Poush Mela is a fair and festival that takes place in Santiniketan, in Birbhum District in the Indian state of West Bengal. The festival happens annually and it marks the beginning of the harvest season. The fair starts on the 7th day of the month of ‘Poush’, in the Bengali calendar, the fair officially lasts for three days, but from 2017, the fair has been extended to six days. The main attractions of the fair include Baul music, traditional dance and handicrafts.
Shantiniketan was established by Maharshi Devendranath Tagore, and later expanded by his son Rabindranath Tagore. Rabindranath Tagore, a Nobel laureate, founded the Visva-Bharati college in Shantiniketan which was later converted to a university. Devendranath Tagore along with twenty followers accepted the Brahmo creed from Ram Chandra Vidyabagish on 21 December 1843 (7 Poush 1250 according to the Bengali calendar). And thus began the long tradition of Poush Utsav (the Festival of Poush) at Santiniketan. The festival also used to host fireworks but it seems that they might have stopped that from this year.
While it started as a much localised festival, it has expanded to a big cultural gathering of sorts where people from all over the world come to celebrate Bolpur’s rich cultural heritage. The fair hosts around 1500 stalls selling everything from locally made jewellery, earthenware to traditional masks and musical instruments. The Mela has a stage where every evening, a cultural function takes place. Traditional dancing, Baul giti (Baul songs) and poetry recitations are common. Bengalis from Kolkata visit Poush mela in numbers as students enjoy their Christmas vacation at this time of the year.
There is very little history about the Poush Mela online as it is mainly a folk art and cultural festival. From what little information can be found, history of Poush Mela coincides with the ceremonial opening of the Upasana Griha (Prayer Hall) of Santiniketan. After the opening day celebration of the Bhramha Prayer Hall in Santiniketan in 1891, in 1888, the Santiniketan Trust Deed was drawn, with provisions made for the Mela. The Poush Mela formally started in 1892, 7th Poush in front of the ground of North side of Bhraman Mandir. As the Mela increased in size, it was shifted to the field in Purba Pally.
The Baul are a group of mystic minstrels from Bengal, which includes the country of Bangladesh and the Indian State of West Bengal. Bauls constitute both a syncretic religious sect and a musical tradition. They are known to be a very heterogeneous group, with many sects, but their membership mainly consists of Vaishnava Hindus – who worship Lord Vishnu and Sufi Muslims. They can often be identified by their distinctive saffron clothes and musical instruments which include Ektara, Dotara etc. Ektara is a single string instrument, often made of wood. Their lifestyle defines simplicity and they sing songs of love, tradition, nature and religion. Not much is known of their origin. Although Bauls comprise only a small fraction of the Bengali population, their influence on the culture of Bengal – both Bangladesh and West Bengal is considerable. In 2005, the Baul tradition was included in the list of “Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity” by UNESCO. Baul songs are a huge part of the Poush Festival as well with regular performances by Bauls in the fair grounds.
Shonajhuri Saturday fair
The fair at Shonajhuri is organised every Saturday in the Shonajhuri jungle and while it isn’t something related to the Poush mela directly, this fair draws a lot of crowd during this time. The forest area selected for this fair is extremely peaceful, with eucalyptus trees providing shade. There are groups of tribal women from a nearby village who perform and dance with visitors and accept donations as well. Bauls sing traditional songs under the tree shades and draw a lot of attention.
The santals are indigenous people from Nepal and Indian States of Jharkhand, West Bengal, Bihar, Odisha, Assam (part of the Tea Tribes). Many such Adivasi communities still exist in parts of Birbhum who also celebrate Poush Festival. Women dressed in brightly coloured sarees and men dressed in spic and span Dhotisand shirts/t-shirts dance and play the Dhol, a traditional double-headed percussion instrument. Women also form a human pyramid while balancing pots on their head. The untouched beauty of these cultural activities is a must see if you visit Poush Mela.
Stalls were set up at the fair for the entire six days and ranged from handmade musical instruments, artworks, showpieces, jewelry etc. Beautiful hand painted vase, cotton sari etc are also sold at a very affordable price. A great opportunity for the locals to earn money, these stalls also help in spreading awareness of the traditional art. Since modernisation hasn’t affected this Mela as much as other city fairs, these fairs emit a nostalgic vibe.
One of the other attractions in these fairs are the local street food. Bengal has a wide variety of food options for both vegetarians and non-vegetarians. Bengal’s love for street food shows as you visit the food stalls in the fair. One can find everything from Chinese food to local dishes. Different kinds of sweets include lyangcha, malpua and puli pitha. Dudh Puli or Doodh Puli is one of the most famous and delicious Pitha Pulies prepared in Bengal during Makar Sankranti celebration. The stuffing is generally made of coconut and date palm jaggery and the shell is made of rice flour. These are made especially during the Poush Sankranti.
Other cultural programmes
There is a huge stage in the fair ground, that hosts the cultural festivities. Chhau dance is one of the main attractions as Chhau dancers enter the stage one by one, or two at a time and display the beautiful tribal semi classical Indian dance. The dancers wear masks made in the style of purulia and Seraikella styles. Set to traditional folk music, the Chhau dancers are amazing performers and tend to draw a huge crowd in the fair ground.