it is composed of a synthesis of elements coming from different sources.
The architecture philosophy that lays under all the buildings design is the idea that all the constructions could be re-addressed to simply an arch or a tunnel, with rooms placed on the wings. The central lounge was always the core of the building, around which the other spaces grew organically. The facades of the buildings are never monumental. A stylistic influence that emerges is the one from the local architecture, visible in the surrounding villages, particularly in the materials used that have a local origin. Furthermore, certain architectural features derive from the need to face the tropical climate, leading to the use of overhangs to create shadows, light colours on exterior elements to avoid heat absorption and keep interior spaces as cool as possible.
Another factor that influenced the architecture style of Shantiniketan is the fact that most of the constructions were realized in a period of economic constraint that brought the architect Surendranath Kar (1892-1970) to conceive an architectural style that could be at the same time functional, thus exploiting the space as much as possible, inexpensive and appropriate to the meditative atmosphere of the place. In addition, Kar’s challenge was also to give the place a strong Indian connotation which was not present until then. He was able to take inspiration from the traditional Bangla-type thatched cottages, with open veranda and front and rear courtyards, to ensure correct ventilation.
Fundamental importance has in the context of the ashram, the presence of abundant vegetation: it is essential, in fact, the balance between nature and construction material, such as bricks and mortar. The first architecture structures part of the complex were the glass Temple (Mandir), where worship is non-denominational, and a single colonial building called Shantiniketan Griha, both built in the second half of the XIX century and presenting strong western design influences. Other important buildings are Patha-Bhavana, decorated with frescoes by Nandalal Bose and his students, constructed by the poet for himself and his family in 1902, Dehaii, that was built in 1904 which was for a while Rabindranàth’s house, Singha-Sadan that was realized thanks to the donation by Satyendraprasanna Sinha of Raipur, having a clock tower and bell used to regulate the timing of students and inmates’ daily routine. In this last building, Oxford University conferred an honorary doctorate on the poet.
At the north of the ashram area, there is another complex called Uttarayana, which is a sort of housing district, composed of five buildings with residential purposes. It was built between 1919 and 1941, in the last thirty years of Rabindranàth’s life. The first dwelling that was erected in the area is Konark, a mud house with an east-facing veranda used by the poet as a private space for his work. Shyamali was a sort of experiment: the roof was built entirely of mud instead of straw, which was most exposed to fire hazards; to realize this type of construction, the walls were massively thicker to sustain the roof weight. Furthermore, the roof and walls were formed by “earthen water-pots arranged inside plaster-casings” (Unesco, 2010), to keep the interior cool. This house was conceived as a low-cost building that could serve as a model for the villagers. Another house, built east of Shyamali, was built later and mainly used for his painting works by Rabindranàth, even though he lived there for a while. Udichi was instead built on four pillars, to avoid claustrophobic feeling, although it then overcame some changes thanks to the flexibility of the structure. The most monumental of the houses was Udayan that is the only one conceived by Rathindranath, the poet’s son, who also planned and laid out all the vegetation surrounding the constructions in the uttarayana area.
The importance of Shantiniketan is the fact that although constructed in a time when many were embracing a western culture and civilization hegemony, it brought back value, meaning and architectural elements proper to the Indian tradition. In addition to the artistic value of the place, it is important for the relationship with the natural environment and Tagore’s philosophy that it does represent.
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