Land, home, people, livelihoods: Stories from West Bengal — I

Land, home, people, livelihoods: Stories from West Bengal — I
Mohan Hembram and Kanchan Soren in their stall at Poush Mela in December 2017 in West Bengal’s Shantiniketan. (Morung Photo)


Morung Express Feature
Birbhum (WB) | January 20


At the annual Poush Mela (Winter Festival) in West Bengal, Mohan Hembram and Kanchan Soren—both 27, they say—are sitting behind an unusual stall. Apart from the regular trinkets they are selling in the soft sun of the December winter, they have posters, tee shirts and magazines.


“Sido and Kanhu,” says Mohan, when asked about the two young men who feature on posters in their stall. The poster’s only English lettering in red, at the bottom corner, reads ‘HOOL, The result of unity.’ The rest of the letters are incomprehensible. “Ol-Chiki,” Mohan explains again—the Santhali script.


The Santhal Hool, or the Santhal Revolution, was an uprising of the Santhali people against their commercial and social exploitation. Led by brothers Sido and Kanhu, several thousand Santhali people joined hands in revolt in 1855, only to be crushed by the British by 1856.


Today, the Santhal people live across Jharkhand, West Bengal, Bihar, Odisha, Assam, Nepal and Bangladesh. While many have been able to overcome exploitation, many continue to struggle.


The Morung Express attended the Poush Mela in 2017 (held in December every year) to see how it benefits the marginalized people of West Bengal.


Beads and tees
The Poush Mela was started by Debendranath Tagore, Rabindranath Tagore’s father, in the 19th century as a small cultural show. Today, the festival has touched international proportions, spread across a huge ground of the Visva-Bharati University located in Shantiniketan (Birbhum district), about 80 km north of Kolkata in West Bengal.


Ranbindranath Tagore took the festival forward by bringing attention to Santhali tradition and culture through the Poush Mela. The fair sees day-night performances from the Bauls of Bengal, folk music, poetry recitals, traditional dance, theatre and indigenous sports. As thousands pour in and out of the Mela grounds on any given day of the six-day festival, it becomes a rich platform (and a mega exhibition) for the showcase of, and commercial profit from, traditional works of art and craft.

At Poush Mela 2017. (Morung Photo)

“The Poush Mela has taken Bengal to the world and brought the world to Bengal,” notes Anuradha Ghosh who runs an organization called ‘Bolpur Ukilpatty Suchetana Society’ or simply ‘Suchetana’ in Bolpur, where Shantiniketan is located. Ghosh has set up a stall at Poush Mela to raise awareness on education of child labour, seeking to ultimately eradicate the same. She runs a child labour school but also supports indigenous activities in her village, Faridpur. First, she directs us to the stall of indigenous vendors, Mohan and Kanchan.


“We make excellent profits by setting up a stall at the Mela,” says Kanchan Soren. Made by women of their community, the products on offer are colourful and various. Jute doll key chains, Batik print and Kantha stitch bags, beaded wrist bands, dangling hair forks, painted bamboo glasses, necklaces, ear rings etc.—products they make and sell most year round. Behind all of these, Sido and Kanhu stand tall on their posters, produced by the Andal Santhal Jumid Gaonta, an indigenous civil society organization to protect land rights of the Santhali people.


Mohan Hembram, flooded by a flurry of guests seeking to buy the beads as well as some Santhali tee shirts, helps translate the poster quickly from Ol-Chiki to Bengali. “For our land, our homes, our people, our livelihoods—we will protect them, we will revolt.”


Wage work
Through an arterial passage of the stall-chequered Mela ground, Santhali men and women dance on drum beats towards the sports field. “Tribal sports are a main feature of the festival,” shouts Mohan over the festival music, “Make sure you attend!”

Indigenous women’s game. (Morung Photo)

True to the excitement in Mohan’s voice, the sports are a treat. At one end of the sports field, blind-folded women play with bamboo sticks attempting to crush a clay pot kept at a distance; on another, men’s wrestling match is on—sitting on opposite ends of an elevated bamboo pole, each player has to hit on the other’s shoulder with a thick cotton mace till the opponent falls off the pole. Held by a barricade, the field is inch-to-inch surrounded by people cheering for the participants.

Indigenous men’s game. (Morung Photo)

On a different corner of the Mela, far from the madding crowd but closer to a jute exhibition stall, sits Sukal Murmu (28). He is at one of the bigger stalls set up by a premier research institute of West Bengal. Does he know of Sido-Kanhu?


“The rebellion against the British? Yes, of course,” exclaims Sukal, who is familiar with the Santhal Hool poster but not with the Ol-Chiki script. “I can speak it but can’t read as it is still not taught in schools,” says Sukal who has been a supervisor with the research institute for 3 years now on an ad-hoc basis. He earns Rs. 1000 for his services.


“At least the responsibility is good,” he shrugs. He is the only one from his family to have studied till class 10. The other siblings were married off given the family’s dire straits. When he is not working for the institute, he works at a local brick kiln, or as a tractor operator, much like many Santhali men. Before, he used to work as agriculture labour earning Rs. 180 per day. “We have to work with whatever we get. There is no option,” says Sukal, aware of the absurdity of the low wages.

Sukal Murmu. (Morung Photo)

Sukal is cut short as his boss appears at the stall, pushing him to work. “We cannot explain the wage pattern in such a short while,” he yells before explaining how the research institute has been working in ‘tribal areas’ of Birbhum district to uplift them, setting up schools and other projects for village development, health and hygiene, financial development etc. “14 programs in 14 villages,” the boss lists.


There are several organizations like the research institute that have begun to work with the district’s Santhali population which remains impoverished despite the growth of West Bengal in general. Of them, Anuradha Ghosh’s organization, Suchetana, has taken a different route—it has decided to focus on indigenous women, empowering them step-by-step to become economically independent decision makers.


…to be continued…