Dabar News 22nd September

 Three Puja in one Day

On 17th September we celebrated three festivals, or Pujas, in one day. They are called Chata Parab, the worship of Biswakarma and Jita Puja.

Chata Parab  is the Umbrella Festival. The tribal kings of the Purulia region began celebrating it during the Mongol period in India. The story behind this Puja is that the Mongols attacked us many times, but failed at every attempt because the tribal soldiers employed secret fighting techniques and on account of their great courage. When it became clear that the Mongols had finally given up trying to defeat us, all the tribes decided to mark this day as a remembrance of their collective and unified victory. This occasion of celebration has continued to this day. Today, just as did the tribal kings, families hoist an umbrella. The symbolic meaning is that, when the need occurs, all tribals can join together under the umbrella of one single king.

Another celebration on the 17th is the worship Biswakarma, god of engineering. All types of machinery are worshiped. For example, we all honour our motor vehicles by washing them, be they of the four or two wheeled variety.

And finally, on this day the women also celebrate Jita. This event is  concerned with agriculture and seeds. We believe the women of Raha discovered the way seeds germinate and used this knowledge to develop the techniques we now use for seeding paddies. This day gives the women an opportunity to mark their achievement and celebrate it. They also pray for the future of their children, that it will be a good and healthy one.

This is the meaning of Jita to people today. The ancient spiritual meaning underlying the ritual is concerned with the creation of life. The leaves are in the shape of a woman’s vagina and represented fertility. Pieces of cucumber placed on each leaf represent the man’s penis and the power of nature.

 Biswakarma, god of engineering, is worshiped on this day all over India. Jita Puja and Chata Parab are observed here in the area which includes Purulia and in ancient times comprised the former Raha Kingdom. This area is now split into parts of four States: West Bengal, Orissa, Bihar and a small part of Jharkhand. We now look forward to the first week of October, to the biggest festival of them all: Dhurga Puja.

Dabar News 15th September

Kudmali Language Conference

Arranged by Prabhatalloi Foundation

Many will agree that language is an essential part of any people’s cultural identity. So naturally we ourselves would like to help promote our own cultural heritage and pass it on to future generations. With these ideas in mind,  PA Foundation last year organized a seminar on languages at the new Sidho Kanho University here in Purulia.

There were many excellent contributions. Not least among them, Kiriti Mahato, who is President of PA Foundation, discussed his new book.  Kiriti is a celebrated Jhumur singer in his own right. He also writes extensively about the area’s cultural heritage, especially its music and poetry, and campaigns on its behalf.  Afterwards, with the University’s help, we gathered together all the submissions that had been presented in the form of a book, edited by Kiriti, called Jhumur Loka Jiboner Sandhan.

Now, a year later, this collection of papers has been published. So last  Sunday, 7th September, we hosted a conference to mark the occasion. It was held here in Dabar on our School Campus using the new Guest House as a conference room. The focus of the discussions was on the Kudmali language and the ways we could help to promote it.

The programme started at 11am and continued to 3pm. It was attended by poets, singers, academics and reporters from all over West Bengal and neighbouring States. The young, award winning poet Avhimunya Mahato read from his own poems. He has just received the Yuba Sahitya Academy Award for his book Mati (meaning Soil).

Several other artists read from their own poetry and others sang Jhumur songs, to the great pleasure of all present.

But mainly the discussions centred around exploring ways we could save our aboriginal  and tribal languages, Kudmali in particular. Dr NG Dutta (Head of the Department of Bengali at Sidhu Kanho University) and Dr Binapani Mahato offered their valued advice.

We came to agreement on three main proposals:

*We need to continue to publish books written in Kudmali and make them easily available to young people.

*We should encourage and assist universities to include the study  of Kudmali both as a part of the curriculum and as an independent field of study in its own right.

*We should lobby the Government to create jobs to cater for students passing out after studying these languages

It really was a splendid day. The delegates were pleased to meet up again and very much appreciated the facilities we provided. And, for our part, we at PA Foundation are thrilled that it went so well. We now plan to host a variety of future events here in Dabar.

