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Wednesday, October 27, 2021


When hope shimmered in this temple town...


Not just another ordinary festival, The Bishnupur Utsav in Bengal has emerged as a new icon of optimism, peace and religious tolerance. TSI's Aniruddha Banerjee and Snehangshu Adhikari witnessed people from all walks of life transcend hate and violence, and soak in a spectacular celebration of life.
TSI | Issue Dated: January 18, 2009
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When hope shimmered in this temple town... The angry scowl on the face of Aamir Khan, as he looked ready to leap out of the "Ghajini" posters across the country, seemed even more menacing in the ones outside the near-abandoned theatres in the temple town of Bishnupur. For between December 23 and 28, the crowds were all at the annual Bishnupur Mela, especially on December 27-28, when the Bishnupur Utsav premiered this year. "Kay jabay Gojoni dekhte?” (Who will go to watch 'Ghajini'?) Government employee by chance and art lover by choice, Sadhan Ganguly's eyes danced as he spoke, "Just look at these people's faces. You can see pure happiness glowing in them." Indeed, Bishnupur was happy those five nights, for Bishnupur was giving what the people need most now in terror-torn, caste-ridden, corruption-eaten India: Hope, harmony and peace! So naturally, Kay jabay Gojoni dekhte? To be exposed to even more violence?

These feelings were not just those of the culture-worn Bengalis. White skins and yellow, those from Far West or Far East, were also enjoying the exuberance, and especially the sense of peace. Beyond the damage done by 'those who came by boat', beyond netas (political leaders) trying to save their faces by foul-mouthing Pakistan, beyond the communal riots in Orissa, and the Marathi jingoism of Raj Thackeray… finally solace could be sought out at Bishnupur. Local school teacher Brindaban Banik says, "Bishnupur has a history of offering solace to distraught hearts. For the past 21 years, our Mela has been the epi-centre of the unique brotherhood that only Bengal can offer." Banik finds an echo from a far clime. "Bishnupur is absolutely exceptional," says Robin Koestler, a German visitor, who claims that whenever he needs calming down, he tries to recall the images of Bishnupur. "This is my third visit here. I've been to Konark, Khajuraho, Jaipur and most other prominent places in India. But the love and affection that I find here is amazing!"

When hope shimmered in this temple town... Bishnupur, in Bankura district of West Bengal, though little known outside the state except amongst connoisseurs of the arts, has been a hot favourite of Bengali tourists for ages. The fete (Mela) remains the only traditional fete that has retained its original character, unlike the Poush Mela and other rural fetes. This year, the West Bengal Tourism Development Corporation decided to add more colour to it and spent Rs 60 lakh to spruce it up with fabulous musical fare. While the launch of the 'Bishnupur Utsav' saw the exotic Rashamancha temple, built in the late 15th century, serve as the backdrop to two days of cultural programmes. The experience of witnessing performances like Dhrupad renditions by Debabrata Singha Thakur from Bishnupuri Gharana (the only classical musical school born in Bengal), kathak artist Amita Dutta’s inaugural dance 'Dashavataram', Buddhadeb Dasgupta on his sarod, Manilal Nag strum the sitar, in such an enchanting environment, can only be described as surreal. Needless to say, the audience, both urban and rural and then some from far-off shores, was completely captivated.

Before the musical event though, the actual Bishnapur Mela, a hearty blend of earthy warmth and cultural legacy, had started on December 23. December 27 was a special evening, since it was declared the 'Tribal Night'. Panchanan Murmu, a Santhal gentleman in his mid-forties, visiting the fair with his teenaged nephew Sibu, had walked eight kilometres to enjoy the tribal 'jatra', a delectable form of folk theatre from Bengal. "Tribal programmes generally start very late at night and go on till dawn. That's because the performers usually come from very far and have to wait for daylight to start their journey back home," Panchanan explained. On one of the stages, a tribal choir group was singing, "O aalor pathojatri, ekhon raatri, ekhane themo na (Oh you traveller of light, it is now night, don't stop here)." It is amazing how the song that had first captured public imagination during the early throws of a Communist cultural movement in late 1950s still mesmerises people. On another stage, the famous cultural troupe 'Calcutta Choir' was performing their act on communal harmony, with characters of almost all possible religions on the stage trying in unison to protect a casteless, creedless, identity-less orphan. Bal Thackeray, stay away! When hope shimmered in this temple town... A few meters away, village clay artist Ghanashyam Bauri was selling a unique set of idols with faces of four deities, from four different religions, merged in one! Ghanashyam asserts, "Dhommer abar bheda-bhed ache naki? (There is no discrimination between true religions). Men created the differences, so another man like me is trying to unite them."

Towards the east of the venue, one could see a few tribal youth under a stall that read: "Adibashi Socio-Cultural Development Association". When enquired, Sanatan Soren, Bishnupur head of the association revealed, "A few of us were fortunate enough to receive proper education and enjoy a good life, but many of us are deprived. Some of them are now being misguided by the Maoists. So we've declared a war against exploitation through this socio-cultural movement." His voice rose in excitement as he continued, "Believe me, this Mela has turned out to be a great platform for us, as we've got an overwhelming response from the people. With this money, we'll carry on supporting the needy yet intelligent tribal students, and facilitate eliminating superstitions from our society."

Hope… yes, hope is all we need in this hour of political fatigue. And that hope shimmered in Bishnupur this year-end. When you see thousands clapping in excitement while the firecrackers light up the dark sky, when you see urbanites enjoying a tribal skit under an open sky, when you see a child playing with a gas-balloon while his parents marvel at his ecstasy, when you see a rural snack-selling couple beam with happiness as they count the money earned at the Mela – you know, yes, there is still hope. There is!
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Issue Dated: Feb 5, 2017