Rules of Metaphor and Other Pedagogic Tools

Anshuman Dasgupta
publication date: 3.2019

This essay was occasioned by the Delhi exhibition of the Hangzhou chapter of bauhaus imaginista and the accompanying seminar in December 2018. The overarching brief of the seminar was to discuss the pedagogic aspects of schools in various parts of the world that are relatable to the practices of Bauhaus. Specifically, the essay attempts to capture the foundational moments of Kala Bhavana, the art school in Santiniketan that, incidentally, also steps into its centenary year in 2019. It discusses the different aspects of imparting art and craft education through metaphors, touches upon the indicative directions of the foundational principles and the learning trajectories of the artists and the surrounding communities involved. And, in the narration of the foundational logic, it hopes to take one through the aspects and details that compare best with Bauhaus, by the logic of parallelism with a difference.



Rabindranath Tagore wanted to make a global university in the village of Santiniketan, where the art department—Kala Bhavana—had already started. However, in the course of travelling around the world in search of alternative funding to support the nascent idea of the international university, he had certain misgivings, which come through in some of his letters. (Tagore’s letters form a very important chapter of Bengali literature—they are called ‘Patra Sahitya’ (Letter- Literature)) He describes the tribulations he faced and the dilemma he encountered while trying to raise funds for the University.

Tagore writes to Rothenstein (April 24, 1921, Boulogne-sur-Seine, France):



“When I sent my appeal to Western people for an International Institution in India, I made use of the word “University” for the sake of convenience. But that word not merely has an inner meaning, but an outer association in the minds of those who use it, and that idea tortures my idea into its own rigid shape. It is unfortunate. I should not allow my idea to be pinned to word like a dead butterfly for a foreign museum. It must not be known by a definition, but by its own life growth. I saved my Santiniketan from being trampled into a smoothness by the steam roller of your education department. It is poor in resources and equipment but it has a wealth of truth that no money can ever buy. I am proud of the fact that it is not a machine-made article perfectly modelled in your workshop—it is our very own. If we must have a university it should spring from our life and be sustained by it.”



He says he is probably overambitious to have come begging at the door of the rich West:



“This is the first time that I came to the foreign door asking for help and cooperation. But such help has to be bought with a price that is ruinous, and the bird has to accept its cage if it has to be fed with comfort and regularity. However, my bird must retain its freedom of wings and not be turned into sumptuous nonentity by a controlling agency outside its own living organism.”



“I know that the idea of an international university is complex, but I must take it simple in my own way. I shall be content if it attracts round it men who have neither name nor worldly means, but have the mind and faith, who are to create a great future with their dreams. Very likely I shall never be able to work in harmony with a board of trustees, influential and highly respectable, for I am a vagabond at heart. But the powerful people… may make it difficult to carry out my work.”



Some of these observations seem to stand out as ideas, guiding the directions that the nascent University would subsequently take. The relationships expressed in his metaphoric references, for instance, to “freedom of wings” in contrast to “dead butterfly for a foreign museum” and the bird in a cage, or to “living organism” as opposed to “machine made article” or being “trampled into a smoothness”, get translated into the accents of his own educational model, as it were.

Tagore’s model of Institution can be said to be premised on two salient aspects- ‘construction’ and ‘creation’. These provide the context for thinking the art pedagogy of Santiniketan.


Construction: Institution Building

Tagore’s writings are richly textured with the cultural experiences he gathered, duly noted down and disseminated, during his travels. They are also strewn with metaphors of Journey, path, path’s end, sidewalk and sojourner. Tagore uses these terms repeatedly; ‘Path O Pather Prantey’ (in the path and on the periphery of the path), ‘Pathik’ (traveler), ‘Pather shesh kothay?’ (where does the road lead to?), the suggestion of journey being both, literal and metaphoric.

In a letter to Nirmala Kumari Mahalonobish, written on his way to Java, he concludes a passage of deliberation on Europe’s untamed drive for power by saying that the practice that unites the achievements of Science, is ‘Dharma’ (ethics).[1] Later, he poses himself the question, “Why am I debating this while travelling to Java?” And, he reasons that Indian knowledge forms have travelled outside India and been accepted with enthusiasm by the outsiders, and that “we” are now on a “Pilgrimage to trace the signs of all-pervasive Indian knowledge”.[2] This utterance by Tagore in 1919 brings to mind (albeit, in a reversal of relationship and at a great distance of fifty years) the famous opening sentence of post-colonial author Edward Said’s path-breaking book Orientalism (1977), “Colonialism has left its traces on all of us. I would, however, like to inventory those traces upon myself”.

