THE KALEIDOSCOPE OF BENGALI NEW YEAR AROUND SANTINIKETAN
PEOPLE AROUND SANTINIKETAN-3
THE KALEIDOSCOPE OF BENGALI NEW YEAR AROUND SANTINIKETAN
This year little away from Rabindranath Tagore’s Santiniketan, I treaded into the nearby rural psyche of the Bengali new year. The dramatic change of the perspective within a few kilometers made me realize that strictly in technical terms Tagore’s Santiniketan was never a mainstream idea. It appears that Santiniketan is very much an exclusive place, with mostly off-stream ideas and its own definition of beauty. Well, this year most probably our beloved Indrajit Moitra will write on ‘Nava Barsha at Santiniketan’; and I would try to focus elsewhere.
Amazingly, it is a plethora of activities in rural Bengal nearby Santiniketan to celebrate the Bengali new year- it can be the Gajan festival of Shiva, may be a Manasa Puja, maybe Charak Puja by the tribals, or a Dharmaraj Puja or even a rather pompous offering to Goddess Kali at Kankalitola. At few places Lord Ganesha might appear as well in all his grandeur. Among all these activities, one thing remains common, that is the scorching sun. Sunbathing by all, when the sun is just poised to become the cruelest in this part of the world, seems to be quite a rejoicing experience for the village folks; consequently making life hard for amateur but energetic photographers like us.
I chanced upon a Manasa Puja in between Santiniketan & Kankalitala.
The frenzy at exactly midday was fairly intoxicating. Ma Manasa, the goddess in charge of the snake community, is a fairly revered figure among the village folks. How Manasa, then not in vogue as a goddess, ultimately managed to force an offering from Chand Saudagar under severe pressure from his seven widowed daughter-in-laws as his seven sons were snake-bitten to death and subsequently rejuvenated, is now a very popular folklore in the country side. This spectacularly manipulative feat by Ma Manasa establishes her as a Goddess, prompting a fair number of poets to create ballads in her name.
I was not too sure, whether the event was a matter of faith, or just a festivity. But, invariably as is the case for every other religious occasion, Manasa Puja also seemed like a combination of both- of faith and festivity, of offerings and celebrations. This particular aspect of religion- to combine faith with festivity always remains a very attractive feature to me, a non-religious person otherwise. Composition, variety and content wise, these religious festivals can always beat a rock concert hands down.
Having never before watched a Manasa Puja around Bengali new year time I was rather lost in an unknown territory. The ladies clan appeared emphatically ecstatic; some preferred to be in frenzy of some sort, huge amount of smoke and loud beats of Dhak made affairs fairly crazy for me.
Ma Manasa appeared to be a deity carved in wood. The barefooted carriers of this deity, including the head priest, would stop at small intervals and the ladies would wash their feet with water. Once to get a real close up snap, I took of my sandals off, only to realize in a jolt that the concrete road underneath was unbearably hot and aborted the idea almost as soon as it surfaced in my brain. I was obviously amazed to find so many guys and ladies walking barefooted to lead the procession to cover almost all households of the village starting at about 12:30 PM; and genuinely realized the utility of pouring some cold water at the foot down from time to time! Well it’s my analytical analysis of the feet wash, but the real reason should be a show of reverence to the priests! In any case the priests must have definitely enjoyed some sprinkles of cold water at their feet!
The Dhakis however could not enjoy the luxury of feet washing by cold water, and they had to beat their drum all along the procession. This faith or festivity, whatever way one interprets, makes the village people more respectful to the snake community. Usually, just like the snakes do, village folks also do not interfere with the life of snakes until challenged. It is more or less a peaceful co-existence; almost in all cases these country folks drive away the snake rather than killing it. That might be the essential message of Ma Manasa conveyed to the villagers. From a practical point of view, it is easily fathomable that long ago some saints realized the need to protect the snakes and consequently the fable of Ma Manasa was conjured. To me Manasa Puja essentially appeared to be a snake conservation attempt designed in a spectacular fashion. From this point of observation I must say that I was fairly impressed by the religious intelligence of yester years!
