Saturday, March 23, 2019

Santal girls and Football

The article on Santal football girls of Birbhum has led me to share a completely different experience of girls in Purulia.

Santoshi Besra at our workshop
I first came to know about Santal girls playing football during a workshop we had conducted in Purulia in 2018. One of the youngest participants, Santoshi Besra, caught my eye because of her sad, beautiful eyes and the fact that she wore practically the same clothes everyday. She was painfully shy and along with her cousin, who was of the same age - around 18, would always sit at a little distance away from the other women. 

My heart went out to her and with a bit of effort, I managed to befriend her. This is her story:

Santoshi's mother in her home
Santoshi lives with her parents and two younger sisters, Taposhi and Anjana, in the village of Bansraya in Purulia. Her father is a daily wage earner and also accompanies his wife to pick sal leaves from the forests to supplement their income. Santoshi, who used to play football with her school team until she was 13, eventually gave up because practice time ate into her time for household duties. A few years later, she fell ill and had to drop out of school as well - and has since been assigned the task of looking after their home - cleaning, washing, cooking and so on. 

Her younger sister, Taposhi who is now 17, in the meanwhile also got interested in the game and was selected by her school as one of their best players, two years ago. This led to recognition from the local government at the block office in Kashipur which awarded her a monthly stipend of Rs 2400 to enable her to continue training. This monetary incentive did not exist when Santoshi was playing and the sum has provided a much needed boost for the sustenance of the entire family. However, elections are round the corner and so, payments have been put on hold. The family takes this in their stride as well.

In fact, Santoshi proudly tells me that the entire village has always been very proud of them and has encouraged them to play and train, without restriction. I told her about the Birbhum incident and she was quite bemused. 

Friday, August 28, 2015

What price, art?

Exploitation comes in all forms. Some people have the strangest ideas about "helping" rural arts.  

Ever since I started planning the Daricha web portal a few years ago, I couldn't help but notice, more than ever, the complete lack of respect so many people have for our rural artists. Why is it that the minute we see that the seller is from a disadvantaged section of society, all our exploitative skills come to the fore? Would we haggle over an identical piece mounted on a fancy frame or tucked into a fancy box at a Quest Mall? While there is no dearth of examples to illustrate my point, here is one: at a mela, I witnessed a well dressed woman haggling over the most superbly woven grass box, the creation of a tribal artist from Jangol Mahol, priced at a paltry Rs 100. Shamelessly, she demanded (yes, demanded) to be given two for the price of one. 

Elsewhere, I began to notice how enterprising "designers" were selling kantha "stitch" clothes or pata chitro art on various objects. No problem there, except the work was actually being executed by rural artists, while the business person grabbed all the credit. These artists are treated as "kaarigars" or labour by these "designers", with absolutely no respect or recognition for the hundreds of years of traditional heritage that they represent. And the artists, by dint of their poverty, are forced to depend on the "piece work" doled out to them. 

I then began to realize how some "designers" were making a neat packet by selling "repackaged" folk art. Buying cheap, mounting it on a fancy frame, and selling dear, often way too dear. The artist of course receives a pittance. Evidently, Fair Trade is unheard of in these quarters...

The last straw was an incident that took place very recently. As you may know, the Daricha web portal was started with the aim of spreading awareness about not just folk and tribal arts but the artists as well. The portal attempts to educate people about how important it is to respect these people and their art, if we have even an iota of appreciation for the need to preserve our heritage. So, we encourage people to write to us with enquiries about how to contact artists.

Along came this lady, who in her mail to us, expressed a wish to get a Kalighat style patachitra made on the theme of city life. So I promptly recommended an artist, well known for his work on such themes. Turns out she wanted to buy such art as part of an interior decoration project and she thought she would be doing the artists a favour by buying their "wares". Unfortunately, she thought such art should come cheap. Therefore the artist, who has exhibited both nationally and internationally, and whose prices she had already enquired into, was considered too expensive. In her words, she was "looking for artisan work and not high art" (read: cheap work). She evidently believes that a traditional artist cannot evolve - and that their prices should remain rock bottom. I tried telling her that making city life parodies was not part of the traditional oeuvre of the other artists, and that their ideas should come from within - not be borrowed/imposed. But she was focussed on "cheap".   Frustrated, I let the matter drop. 

