Shantiniketan: Red Earth

The Master himself

Tagore did most of his writing under this tree

Sunit, Toto driver-guide

A Santhal village

Sonajhuri Forest

A Noble laureates’ refuge, Tagore-Vishwabharati-Shantiniketan are inextricably linked.

Essentially a university town it has a homely feel, students from around the world giving it a special flavour.

There is no public transport. You either commute by E Rick or cycle or walk. For a nominal Rs 500, the ubiquitous Toto takes you everywhere. Driver cum guide, Sunit knew people & places & had facts on his finger tips. He showed me around at a leisurely pace every day. Tribal villages, Kankalitola, Surul, Kopai, Vishwabharati, Amar Kutir, Srijan. Cool wind in the hair & face, where’s the hurry after all.

The trip happened after a year of waiting & watching. Waiting for the right time so as to avoid both summer heat & winter rush. The Poush Mela – Durga Puja crowds too. Zeroed in on the monsoons therefore, when the heavens descend in a celestial downpour, creating magic everywhere.

It’s the last day of June. The last day also of my stay and I’m still waiting for the rains. For the skies to open & the magic to begin. Unlucky me!

“Not so,” corrects the Toto-wallah. “You are not unlucky. But ‘His’ blessings are missing.

One and the same thing I thought but to him there was a clear difference.

Shantiniketan is three hours from Calcutta. I prefer to drive down from Durgapur instead in just an hour & half. Rain or no rain, rural Bengals’ flat, lush green countryside, forests, water bodies & fields are guaranteed to mesmerise. A pretty good road too which was a surprise, as was the eight kms stretch of forest along the way.

I am staying at a traditional mud villa. An architectural style particular to the place. The outer walls, decorated in what has come to be known as Shantiniketan art, depict local flora & fauna & carved panels & doors show scenes from folklore. Sadly, very little of it survives.

The interiors are modern & comfortable. It has wifi that works and splendid cuisine, Bengali & Santhal both. As authentic an experience as one can expect.

Coming in late Friday I decide to sit back & enjoy the quiet beauty of the place. The sole reason for being there in the first place.

Khoai Shaniberer Haat’ is lined up for next day. A weekend market where artisan & connoisseur interact in the hope of a meaningful transaction. Spread across a vast swathe of forest land, goods sold range from handcrafted jewellery & textiles to musical instruments & leather-ware. Watching sellers bring in stuff on mo-bikes & accept payment via portals like ‘phone-pe’, was quite an eye opener. A result of being so out of sync living in the city

Under a canopy of Sonajhuri trees, tribals decked in finery dance to the beat of cymbals & drums. A plaintive cry rings out from somewhere. A Baul, his Ektaara tugging at the heart strings as he belts out a tune. I roamed about soaking in the scene. Munching on ‘Jhal Muri’ – a puffed rice concoction I was having for the first time. There is always a first time.

Everyone liked & noticed my pink umbrella-hat. The tribals especially who inspected it minutely to understand how it worked. Would try replicate it, they said. Sell it for nothing less than Rs 200, I advised. A start-up hopefully.

Owl motifs & figures abound. Here an owl, there an owl, everywhere an owl-owl. In most parts of our country the owl stands for stupidity. In Chinese culture however it is a symbol of ill omen. A bird of wisdom in the West, it’s significance here was largely unclear. Being animists, tribals worship nature. This night bird too is worshipped.

Kankalitala temple on the banks of the Kopai is one of the 51 Shaktipeethas. A little out of town, it was a huge disappointment. “Never again”, I swore. How often have I said that before? I never seem to learn.

The terracotta temples at Surul are a delight however. Over 300 year old they are privately owned & are being restored by artisans brought in from Murshidabad. Skilled craftsmen working on it for six months & will take another six to complete. “They are like family” says the Thakur who hired them.

(Surul, Supur & Itonda, are the three places that have temples made of terracotta.)

Wandering into a Santhal village I chance upon a film crew shooting a Bengali serial. And further down the neat row of mud huts is Lipis’ studio. An alumni of the Faculty of Arts Baroda, her creations are lovely, the ceramic studio a piece of art in itself. One of the joys of solo travel is meeting people, encounters that add value & make for a memorable experience. Here was a qualified young person who had chosen to live & work among tribals in a remote part of the country. No doubt enhancing their lives as well.

Most of us have phobias. We harbour unfounded stereotypes. A stereotypical Bong to me was one into music, art & culture. Rabindra sangeet, rosogolla, fish. Not off the mark completely but to that I shall now add ‘lottery’. Seeing is believing.

Who doesn’t love a sudden windfall? But this was something else. Lottery tickets from all over bought & sold everywhere. Within the precincts of Kankalitala too. The temple was a disappointment I said. Not so the sight of diehards seeking divine intervention. Young & old, high & low. All come here. Buy lottery tickets, bow in prayer & leave. Beaming & smiling. Prayer answered ? As if. Wish fulfilled? Almost.

Easy come, easy go.