It is well-known that Rabindranath Tagore harboured a special affection for the Santhals in the villages around Santiniketan. He saw in their life a special beauty. They combine the tilling of the earth as farmers with poetry, songs and dance. Through this blending of the practical work for food and livelihood with the fulfillment of one's artistic needs, life receives a fullness which it otherwise would lack. The farmer's life, by itself, is monotonous. But when it is mirrored, symbolised, and interpreted through poetry and dance, farming becomes a primeval activity of archetypal importance. Do we not see here in action Rabindranath's concept of raising everyday life on to a higher, more meaningful level through the expressions of beauty? Hence, I believe, his special love of Santhals. He also felt a deep compassion for them on account of their poverty and the repression they suffer. Years ago, I translated Rabindranath's poem Saoñtal Meye in which he describes the hard labour young Santhal girls have to perform working on construction sites and in brick kilns, sacrificing the flower of their youth and beauty for a paltry daily wage.
When I arrived in Santiniketan in 1980 and began to visit Santhal villages around, entering them was like stepping into an entirely different world. The name of Rabindranath Tagore was known only to a very few. Nobody from the villages went to attend festivals in Santiniketan. The Santhal farmers walked to Bolpur to buy from the bazaar, and, perhaps, to visit the cinema. Otherwise, Santhals kept to their villages. Teachers from neighbouring Hindu villages told me then that not so long ago Santhal men only wore a panchi, an embroidered waist cloth reaching to their knees. When they saw an outsider from neighbouring villages, they timidly fled the road and their courtyards to retreat into their huts. An inestimable change has taken place. True, the levels of the living standard in Santiniketan and the Santhal villages are still sadly disparate. True, the Santiniketan community still very much lives in splendid isolation from its rural surroundings. But, the level of education in the villages all around has noticeably improved. The institutions of Visva-Bharati have indeed contributed considerably to this. Santiniketan has become probably the largest centre for educated Santhals in West-Bengal. An estimated fifty Santhals with university education live in and around Santiniketan. Many have become teachers, several even of Visva-Bharati, others are social workers. Most of them are ex-students of Visva-Bharati or Bolpur College. The majority hail from villages in the vicinity of Santinketan, but Santhals from Jharkhand, Bihar and Orissa have also been attracted to Visva-Bharati. One advantage for Santhal students from far-flung villages is that Visva-Bharati offers a continuous education from primary level up to graduation and beyond.. They can stay in hostels without the insecurities of having to change their place of study. In the beginning of this development, say, fifteen years ago, the first Santhals students who sought admission, had to fight to enter via the quota system for tribal students. Among them were Boro Baski and Gokul Hansda who both became students of the Social Work Department in Sriniketan. They with others started an informal forum for Santhal students meant to facilitate the entry of new Santhal students and provide some orientation to new entries. I imagine it is not easy for these students to live outside their villages which have a strong community-based life. So this forum can provide them with a semblance of community living and render practical help as well. Four years ago, the Santhals of Santiniketan became more tightly organised. A group, called "Kulhidhuri", was established. It tries to preserve and revive traditional Santhal culture. It is typical that members of a group who are already alienated, or are threatened to become alienated, from their culture, are anxious to preserve it. "Kulhidhuri" collects and sings traditional Santhal songs at Santhal festivals throughout West Bengal, Jharkhand and Bihar. It wishes to re-establish these songs as part of the informal education of village boys and girls. By doing so, they oppose the unfortunate trend perceivable in most Santhal villages, viz. to replace Santhal songs by Hindi film music and pop songs. They try to weaken the influence of video shows rampant in Santhal villages which threaten to tear apart the very fabric of these village communities. However, "Kulhidhuri", inspired and led most of the time by Gokul Hansda, is not averse to modernising Santhal songs by including contemporary themes and more rhythmic melodies. Here the young, gifted singer Rathin Kisku has already made a name for himself. Members of the same group also play theatre and have won state-level prizes with their productions which highlight the evils threatening society such as drinking and sorcery. It is important that students who leave their villages to seek a modern education, do not cut their village roots but find avenues to serve their community. Not so long ago, Santhals who received a modern Bengali education felt an aversion to their own culture which to them seemed to lack sophistication. I have met educated boys who in fact denied that they were Santhals although their accent gave them away. Today, nobody would think of doing that. A certain self-assurance and even cultural pride have gained ground. While Santhals have moved into Santiniketan, Santiniketan, in spite of Rabindranath's affection for Santhals, has not yet dared to move into Santhal culture. About 12 years ago, when I was the "priest" at the Christmas Service in the Santiniketan temple, I saw to it that several Christian Santhal hymns were sung by my Christian and non-Christian Santhal friends during the service. It was the first time this happened ~ and I think the last time. In those years, boys and girls of Ghosaldanga and Bishnubati informally performed their Santhal dances during the Basanta Utsab. This too was something unheard of. By now, it has caught on, and several Santhal groups fuse with the many visitors to celebrate the arrival of spring.
Songs & dances
But why, I ask, have Santhal songs and dances not yet become part of the official programme performed on stage? When will the university begin to become aware of the many wonderful Santhal festivals celebrated in the villages and provide a space for them within its ashram confines? Much can and should be accomplished by the Santhal Department of Visva-Bharati which, permit me to say, was in a dormant state for long and is about to become nascent. Some is already being done by Barka Soren, retired teacher of Santhali, and his wife Manjushree through their Binapani Ashram near Sriniketan where they educate Santhal and non-Santhal children. What must be avoided at all cost is the commercialisation of Santhal culture. Santhal dance may look exotic to city folks. For many a visit to Santiniketan is incomplete without seeing a Santhal dance performance. As a result, certain hotels have linked up with clever Santhal men of nearby villages who bring a group of village women for a performance on the hotel lawn. In such an environment, these dances can neither be understood nor appreciated because they lack their particular atmosphere and dignity. This is mostly sheer financial and cultural exploitation and therefore offends the pure traditions of Santiniketan. (Concluded) Martin Kämpchen
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