Swarup Bhattacharya- Boatman From Bengal

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Swarup Bhattacharya the boatman

Swarup Bhattacharya an anthropologist has documented boats of the Bengal an outcome of his studies for 26 years. He was in Balagarh, a village famous for country boat making, where he stayed for two years and learned about the nuances of techniques adopted by these craftsmen over generations. We share his captivating story on the occasion of Nobo borsho.

At the stroke of 2 in the afternoon, as my car swerved from the AJC Bose flyover towards Esplanade, my cell phone rang. He reached my office and called. My kneejerk reaction was to be a little contrite for being late by ten odd minutes, followed by a humble request to the visitor, to wait at the reception area. In a while, as I stepped into the office I could locate the smiling face and twinkling pair of eyes, in white cotton pyjama and kurta. After the exchange of pleasantries finally we settled down with tea, across the table, face to face. Meet Swarup Bhattacharya – the “boatman” from Bengal!

Swarup Bhattacharya, an anthropologist by profession completed his Master’s from the University of Calcutta in the year 1995, the voyage has now been for almost 26 years. On a nippy evening in February 1997, he got an offer to work on the prestigious project, “Boat Typology and Fishing Communities of West Bengal and Andamans”, hosted by CSIR and funded by the Department of Ocean Development (presently named Department of Earth Sciences ) wherein he was supposed to document the boats of Bengal region under the guidance of Dr. Lotika Varadarajan, Indologist. “ On that fateful evening I finally took a plunge in the water”, quips Swarup Bhattacharya.

The heritage boats of Bengal at the Institute of Cultural Research
The heritage boats of Bengal at the Institute of Cultural Research

Maritime history and archelogy around the world hold an important place as aquatic transportation dates back to prehistorical ages, since the birth of human civilisation. One look at the world map would show the extent of littoral regions and riverine channels that exist cutting across continents and countries. From time immemorial these maritime contacts facilitated trade and commerce and large-scale human migration. To illustrate, Swarup gives the example of the East African country of Madagascar, a seafaring nation, from where people migrated to the southeast Asian region of Java Sumatra – about 2900 Nautical miles apart, maybe 4000 years ago. The similarity in boat design would only prove this. Commonly used boats for a long sea haul need to have a stable built with single or double outriggers (a wooden spar connected sideways parallel to the boat’s hull) which help them increase their buoyancy. The Madagascar boat and boats seen in southeast Asia, share the same feature. Ditto for the Gujarat and Kerala coast which had a tremendous volume of trade with Arab and Romanian merchants.

A Heritage Boat

The CSIR project took Swarup to a place called Balagarh which is located in the Hooghly district of West Bengal, about 71 km from Kolkata, on the Western bank of the Hoogly River. Balagarh village is one of the centers in Bengal, famous for country boat making. Balagarh is predominantly inhabited by the Tiyor Rajbangshi caste who are professional fishermen. One would find them in large numbers around the riverine locale of Howrah, Hooghly, part of Nadia, Medinipur, and south 24 Parganas and Sripur – Balagarh belt is no exception. Namosudras, who are either hele ( oarsman ) or jele (fisherman) also make boats. Later on, they have been joined by a local Muslim community who picked up the trade of boat making, maybe, in the last six / seven decades.

Swarup Bhattacharya’s stay in Balagarh in the span of two long years was an opener to the world of boats and boat making. Not only he studied various types of boats or nouko, that dot various rivers and coasts in the state but also gathered enormous first-hand information about the nuances of techniques adopted by these craftsmen over generations. The work demanded a lot of leg work and staying put in Balagarh in the midst of the families of the boat makers and getting accustomed to their lifestyle. “ Initially, I was travelling from my home for 2/3 days a week but then I thought of settling down with these people and be a part of them so that they didn’t perceive me as an alien and a threat”!

Balagarh is a commercial boat building center where every other home is in the trade of boat making. But such a cluster formation is typical of this place which is not the case in any other part of Bengal, not even Bangladesh, where aqua transportation is significantly higher in volume. Swarup realised this reality and hunted for an answer in his research work. Dr. Varadarajan insisted on a deep dive by talking to the local people in the trade which he did extensively. The revelation was startling. By virtue of its geographical location, close to the older Indian river port of Saptagram ( also referred to as Satagan), it emerged as a settlement of boatmakers and related service providers. Saptagram’s fortunes rose as early as the 9th century and gradually waned by the 17th century when the river dried up and the port silted. While there was a shift in the profession to earn living, a good number retained the old calling of boat building, repairing and continued for 6 / 7 generations. The boats are made and displayed in the makeshift karkhana ( workshop) of the boat makers which is frequented by potential buyers. This trend is, however, a deviation from the rest of the Bengal where boat making is an add-on to the primary calling of farming or fishing or some other menial jobs.

