Catch Tagore exhibition before it chugs out

Cantonment Railway Station, Bangalore is currently housing a unique train – The Sanskriti Express Exhibition Train, hosting in five coaches an exhibition on the life and works of Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941). The exhibition, which will travel through different parts of India over the period of one year, is part of the celebrations of the 150th birth Anniversary of ‘Kabiguruji’ as he was fondly called, and is running as ‘a tribute from the Indian Railways’.

Tagore with his children, displayed in the Sanskriti Express. Pic: Lina Vincent Sunish.

Curated under the direction of Saoli Mitra, Chairperson, Committee on Heritage and Culture, Ministry of Railways, the train-display is divided into five parts – Jiban Smriti, Gitanjali, Muktodhara, Chitra Rekha and Shesh Katha, illustrating glimpses into the extended Tagore family and the development of Shantiniketan and Sriniketan; excerpts from Tagore’s songs, verses and poetry; excerpts and sections from Tagore’s letters, writings, plays and novels; a selection of prints of his sketches, paintings and drawings; and images from the final days of his life, respectively.

The train bogie lends itself very well as a space to host a mobile show like this one, and the research that has gone into setting up the exhibition must be appreciated. There are enlarged prints of a large number of rare photographs of the Kabiguru and his family members, with adjoining text (in English, Hindi, Bengali) and dates that create an entire historical context for the viewing. Also on display are unseen photographs of Shantiniketan, Jorasanksho, the famed home of Kabiguru, and his involvement in varied cultural and social activities from his youth until his old age.

One of the most impressive aspects of the show is the audio component, a series of rabindra sangeet renditions as well as recitations of poetry and verses from dramas, playing in the background and creating an ambience for the appropriate reception of the material. Additionally, a television screening performances of many of Kabiguru’s plays is placed in the last section of the exhibition.

A young Rabindranath, photograph from the exhibition. Pic: Lina Vincent Sunish.

Amidst the writings and images are glimpses into the larger political and cultural milieu of the time, Tagore’s rapport with Andrews and Pearson, both involved very much in the building of Shantiniketan; Gandhiji’s visit to Shantiniketan, as also that of Nehru and his daughter Indira; images of the swadeshi movement and its leaders; the famed Nobel prize medal; the covers of Kabiguru’s various published works; even an image of Helen Keller in his company. Weaving the whole lot of visual material together are Kabiguru’s personal autobiographical notes tracing his sorrows and achievements, aggressions and beliefs, and lyrical letters from him to various eminent persons like W B Yeats and Lord Chelmsford, the then Viceroy of India (1919).

Exhibitions like this one bring cultural material and aspects of history and heritage within reach of the general public. In being situated in a public space like a train, and a public area of a station, it is also removed from the ‘white cube’ inhibiting environs of a museum or a gallery. In having both text and visual, it is ultimately accessible to a more democratic cross section of society, and is both educative and entertaining.

There is however, always one drawback in placing something in the public realm – vandalisation and disrespect to the material. Some groups walk in and out without looking at the walls, many quickly bring out pens to mark their presence in the space – unfortunately using the exhibits as their canvas. It is essential for there to be attendants and docents, someone to explain the material and make it come alive in simple terms to those who have never been introduced to a museum culture.

This cultural journey, literally and figuratively – is one that I would suggest for everyone to participate in.

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About Lina Vincent Sunish 11 Articles
Lina Vincent Sunish is a Bangalore based art historian and curator.