Forlorn palaces cling defiantly to their once-glorious pasts, and the half-ruined mosques and mildew-covered tombstones of East India Company employees are a part of this poet’s identity. She covers herself generously with paddy fields and mango orchards. Red-oxide floors and sleepy green-shuttered windows are a part of her unique DNA, as distinct to her landscape as a fingerprint.
Bengal, the cultural capital of India, spews poetry like smoke, in vicious columns of abstracts, of unspilled blood, untold hurts, unsung love, and unrestrained joy. She feels like a spent sun spilling its tangerine in your eyes. You sit in a bamboo chair, folding yourself inside the white carapace of your shawl. The cotton is starched stiff, except for where you hold it in your hands, where the sweat persuades it into a softness.
The Wandering Mystic Minstrels
[Baul singers, by Kuntal Paul, Folk art of Bengal]
In 2020, before the Pandemic hit us, I made a short visit to Bishnupur. There, at a crossroad, I had the privilege of meeting Baul Khitish Chandra Das. A Baul is a religious singer of Bengal, known for their unconventional behaviour, and the freedom and spontaneity of their mystical verse. They are primarily identified by their music — loud vocals accompanied by an ektara (a single-stringed instrument made from gourd and split bamboo) and a khomok (hand-drum). They are musicians wandering through villages, singing in trains and tea shops, living on alms.
Baul poetry, music, and dance are devoted to finding humankind’s relationship to God, and to achieving spiritual liberation. Their mystical songs can be traced back to the Fifteenth Century, when they first appeared in Bengali literature. Their exceptional music is listed under UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.
Mixing elements of Sufism, Tantra, Vaishnavism, and Buddhism, they revere the Gods and visit temples, mosques and wayside shrines, but only as a road to enlightenment, never as an end in itself. They are made of tents and awnings, incense, fires, and flowers. When I asked the orange-clad man how he would describe himself, Das said, “For me, someone who searches for inner knowledge, finds the existence of God not anywhere outside, but right within the human body, is a Baul.”
The Extravaganza of Masked Rebels
[Chhau Naach of Purulia, by Samar Prasad]
There’s a proverb in our Santali language that goes: ‘When we talk, we sing; when we walk, we dance.’ It suggests how dancing and singing are intrinsic to the Santal community, which makes up most of West Bengal’s Purulia district. It was ravaged by Maoist insurgency, but even in the worst of times, Purulia had clung steadfastly to its lively tradition of Chhau dance, which, with its vigorous leaps, jumps and somersaults, is an expression of the bir (bravery) rasa.
The word ‘Chhau’ comes from chhauni (camp), and the art form was arguably invented to keep foot soldiers war-ready. The martial movements and mock fights subsequently took the shape of dance. Men and women decked in dazzling costumes and larger-than-life masks dance to the intoxicating rhythm of dhol, dhamsa, madol, shehnai, and flute at night-long performances. With stories taken from the Ramayana, Mahabharata and the Puranas, the dance dramas celebrate the triumph of good over evil. In these times of Pandemic, Chhau has even been used to spread awareness about COVID-19.
The Late Night Play
[Jatrapala, by StreetScape]
Assumed to have originated in the 16th century, the Jatra (roughly translated as yatra, meaning journey) is well known for its distinct musical component and characterized as a musical folk drama. Themes from ancient epics that enthralled the village folk, soon gave way to secular themes in time. From the fervor of the Bhakti-cult, Jatra made inroads into the cultural milieu of urban Bengal. It subverted orthodoxy, and, in turn, the power relationships that feed on it. Jatra’s freedom was in its mobility, the liberty to move unhindered across diverse spaces — neighbourhoods in the city, obscure towns and forgotten villages.
The Theatre of Bengal played a vital role during the Indian Independence struggle and helped arouse the spirit of nationalism in Indians and inspired them to join the struggle against the British rule.
[Terracotta Art on Buildings of Bishnupur, by Aishwarya Roy]
Electric bulbs and rainbows coexist in her, and emit more than just light. She speaks of her rulers’ pasts and emerges as a testament to the struggle, sacrifice, pain, and belonging at an unparalleled moment in history.
She smells of twilight rain mingled with the incense fragrance of evening prayers, triggering a burst of longing and love. My Bengal reeks of Angrez and Nawabs and Rajas. Of maatir bhaar (earthen tea-cups), raging politics, intelligentsia, and Ray’s films. Built with age-old heritage and blood of revolution, she writes you into history, every other day.