Models of boats at Swarup Bhattacharya's house
Models of boats at Swarup Bhattacharya’s house

Swarup Bhattacharya also observed the boat-making technics closely during his fieldwork. It is generally handed over by the guru through oral tradition and can be honed through hands-on skilling over time. Overall, there is a paucity of efficient boat makers unless the demand for boats in a particular area is very high. Dihimondal Ghat on the bank of river Rupnarayan in Howrah where Swarup in 2022 rebuilt an old  chhot nouko, an indigenous watercraft, frequently used to traverse estuaries, with funds from British Museum for its Endangered Material Knowledge Programme, is a case to the point. “ At one point in time, there used to be many of them; but now with minimal or no demand of chhot nouko, most of the craftsmen drifted away into other professions or migrated to other seaside locations like DighaMandarmani, etc. “, laments Swarup.

The sense of measurement of these boat makers, which is surely a prime requisite for making the boat structure safe and secured, is guided by something today defined as “community mathematics”. Mostly they have limb measurement units like hath ( one hand = appx 18 inches) pod  ( one footstep = appx 9 inches), bau ( appx = 4 hands depth ), and scale of measurement made of a bamboo shoot or a thread. Bilateral symmetry is very important to ensure the stability of the watercraft. Another variable parameter is the distance of the spine to the central plank of the boat which has a direct bearing on the average size of the wave in which it has to travel. That means these craftsmen also possess extensive knowledge of ecology eg. wave patterns. In a way a boat’s technical parameters are influenced by the waterbody where it is supposed to float and therefore very much “localised” by nature. They may vary several times in the entire course of a river depending on the undercurrent, wave pattern, etc. Accordingly, it will dictate the optimum shape, size, and draft of the boat.

Model of a heritage boat

Balagarh days have been a perfect learning process for Swarup. Before the completion of the CSIR project in April 1999 he received the Senior Research Fellowship of Anthropological Survey of India where he chose a project on an ethnographic study of boats and the technological, economic, social, cultural, and religious aspects of it. In 2001, a Paris-based journal published one of Swarup’s articles on a special type of country boat called “Patiya” which was liked by the then Director Dr. Ole Crumlin Pedersen of Viking Ship Museum and Centre for Maritime Archaeology, Norway. Swarup Bhattacharya was invited by the Institute to work with them for consecutive three years of 2 months each. He also presented a paper from the Asian continent at the International Symposium on Boat & Ship Archaeology organised by the Institute in 2003. After this point, Swarup’s voyage had to face some rough weather where he “worked in water bereft of boats” !!

In 2012 the work of India’s only boat museum started in Kolkata and who could be a better person than Swarup to curate this. Over the next two years, 46 models of various boats were built and finally, it was inaugurated in February 2014.

As Swarup Bhattacharya puts it, a boat is considered a feminine and living entity around the world and our Bengal is no exception. A boatmaker is connected to the boat at an emotional level. He believes to be giving birth to his beautiful daughter who one day would go to some other home after marriage. She is also a symbol of fertility. Once she starts her journey in the water, she would start earning and be productive. Bengal’s almanac records auspicious dates and times marked for the start of boat making ( nouka gathon ), handing over the boat to the client ( nouka chalon), and finally, she being waterborne (nouka jatra).

A boatman crafting his boat
A boatman crafting his boat

A boat has a cultural ethos. The hardship and handicap of the voyage change the rhythm and lyrical pattern of a boatman’s song. When he rows in tranquil water he sings a bhaitiyali which has a lazy note and a sense of submission to the Almighty. A hide tide in the river or sea changes the complexion of the song. As he puts the best of his physical effort to stay afloat and move forward, he voices, a sari gaan When it is a matter of a boat race and his competitive spirit is put to test, he rows the boat with his team members in unison and a nouka baicher gaan best describes this collective endeavour.

See Also
Mattur village : keeping Sanskrit alive

When Swarup took up the CSIR project on boat typology he was sure that in India there had been no significant work done on the subject and his involvement might open up newer avenues and help him establish himself as a key resource person. In hindsight, with a career spanning over 25 years, he never repents his decision in spite of the hardships he went through during the pandemic. “ Eto kichur poreou joler maya tyag korte parini” ( after all these, still couldn’t stop loving the water), says Swarup, before signing off.

People watching the boats in the river






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