Shantiniketan: The Visva-Bharati University, founded by Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore has received the UNESCO World Heritage inscription to become the world’s first living heritage university.
The announcement was made during the extended 45th session of the World Heritage Committee in 2023, held in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, on September 17. For West Bengal, this achievement follows closely on the heels of Durga Puja’s inclusion in UNESCO’s list of intangible cultural heritages just one year ago. With this new addition, the state now boasts four UNESCO heritage designations, placing it second only to Maharashtra and on par with Rajasthan.
In 2010, during Manmohan Singh’s tenure as the Chancellor, Visva-Bharati had appealed to UNESCO to designate its campus as a World Heritage Site. The Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) collaborated with heritage architects Abha Narain Lamba and Manish Chakrabarti to create the nomination dossier. This dossier had divided Visva-Bharati’s territorial jurisdiction into a Core Area and a Buffer Zone. The heritage status is granted to the Core Area, which includes three distinct zones: Ashram, Uttarayan, the Kala Bhavan, and the Sangeet Bhavan.
A campus for all
Debendranath Tagore, the father of Rabindranath Tagore, founded the Shantiniketan Ashram to worship the deity Nirvikar Brahma, rooted in the beliefs of the Brahmo Samaj which the family were proponents of. Rabindranath later established Visva-Bharati in 1921 on the same philosophical foundation. He envisioned the campus as a representation of India’s intellectual richness. It was open to all, and recognised India’s responsibility to share its culture while being open to learning from others.
“Visva Bharati represents India where she has her wealth of mind which is for all. Visva-Bharati acknowledges India’s obligation to offer to others the hospitality of her best culture and India’s right to accept from others their best,” Rabindranath had said.
Tagore’s vision was for it to become a “seat of learning,” and this was embraced and continued by Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru. In a letter presented to Gandhi during his final visit to Shantiniketan in February 1940, Tagore fervently appealed for his protection and assurance of the institution’s permanence, stressing that it was a national treasure carrying the essence of his life’s work. In response, Gandhi assured that Visva-Bharati was indeed a national and international institution and pledged to work towards ensuring its enduring legacy.
In 1951, the Visva-Bharati Bill was passed in the parliament, making it a unitary, teaching, and residential university. During the parliamentary debate, both Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and education minister Maulana Abul Kalam Azad emphasised the importance of preserving the institution’s unique environment and ideals of natural harmony, cultural richness, and global inclusivity.
“There’s no university in the world that has been declared a heritage site while education is ongoing. From that perspective, this is truly unique. Let’s all come together to work for Visva-Bharati, moving beyond the controversies around it,” said Bidyut Chakraborty, the Vice-Chancellor of the university. Chakraborty’s tenure has been marked with controversies, including a land dispute with Nobel laureate Amartya Sen, allegations of corruption, and his frequent lashings out at both teachers and students.
“Attaining such a grand heritage status is a matter of pride, but safeguarding it carries an even greater responsibility,” said Supriya Thakur, former principal of Patha Bhavan and a descendant of Rabindranath Tagore.
Kala Bhavan, the fine arts faculty of Visva-Bharati University, ranks among India’s top fine arts institutions and showcases a remarkable gallery with 17,000 original artworks by esteemed Indian and East Asian masters. However, the beautiful frescoes, sculptures, and murals by artists like Ramkinkar Baij, Nandalal Bose, and Benode Behari Mukherjee that adorn the university’s complex are facing deterioration due to neglect.
While initial maintenance and preservation efforts have commenced, particularly in the iconic Uttarayan complex housing Rabindranath’s residence, known as Shyamali, along with other structures, experts stress the importance of regular care and conservation to protect this artistic heritage.
While the restoration initiative was initiated several decades ago under the leadership of former Vice-Chancellor Sujit Basu, its progress has been relatively slow. “I am happy for the heritage status. It’s another feather in Shantiniketan’s illustrious cap. While I had initiated the process, now it’s a shared responsibility for everyone to uphold this recognition,” said Basu.
Former Kala Bhavan principal Prabir Biswas, who was once a part of the core committee for preservation, feels that significant changes should not be in the offing.
“A heritage tag would require such changes, such as not allowing sculptures to be touched and not blocking the pathways at Shantiniketan. The World Heritage Committee allocates funds for the conservation and supervision of the designated heritage area. If this money is used wisely, it will undoubtedly help in the preservation of many endangered artistic treasures,” Biswas said.
Translated from the Bengali original by Aparna Bhattacharya.