After the rather unexpected encounter with Manasa Puja, I really did not know what to expect next. But I was thoroughly excited in anticipation to watch rural Bengal during these transition days from one calendar year to another. I landed up at Santra near Basapara 25Kms off Bolpur for a Gajan Fair where selected devotees were due to drink the blood of ‘Bolir Panthas’ (sacrificial lambs or sheep) and go for a wild dance, only to be warned in no uncertain terms that photography was strictly prohibited. In the scorching heat with the blazing sun directly at my face I ran my motorbike in a frenzy to catch some activity elsewhere- a most bizarre new year blitz for me for a long time! Being totally sun burnt, another coating of obnoxious black on my inherited black skin, my wife refused to let me in back home- well almost!
In all these crazy interactions I again felt very acutely aware of the dramatic change of scenario from within the serene oasis of Santiniketan to outside. Few years back on this Bengali New Year day at Santiniketan I managed to snap Shyamali Khastagir and Prof Makino at the program venue at Ghantatala; both of them have left us since then. Shyamalidi was perhaps the last crusader in Santiniketan fighting for the rejuvenation of the spirit of Santiniketan as desired by Rabindranath. Today, travelling within a few kilometers of Santiniketan, I am compelled to acknowledge that Rabindranath Tagore was never an accepted intellectual force just outside the periphery of Visva Bharati; in spite of his ideas finding a resonance in the broader sense among continents.
Visva Bharati remains an oasis of some sort among the tremendous amount of chaotic splendour manifested around the New Year celebration time in Bengal. The serene atmosphere in Santiniketan, perhaps a little monochromatic in comparison to the riot of colours of expressions elsewhere, makes this place exclusive and off stream. We, the ex-students, can easily be proud about the exclusiveness of Santiniketan; but at the same time we must also accept the fact that we are a huge minority in the shape of affairs and that Santiniketan is a vulnerable place with its unique nature placed in the hotbed of perpetual challenge to its identity.
In this backdrop and with a distinct Santiniketan background, I was off to Kankalitola to have a glimpse of activities centering on Goddess Kali. The religious epic of Hinduism remains the most unfathomable text for me; even tiny parts of that epic is so varied in texture and colour that it can easily overwhelm any mortal. I was no exception either.
The ‘Dandi Kata’ exercise, often followed by Hindus to act on a promise made to almighty, with the hapless Pantha not too sure about whether to enjoy the scene or not, gave ample opportunities to click the picture perfect by the camera. But the problem with me was that with so many characters in all sorts of moods, I was just not being able to concentrate on anything particular. Along with me the camera also went dazed eyed!
Panthas (sheep) do get confused, perhaps by the sixth sense, before they are about to be slaughtered. I have never seen any Pantha not interested in devouring the marigold flower; but even after being garlanded this particular Pantha along with its friends had simply lost the appetite in anticipation of the impending end of their world!
The threads of reasoning is bound to get haywire among the plethora of activities- incredibly each small act of worship has its own elaborate background story. People thronged at Kankalitola braving the heat, sun & sweat and I was perfectly perplexed at the whole gamut of things. That is one attribute of Hinduism, with which I am at perpetual awe, that Hinduism has the perfect ability to completely perplex the human mind. I had a great exposure to this aspect when I visited the Maha Kumbha Mela at Prayag in March 2013 (link- ). Each time one confronts such a religious gathering, one is invariably overwhelmed by realizing that how little one really knows about Hinduism. I reckon it is more or less same for all other religions as well; all being gigantic stories weaved by millenniums of fascinating human imagination!
Off to the Charak festival at Ballavpur Danga, at around 2 PM on 1 Baisakh was literally a heady concoction with a friendly offer of Handiya! I was never too fond of that brand of hard liquor prepared in almost every Santhal household, but felt like getting along with the general mood. The combination of sun and the liquor (though in reasonable quantity!) was rather funny, with everything around appearing just poised to swirl!
By this time fazed by so much activity within two days to be precise; I lost all my sense of reasoning and was just watching the events to unfold around me in a bizarre collage. Being cozily secluded in the atmosphere of Santiniketan in previous years, placated by ‘Pronams’ and ‘Nomoskars’, the life around Santiniketan was simply forgotten by me. Instead I find the activities outside Santiniketan during these days are rather hectic, highly varied in nature, and fairly contagious to infect the spectator with intriguing bewilderment! The gamut of life, in its massive perspective, is much more acutely ingrained in the psyche of people than the spiritually aesthetic statements from Rabindranath Tagore read out in polished pronunciation in Santiniketan on this auspicious day!
