This Durga is not armed with Her traditional weaponry, but with flowers in her hands, celebrated by Santhals with their quaint music and colourful dances on the borders of a Sal forest
At a historical juncture, when the country is rife with rising communal hatred, caste-based violence and religious intolerance, a silent revolution has been on in small corner of Bengal’s Birbhum district – for the last twenty years or so.
At the beginning of the new millennium – year 2000‑Badhan Das, a painter and ceramist, a former faculty in Kolkata’s Government College of Art and Craft, came up with a novel idea.
He had a piece of land in Santiniketan in Sonajhury, on the periphery of Ballavpur Reserve Forest ‑separated by a canal, surrounded by a lovely Sal forest.
With his childhood memories of Durga Puja in Comilla (now in Bangladesh), he developed an urge to organise a Durga Puja in Santiniketan – with a difference.
So, he and Ashish Ghosh, a fellow sculptor and kin of Badhan Das, decided to involve the local tribal community – the Santhals.
They knew that Santhals celebrate the season (known as ‘Belbaran’) almost at the same time when Bengalis organise the Durga Puja.
The proposal found instant acceptance from the local Santhal village heads of Boner-pukur-danga, Phuldanga and Ballavpur-danga.
So, in the autumn of 2001, a set of terracotta idols were built in Kolkata and transported to Santiniketan.
With their limited resources, they decorated the premises – mostly with locally found natural materials.
The Santhals joined with their dance and musical performances. The local Bengali community dropped in – extremely inquisitive about the novelty of this multi-cultural adventure.
It came to be known as “Badhan Da’s Puja”. But it was the Santhali community which suddenly found a just platform to showcase their culture in the form of dance, music, puppetry and theatre.
Badhan Das was a maverick. Shunning all traditional norms, in 2002 he decided to create the Durga with her ten arms, but without the traditional weapons! So, Durga – the slayer of demon was manifested with the attributes of a Bengali woman- motherly and caring but firm on her mission, with flowers in her hands.
Since then, her ten hands are seen holding flowers instead of destructive armaments. The message of non-violence and peace was delivered‑ in a brilliantly creative manner.
In 2002, they reached out to the Santhal Parganas to involve Santhals from other districts.
And the word spread like wild fire. This time the idol was created in Santiniketan, using wood as the basic material, and the adornments crafted from bamboos.
A couple of groups from the Santhal Parganas attended the event and participated with their dances and music, much to the delight of the visitors.
But the almighty had other plans. Badhan Das succumbed to a massive cardiac failure in December 2002.
His numerous students and fellow artists and family members were devastated – he was an extremely popular figure in Kolkata’s artist circle.
In his absence, Ashish Ghosh and his wife Chitra took up this challenge head on and decided to continue the event.
So ‘Hiralini Durgotsab’, as it came to be named, continued its journey and over the years caught the imagination of the Bengalis‑and how!
Leaving the pomp and grandeur of Kolkata’s Durga Puja – now considered to be one of the greatest religious and social events in the world – many would visit Santiniketan just to experience this puja.
This is one event that is so unique in its concept and execution‑offered in an ambience that not only defies the urban glitter and pomp, but complements the earthly elements and celebrates the ecology of man and nature.
While Kolkata’s spirit soars in the evening during Durga Puja, this Puja remains active throughout the day, with the visiting Santhal groups continuing their performances in turn.
Compared to the dazzle of Kolkata’s famous ‘lighting’ culture- illuminating every nook and corner of the megapolis, Sonajhury looks eerily dark at night!
Once one gets used to the relative darkness, the madol (Santhalidrum) beats certainly enliven the spirits. In the adjoining open space, a stage is constructed mainly for Santhali theatres.
A small fair with rural crafts, eateries and miscellaneous stalls cater to the visitors.
“We do not raise funds through advertisements on banners and billboards, as is the practice in most Puja committees in Kolkata and all over,” explained Ashish, when questioned about how he manages to bear the expenses of this mega event.
“The banners would destroy the ambience and beat the very purpose of this endeavour,” he stated!
But there are expenses. Apart from creating the infrastructure and decorating the space, they have to feed at least thirty to forty Santhal groups (each consisting of twelve to fifteen persons) during the event.
Usually, they come in the morning, perform and leave by the evening.
Ashish never goes from door to door for raising Puja subscriptions (popularly known as chanda in Bengali vernacular, which became quite a social nuisance in Bengal due to its coercive nature).
Ashish and Chitra rely on the subscription box, where visitors donate according to their will.
The rest he pays from his own pocket!
It is Chitra who mobilises the Santhali women to conduct the rituals of the Puja ceremony.
When they are not dancing in their colourful attires, they help Chitra in preparing the Prasad, serving the guests; maintaining the sanctity of the space by cleaning, and doing the chores.
The young Santhal men folk dress up the surrounding jungles, clean the shrubs and organise the car parking system and does the necessary crowd management.
It is intriguing how seamlessly they blend and participate in another culture which is essentially idol worshipping.
Santhals, like all other tribes, are animistic in their rituals, but in these five days of the Puja, they literally merge with the ceremony.
Visva-Bharati has a substantial number of Santhali scholars. They join and offer their services voluntarily.
Lately, the Bauls– the soulful singers of rural Bengal‑have started participating with their rich musical offerings.
“We are happy that they (Santhals) consider this to be their own platform. The best thing is that these groups have started to perform independently and earning money – that’s our greatest reward!” says Ashish Ghosh with understandable pride.
Readers doubtless have one last question in mind: Why Hiralinee?
The strange name ‘Hiralinee’ was coined by Badhan Das. Hira was his sister, whom he lost at a very young age, while ‘lini’ was derived from Nalini‑his father’s name!
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Rishi Barua is an eminent sculptor, painter and photographer, currently teaching as a professor at Kala Bhavan, Vishva Bharati University, Shantiniketan, West Bengal. Rishi and his wife, Sheema Barua, also a renowned painter, live in Shantiniketan. Rishi is a scion of the illustrious Gauripur Barua princely family.