The Rahr Belt, Jhumur Song, Chhau Dance, and the Kudmali Language

These are four pillars of our culture. Purulia was the capital city in what has historically been called the Rahr Belt. It has always been mainly tribal and aboriginal people who live here. The culture is an ancient one, over four thousand years old, predating the Sidhu civilization. Because of its geographical and natural blessings this land has been very rich both economically and also in terms of language, culture and trade. The soil was very fertile and the land was covered by dense, productive forest. It was considered a golden land then. People here became very rich through trade, they even maintained trade relations with the Mayan Aztecs and the Subdhu civilisation. On account of this prosperity, outsiders had always been coming to Rahr. Some came as enemies to attack and plunder, some in friendship to trade and others seeking to convert the local people to their own religion.

But now with the passage of time the soil of the land has lost its fertility and the forests have been cleared. The rivers have run dry because now the rainfall is neither sufficient nor reliable. In line with the decline of our physical environment, our culture has begun loosing its vibrancy and, with this, our languages are now at risk of disappearing. For Purulia the word existence has become synonymous with cultural survival.

The Jhumur song tradition is as old as the culture itself. Although it is a genre in its own right it also strongly influences other song forms and permeates the dance culture.

Chhau Dance uses Jhumur as its musical backdrop. Every performance begins with a Jhumur incantation to Ganash. There are three forms of Chhau. The oldest form of this martial dance is the Purulia (or Manbhum) Chhau. The origins of this martial dance are uncertain, lost in the long passage of time, but it is still very much in the blood of people here today. The choreography depicts episodes from the much loved legends recounted in the Ramayana and Mahabharata.

The Mayurbanj and Seraikila forms of Chhau evolved later, during the period of British rule. In both cases a Maharaja first sponsored the dance and then later changed it by introducing classical dance elements that catered to the sophisticated tastes of its royal patrons and their guests.

Today the movements and costumes of Seraikila Chhau still reflect this heritage closely. We took these photographs in the grounds of the royal palace where it was first created and performed.

By contrast, the local villagers performing Mayarbanj Chhau are still developing their own new and original choreography. Their themes are about everyday life and chores and the natural world around them.  Some of the images below are from a Peacock Dance and a Snake Charmer Dance which were created for Robert when he visited to record for his research paper in 2007.

Kurmali is the most widely spoken of the five main aboriginal and tribal languages here. Ranking them based on what proportion of the population use each language, they are:   Kudmali  50%, Santali 25% , Mundari 10%, Kueuk  8% and Ho/Kharia 2%. The rest use Bengali as their main language in daily use. None of these languages has a written alphabet or script of its own; they are purely spoken languages. What is now being written down in these languages borrows from Hindi or Bengali script to give a phonetic rendering of what is being said or sung.

Clearly many still speak or at least understand these very ancient languages today. Yet they are all at risk of disappearing very soon, in the next few generations even, because the speakers are overwhelmingly adults. Children are not mastering these languages in schools but rather concentrating on Bengali, Hindi and, as is the case all over the world, English. Things are made more difficult because the former Rahr Kingdom is no longer a single entity. After Independence the area was split into parts which came under the political jurisdiction of three different States. As a consequence the population in each part came to belong to a marginalised minority culture in the State they were allocated to. In the case of Kudmali, its disappearance would mean the end of a language believed to be 4,000 years old.

However, many here do in fact appreciate the importance of Kudmali to our cultural heritage and identity. PA Foundation has helped to finance a small office in Purulia Town just a few doors down from our own. Here artists and writers committed to promoting the language can meet to socialise, plan and work. From there, they are now publishing a weekly newspaper in Kudmali language. In doing this some of them have become expert in desktop publishing so they are also able to prepare texts for subsequent publication in the form of books and pamphlets.