Patachitras on sale at a local mela
But that was not the end of the matter. A few days ago, I heard from the artist himself that a relative of the lady in question had sent for him, wanting to see his work. The artist, constantly in the hope of making a sale, travelled to Kolkata from his village - only to be told that he could be offered no more than five hundred rupees for his work, with perhaps a promise to buy more, should he concur.  This artist's work normally sells for anything between Rs 5000 - Rs 20000 or more.   The artist returned home without making a sale. The artist told me that this happens to him all the while. One can imagine then what happens to traditional artists whose works are actually priced at 500 rupees ...

Of course, thankfully, the pendulum swings the other way too. There are many amongst us who would go the extra mile in order to support these artists - ordinary people, like you and me. There are also so many individuals and NGOs doing remarkable work, quietly, behind the scenes.   Unfortunately, they represent only a tiny minority.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Flavours of North Bengal

Two recent events in Kolkata showcased several folk forms from North Bengal. Well known folk artists from Uttar Dinajpur, Madhumangal Malakar and Ganesh Rabidas organised a 2-day folk festival at the Jorasanko Thakur Dalan, Kolkata in association with West Bengal State Akademi of Dance, Drama, Music and Arts on October 20 & 21st. Featured were the ritual dance Gomira and the folk drama, Khon. A few days later, in celebration of the famous folk singer Abbasuddin's 113th birth anniversary, another 2-day program was organized by the Abbasuddin Smaran Samiti in association with the Bangladesh High Commission at Kolkata, on October 26th & 27th.  

Gomira dancer in a Shyama Kali mask
While the Gomira ritual is practised both in the villages of Jalpaiguri and Uttar (North) and Dakshin (South) Dinajpur, during the Bengali month of Choitro (March-April),  the form showcased at the festival was peculiar to Dinajpur alone. Also known as Mukha Khel, the Kali-centric rite comprises a ritual dance by men wearing fabulous masks which represent various aspects of Kali. After worshipping the masks in a Gomira shrine, they dance around an open space, to the accompaniment of pulsating drums and gongs, in worship of the deities. The form is mainly practised by the Rajbongshis of Dinajpur  who believe that the power of the goddess is transmitted to the dancer, who often goes into a trance. The traditional masks used to be made of wood, but masks made of papier mache with sholapith decorations also go back several hundred years and are today more commonly used than the wooden masks.
Wearing a mask of Phuleswari Chamundi, the fearsome
aspect of Kali, the dancer has gone into a trance 
Though the ritual is practised only at a certain time of the year, the performance at the proscenium in Jorasanko also witnessed several dancers going into a trance and possessed by the spirit of Kali.

Khon owes its existence to village gossip. Traditionally, a salacious tale would do the rounds and at some point during the evening, when members of the community got together for a leisurely chat or to discuss  the day's events, it got converted into the theme for a folk drama/opera or pala gaan expressed though music, dance and dialogue. The word Khon is an abrreviation of Khon-doh in the Rajbongshi language, which translates to Kando in Bengali.  The theme presented on the 21st evening was a traditional story about how the scheming Hariya Mahajon was brought to his knees. It was directed by Khon artist, Ganesh Rabidas.
Final scene from Khon pala, Hariya Mahajon.

The inimitable Abbasuddin Ahmed was a Bengali folk singer par excellence who was particularly known for his Bhawaiya renditions. In the 24th year of its existence, the Abbasuddin Smaran Samiti organized an Abbasuddin Smaran Sandhya showcasing singers of Bhawaiya and other genres from West Bengal and Bangladesh. The 2-day event was a fabulous musical treat for the audience with the artists from Bangladesh being Bhupati Bhushan Barma and Dr Nashid Kamal, the granddaughter of Abbasuddin, while the artists from West Bengal included the famous Bhawaiya singer and MLA, Dr Sukhbilas Barma (who is  also president of the Abbasuddin Smaran Samiti); Siddheswar and Sumitra Roy, Bhawaiya singers from Jalpaiguri; Kalikaprasad Bhattacharya from the folk band Dohar; Bauls Shyam Sundar Das  and Goutam Das; the nonagenarian, Amar Pal, who rendered a Bhatiali; and many others. 