The idea of attending to the spread of Indian cultural resources (through journeys to neighbouring places of South and South-East Asia) and translating their traces into art forms and recordings, made what could be a local experiment into a prospectively global one.

Following Tagore’s lead, the prominent figures of the art school of Santiniketan—like Nandalal Bose, Benodebehari Mukherjee and others—built inventories of cultural traces that marked the presence of contiguous cultural forms—by observing and recording them in their live circumstances and collecting artefacts wherever possible. Museum building or the building of an archival system in this manner became part of Kala Bhavana’s constructional agenda. It was conceived as an inventory to fall back upon whenever a new visual vocabulary was needed. The material was gathered in different stages, in the course of different journeys undertaken by Tagore and his colleagues, both within the country and outside.

In the course of the Java tour, for example, the decorative corridors, the dance events and other performative circumstances, the architectural elements, the utensils and other materials of daily usage were studied, described, painted, registered in sketchbooks to be shared later, or drawn on postcards and sent over to the students and colleagues in Santiniketan, by those accompanying Tagore—thereby, helping to build a community with shared visual inventories and set up the complex transcultural, trans-territorial bank of visual linguistic possibility. Other artists like Suren Kar, Asit Haldar and Prabhatmohan Bandopadhyay, learning by example, also collected craft objects wherever they went. The rich body of material that grew out of this collective contribution ranged from dolls, pitchers, vases and other objects of humble origin sourced from neighboring villages to exquisitely crafted puppets from Indonesia and Java, carving and shaping tools from Java, brushes from the Far East, decorative objects, paintings and other pieces. All, labour intensive objects, all pronouncing an economy of beauty and reflecting a wide variety of taste from rustic to refined.

Nandalal and his colleagues undertook to meticulously sketch these objects into the registry of the museum, with annotations, for pedagogic purposes—to be used as exemplars for classroom reference, eventually spreading to daily life practices as design inspirations or prototypes for replication, made functional during seasonal ceremonies or festivals; in this manner, percolating in the campus and becoming part of the Kala Bhavana sensibility. This shared sensibility was later coined “Campus Aesthetics” by the late artist and teacher K. G. Subramanyan, who was one of the last few witnesses and practitioners of the foundational teaching methods of the art school. He identified this as the central moving force that related Kala Bhavana to the rest of the university.

To build an alternative platform of learning art and craft, teachers had to be researchers, since, if teaching by example was to be the aim, one would need fresh visual resources as exemplars. This drove them into inquiry about form and contexts of art and artefacts of different periods and cultures; their categorisation and analysis—as seen in the pages of the illustrated museum registers, the postcards and then the books on art (thus encompassing both the private and public mode of communication)—became part of the teaching method.

The searches of the relatively more theoretically articulate teachers, such as Nandalal and Binodebehari and later, K.G Subramanyan were linguistic searches—both in syntactic and semantic aspects—the extension of which provide variation to cultural habits, and that was understood to be the central discourse of an indigenous modernism in Santiniketan.

As a result of this attitude many of the Santiniketan artists were successful writers. Nandalal’s Silpacharcha (tr. Practice of Art) follows Abanindranath’s Sahaj Silpa Siksha (Tr. Art Education Made Simple) and can be considered an elaboration on a similar line, while Binodebehari resorts to a dense historical comparison. Nandalal, in collaboration with Tagore, illustrated the four volume Bengali primer Sahaj Path (tr. Easy Reader), which is in circulation till today. His works of pedagogy, compiled in a single volume, titled, Drishti O Sristi (tr. Vision and Creation), compares well with the teaching methods of Bauhaus (as suggested by Binodebehari Mukhejee in his book Adhunik Silpa Siksha (tr. Modern Art Education), where he visually quotes from Nandalal’s book. K.G Subramanyan’s effort in articulating on art uses this platform to enlighten their readers on the contexts of art, circuits of creativity, and through the sensibilities and dynamics of articulation in art and craft, takes this exercise to another level.

