Poush Mela – Shantiniketan, West Bengal

Festival, India, Photo Feature, Photojournalism

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.

Baul giti

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.

 

Tribal dance

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.

Handmade knick-knack

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.

Local food

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 pithaDudh 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.

 

  

 

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Bonalu

Festival, India, Photo Feature, Photojournalism, Travelogue, Uncategorized

Some time back when we started planning the trip, we read up a lot on Bonalu. But as far as research on the internet goes, we weren’t sure if the information we got was correct or not. We had also called the Telengana Tourism department confirmed that the festival was happening on that sunday we had very little other information about the time and place. The incessant pouring rain made it almost impossible to take the bus. We finally boarded the bus, drenched because of the rain. As it was a sleeper we could thankfully change into dry clothes. Once we settled down I started to read up on Bonalu again as recent news articles had been published by various local newspapers and it seemed to give us a better understanding of the festival.

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Bonalu is a Hindu festival where Goddess Mahakali is worshiped. It is an annual festival celebrated in Telengana. Hyderabad and Secunderabad and other parts of the state host this month long festival where thousands of devotees gather to worship and celebrate other festivities. The word ‘Bonam’ has been derived from the word Bhojanam (a Sanskrit loanword) which means a meal or a feast in Telugu and is an Offering to Mother Goddess. Women cook rice with jaggery and carry it in a brass or earthen pot on their head to the temple to make an offering.

 

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As the arduous 15 hour bus ride from Mumbai came to an end we were greeted by the lovely Hyderabad! We took an auto rickshaw to go to our hotel and on the way could some places where preparations were being made for ‘Bonalu’. We reached our hotel in the evening and quickly put our cameras to charge so that we didn’t have to worry about it the next day which was the day of the shoot. We freshened up and left the hotel to get a feel of the city. Hyderabad, famous for their food, treated us well! We had biryani for dinner and met up with a few friends in Hyderabad. We got a lot of new information about the festival as well since one of them was a photographer who, coincidentally had shot Bonalu a few years back.

 

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Bonalu is celebrated in various parts of Hyderabad and Secunderabad. On the first Sunday of Aashadham, celebrations are held at the temple at Golconda Fort. On the second Sunday, at Balkampet Yellamma temple in Balkampet and Ujjaini Mahakali Temple in Secunderabad and the third Sunday, at The pochamma and katta maisamma temple of chilkalguda and the Matheswari temple of Lal Darwaza in Old City of Hyderabad. Akkanna Madanna temple in Haribowli, Muthyalamma temple in Shah Ali Banda are among other temples where Bonalu are celebrated. Since we had arrived on the third Sunday we decided to head for Lal Darwaza. I got up early and went to a nearby temple called ‘Bhulaxmi Mata Mandir’ in Begum Bazar. It was drizzling that day and I was a bit worried if devotees would show up for the Puja or not.

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On my way to the temple I could see hundreds of women walking to the temple with earthen pots balanced on their head. It was reassuring. The women were impeccably dressed in sari and jewelry while teenage girls wore legenga choli. The men usually wear new shirts and trousers on the special occation. The temple was beautifully decorated with flowers and people were offering their Bonam to the shrine. It is believed that the Goddess comes back to her maternal home during Ashada Maasam, so people come to see her and bring offerings of food to show their love and affection, just as they would prepare a special meal when their own daughters visit them. I shot photographs of the festivities for around two hours. It was still drizzling but the weather shield on the Canon 7D Mark II held well. A non-vegetarian family feast follows after the great the offering. The meat used to prepare the meal is the meat of a goat or a chicken which is offered ceremonially (Bali in Telugu) to goddess and it is considered sacred. Offering alcohol is also considered a must. Women carrying earthen pots are accompanied by drums as they get into a trance and dance to the beats. Many also carry more than one pot on their head.

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In the afternoon, after another Biryani lunch, we arrived near Charminar where the main festivities are to take place. It was surprising to see a small temple right on the walls of the Charminar – a monument and mosque in Hyderabad. The diversity of culture was a sight to see! We came to know from the locals that we could find something interesting if we headed towards Lal Darwaza, so we did.