Bhupati Bhushan Barma  
Dr Nashid Kamal

Kalikaprasad Bhattacharya & Dohar

Sumitra Roy, Jalpaiguri

Dr Sukhbilas Barma

Dr Barma introduces Amar Pal who sang a Bhatiali

Friday, October 10, 2014

Of Adivasis, for Adivasis, by Adivasis

Adivaani ( is an independent publishing house of and by Adivasis based in Kolkata. The brainchild of the dynamic Ruby Hembrom, its founding director, its aim is to claim a stake in literary, academic and cultural spaces and assert adivasi identity through its activities.

It has in its  two short years of its existence 2 year old achieved a lot : ten books, two documentary films , an English language learning initiative for Adivasi learning centres through reading Adivasi stories - Tapestry of Traditions,  several book fairs (Delhi Book Fair 2013,  2 of their children's books traveled to the Bologna Children's Book Fair, Frankfurt Book Fair 2014), ten workshops and talks on Adivasi issues and an annual Prize for Indigenous writing started in 2013. No mean feat this!

Adivaani publishes  not only  Adivasi narratives but also indigenous writings from around the world in the hope of building solidarity amongst indigenous populations across geographies by sharing indigenous knowledge and experiences with them.  Dancing on our turtle’s back by Canadian indigenous scholar Leanne Betasamosake Simpson is the first book for which they have received foreign rights.

Click here for their 2014 catalogue

Adivaani's Tapestry of Traditions:

Most Adivasi children with the opportunity at education are learning English at some level and in some form or the other. But there’s still a gap between them and other children in India. To fill this gap, Adivaani's project has initiated the use of stories of Adivasi origin along with animations to assist in teaching English.

The two illustrated books (so far) on the Santal Creation stories series aim to be the instrument to achieve a mastery of English on the one hand and on another level accomplish something more critical– re-initiating children to these wonderful stories of Adivasi origin.

Adivaani is looking for learning centres with a sizeable adivasi student population in order to share the learning methodology with teachers at such schools. 

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Defining Indigenous and beyond ...

August 9 was International Day of the World's Indigenous Peoples. This Day  was first proclaimed by the United Nations in December 1994, to be celebrated every year during the first International Decade of the World's Indigenous People (1995 – 2004). 

In 2004, the Assembly proclaimed a Second International Decade, from 2005 – 2014, with the theme of "A Decade for Action and Dignity." The focus of this year's International Day is "Bridging the gap: implementing the rights of indigenous peoples".

It is estimated that there are more than 370 million indigenous people spread across 70 countries worldwide. Practising unique traditions, they retain social, cultural, economic and political characteristics that are distinct from those of the dominant societies in which they live. Spread across the world, they are the descendants - according to a common definition - of those who inhabited a country or a geographical region at the time when people of different cultures or ethnic origins arrived. The new arrivals later became dominant through conquest, occupation, settlement or other means. 

Here is what the UN website site says:
Considering the diversity of indigenous peoples, an official definition of “indigenous” has not been adopted by any UN-system body. Instead the system has developed a modern understanding of this term based on the following: 
• Self- identification as indigenous peoples at the individual level and accepted by the community as their  member. 
• Historical continuity with pre-colonial and/or pre-settler societies 
• Strong link to territories and surrounding natural resources 
• Distinct social, economic or political systems 
• Distinct language, culture and beliefs 
• Form non-dominant groups of society 
• Resolve to maintain and reproduce their ancestral environments and systems as distinctive peoples and communities. 

To celebrate this day this year, the Eastern Regional Centre of Anthropological Survey of India organized a panel discussion on Issues for the Safeguard and Challenges of Indigenous Knowledge on August 6, 2014. Chaired by Dr Kakali Chakrabarty of the Centre, the speakers were Shri Sarada Prasad Kisku, the eminent  Santali poet and writer, Ms Sophia Pde, Assistant Professor at the University of Delhi, a livewire member of the Khasi community and Shri Biswambhar Munda, a well known Mundari writer and school teacher. The talks followed by the discussions threw light on the challenges faced and the steps that need to be taken or are being taken at a global level.