 

Dabar News 4th September

Our Performance of Chhou Dance in the Ajodhya Hills

We have been training the boys in our Chhou Dance class for about four years now. They really have developed well and they are now ready to perform for the public. In fact last Saturday they gave their first performance as a team. They were invited to an annual conference for the most senior officers of the All India Postal Service. It was held in the Ajodhya Hills, in an area near Purulia which is very much an important part of our heritage.

The programme took place on 30th August at 7pm. We started out early from Dabar, at 1pm, in order to give the boys a chance to see the Hills and the views of the surrounding countryside. The boys had never visited there before so the trip was an exciting excursion for them.

On the way we drove through a number of villages. As we climbed up the hill in our cars we passed by many women carrying wood that they had cut and gathered in the forests above. They have traditionally carried such very heavy loads long distances over unpaved roads. The fact that the government is improving the roads to improve access for visitors and tourists makes their work only a little easier. So we also encountered mechanical diggers and gangs of labourers on the way, as well as local people taking their livestock to graze.

We visited the impressive new dam, which is the centre piece of a huge hydroelectric power project financed by the Japanese Government. Although the new source of power is welcome, over one hundred thousand trees were destroyed in building it, which affected the local climate as well as the terrain. And of course vast areas were flooded. The changes ended the way of life for a great  many of the tribes, which was based on hunting, because the animals on which they depended could not sustain their existence in the new environment.

We found this charming local post office at the top of the hill. It is our nomination for the eighth wonder of the world!

The Chhou Dance performance took place in front of the beautiful new tourist facilities building. There is always a lot of preparation work to do. One of the modern developments in Chhou is that microphones and amplification are now used for the singing. And electric lighting has replaced torches to illuminate the proceedings, which as a rule have always taken place at night.

The dancing started promptly at 7pm after all the important guests had been seated. The performances always begin with Uran Baina, which serves as notice to anyone nearby that the dancing is about to start and is a general invitation to come and enjoy it. Chhou Dance is very much in the blood of the local people. And the officials were a knowledgeable and appreciative audience, breaking out in applause on a number of occasions.

 

At the end of the performance the audience came forward to congratulate the boys. Then afterwards we all went off for a dinner at a local restaurant.

More About the Ajodhya Hills

The Ajodhya Hills have an important place in the cultural history of our land. According to legend, while Ramachandra was travelling through the forests in fulfilment of his vow, he lived with Lakhan and Sita atop the highest of these Hills.

There are 360 tribal villages in the Hills. In earlier days, yet still within living memory, the land had been covered by dense forest. The dense forest meant that the tribes in the Hills were isolated from each other. Furthermore the Hills were inaccessible to the outside world because of the steep slopes and deep ravines. There had never been any reliable roads into the Hills. The first passable road was built shortly after Independence by the Lutherian Christian Agency, who also built a hospital as part of their assistance and development programmes. This remoteness and inaccessibility lead to a great diversity of culture among the individual tribes. Yet despite their differences, all of the tribes have been coming together every year to celebrate a hunting festival.

But now, in the last few decades, we have seen a continuing deforestation all over our area and roads have been improved as part of the wish to introduce the benefits of modern development. The Hills’ environment was particularly affected when a new hydroelectric system was built because many thousands of trees were felled and massive tracts of land were flooded. As a result most of the large animals which had been hunted for sustenance have disappeared because the changed environment could not sustain them. The tribes’ culture based on hunting could no longer be sustained.

Interestingly, the hunting festival takes place on the birthday of Lord Buddha, founder of the Buddhist religion. We all know of Buddha’s teachings against violence, killing and bloodshed. So it is natural to ask why the tribals should decide to arrange the hunting festival on that particular day. The reason is that Buddha came to the hills with intention of converting the people there from their tribal religions to Buddhism. In order to avoid being converted and as a way of resisting the inroads of Buddhism they arranged the festival for this day. This traditional celebration still takes place but now it has become an opportunity for members of surviving tribes to meet, socialize and dine together.