I really fail to logically comprehend these circular hangovers of the Charak Puja; may be the child in us (the elders) needed some kind of public entertainment and some of them decided to merry-go-round in mid air to fulfill some childhood desires! Fantasy of thoughts always remained available in fair supply; mixed with some religious tint the fantasy takes a shape, stories are weaved, folk lore is passed on to generations. In a way we should all be grateful to religion; as it is only religion which could weave human fantasy into a fascinating collage of text and events. Personally, religion to me appears like the most cleverly crafted fantasy stories- remember as a child how fond we were of fantasy stories? Naturally these stories attract me a lot; but I often feel overwhelmed by the vast text of the story, making it almost impossible to go through the full content! Naturally many people these days prefer pocket book editions of religion!
Moving off from the Charak Puja ground and landing up at the Draram Puja venue near Goalpara was another absorbing experience.
The innocuous looking Bokul tree, at the Dharam Puja venue, in reality is not too simple a tree! Folklore says that a cow belonging to the Jamindars of Taltore regularly used to shed milk on its own at this very spot at the dead of the night. This trend infuriated the cowherd keeper of the Jamindar, and as punishment he injured the cow so that it could not walk anymore. As a drastic after effect the cowherd keeper died. The villagers of Goalpara, ever respectful to this Dharmaraj Than complained to the Jamindar (injuring a cow was a sinful activity according to Hindu practices) and as a compromise between the villagers and the Jamindar to avert the wrath of Dharma Thakur the dead body of the cowherd keeper was buried at the same spot from which this Bokul tree sprouted. No branch of this tree is allowed to be chopped off, except in offering to Dharamraj Thakur.
The story of a cow religiously shedding milk all on its own at a particular spot is almost a regular feature associated with numerous Shiva Lingas that can be found. For the first time I heard such a story related to Dharnmaraj Thakur, or incarnation Lord Yama(Lord of the Dead), or King Yudisthira- whichever way one likes to interpret. But be careful, to the diehard believer, it is never a story; it is always a fact pre-established.
I couldnot un-fathom the significance of the horses; as the head priest, the enigmatic commentator to me so far, soon became too busy with devotees coming in hoards. Within quarter of an hour the area became agog with activities.
The hapless Panthas fared no better though. Even to appease Lord Yama or Dharmaraj, these creatures were slaughtered en masse watched by a large section of people. I kept on wondering what made Dharmaraj so fond of Pathas!
Actually all religious festivities in every country and in every shape are usually followed up with sumptuous feast. It perhaps makes a nice sense that the food is first offered to the God, before being gleefully consumed by the mortals. So, on many religious occasions sheep, lambs, cows, pigs, camels will be offered to the Gods only to be meticulously cooked by the human folks later. I would like not like to feel ashamed to acknowledge that though essentially being a non-religious person; I terribly admire all religions for their festivals being supplemented by sumptuous food. For example it is a great joy for me to visit rural Bengal at the Durga Puja times; one prime reason being that every rural household in Bengal then offers delicious homemade sweets to guests- which I enjoy immensely! Religion is surely mouth-watering to say the least!
On way back to Santiniketan, the faint smell of soft looking Kurchi made me ponder about Santiniketan and Rabindranath again. Guided by the ascetic principles of Bramhaism, trying to shun all frills, Rabindranath Tagore tried whole heartedly to develop a new kind of aesthetic outlook to enjoy and explore life- a kind of journey into the realms of silent realizations. At least compared to the huge buzz just outside Santiniketan on a general festive day like the Bengali New Year; Santiniketan would actually appear to be celebrating in silence contemplation. General tendency to cling to myth, pomp and colourful festivity defying all logical objectivity cornered Bramhaism almost to obscurity by now. Santiniketan almost looks like a grudging kid in his own backyard; this is by the way the exact status of Rabindranath Tagore in the socio-cultural space around Santiniketan right now!
At the same time for us the ex-students we might be aware that Santiniketan after all is an exclusive place. All the festivals held here, like Briksharopan, Halakarshan, Naba Barsho, Basanta Utsava and many such others, are each unique in its own way- never replicated anywhere else with the same dignity, naturalness and aesthetic quality. All the festivals here never hurt or challenge any human values; in fact tries to nurture the innately sublime expressions of human self irrespective of class, creed or religious inclinations. It is for us to decide whether to be proud of Santiniketan and whether to accept the fact that in one way or other we are supposed to be unique in our thoughts and expressions being associated with Santiniketan at some point of time in our life.
The contrast however is a huge fact and is too glaring not to notice.