On Tour with...
... Martin Kämpchen through Santiniketan

Martin Kämpchen in Santiniketan
Martin Kämpchen in Santiniketan | Photo: © Rajdeep Konar

Writer, translator and educationist Martin Kämpchen had first set foot in Santiniketan, a small provincial town located in the Birbhum district of West Bengal, almost three and a half decades ago, to pursue a PhD at the Visva-Bharati University.  He took an instant liking to the place and by his own confession has never since been away from it for more than three months at a stretch. We cycle with Martin Kämpchen through the town to revisit places and people which now symbolise to him the essence of the place. 

Martin Kämpchen, or Martin Da (At Santiniketan it is customary to call elders of any age da, meaning elder brother in Bengali.) travels between his two worlds in a bicycle. Such a thing can be said and implied at both literal and metaphorical levels. Speaking literally, anyone visiting Santiniketan might find Kämpchen cycling through its streets with the characteristic warm smile on his face, probably travelling between his two worlds at Santiniketan: the small room at his home in Purva Palli where he sits and writes, and the school he has facilitated to establish at Ghosaldanga, a small tribal village located eight kilometres from the town. In a metaphorical sense, he shifts between these two worlds – one of scholarly and creative pursuits and another of social engagement – with an uncharacteristic ease. 

On bike through Santiniketan On bike through Santiniketan | Photo: © Rajdeep Konar Rabindranath Tagore founded Visva-Bharati University at Santiniketan over one hundred years ago. Then it used to be a dry, barren land far away from the only major city, Calcutta, surrounded by a few impoverished Hindu and Muslim and tribal villages. Since then the natural landscape, the demography and the cultural practices of the place have seen a sea-change due to massive re-forestation and the influx of people migrating from various places owing to the presence of the University. While Santiniketan now boasts of a rich cultural heritage, a cosmopolitan populace and considerably well facilitated living conditions, the villagers all around still remain under-nourished. Tagore himself believed and strove to inculcate a sense of inclusive development. Such ideals however have since Tagore’s demise arguably remained mostly on paper, and the onus has fallen on certain individuals like Martin Kämpchen to try and give them shape.

In his writing career, too, Martin Kämpchen has travelled between themes and genres. His body of critical work concerns personalities as varied as Ramakrishna, Vivekananda, Rabindranath Tagore, Hermann Hesse, Günter Grass and others. He has the most authentic translations of Tagore, Ramakrishna and Vivekananda’s works in German to his credit. He has worked as freelance journalist for the well-known German daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung since 1995 and also for The Statesman in India. His travels around India have resulted in a collection of short stories first published in German and then in English translation done by the famous British Tagore scholar William Radice. Kämpchen has also published his diaries as well as one novel based on his experiences in Ghosaldanga. Besides these he has edited a number of books and essays on various themes connected with India.

A Hermit’s Abode

For his second PhD thesis Martin Kämpchen had compared the lives of the two saints, Ramakrishna from 19th century Bengal and the 11th century Italian saint, Francis of Assisi. Both had preached the benefits of leading a simple life devoid of luxury and excess. As soon as one enters the premises of Martin Da’s rented residence at Purva Palli in Santiniketan one finds a sincere and rigorous attempt to abide by such principles.

The Hermit´s Abode The Hermit´s Abode | Photo: © Rajdeep Konar The only “luxury” that Martin Da enjoys by his own admittance is to sit and have a cup of green tea or South Indian coffee once in a while on the open veranda in the front, often talking to people who come to visit him. The veranda is also a vantage point for appreciating a view of the greenery which has grown naturally in front of the house. Martin Da makes it clear that he had never tried to manage and maintain a garden and thought it best to let nature take its own course. The huge trees which have grown around the house has given it the look of a hermit’s abode. Well, there is the problem of mosquitoes, but Martin Da thinks it is no reason to invite a violent intrusion into the natural growth which forms the soul of the place.

The Accidental Co-Traveller

As we set out from Martin Da’s house on our cycles one afternoon, I took the opportunity to ask Kämpchen about his cycle. It is quite old and heavy and I wonder what interesting anecdote makes him cling to it. Indeed, Martin Da tells me how he found his age-old co-traveller in Santiniketan. Arriving at Santiniketan he had promptly bought a new cycle as it was the convention at Santiniketan in those days when bikes and cars had not yet arrived. Martin Da’s washerman who was from Bihar was rather taken by the new cycle and asked to borrow it for some days. In exchange, he left his own sturdy cycle which was his old marriage cycle, with Martin Da. With his characteristic mellow sense of humour, Martin Da concludes: “The washerman never bothered to return the new cycle which since he has abandoned long ago”, while that ancient one continues to be Martin Da’s co-traveller in Santiniketan.

The Fine-Arts Connection

Martin Da feels Kala Bhavan still preserves most of what once put Santiniketan on the world cultural map. The architecture is splendid with trees all around forming a backdrop. Apart from the architecture a series of strategically placed murals and sculptures by legendary artists like Nandalal Bose, Binod Behari Mukherjee, Ram Kinkar Baij, Somnath Hore, K. G. Subramanyan greet the visitor to Kala Bhavan.
  • Martin Kämpchen in Kala Bhavan Photo: © Rajdeep Konar
    Martin Kämpchen in Kala Bhavan
  • Black House in Kala Bhavan Photo: © Rajdeep Konar
    Black House in Kala Bhavan
  • Kala Bhavan Photo: © Rajdeep Konar
    Kala Bhavan
Martin Da recollects that his first association with Kala-Bhavan was through his friendship with an artist from Bangalore, Jyoti Sahi, whose student joined Kala Bhavan when Kämpchen was pursuing his PhD. It was with him that Martin Da first visited Kala Bhavan. He liked the vibrant atmosphere of creative activity in the department. His association with Sahi resulted in several books in German which Martin Da wrote and Jyoti Sahi illustrated. However, as we walk through the Kala Bhavan campus and stand in front of a mural done by K. G. Subramanyan, Martin Da recollects how it had been a memorable experience for him to observe while Subramanyan worked on it with utmost love and care. We ended our wanderings in Kala Bhavan by visiting “Kalo Bari” or the legendary “Black House” done by Nandalal Bose which too Martin Da is fond of.

