The rickshaw ride to Diganta Palli slices through some of the most idyllic parts of Santiniketan in Birbhum district of West Bengal.
It’s flanked on both sides by cottages with gardens in full bloom and manicured lawns. The air smells of freshly-cut grass, and the low, emphatic call of the bulbul plays on loop. Amidst all this, Supriyo Tagore’s stone and stained-glass residence is like that last piece of a jigsaw puzzle that completes the picture.
The raging orange palash tree that guards the gate of the house is both intimidating and inviting in its magnificence. The ground beneath is blotted orange with the exquisite hook-shaped flowers. Supriyo, a 75-year-old in a crisp cotton kurta, is waiting at the verandah of his house to welcome us. He looks up at the craggy branches of the tree and flinches a little. “In a week’s time, the area will be swarming with youths who will pluck flowers indiscriminately. They will hack branches and chop the tree,” says Tagore, the great grandson of Satyendranath Tagore, the eldest brother of Rabindranath Tagore.
Being a Tagore in Santiniketan, the university town that was Rabindranath’s brainchild, has its share of baggage and expectations. But Supriyo, the longest serving and most well-known principals of the oldest school in town, Patha Bhavan, has distanced himself from one of the most important festivals of Santiniketan, Basanta Utsav or spring festival. “When Rabindranath designed this festival, it was meant to be a celebration of nature.
Today, it is a celebration of bad aesthetics. People drive in from Kolkata in droves and treat this festival as a spectacle. I don’t have any problem with that, but it pains me to see how the way of life here is disrupted and violated,” says Supriyo.
The most visible victim of this onslaught is the palash tree, which is hacked to almost skeletal remains by local residents, who sell these flowers to eager visitors looking for their two-pence worth of Tagore memorabilia. Old-timers say the number of these trees has drastically come down. “I won’t blame the sellers. It’s the rampant commodification of the festival that is worrying,” says Supriyo.
“Palash, which blooms in abundance during this season, was chosen to be the symbol of the festival by Tagore,” says Supriyo. Also, it is popularly believed that the flower has anti-pox properties. “Spring is the season when chicken pox strikes and, traditionally, the colours used in Holi were made of flowers with medicinal properties. I have also heard that palash petals were used to make abir,” says Amrit Sen, professor in English and joint secretary, Visva Bharati Study Circle.
Palash, which is also called the flame of the forest, found its way into a lot of Tagore’s works. When he talks about the hardworking Santhal woman (the largest tribal community in India who live mainly in Jharkhand, West Bengal and Bihar) in one of his verses, he talks about her “sweeping across the air with the flaming red magic of the palash flower”. Here, the flower becomes a metaphor for possibilities and liberty. In the popular song, Ore Grihobashi (O, Householders), he describes the mirthful sky of spring as palash-coloured.
“The original inhabitants of the place, Santhals, have a very strong relationship with the palash tree. Women used the exquisite flower to adorn their hair. When women of the university were encouraged to use flowers like palash as adornment, it was in a way a reaction to the ostentatious urban trappings. It was a statement on simplicity. Ironically, today that very palash is commodified and is worn as a fashion statement,” says Sen.
Sitting in her airy drawing room, a bowl of palash flowers (the ones that fell on their own) beside her, Subhra Tagore, Supriyo’s wife, who runs a children’s home in Santiniketan, elucidates. “Do you see this hook-like structure?” she points at the flower in her hand. “We used this as an ear pin. That’s what we did as students of Visva Bharati in the early 1950s. We didn’t make garlands out of it. We would just put a flower or two in our hair. It made us feel that we were closer to nature. It was, in a way, a gesture to embrace nature,” says Subhra. Today, there are women in yellow sarees with palash ornaments. “There is this self-conscious veneer about them that is not in keeping with the spirit of the festival,” she says.
Sen, who has worked extensively on Tagore’s idea of the festival, points out that Basanta Utsav was designed to accommodate nature as a part of daily life and to sensitise young minds to its importance. “Which is why, houses built during Tagore’s time were never taller than trees surrounding them. He felt human beings shouldn’t try to tower over nature,” says Sen.
Last year, Visva Bharati issued a circular, telling students not to pluck, buy or wear palash flowers, for they look better on trees.
“We have been doing this for the past few years. In 2010, I remember, trees were hacked mercilessly. That’s when we decided that we should do something about it. It’s an attempt by the university to preserve something that is intrinsic to this place,” says Sen.
The circular was just one of the steps taken by the university as part of its conservation campaign for palash trees. “Professors and teachers are encouraged to talk to students about the importance of palash and other trees and how they affect us. We also talk to residents about the issue and they have been very receptive about it. We have regular write-ups in our local papers too. So, it has been a sustained effort for the past four years,” says D Gunasekaran, registrar, Visva Bharati University.
However, for Bisheshwari Pal, a 70-year-old resident of Bhubandanga in Santiniketan, the ban makes little difference. She runs a provision store at the bustling, touristy neighbourhood with shops selling terracotta trinkets and kitschy Tagore memorabilia. “I have been here for more than 50 years. When I shifted here, trees lined the stretch of road. There were palash and shiuli trees. They were all hacked down to make way for buildings and roads. I wonder what difference will this ban make,” she says. Indeed, even as we walked down the entire stretch of the relatively small university town, we could only spot a handful of palash trees.
But university authorities are hopeful of conserving the symbol of spring. Sabujkali Sen from the department of philosophy, who also coordinates the media cell, is sure that a new taxonomy project will help. The project will categorise the trees on the campus and number them. “This project will ensure that trees of the campus are accounted for. This year, for Basanta Utsav, we will also deploy volunteers on the campus to tell visitors about the menace. It will be a polite way of sensitising them. All this has already checked rampant hacking of trees. Moreover, though palash trees may not have increased in numbers, they haven’t even decreased in the last four or five years,” says Sen.
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