To the haat

Every Saturday, in a forest near Tagore’s precious Santiniketan, a flea market comes alive, offering the best of the Bauls, writes Ashis Dutta

Adivasi women dancing in Khoai Haat

Jayanta couldn’t be more than 17, I’d guess. He didn’t look up from where he squatted and remained busy assembling and stringing the ektaras, the musical instruments of the Bauls, one by one. The afternoon sun would occasionally slip through the swaying leaves of acacia and flicker on his eyes. Acacia are the only trees, tough and resilient, that grow in these forests of red laterite soil, exposed and eroded, creating a broken landscape. But everything around Tagore’s Santiniketan, even if crinkled or battered, get a beautiful appellation. This jagged crust of semi-arid, eroded topography is amorously called khoai — a dialect form of ‘eroded’ in Bengali, and is immortalised in the writings of Tagore and paintings of Nandalal Bose and Ramkinkar. And the acacia is shonajhuri, literarily, droplets of gold. Come winter, the shonajhuri trees shed their tiny yellow flowers on the craggy forest floor, like a downpour of gold.

In the forest

It is in this setting, in the scanty trails of the clearing in Shonajhuri Forest, some 15 minutes of drive from Tagore’s Santiniketan, and stashed between the edge of Ballavpur Wildlife Sanctuary on one side and the Adivasi village of Bonerpukur, that the market of Khoai Haat takes place. Every Saturday afternoon.

Young Jayanta was still piecing together an ektara when I interjected. He looked up from the rug he had spread on the forest floor which was now his ‘stall’, and workshop as well. He had learnt to make this musical instrument from his father. “And can make khamak as well,” he said, pointing to another musical instrument lying at the corner of his rug. Khamak is a single-headed drum with a string, a popular accompaniment with Baul and other folk songs. The player can control the pull on the string to modulate the pitch while plucking at it. I didn’t know then that in less than an hour in that jungle fair I would witness how an expert Baul singer can bring out an almost talking-rhythm on his khamak.

Like those of Jayanta’s, most of the stuff displayed for sale in the rug-stalls of Khoai Haat is hand-crafted in their homes in villages around. “All that you see here,” said Shanti of the cross-stitch stall, waving her hand to include the entire Shonajhuri Forest, “they all have the touch of the human hand. Our hands.” And contrary to my expectation, they aren’t crude, I found. Not one. Paintings, sculptures, brass artefacts, clothes, tapestries, home decors, leather goods, ornaments, accessories, whatnot. Were there 200 stalls, or more? I couldn’t figure out through the tree-trunks which impaired the vision. The stuff, they all bore the finesse of highly evolved aesthetics, the kind we expect in pricey ethnic boutiques of the big cities. All these in the heart of a forest, and with no middle-men between me, the buyer, and the villagers who make these in their homes.

Copper wire art for sale in the haat
Copper wire art for sale in the haat

Finely crafted

I cracked the riddle of such refined elegance in the quality of the products in a village fair when I came to the rug-stall selling what looked like line drawings in copper colour, neatly framed. They were, however, a unique art form originated by Hiranmoy Mitra, one of the master artists of Tagore’s Santiniketan. Here, instead of using ink or pencil to draw lines, copper wire is weaved with a special technique to create the drawings. Partha Mandal, the artist selling his drawings at the stall, had learned copper wire art from the master. Santiniketan, the outstanding institution founded by Tagore, has a wide outreach programme, connecting artists and artisans from villages around and even afar. And in the true spirit of mutual respect, learn from those local artisans, as well as train them in modern techniques, sophistication in design, and new art forms.

Somewhere, in some trail in the forest, a chorus of singing had started with the beat of the drum. I followed the sound and came to a clearing in the forest where a few Adivasi men and women from the adjacent village had come down singing and dancing. The women danced while holding hands or holding on to the waist of the dancers on either side. Some visitors to the fair had shed their inhibitions and joined the dancers.

The sun had slanted west. At the makeshift platform with a shade, all out of bamboo, Baul Mukunda Das strummed at his khamak a couple of times, do-do-dum, dudum-dudum, and as if invoking the sky above, commenced in the high octave in his open voice, ‘Hari hayy ….’ His khamak was almost talking lyrically, like his alter ego, as his voice swayed in the forest air, beseeching his Hari to play with him like the way with the gopis of Vrindavan.

Bauls are mystic minstrels, mostly belonging to the cultural stream of Vaishnav Hindus and Sufi Muslims, and the crossover is as natural as it is fluid. They live their philosophy every day, move around and sing in the praise of Hari or their Lord, and survive gracefully on whatever is offered. Tagore had often identified himself as a Baul and composed several songs in the Baul genre. I requested Mukunda Das to sing any of the compositions of the legendary Baul, Lalan Fakir. He smiled at me, nodded his head and started singing the famous Lalan Fakir song — ‘Shob Loke Koy Lalon Ki Jat Shongshare’ (Everyone asks Lalan what’s your religion and caste?).

It was time to bid adieu to Khoai Haat. I didn’t realise till then that I had bought so much from the fair. The only consolation being that most visitors and tourists were in the same predicament. As I ambled towards the vehicle, I could hear the drift of Mukunda Das’s voice. He had started with another well-known Lalan number: ‘Milon Hobe Koto Dine’ (When shall I be united with you?).

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