Shri Sarada Prasad Kisku
Each of the speakers spoke of the issues specifically faced by their communities. Shri Kisku opined  that though centuries of traditional knowledge that has been passed down the generations among adivasis has now become the subject matter of research, there has been barely any productive research done. While individuals have researched for doctorate degrees, college and office jobs et al, there has been no research that has really benefitted the Adivasi communities. There has been no improvement in their lives. 

Yet, there is so much to be imbibed from these communities. But there has been no interest to even understand, for instance, the centuries old village systems that exist among tribes like the Santals and the Mundas. In this system, the entire village would be the responsibility of and be headed by the Manjhi and four others. Unity and harmony are the pillars on which these systems run. (Though, sad to say, evidence of a breakdown is being noticed, and distinctions between rich and poor cleaving through, possibly as a result of modern education.) In the annual tribal hunt, the division of the game is very fair - across the community - even to widows who have no sons who may have joined the hunt or the lepers in the village or even the stray dogs in the village. There is no room for discord. Such has been the practice - in all aspects of their lives - a tradition that has passed down and accepted without question and without recourse to lectures, seminars or postering. This is valuable indigenous knowledge. Then there is Santal medicine and other Santal rites and beliefs that have stood the test of time. They know for instance when it will rain by observing ants shifting their eggs. This body of traditional wisdom and ingrained culture is dying - being stamped out with the pressures of modern education.  Working towards the welfare and development of the Adivasis must be inclusive of their knowledge systems and traditions. The writing is on the wall. 

Ms Sophia Pde
Sophia Pde in an impassioned delivery, threw some valuable insights on the Khasi community.  Her tribe is said to be one of the most primitive in India , along with the Ho-Mundas  - and they still speak the Austric language. The Khasi-Jaintias are one of the 5 matrilineal societies left in India. There has been a lot of controversy about this both within and without the community. She emphasized - matrilineal and not matriarchal. Children stay with their mothers, taking her name and it is the youngest daughter who becomes custodian of the ancestral property - a kind of religious head of the family. It is her duty to protect the clan. The women have the right to speak, are free to choose, to lead their lives as they please. Moreover, since all children take the mother's name, there is no question of illegitimacy. As a result they are often accused of promiscuity. They are not yet part of the political system (the durbar) in the community, but are pushing towards it in recent times.

The mother in Khasi society is the most important figure - she, according to Ms Pde, represents the goddess figure, presiding over everything. It is her love and care that nurtures - so why then should she be relegated to the background  after giving birth? Why should she lose her surname? It is this that Ms Pde felt could be emulated by communities across India. Perhaps the Khasis are more progressive than the rest of India, but she insists that the Khasis feel like misfits and alienated because they are the most misunderstood. It is her hope that the best of matrilineal and patrilineal systems would be incorporated to bring about an ideal bilineal society, to ensure a better future for our children. 

Shri Biswambhar Munda reminded the audience that India has not to date identified its indigenous peoples. No tribe has been enlisted as "indigenous". If the scheduled tribes of the India, who fall well within the parameters defined, are obviously "indigenous", why then this hesitation to enlist them? Why the celebration of an International Day for the world's indigenous peoples?

Shri Biswambhar Munda
Knowledge, he said , is considered to be of two kinds: that which is gained at schools, colleges and universities and that which is indigenous, spread across thousands of communities who have been nurturing it for millenia. This knowledge is unique to a given society and is a part of the daily lives of its people. But knowledge is not that which is gained from books  - it is that which has helped man, through the ages, grapple with the forces of nature and his environs. This was the birth of knowledge and it is this indigenous knowledge that lies at the root of and which evolved into academic knowledge. Why then do we talk of "safeguarding" indigenous knowledge? Why is it being distinguished as different, he asked?  Why is it considered to be endangered? The reason very simply is that there has not been enough support given  to these people, to enable them to live within their distinct social systems. Just giving monetary compensation can never be a solution. 

