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by Madhuri Chatterji

The Shantiniketan Express, leaving Kolkata  in the morning is usually crowded with teachers, students and some local inhabitants. But with the onset of Christmas week and winter vacation, the number of passengers have increased manifold. Yet none could deny the sense of camaraderie prevailing within the compartments.


We were all travelling to see the poush mela-the annual three day fair held at Shantiniketan. Beginning on seventh day of Poush (following the Bengali calendar, usually following on December 22/23), the event marks the foundation day of Shantiniketan. Mooted by Maharishi Debendranath Tagore as an 'ashram' and a centre for meditation, Shantiniketan catapulted to international fame through the open air school and later the university founded by Maharishi’s illustrious son Rabindranath Tagore.


The history of the place goes back to well over a hundred years, to the 1860s  when Maharishi was stuck by the beauty of the place. The westernmost corner of Bengal, Birbhum, is a red laterite soil zone, watered by  several rain fed rivulets. Undulating red vistas spread over miles around, with patchy forests of sal, palash and other local trees as well as jamun and mango groves. Passing through the village commons of Bhuvandanga, Maharishi was  captivated by the kaleidoscopic beauty of the twin luxuriantly canopied Chattim trees, offering shade in the barren red land. To the Maharishi ,this was an idyllic venue for meditating. So he brought a large tract of land  along with two chattim trees and made a beautiful prayer hall with coloured glass. Trees were planted all around to create the ancient forest ashram look. In keeping with the spirit of the place, Maharishi named it Shantiniketan or abode of peace.  The place, 212 kms from Kolkata, soon became popular.


So when Tagore, abhorring the restive system of education, wanted to start an open air school that would follow the gurukul system, he decided that the verdant precincts of Shantiniketan would be the ideal place. In 1901, on the seventh day of Poush, the school was inaugurated with five students. The system became so popular  that by 1922, the place was  flourishing as a full-fledged university called Viswa Bharati. While this greenscaped landmark began to attract urban visitors, Bolpur, two kms ahead of Shantiniketan, burgeoned into a supportive satellite township. Direct rail link was established between Kolkata and Bolpur and the journey was reduced to a comfortable 136 kms.





Both Maharshi and Rabindranath  initiated several festivals at Shantiniketan which marked natural and social occasions and where people could participate irrespective of age, caste and community. So on the one hand, while the three days of Poush are observed through prayers and cultural meets, a fair is held simultaneously where local artisans bring their wares to sell. Folk artists perform  before a discerning crowd and urban and local folks mingle without prejudice. Although quite  young compared to  the traditional fairs of our country, Poush mela celebrated its centenary in 1994. Over the years, the mela has undergone characteristic changes but its role as a meeting ground  of local artisans  and buyers, both rural and urban, has remained unchanged.


On the inaugural day, the festival begins with a community prayer or Brahmopasana that includes Vedic hymns and reading of passages written by Maharishi or Rabindranath. Invited artists and students sing Rabindra Sangeet. After this, the visitors assemble on the central stage at the fairground  where the roving folksingers, the Bauls, perform.


On the second day, the different units of the university Patha Bhavan and Shiksha sadan, hold their graduation eremonies. At the fair, the centre stage teems with life-more bauls and kirtan singers perform jatras and folk theatres are held.


For the three  days of the fair , several acres of the verdant  field is thronged by a crowd of over ten thousand people.  Impromptu  programmes by itinerant  folk singers receive umpteen encores while ubiquitous snack shops  attract many like bees to a flower. A santhal couple walk hand in hand, the vignettes keep multiplying and overlapping but never jarring the senses. Because there is no pandemonium, no resentment; if chaos has a system ,it is here at the Poush mela fairground at Shantiniketan.


On the second evening there is  a  fireworks  display, enjoyed by everyone. As the pyrotechnical display breaks into myriad colours, they reflect the joie de vivre of the quintessential spirit of Shantiniketan.


While enjoyment at the fair continues unabated, on the final day the students  and teachers observe  a serious but moving ceremony. In the morning, a special prayer session is held where everyone prays for all the departed  souls  who were associated with shantiniketan. Right from Maharishi himself, not a single student, teacher or staff is forgotten. This is followed by a community lunch where they partake  a frugal supper to mark their respect  for the departed. Usually the three days include Christmas Day and everyone joins in Krishtotsav, observed by the ashramites. Besides there are cultural events and memorial lecture.


At the fair, tradition and modernity rub shoulders. A leaf whistle worth a few paise, decorative artefacts and ornaments made from palm leaf and terracotta vie for attention with mass produced and cheap plastic goods and sham trinkets. No shopping is complete without buying the batik printed leather goods, specially bags and slippers which are sold in aplenty.  Sweetmeat shops enjoy a brisk sale although the chow Mein and idli dosa  shops give them good competition. Different publication houses and little magazines have their respective corners. Sriniketan ,the vocational training institute founded by Rabindranath, has an exhibition of organically  grown vegetables as well as handcrafted items.


Commuting  between the  university campus and  the fairground, we visited ‘bichitra’, the museum dedicated to Tagore and filled with Tagore memorabilia, the technically stylized yet mud built homes where Tagore lived at different times of the year, the murals and sculptures  exhibited at Kala Bhavan, the deer park and Sriniketan, which is 3 kms away from the  university. Although real estate is booming, still the place is comfortably swathed in green and with not much automobile traffic(walking or cycling is the common mode of  commuting). Shantiniketan offers a welcome weekend getaway, anytime throughout the year and specially during festive days.

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Image by Evie S.
Image by Kenny Eliason

Madhuri Chatterji is a closet writer and art enthusiast. She is interested in creative writing, poetry, short stories, translations, travelling .She regularly distributes her time to write for them in magazines and journals .After a thirty year long career, travelogues and children stories occupy her the most. Armed Forces background makes her enthusiastic about adventure travels and spending time in the wild.

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