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A boat museum explains the importance of boats in the fabric of West Bengal

An exhibit at the Boat Museum, West Bengal
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Boats, however, cannot be clubbed under one label, as you discover in the unique Boat Museum in Kolkata.

Ami nodir kul pai na re

(I cannot find the shores of the river, O dear me...)

O majhi, tor naam jani na...

(O boatman, I don’t know your name...)

These are familiar folk songs around the river, commonly known as Bhatiali songs (song of the boatmen) in West Bengal and Bangladesh. There are many more, passed through generations and sung by folk singers on both sides of the Ganga. Sachin Dev Burman, harking back on his roots in Tripura, used tunes and content of river songs in many of his lyrical compositions.

In Bandini, towards the end of the film when Nutan waits on the bank of the river, the song in Burman’s own voice is hauntingly beautiful in the background, ‘O re majhi, o re majhi/ mera saajan us paar / le cholo us paar (O boatman, my love is on the other side of the river; please take me there).

All these instances amply prove how rivers and waterways have been an integral component in the socio-economic life of people of eastern India. In the same way, boats have been an integral part too, not only for the boatman, but for people as a whole.

Boats, however, cannot be clubbed under one label, as you discover in the unique Boat Museum in Kolkata, perhaps the only one such in India till now, showcasing the ‘heritage boats of Bengal’. Housed in the premises of the Institute of Cultural Research in the Kakurgachi area of the city, the 46 models on display establish how each boat has a character of its own, with a specific design and purpose.

For example, the flat-bottomed Kosha boat, with its pointed front, is suited for the rapid rivers of North Bengal, whereas the Dinghi is more in use in waters of the Hooghly near Kolkata, which flows at a much slower pace. Then there is the wide, flat-bottomed Khorokisti, which was meant for transporting hay (khor) in bulk. In contrast, the wood-carrying boat, such as the Dholai, has a much deeper, v-shaped hull. The Masula boat is used for fishing and can still be found in coasts of Odisha, Tamil Nadu etc.

“All this shows that the boat builders, though not educated with engineering degrees, are sharp observers and problem-solvers. They are well conversant with the local topography, community’s need, ecology, and the nature of the river. After all, all the rivers are not the same,” says Swarup Bhattacharya, anthropologist and researcher whose interest in boats has taken him to the nook and corners of eastern India, and who has helped to make the authentic models for the Boat Museum. He points out that in common parlance in Bengal, the boat has always been compared to the mocha, the banana flower, for the similar shape, but also as something relatable to everyday life.

Mocha is a popular vegetable used in various curries in Bengal. “For the riverine countryside, a boat is invaluable — to fish, cross rivers, carry merchandise. The loss of a boat means poverty for the family, hence its importance in their daily life.”

This is perhaps why in (undivided) Bengal, the boat is not regarded as an inanimate object, but a living entity, Bhattacharya observes. The almanac is consulted for an auspicious day before the building of a boat; even the handing it over to the owner after completion has its own ritual. He elaborates how for the boat-builder the boat is like a daughter; he nurtures it with love of a father. “Have you noticed how the boat names are always female, as also most rivers, except a few?”

The craft of boat-making passes through the guru-shishya parampara, like classical Indian music, and there is no particular caste assigned for the job. It’s a hands-on education learned from the master craftsman.

Craftsmen from Dinajpur district have shaped these models under supervision. In the museum, you can also find some models fashioned from sketches of the colonial times no more to be seen. Like the Pinnace copied from an 18th-century sketch; Feal-chara, which must have been a pleasure boat for cruising on the river.

“Boats are connected with human evolution and migration which started much before the wheels took over. As long as there are rivers, there will be boats,” Bhattacharya reiterates.

The main inspiration behind the Boat Museum is Upen Biswas, chairman, SCST OBC Development & Finance Corporation. Asked why this interest, Biswas says, “Bengal, which was referred to as Bangadesh in numerous historical accounts at different ages, was known for its rivers, boats, and dominance on the sea routes. The legendary Tamralipta was a major port in ancient times ruling over the Bay of Bengal, incidentally the biggest bay in the world. This is our heritage, our culture, our trading tradition, and we should not forget it, and try to preserve it.”

There were even boat-races once in Bengal, as in Kerala, he says, with big boats that are now only folk-tale material. Biswas referred to Rabindranath Tagore’s love of the river and the famous bajra or houseboat he called ‘Padma boat’ on the Padma River where he often stayed while visiting the zamindari at Silaidaha (now in Bangladesh), and penned many of his signature poems and books.

The Dhaka National Museum incidentally has 176 boat models on display establishing how diverse this mode of transport was at one time.

True, mechanised boats have taken over the once-vibrant boat-building culture, and perhaps the notes of a Bhatiali song has been lost in the waves of the rivers, but in a place like the Boat Museum in Kolkata at least one can get the feel of those days gone by.

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