Santal medicine needs to be researched and perhaps a research institute needs to be set up so that  this traditional knowledge is put to good use. Even the ritual songs of the Santals, performed throughout the year with each their annual harvest festivals like Karam, Baha, Sohrai etc, could be the source of rich commentary on the lives of these cultivators. Unless there is serious, systematic development of this knowledge, there is no point talking of safeguarding indigenous wisdom for the world to see. Only then will there be hope, he felt.  

In the face of these challenges, it was suggested by Dr H K Dey from the Indian Council for Agricultural Research in the audience that just documenting traditional knowledge and practices is not enough. There is no dearth of documentation. But there must be a correct way to safeguard this knowledge. It was felt that the scientific validity of say, a traditional agricultural practice, should be established and to prove convincingly its benefits, efficacy and cost effectiveness. This should be followed by protection of Intellectual Property Rights and finally, wide dissemination.
(Read about IIM-Ahmedabad's Professor Anil Kumar Gupta's brainchild - Honey Bee - which documents traditional wisdom in all fields of human activity and published in 20 different languages -

We also learnt what was happening at the international level from a member of the audience. There is already a global body in place which has been convening in Geneva since 2007, represented by more than 130 countries of the world which deals with Genetic Resources, Traditional Knowledge and Traditional Cultural Expressions (TCE) - which are knowledge systems , intangible in nature, which do not fall within the ambit of TK. The countries are divided  as follows :  developed countries, "likeminded" groups of countries (South East Asia including India) and normally represented by Indonesia and the African countries. Legal instruments to safeguard are already being developed where the process of documentation, validation etc are incorporated. This then has to be brought to the notice of nodal agencies. Till date,  draft  documentation on these traditional resources has been developed. The legal instruments now await finalization in about five years or so. But the developing countries insist that they should have a say in Freely Available TK or TCE because many of their traditional resources may not have been documented or that they may not be able to complete it within a given time period. They should be given a right to protect their own knowledge.  But the time limit will not be indefinite. Thus each country will need to spread this information among the stakeholders - the government organizations, the local communities -  as soon as possible. 

But all this is easier said than done, felt Dr Biswanath Sarkar of AnSI, who has worked with health related issues of indigenous people for more than two decades. There are no clear cut criteria to identify indigenous people. Are the UN definitions applicable everywhere? The issues and challenges that affect their livelihood practices, resource management, exploitation faced etc - are not similar across these communities in the planet.  Till date, 150 such communities have been identified by the UN across the world but there are many, many more. Safeguarding can happen only after identification. 

He pointed out that of the 350 plus medicinal plants that were traditionally used by the Santals and identified eight decades ago by Dr Olaf Bodding, there is no knowledge on what is left, nor what resources are available in the vicinity. Both intangible and tangible knowledge is either threatened or extinct. Though there are thousands of documents already available, since all of this is mainly orally transmitted knowledge, what is left has to be identified, documented and especially in the light of IPR now, protected. India ranks 3rd globally in its rich national diversity but fails in its resource management and is therefore prey to a high rate of exploitation. Other reasons of failure have also been an inability to properly understand the challenges faced by these communities - often resulting in incorrect and self defeating measures of protection.  An important challenge would also be the mechanism set up for benefit-share  among these people.

Dr Kakali Chakrabarty,
Head of Office,
 Eastern Regional Centre, AnSI
There is no dearth of problems faced by these communities. Surul is a village adjacent to Visva Bharati University, Santiniketan/Sriniketan, founded by Rabindranath Tagore. A major part of the university stands within Surul mouja. Dr Chakrabarty brought to our notice that historically, the Surul zamindars had handed over usufruct right of their zamindari to the Visva Bharati authorities. But the university has encroached upon the Jaherthan of the Santals who have been living in a tribal village in the vicinity now known as Pearson Pally. The Jaherthan is a space around an ancient tree, sacred to the Santals - where they conduct their rituals. Faced with this crisis, the Santals who are mostly manual labourers have had no choice but to shift their Jaherthan and grow a new tree. A harsh price to pay for development indeed. 

Kharia tribe of Chhota Nagpur,
1903. www.oldindianphotos
She went on to give some truly inspiring instances of tribal knowledge. A group from AnSI noticed a large fruit tree being cut down by the Jarawas in the Andamans and questioned the wisdom of their act. The tribals explained that the tree was surrounded by innumerable younger trees whose health would be affected by this much larger tree in their midst. Therefore to save these trees and enable them to bear fruit for future generations, it was necessary to sacrifice this tree.