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As we were walking towards Lal Darwaza we came accross another festivity that has been a big part of Bonalu. We came accross a procession that was just about to start and it was being led by a well-built, bare-bodied man, wearing a small tightly draped red dhoti and bells on his ankles, and anointed with turmeric on his body and vermilion on his forehead. Potharaju, as they are known, is the brother of Mother Goddess. Dancing ahead of Palaharam Bandi, the procession, he is considered the initiator of the festivities and the protector of the community. Leading the female dancers who are under spell of the Mother Goddess (known as shigam) to the temple he lashes his whips around, as people in the procession try to dodge it, accompanied by trumpets and drums. The locality also celebrates with songs and dance as many places host cultural programmes in the evening. Thottelu, a small colorful, paper structure supported by sticks, is also offered as a mark of respect. The Thottelus are decorated with flowers and carried to the temples on the following day. Sri Ujjaini Mahakali Temple and Sri Devi Pochamma Temple Somasundaram Street are two of the most prominent temples as these are government owned and the festivities are visited by Government officials and legislators as well. The near carnival like atmosphere with processions from different parts of the city arriving in regular intervals is a sight to be seen! People spend their afternoons and evenings looking at the processions from their balconies in specific parts of the city. Unlike Ganpati Puja in Maharashtra and Durga Puja in West Bengal, Bonalu is only seen in specific parts of the twin cities as other areas run normally.

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We covered the procession and festivities and were ready to head to the station for our bus back to Mumbai. Even though we wished we could have covered the month long festivities we did end up seeing and experiencing the ‘essence’ of the festival in all its glory. After a 15 hour bus ride, the Bonalu festival did not make us feel tired or unwelcome. The spirit of the people coming down to the temples even in the rain, the children in new clothes, the smiles, the baloons, the Pothraju and their whipping while people run around them, the drums – all added up to one of the many exciting and little known festivals that this great country has to offer – Bonalu.

Maharashtra Drought

Documentary, Photo Feature, Photojournalism, Travelogue

 

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High Walls (Ongoing series)

Documentary, Photo Feature, Photojournalism, Travelogue

Beaches are celebrated to be a neighborhood for recreation, a place to let go of the day-to-day life and have a quiet time. It is, in most metropolitan cities, also known for its beach side properties and sea-facing villas for the affluent communities. But Mumbai, India’s economy capital differs from most cities. In this city, the beach becomes a liaison for the prosperous and the underprivileged. Residencies of both the prosperous businessmen and the deprived slum dwellers within kilometers of one another are hard to miss. The rich build high white-washed walls and fences around their villas and the underprivileged hang and dry clothes on them. The closed sea facing windows of the air conditioned rooms compliment the window-less shanties. The high walls meant to keep privacy inside the bungalows are used by couples who sit on the other side of the wall for a quick afternoon romance, seeking a piece of the privacy for themselves. In these beaches people’s resilience in co-existing and conquering the hardships of the social order become prevalent. A symbiotic relationship prevails, working and living through social discrepancy, and an act of triumph of human spirit, ignored perhaps because of their own cultural baggage.

Chennai – A City With A Spirit

Photo Feature, Photojournalism

Amidst relief work and chaos following a flood that rocked the capital city of Tamil Nadu, we decided that coverage of Chennai was well overdue. I packed my bags and headed to Chennai, also known as Madras to see how the city was coping with the unexpected disaster. I reached Chennai on Friday, 11th December. The rains had stopped a couple of days back, but the relief work was still on. I headed to a place called Navalur, where I would be staying. A 45-minute journey took me through the heart of the city, as I got accustomed to the people, the streets and the overall surroundings.  Some parts of the city were doing fine, but other parts looked like a graveyard at times. It was astonishing to see this – as if some were not even aware of what was going on in the other parts of the city. However, looks can be deceiving, and that was apparent, when I later came to know about the amazing relief work that is being done by the people who were unaffected by the floods.