We were visiting the Kala Bhavan campus on a Wednesday which is the weekly holiday at Visva-Bharati. Therefore, from Kala Bhavan campus we wandered to the residence of the well-known art historian Prof. R. Siva Kumar  who is a faculty at Kala Bhavan. It was almost evening, the right time for an “adda”, the Bengali popular term for an informal chat, along with chai and biscuits. Martin Da was meeting Prof. Siva Kumar after some time and they had a lot to share on each other’s work.

In the Presence of History

The Uttarayan Campus in which the Rabindra Bhavan is located contains the best specimens of architectural, environmental and craft experiments done in Santiniketan. It is not surprising that the Uttarayan Campus attracts a heavy influx of tourists throughout the year. As soon as we enter Martin Da takes me to his favourite place, the Guha Ghar (Cave Room), planned and constructed by Rathindranath, the son of Rabindranath, to execute his own carpentry work. The Guha Ghar is a unique piece of one-story architecture, small and cosy, made of stone, and surrounded by a sprawling Japanese Garden. Both the Guha Ghar and the garden are located at the back side of the Uttarayan Campus. Till very recently it was closed to visitors. Martin Da confesses that he used to cherish coming to the garden. He appreciates that the garden is not over-decorated and organised but full of creepers and natural growth, much like the “jungle” around his own house. The garden has some nicely designed places to sit and enjoy its beauty.
  • Martin Kämpchen in Rabindra Bhava Photo: © Rajdeep Konar
    Martin Kämpchen in Rabindra Bhava
  • Martin Kämpchen in Rabindra Bhavan Photo: © Valerie Schmidt
    Martin Kämpchen in Rabindra Bhavan
However, Martin Da’s associations with Rabindra Bhavan, is less that of a visitor than of a researcher. A major portion of Martinda’s body of translation and critical work involves Tagore. Recently Martin Da has co-edited (with Imre Bangha) a book titled Rabindranath Tagore: One Hundred Years of Gobal Reception which traces the influence of Rabindranath Tagore’s thoughts and works in more than thirty-five countries and linguistic regions. Thus, throughout his stay in Santiniketan, Martin Da has visited the Rabindra Bhavan archive regularly and made friends with numerous co-researchers here.

The Fruit of Love and Labour

Last but not the least is the place closest to Martin Da’s heart, the Rolf Schoembs Vidyashram, a Santal-medium school near Ghosaldanga. It was a warm and humid day and I proposed that we take my motorbike, but Martin Da insisted on going by cycle. As we left the metalled roads of the town and entered the mud roads of the villages, I silently thanked him for insisting, as I realised the sheer pleasure of cycling through the rural landscape with green on all sides, soothing to the eyes. The reader must have realised by now which I haven’t spelt out:  Martin Da loves nature. As I asked Martin Da about the roots of such nature love he shared that his birthplace in Germany, a small town named Boppard, situated beside the river Rhine, is famous for its natural beauty; the roots may lie there.
  • A class in progress Photo: © Rajdeep Konar
    A class in progress
  • With Teachers, stuff and a student at the school Photo: © Rajdeep Konar
    With Teachers, stuff and a student at the school
  • Rehearsal in progress Photo: © Rajdeep Konar
    Rehearsal in progress
It is this desire to be around nature and the search for a simple life-style that Martin Da thinks must have prompted him to discover Ghosaldanga and Bishnubati, an adjacent Santal tribal village, soon after he had arrived at Santiniketan. Post an initial hesitancy he became friendly with the villagers. After some time, he along with some young friends who he had made in the villages, felt the urge to do something together to develop the village. They decided on founding a school where the children of both the villages could get educated under special care without feeling looked down upon, as it often happens when they attend government schools. The dry tract of land was bought in 1983 and the school could finally be set up in 1993. The school now boasts of a boys’ and a girls’ hostel, a number of class rooms and an adjacent biological farm where fruits and vegetables are grown for the consumption of the school residents.

As we entered the school, the classes were in progress. Some teachers who did not have classes and two volunteers who had come from Germany to work at the school, joined us for a chat. Soon afterwards, we left for a short tour of Ghosaldanga on our cycles. I realised how dear to the people of the village Martin Da is, as every now and then we met people who greet him joyfully. We met a young father with his two kids with whom Martin Da spoke for a while. I learnt that the young man had lost his mother soon after his birth. Martin Da provided milk powder to feed him. Jokingly, he calls Martin Da his “second mother”.

Lunch break Lunch break | Photo: © Rajdeep Konar After a while we returned to the school to have some lunch. Lunch was simple but delicious with a cucumber-papaya salad, lemons, rice, dal, a pumpkin curry and egg curry and chutney. After lunch we took leave from all and soon were on our way back. I learnt from Martin Da cycling next to me that though initially he supervised the school personally, nowadays he keeps a distance as he wants the teachers and staff who are all from the villages around, to become self-reliant and take responsibility. While cycling back, I was preoccupied and wondering what it took Martin Da to achieve what he has with the villagers. I realised that his greatest achievement was to make the villagers think of him not as an outsider but as one of them and surely this has taken both love and labour on Martin Da’s part.