Among the Kharia tribes, a motherless baby survived thanks to traditional knowledge. Faced with the dilemma of feeding the baby, it was decided that her grandmother be  given traditional medicine to resolve the problem. The lady was eighty years old, but she began lactating and was thus able to nurse the baby!  

Rounding off this hugely edifying  talk, the erudite Dr Kanchan Mukherjee of AnSI went back to the basics: how is Indigenous to be defined? The term has been mostly been used in colonial situations, as in the Americas, Australia etc, where migrants become majority and natives, minority. But in old world situations, like Europe, this definition becomes a problem. He reminded us that when countries of the world were requested by the UN to make a list of its indigenous peoples in the 90s, India declared that it could not and would not. The reason given was that if some communities were declared as indigenous, then many other communities would not be indigenous! Therefore all Indians are considered to be indigenous. He felt instead that a new term ought to be coined to encompass this conundrum. Even the terms Adivasi or Banabasi are politically loaded. 

He also pointed out that the words indigenous and tradition are not interchangeable. This is a common mistake. Tradition can be constructed and need not necessarily be old practices - say for example, a national symbol. Perhaps it would be better to use a neutral term like "community-based" irrespective of its origins. The practice may not be old or it may have been borrowed - but it now belongs to the community. 

Dr Mukherjee questioned the use of the term "mainstream" in a plural society like India and turned our ideas of it upside down. It was the Austric speaking people who introduced the phallic symbol to the rest of India and the Hindu deity Kamakhya was the Khasi deity Ka-Meikha. Professor Suniti Chatterjee, the famous linguist,  had pointed out that the Bengali language has an Indo-Aryan structure but contains the most number of Austric words. The Bengali concept of "para" or neighbourhood is borrowed from the Mundas. Therefore, he argued, who is mainstream - the teacher or the student? "Mainstream", he felt is a political concept - that has its origins in inequal distribution of power  and supported by ethnocentricity, which is the belief in the inherent superiority of one's own ethnic group or culture.  It is this we have to fight. Nobody should be made to feel marginalized in a multiple-culture society. 

He also cautioned on a practical aspect of Benefit-Sharing:  when we speak of giving to the community, whom do we speak of? This definition has to be very specific and fool-proof. 

And finally, if we are to really protect and conserve our traditional knowledge and genetic resources, this should be the responsibility of the communities themselves. The initiative should be theirs. The role of outsiders should be no more than "assistants" - and that too, only if asked to.  It is time to think afresh!


Bardoi Sikhla dance by
Bodos from Goalpara, Assam
The panel discussion on the 6th was followed by a 2 day (August 7 & 8) celebration of International Day of World's Indigenous People, entitled Adibimba. Organized by  the Eastern Zonal Cultural Centre, Ministry of Culture, Government of India in collaboration with Anthropological Survey Eastern Regional Centre at EZCC's auditorium, it showcased tribal performing arts as well as a photographic exhibition on the tribal world of Eastern India. 

Maila Jodo dance from
Kalahandi, Odisha
The eastern part of India encompasses a diverse range of tribal culture - from Mongoloid to Proto-Austoloid  to Dravidian. West  Bengal itself is home to 28 different tribal communities, while Bihar, Jharkhand and Odisha are the traditional habitat of 26, 30 and 62 tribes respectively. But naturally, the region is a rich repository of tribal arts and traditions. Put together for the exhibition were a set of superb images which effectively captured this splendid cultural mosaic.

Karam dance by Santals of
Ramnagar, Birbhum
 About 150 tribal artistes from West Bengal, Assam, Tripura, Odisha and Sikkim including performing groups of Santals, Mundas, Rabhas, Lepchas, Bodos and Tripuris enthralled the audience with their vibrant  performances  over the two days. What a great pity there wasn't much of an audience.

Sunday, July 6, 2014


One hundred and fifty nine years ago, on June 30 , 1855,  thousands of Santals, led by four brothers, Sido, Kanhu, Chand and Bhoirab Murmu, in the village of Bhognadihi  in what was to later become Santal Parganas, rose as one to take an oath against  the British tyranny and ruthless exploitation by local landlords, moneylenders and traders. It was to be one of the fiercest uprisings that the British ever faced in India.