Santiniketan developed with the aid of the pedagogic principle of learning and teaching by example. Nandalal’s community mural projects, strewn throughout the campus of Santiniketan, cover another aspect of this—demonstration. He supplemented his lessons in mural execution with an exemplary instructional wall, housed in Havell Hall, in Kala Bhavan campus, which practically demonstrates the mural-making processes. This wall is a veritable record of the entire process, with sections of all the multiple layers, at the various stages of development, left exposed; from barren wall through to all the colour layers, including a dedicated corner charting out the material and cognitive aspects, as well as a colour-chart.

While comparatively discussing the development of art education in India in Adhunik Silpa Siksha (1972), Binodebehari pauses at Bauhaus to compare their effort with that of Santiniketan, “It is not difficult to observe the similarity between the pedagogy of the Bauhaus and Kala Bhavana. The main difference was in their analysis of the significance of modern civilisation.” He mentions the point of contextual difference and the difference in attitude towards machine aesthetics. In the overall context of the Visva-Bharati University, the comparison with Bauhaus is obvious if we take the three organisations—Santiniketan, Sriniketan (the production centre for leather-craft, weaving and pottery) and Karusangha (the artists’ cooperative founded by Prabhatmohan, Nandalal, Binodebehari and Ramkinker, among others)—together. Bauhaus houses design-development, production and sustainability under one roof. Kala Bhavana in Santiniketan, and Sriniketan are complementary institutes; the former creating design and the latter harnessing it to the production-line. Karu Sangha was a self-motivated organisation that provided sustainability to the artists. The three considered as a unit is comparable to Bauhaus; the similarity in functioning is clear. Art, Craft and everyday life were linked in Bauhaus. Santiniketan, also thought in terms of extending the concept of design to everyday life.

Santiniketan’s pedagogy involved the study of the rhythms of everyday life and live natural phenomena, and their translation into art. This translation was comprised of the different states of transformation of a design idea derived from nature—the journey from an imitative copy to a stylized design element. This may be seen, in retrospect, to be in close parallel to the translations of natural forms into motifs or graphic schemes, demonstrated in Paul Klee’s pedagogic notebook and his two-volume diary. Binodebehari’s own experiment with human anatomy could be considered a similar example that equipped him for later day’s modular figuration.

Also part of Kalabhavana’s constructional effort was a kind of convivial flow of communication, kept active through modes like postcards. The postcards that Nandalal, and other artists of Kala Bhavana sent each other, apart from being tools of dissemination and archiving, were also intimate exchanges of personal and familial information, pragmatics of life, design instructions, as well as friendly sharing of knowledge and financial resources, both important for the formation of the small community. These postcards contained depictions of seasons and landscapes, new ethnic encounters in different places, houses and construction, reports of events (such as an incident of fire in the neighbourhood), documentation of craft objects, reports on the state of Kala Bhavana, especially in case of any special event (such as a workshop or an exhibition) or the opening day after summer recess.

In one of the postcards written to Prabhat Mohan Bandopadhyay (9/11/1937), in the wake of Karusangha, Nandalal writes about a commission:



“Either Binode babu or I may have to go to Puri for the works of Congress. We will need to stay for 10–15 days. Two persons have to stay there, either you and I, or you and Binode. About 400 patas of 2’x2’ are to be painted there .The deal is not yet confirmed. I shall inform you later when it is done. If you wish to take the whole order it might be arranged. Each pata will be priced at 4 annas, and the total work should be done in 15–20 days. I shall arrange to give you a few more artists. You may complete the works with their help. The paintings will be on paper. I shall arrange for Rs. 150.... This will be confirmed in about 10 days. The paintings can be done sitting here....”



In another postcard written from Santiniketan to Prabhatmohan (12/1/1936), Nandalal writes:



“I received both of your cards when I was in Rajagriha. We have all returned to the Ashram. We have to prepare everything for the coming session of Congress. We do not have much time at hand. You come here as early as possible, and then we shall decide everything.”[3]



On 8/11/1931, Nandalal writes:



“Binode, Sutan and I visited Puri and Konarak for about 8–9 days. I returned with good amount of sketches... I am badly worried about you. I heard you are going to Nator camp. May God give you courage. Here a trend of working on Litho persists. Bonbihari, Sutan, Suren are working on Litho. I made a drawing book on full-fledged human figures. I wish to see the modelling of the peasant you did. How big is it?”[4]



