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!

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Disom Sendra

Midnight. It is Buddha Purnima now. Every year, on this night, thousands of tribals from Jharkhand, Odisha and West Bengal gather at the Ayodhya Hills on the full moon night, to celebrate Disom Sendra, a hundred year old tribal festival. Also known as Shikar Utsav or Parab, this is the annual ritual hunting festival of the Santals, in which men from all the households participate. It is believed that young boys attain adulthood during this festival.

Mohua, the local brew is consumed and after singing and dancing around a fire, the tribals set out, torch in hand, for the hunt. They hunt through the night and then enjoy a community meal the following day prepared from the game that was killed. Community elders act as umpires in case of disputes between various groups. There is also a fair that takes place on this occasion.

The Forest Department has been trying to raise awareness against poaching, but it seems that little can be done. 

Daricha Foundation hopes to bring you some images from this year's celebrations - but till then, here are some images : http://www.citizenside.com/en/photos/culture/2013-05-24/79368/disum-sendra-hunting-festival-by-the-santhali.html#f=0/722071

The photos arrived  - but are not fit for the feeble minded. So I am just posting one :

Sunday, May 11, 2014


Two months ago, we were very excited when we received a request for an interview from a well known daily. The interview happened and we  talked at length about Daricha Foundation's birth and its journey. This morning, it appeared in the papers : http://epaper.telegraphindia.com/details/79369-183455203.html

Thrilled as we were about Daricha Foundation's first mention in the papers, we noticed  a couple of misinterpretations  in the article. So for the record, we thought we would use our blog to set matters right:

" ...These days we also come across a lot of fake artistes.  Many claim they are puppeteers, nachni performers or beniputul makers in the hope of getting some monetary aid from authorities"

While we did speak of people posing as traditional artists, these particular communities were never mentioned - the simple reason being puppeteers (Beni putul artists are also puppeteers) and nachni dancers need years of training before they can ply their art.

I guess there must have been a mixup with other strands of our conversation because we also spoke  of  folk forms that are sometimes misrepresented in the cities.  For instance,  Jhumur  is often accompanied by "Santal dance" - but Santals do not sing Jhumur. And  this has nothing to do with Nachnis, who do dance to Jhumur. As for  Beni Putul artists, I spoke of how there were only a few families left  - so this "quote" about fake puppeteers and Nachnis was unfortunate and misplaced.

"Bose's initial efforts for government funding proved futile. "I wrote to the Ministry of Culture and got a reply that they'd get back to me soon. But I still haven't heard from them after two years. "  

The facts are :   I wrote to the MoC in 2011 - not for funding - but to share with them my concept.  I was looking for feedback on the genesis of an idea and I thought at that time, the MoC would be the best people to ratify it. I also told her about some of our previous unsuccessful attempts for funding from MoC. But the printed statement above  that I had been kept waiting for a response on a funding request for 2 years is incorrect. And particularly embarrassing when I have just received funding from them - in a very swift response to our proposal. In fact we had also told  the interviewer that we had recently applied for this.

Regardless, our efforts continue. We remain committed to our goals, and to our commitment to creating awareness about our folk artists and the rich traditions they represent.