Simmering from the continuous injustice perpetrated on them ever since they were forced to migrate from their native heartland in the Chhota Nagpur plateau, in the early decades of the nineteenth century, they declared themselves free and vowed to fight unto the last against the British rulers as well as their agents.  Hul in Santali means a movement for liberation. 

Attack by 600 Santals upon a party of 50 sepoys,
40th regiment native infantry
The rebellion soon reached the scale of a full-fledged war. At the outset, Santal rebels, led by Sido and Kanhu, captured control over a large tract of the region between the Rajmahal hills and Birbhum district. For a while, British rule in this vast area became completely paralyzed, but the British soon rallied back with their superior arms and out-and-out butchery.  In spite of the  courage and  incredible bravery of the approximately fifty thousand strong Santals, twenty to thirty thousand of them were brutally  decimated by the British Indian Army. The brothers were captured and killed. John Company was finally able to suppress the rebellion in 1856, though some outbreaks continued.

In his Annals of Rural Bengal, W W Hunter quotes a British commanding officer during the Santal rebellion: " It was not war - they did not understand yielding... So long as their national drums beat, the whole party would stand and allow themselves to be shot down.. " . They went on fighting to the last man... "There was not a single sepoy in the British army who did not feel ashamed of himself."

But the Santal Hul was not in vain. It led to the formation of the Santal Parganas (in Jharkhand). Efforts were also initiated to offer protection to these indigenous people from ruthless colonial exploitation. The anniversary of the Santal Hul is celebrated every year.

Group from Purulia perform on Hul Diwas at the Folk
& Tribal Cultural Centre,  Kolkata
On June 30, 2014, the Folk and Tribal Cultural Centre, West Bengal at Kolkata celebrated Hul Diwas with performances by groups from Bankura, West Medinipur, Birbhum and Purulia districts. In his speech, Dr Upen Biswas, the Hon'ble Minister for Backward Classes Welfare urged all tribals  to take inspiration both from their rich and proud origins and the fearless courage that their ancestors had displayed during the Hul.  It is not enough, he continued, to merely celebrate Hul Diwas each year -  they should go forward fearlessly  in society and learn to be independent - and not just depend on government jobs. "You can do it", he encouraged.  He shared with the audience that many tribals  have been given the  opportunity  to  sit for the IAS exams, for the first time in West Bengal. Moreover, he continued, it is now possible for tribals to cut through the red tape and apply directly for funding to the SC & ST Development & Finance Corporation.

Group from Birbhum  
It was also announced that there would be an Adivasi Bhawan set up in each district - as a sort of transit house for visiting  members of tribal communities. Click on the link below for an excerpt of Dr Biswas's speech (in Bengali).

Dr Pashupati Mahato who was invited to sing a Jhumur song for the occasion, spoke first on the origin of the word Santal : from Samantol (plains) people as against the Paharis or hill tribes (of the Rajmahal hills, a destination to which the Santals from Chhota Nagpur  were compelled to migrate by the British)  to Sonthol  to Santhal and finally Santal.                                              

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Annals from the past

When the idea behind Daricha first occurred to me a couple of years ago, I consulted the eminent historian, the late Dr Barun De, one of the first advisors of Daricha Foundation. His first piece of advice to our initiative was "Read the District Gazetteers, without fail!". 

British Indian Empire 1909
Thus began our process of discovery of the land we live in through the remarkable Gazetteers. Being somewhat restricted in funds, we chose to begin with the editions available on the extremely useful digital repository of the West Bengal Public Library Network. And what a journey it was! 

Most of the catalogues were compiled initially in the late 19th Century although many have since been reissued or edited in recent times. Barun De himself had been the  honorary state editor for the West Bengal District Gazetteers and had edited a few volumes before his passing.

The preparation of district, provincial and Imperial gazetteers was part of a tradition set up by the Raj. The Gazetteers are a systematic, comprehensive geographical, economic, social and cultural catalogue of the Indian subcontinent catalogued by the British Viceroy during their conquest of India. British civilians in India undertook the preparation of these enormously useful projects under their supervision. District Officers or Deputy Commissioners assisted in the collection of material and often wrote entire reports themselves.

