Images and text copyright Chris Wormald and may only be used with written permission
Shantiniketan again – A town Transformed
22nd December 08
The shared taxi from Mayapur dropped myself and my fellow sharer at the door of the hotel I had chosen, after learning that the Shantiniketan Hotel and the Shantiniketan Tourist Lodge were booked solid for the whole duration of the Poush Mela.
It was a very different town from the one I had left a few weeks before when I set out to visit Mayapur and the Golden Avatar. It was teeming! People were everywhere, and cars-taxis-buses-lorries made crossing the road a hazardous process. Official cars, flying little flags were parked here and there on the main street containing, perhaps, bureaucrats on a freebie?
The hotel prices had shot up and I was lucky to have a room at all, albeit (for me) at an exorbitant price and in a noisier area than my favourite Shantiniketan Hotel, where I was beginning to feel at home.
I walked to the Mela site and did a double-take, for the traders had arrived en-mass. Bags of bags, oodles of everything from refrigerators to pots and pans, feathered arrows to musical instruments, books and CDs and enough clothes, it seemed, for every Indian to have a nice new outfit.
I determined to buy things during the next few days, from some of the stalls selling hand made items from specific Indian states, and make a parcel to send back to friends in the UK. A decision I would later regret.
I found the main tented stage where the music would be and a Hindi and Bengali program that I could not understand. However during the next few days, I met people who translated my program into English and made
recommendations for not-to-be-missed performances. Dhol dancing and Baul music were at the top of my list.
I regret the over-commercialisation of every festival and fair; from Helston Flora Day to Glastonbury, Golowan to Sidmouth, everything seems to be reduced to sales opportunities; the Poush Mela is no exception. Indeed commercialism seemed to dominate. The market and catering establishments were spread over an enormous area whilst the performance venue was cramped in a corner of the ground. It was as if the organisers had forgotten why they had put on the festival.
The performances, when they eventually started, reminded me why I had made the journey back to Shantiniketan, and not, as I had once planned, gone south from Mayapur to Orissa and the next stage of my trip.
Bengali Baul music is an ancient tradition. The Bauls are a community set apart from the mainstream. Their dress and music make them instantly recognisable, their songs are about their longing for a utopian world of love and community. In these days of rampant market forces, and a mass media that reduces everything to the lowest common denominator and people into mere units of consumption, the Bauls hanker for a better tomorrow and yearn for a golden past. I really connect with that yearning – Jai Kali Ma! – from my heart.
Rabindranath Tagore loved the Bauls and their music too and it felt right to be listening to music that he would have enjoyed, so near to where he taught and inspired generations to strive for real education and creativity; a place where his ethos still shines and his image appears on many reliefs (3D artworks in clay) on and in buildings.
I had heard and seen Dhol drumming at festivals in the UK, but I had not seen the Dhol dance-form before. An eye-opener indeed – amazing costumes and masks and the sort of athleticism in the dance that was breathtaking. The dhol drums of different sizes, produce a rich variety of sounds, from a wonderful bass that vibrates to your very core, to expressive higher sounds that seem to speak an elemental language of their own. The two mediums together are, once seen, never forgotten.
Several female dance troupes provided feasts for the eyes and ears – beautiful faces, costumes and sensuous movement.
I played the stallholders’ game and carefully bought items to send back as gifts, including three very beautiful shawls. Back at the hotel, I made two parcels, including some of my clothes that I had over-packed, wasn’t wearing, and was being weighed down by. I went to the post office to get the parcel sewn up in hessian and sealed with wax, as I had done on other visits to India. The staff at the office were sullen and obdurate, refusing to take the parcel, no matter how well it was wrapped. I chased around the town spending ever more time and money on wrapping still to no avail, the robot behind the counter would not budge. So I unwrapped the contents and gave away the items to some Dalit children and their mothers who were scavenging through a rubbish pile; I kept two of the shawls, one for me and one for a friend in Cornwall. I gave the third shawl to an old lady who happened to be passing the post office. Perhaps it was the most beautiful thing that she had ever owned, for as soon as she held it, she burst into tears in delight. Later in my trip I would send a parcel from a post office where the staff were extremely helpful and obliging – Pondicherry in Tamil Nadu!
On Christmas Day in Shantiniketen, there is a tradition of an evening service, held in Tagore’s beautiful prayer hall on the university campus. Carols and music played by students and staff of the college and readings from many religious traditions. I joined the queues and eventually got near enough to see into the candle-lit stained glass and wrought iron prayer hall, where an Indian TV crew were recording the event. It was a moving and beautiful service, with references to the recent Mumbai terror attack in a world gone mad. Many people were in tears at times during the program, including me.
The next day, I went to the station and booked my ticket for the long train journey to Puri and Bhubaneswar in Orissa.