Another significant aspect of Kala Bhavana’s pedagogical methods involved community activities. These included architectural projects like the Kalo Bari (Black House, built over a span 1934—1936), a principal public intervention of that time. It was advertised in the frontline news journal Visva Bharati News—started a few years earlier—through a woodcut by Ramkanai Samanta on the cover page.[5] The building, a zigzag architectural design, is a unique mud structure with coal-tar finish. It opens on both sides, has multiple entrances for certain rooms and comprises of three interconnected rectangles arranged in an asymmetrical manner. It is a veritable museum—its walls and corridors adorned with, often iconic, images in relief, sourced from all over the world (mainly, Indian Asia, Central Asia and Africa, including Egypt) and referencing different periods from history and prehistory. Rendered largely by students from south and south-east Asia, it is annotated with the names of the artists in their own scripts (Sinhalese, Thai Bengali, Tamil etc.). Several stylistics prevail in the sculptures, and despite being supervised by Nandalal and Ramkinker Baij, the building seems somewhat free-flowing and thus expressive of the spirit of the multiple.

Apart from the more serious teaching practices and creative pursuits, the “Campus Aesthetics” also embraced events, which were in lighter vein, invented to enliven the community and keep it participatory. The curriculum design—marked with activities, local pageants and seasonal celebrations like Vriksharopan (the tree planting festival), which had been creatively reinvented by Nandalal—was often accentuated with his humorous interventions. One such occasion was when Nandalal made posters and cartoons to advertise an absurd auction, wherein objects belonging to some of the well-known residents were put up for bidding. Apparently innocuous objects—of personal value only to the owners—such as a regularly used pen, an old suitcase or a favourite oil pickle (Miradi’s Oil pickle—the poster depicting a tree producing jars of pickles) get auctioned off in an imaginary auction. In the same series of caricature drawings, Nandalal shows himself in a funny dance posture, wearing women’s clothing, with anklets; reminding one of Tagore’s axiom—to be able to make fun of oneself is the highest test of creativity.


Creation: Production of Being

For Tagore, art making was synonymous with personality formation. Personalities form where there is encouragement and freedom of choice, unstifled with a rigid curricular structure.

Tagore was conscious that his literary creation worked with a different set of tools, limits, hierarchies and concept of freedom than his artistic creations. He wrote in Sahityer Dharma (tr. Nature of Literature)



“Painting has an advantage. A painter’s brush does not shy from drawing a kochu gach (colocasia esculenta). But it is difficult to name Kochu Gach in poetry. I am myself not amongst those poets who like playing by the rules; yet when I have to write on Bansh Bon (bamboo grove), I have to manage by saying Benu Bon (Sanskritised Bengali name for bamboo grove).”[6]



Kalabhavana’s pedagogical structure led not only to systematise the design efforts and translations of experience and observed data, but also to freedom for personality building. Because the education was praxeological, it was dedicated to being making—making of the individual amidst the community, giving lease of life to the latent proclivities and facilitating innate resources so that the ground for cultural translation is made.

Binodebehari shaped himself like a Chinese literati artist, who would be a scholar-painter—a subjective model, which formed one of the models for an artist, in continuum with the tradition of Santiniketan that had produced Abanindranath, Gaganendranath and Nandalal Bose before him and would later see the emergence of one of his favourite students, K.G. Subramanyan.

In Moving Focus, K.G. Subramanyan writes about Benodebehari:



“What makes him an artist without dilemma is probably the fact that instead of depending entirely on the conventional vocabularies of the East or the West, he started his work with a terminological search. Strangely enough, this can perhaps be attributed to early interest in far-eastern calligraphic painting. Although liner calligraphy was not unusual in various forms of Indian art, from the hieratic to the folk. Calligraphic painting of the far-eastern type involved a terminological equivalence of tool mark and the visual image- was something different altogether. The basic ingredient of such work, if it had to be authentic and original, had to be evolved in each new situation; which, is another way of saying—to paint the gaudy ‘Palash’ and ‘Simul’ and the delicate ‘ Land-Lotus”, in the sun drenched landscape of the Bengal countryside, the conventions used to paint the pine, the bamboo and the peony against the misty mountains landscapes of China and Japan are hardly adequate—their terms have to be sought anew.”[7]



Benodebehari’s extraordinary sensitivity to nature and contextual and cross-cultural understanding of traditions, by which he unpacks the monolithic notion of the term “tradition”, are evident in this passage. In Subramanyan, we find a continuity of this understanding, which makes Kala Bhavana’s a unique instance of a resistant form of pedagogy in the colonial context.