The purpose of these gazetteers compiled by the British was to acquaint themselves with an alien land and its people. It was to be a kind of manual or handbook for the administration and went on to become a Bible for every British field officer. The British certainly took their work very seriously for the depth and scope of the research in these magnificent tomes is absolutely overwhelming. The gazetteer is a treasure house of data.

Fifty years after the Battle of Plassey,  the East India Company saw the need to learn about the land it had acquired in the subcontinent of Asia. In a Despatch of 1807 are these words: "We are of opinion that a Statistical Survey of the country would be attended with much utility; we therefore recommend proper steps to be taken for the execution of the same." This was the beginning of a series of gazetteers, which, valuable they may have been for officials of the East India Company and subsequently the Crown Colony of India, have also proven of immense value to scholars to this day. Some gazetteers were commercially published while others were governmental or quasi-governmental documents. Sir W W Hunter, Father of the Gazetteers of India, brought out the first Imperial Gazetteer in 1881 - which was published in nine volumes. 

William Wilson Hunter (1840-1900), who was educated at Glasgow University (BA 1860), Paris and Bonn, studied Sanskrit before passing first in the final examination for the Indian Civil Service in 1862. He reached Bengal Presidency in November 1862 and was appointed assistant magistrate and collector of Birbhum, where he began collecting local traditions and records, which formed the material for his publication, entitled The Annals of Rural Bengal, published in 1868, which influenced among others, the historical romance Durgeshnandini of Bankim Chandra Chatterjee.

In Appendix I of his book, Hunter listed out ten Santal festivals that he observed during his stay at "Beerbhoom". These were :

1. Johorai: after gathering in the December rice-harvest; lasts five days in each village, but is generally protracted to a month, by fixing different days for it in neighbouring villages. The ceremony is simple. An egg is placed on the ground; all the cows of the village are driven near to it, and the animal that first smells at the egg is honoured by having its horns rubbed with oil.

2. Sakrat: a few days after the Johorai; lasts two days. It consists of practising with  bows and arrows, performing the sword dance, and similar sports.

3. Jatra: about February; last two days. Eight men sit on chairs; are swung round the two posts placed outside of every Santal village. The same sort of revolving swing as is set up for the children in English fairs.

4. Baha (‘flower’): about March; lasts two days. Every house washes the Naikki’s (priest’s) feet, and he distributes flowers in return. Ceremonies take place in the grove of trees outside each village. Four chickens are offered to Marang Buru (the great god of the Santals); one coloured chicken to Jahir-era (the primeval-mother of the race); one black chicken to Gosain-era (a female divinity residing, like Jahir-era, in the Sal grove); and a goat or chicken to Manjhi Haram (the late head of the village).

5. Pota (hook-swinging): now stopped by Government, but still practised (1865) among the northern Santals in April or May. Lasted about one month. Young men used to swing with hooks through their back, as in the Charak Puja of the Hindus. The swingers used to fast the day preceding and the day following the operation, and sleep the intermediate night on thorns.

6. Ero-sim (sowing chicken): offered in each house at seed sowing time.

7. Hariar-sim (green chicken): offered by the Naikki (priest) when the dhanhas somewhat grown.

8. Chhata (‘umbrella’): about August; lasts five days. The Naikki (priest) offers a goat, and the people all dance round a bamboo umbrella erected on a high pole.

9. Iri-gundli (two kinds of grain): the Naikki (priest) offers these with milk in the Jahir-than (Sal grove), and calls upon the poor to come and eat.

10. Horo (rice): when the rice is ripening. The first-fruits of the rice are offered to the Pargana Bongal (district deities), along with a pig, which the men of the village afterwards eat in the Sal grove.

In all these festivals there is a great quantity of rice-beer drunk.

Santals in celebration
The actual  names may have changed - or are pronounced differently. For instance, we know that Johorai is actually Sohrai. And Sohrai is celebrated in October-November (month of Kartik) in regions like Purulia but in December-January (month of Poush) in Birbhum. But we'll be back!