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Navalur was a little further away from the heart of the city and was not affected by the floods. I reached the spot, freshened up and decided to read up about the city, as it was afternoon and leaving for a shoot without a bit of research would be futile. I opened my travel guide book and checked out the key areas of focus, the city map and the geography of the area. In the evening, I decided to go to the beach to get accustomed to the city and its food and culture. It is always important to give yourself time and feel at home; Especially if you are to cover a city that you have never been to,  in a short period of time, as if you have lived there all your life.

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I met one of my old friends there who had agreed to guide me and show me around his city. We moved from place to place – Ramapuram, Vellacherry, Nungambakkam, Adyar – some of which still had a little bit of water, some areas had a few broken houses and almost everywhere there were loads of household material lying on the side of the roads.

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Sofa sets, CD/DVDs, Wi-Fi routers, shoes and everything that the water could carry. It was disheartening to see the slums and how much they had suffered from this flood. They lost their furniture, were without food or drinking water for almost a week, and now that the water has receded they had to deal with the loss and try to get back to normalcy again.

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But the immense spirit shown by the people is astonishing. Relief work has been carried out by residents of the city with the help of social media – Facebook groups have connected the relief workers and made the workflow easier, Twitter updated them about people who had been stuck in their houses. Even private cab companies, which had halted cab services, had made boats available for rescue so that the boats could taxi people to safety. Chennai will remain an example of how technology can assist in helping people in need. The sun was shining and it was typical winter weather in Chennai as relief work continued. My friend and I stopped for lunch as we had local fish delicacies and a non-vegetarian meal that was served on a banana leaf. Being a coastal city, the seafood here is delicious.

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Chennai has few tourist spots inside the city, but one of the attractions is the Marina beach. Marina is the second largest urban beach in the world spanning a total of 6 kms along the city. The beach also has a lighthouse that one can go up to, to get an amazing vista of the city from above. The lighthouse tickets can be bought separately, or clubbed with tickets to a museum on the ground floor of the lighthouse itself. The city also houses major IT company offices, which were closed or their operations were temporarily shifted to Bangalore during the floods. One can also spot fishing boats, food stalls and take horse rides on Marina beach. The best time to visit Chennai is during the winter, as the climate is generally tropical. The city is filled with beautifully carved temples and their colourful architecture is amazing to look at and admire. It is also a city rich in culture as it has a rich history of theatre and is also one of the most important centres of Bharatnatyam, a style of dance and Carnatic music as well. Most people in the city know both English and Tamil. Taxi drivers can communicate in English but autorickshaw drivers mostly speak Tamil and occasionally broken English. The bus service is excellent as well, as government buses are quite frequent and cost effective.

 

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Chennai has left a mark on me, seeing amazingly coordinated relief work carried out by ordinary members of the public, and witnessing how a city moves on and gets back to normal life from a disastrous flood. A city with unimaginable courage, persistence and love for each other. It has showed us instances of resilience and determination. Chennai is not just a city but a spirit of unstoppable forces and beautiful landscapes, of warm people and even warmer hearts. I left Chennai hoping to come back again, hungry for more.

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How to help :

You can help individuals from a facebook group called ‘Tamilnadu Flood – Support’ or donate to any of the following NGOs to help.

  • Caritas India
  • Sewa International
  • IAHV- Art Of Living
  • HelpAge India
  • Oxfam India
  • Bhoomika Trust
  • truegiftsindia.org
  • AID India
  • Action Aid India
  • India Cares Foundation
  • Goonj India
  • AISC Chennai Flood Relief 2015
  • Zomato Chennai Relief Fund

 

Dubai

Travelogue

Dubai, a name that is synonymous with tall structures and even taller ambitions, the most populated emirates of the seven emirates that make up the country.At this point is a city that has already exceeded anyone’s wildest imagination. A magnificent city built on the most inhospitable of places with an unbearable climate. But Dubai has made it work for itself somehow and still is growing. One cannot take a photo of a tall structure in Dubai without having cranes or an under construction building seeping into the frame. This ever growing city still amazes the world and will keep on doing so in future as it becomes the tourism and economy hub of the Middle East.