Benodebehari’s contribution was not deterred by his blindness at the age of fifty. Closer to that fateful date, he is seen preparing himself for the contingency, in some of his works. As Nilima Sheikh points out in her writing:



“Failing eyesight and the challenges of a terminological search made Binodebehari Mukherjee develop his visual memory in a way that most people, even artists neglect. We know how it served him even after he went blind guiding his hand when he crafted papers to animate the body-forms into taut compositions and leading his fluid pen to play with the body and living.”[8]



This systematic exploration of sensibilities at their cognitive limits, is spread through his search for pedagogic tools and his journey in exploring human anatomy. Thus, his sketchbook in the archival collection, charts out a journey from the study of Grey’s Anatomy to a personalised exploration and analysis of human forms in motion, an exploration he shared with his doctor grandson. These interpretive studies also came to inform his 1972 mural, comprising human figures in semi abstract forms, which resulted from his earlier preparatory exercises with paper folds.

In 1972, Satyajit Ray made a film on him called “The Inner Eye”. It concludes with Benodebehari at his articulate best, explaining blindness:



“Blindness is a state of feeling, a new experience, a new state of being.”



In pedagogy, as well as in exploration of the language of art, we find Ramkinker Baij as the closest parallel to Binodebehari. What the latter did with his systematic understanding of art as language and rendering thoughts through words, Ramkinker compensated for with his performativity. Using extension of body in space as an ontological signifier, he filled the Santiniketan landscape with some of the most stunning public sculptures of twentieth century India.

In 2011, at a late stage in his life, K.G. Subramanyan completed a ceramic mural, which wrapped round the well-known Mastermoshai’s (Nandalal’s) studio in the centre of the Kala Bhavana campus. It has quoted passages from reflections on art by Rabindranath, Abanindranath and Nandalal, placed on the sloping rain sheds and the corners walls of the building, for viewers to read. One of the panel from Nandalal reads:



“Abanindranath said artists are of the same species as silkworms. They are eating continuously, continuously learning and studying, and once that comes to a halt, they wrap themselves up by extracting the silk out of themselves. For the artist, style is like the silk of the silkworm, one gets imprisoned within that. But at some point one has to break free; then one becomes a butterfly and flies from flower to flower, a seasoned artist, tastes the honey of forms of world art. Then, one has another movement another vision.”



The writings on the wall, largely epiphanic, thus capture the ever vanishing past and dedicate it to the fluid present in the spirit of conviviality.

Together, these artists created an enormous inventory of alternative modernist practice that connected up the local with the global. The Santiniketan experiment with its foundational ideals, helped build a community beyond the institutional confines. In its current pedagogic form, it jostles with the idea of its glorious past, an ever-changing present and many prospective projections for its future expectations.





  1. ^ Here it might be relevant to mention that Tagore’s appreciation of European culture came up, time and again, in the specific context of his journeys to different countries of Europe. They, however, happen in a different mode, on a separate register of senses, feelings and intellection.
  2. ^ Rabindra Rachanabali (Collected Writings of Rabindranath Tagore,) Vol. 12, Government of West Bengal, Kolkata 1989, p. 275.
  3. ^ This postcard contains the drawing of a pitcher, which was later acquired by Prabhatmohan for his collection, on his journey (recounted by Subir Banerjee, Prabhatmohan’s son in a personal conversation).
  4. ^ The postcard, product of the lithographic-print experiment they conducted in Kala Bhavana, contains the image of a bus.
  5. ^ This is one of the examples of enthusiasm for sharing contemporary information of a new event (here, an experimental architecture such as the Black House).
  6. ^ Rabindranath Tagore: “Sahityer Dharma,” in: Sahityer Pathe, p. 3, accessible at: (accessed 3 March 2019).
  7. ^ K. G Subramanyan: Moving Focus, Lalit Kala Akademi, New Delhi 1978, pp. 73–74.
  8. ^ Nilima Sheikh: The Flower Paintings of Binodebehari Mukherjee, Flowers, published on occasion of birth centenary of Binodebehari Mukherjee, Guild Gallery, Mumbai and NGMA, New Delhi 2009.

Suren Kar, Postcard, Thailand.
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