Replaying the music

24dfr music1   | Photo Credit: 24dfr music1

For centuries, Santhals, spread across West Bengal, Jharkhand and Bihar, have nurtured culture and heritage. Some of the finest music and art traditions originated in this tribe and went on to influence people like Pannalal Ghosh and Kazi Nazrul Islam. But not surprisingly, the rich music tradition is on a decline with its variety of instruments becoming rare if not extinct altogether. “Cadence and Counterpoint: Documenting Santhal Musical Traditions”, an ongoing exhibition at National Museum on Santhal music and traditions, turns out be a dense exercise probing the issue.

“Many Santhal instruments are becoming rare if not extinct, and are today being replaced by officially-sponsored mainstream instruments like the harmonium, tabla, synthesiser etc. Santhal music has a distinct intonation pattern, rhythmic structure and metrical mould as well as autonomous aesthetic, performative and transmission principles. Unthinking substitution of Santhal musical instruments by other instruments often leads to stark musical incompatibility,” says Jayasri Banerjee, a sitar player and a musicologist who has undertaken extensive fieldwork, documentation and advocacy of endangered musical genres. Her documentation of the tribe forms part of the show that traces the community from 1940s to date through photographs, instruments, audio recordings, videos and text.

A collaboration between the National Museum, Crafts Museum (Delhi), Museum Reitberg (Zurich, Switzerland) and Indira Gandhi Rashtriya Manav Sangrahalaya (Bhopal), the show has been curated by Ruchira Ghosh, Mushtak Khan, Krittika Narula, Marie-Eve Celio-Scheurer and Johannes Beltz.

Three highlights of the exhibition are banam — a bowed monochord and the only Santhal instrument to be categorised as a chordophone, tamak, a cup-shaped drum made with an iron shell and buffalo skin, worn around the neck using a leather strap and played with two sticks and chadar badar, the community’s unique puppetry tradition.

Banam is replete with images made by craftsmen of what they saw in their daily lives and in chadar badar, a long pole acting as base, rows of beautifully carved wooden puppets dance with the pull of a string.

“Last year Reitberg Museum donation got a donation of 92 instruments by a German graphic designer and amateur musician out of which 44 were banams. Like always the institution had an exhibition of this collection as well but they felt a need to follow up with a well-researched exhibition. The collector had never travelled to India and had bought it from dealers. He also had no idea about the collection. The museum then approached the Crafts Museum,” says Ruchira Ghosh, who was at the time heading the museum in the capacity of Director. She is no longer with the museum which is going to be replaced by Hastakala Academy as announced in the Union Budget. “That’s another story. In 1988, there was a report written on chadar-badar, we were planning to do a book and when we got to know about the Reitberg show, we sent a proposal to do an exhibition. For reasons best known to the, the Ministry of Textiles, didn’t sanction the exhibition. I then went to National Museum and it turned out they had a beautiful Verrier Elwin collection. We still didn’t have enough objects so then we went to Indira Gandhi Rashtriya Manav Sangrahalaya and Mushtak Khan, who has a very deep understanding of the subject selected instruments. The involvement of so many people and institutions was necessary to have an extensive exhibition like this. We just wanted to cover the subject in its entirety and correctly,” explains Ghosh.

Banerjee reveals that the community has started taking positive steps for conserving musico-artistic culture as a living tradition. “Experiments with the structure of the banam as well as creation of necessary space for its teaching/learning are clear. Moreover, this particular instrument has now become, in some contexts, a stand-alone instrument, and a group of professional banam players, using the epithet of ‘Banam Raja’, have contributed to Banam’s survival and popularity. Of course, as this exhibition itself shows, we cannot minimize the value of academic contributions in this field, by the social scientists, folklorists, socio-linguists, ethnomusicologists etc, both of our country and from abroad. But the situation is not so bright in cases of Santhal instruments other than the Banam...” she says.

(The exhibition is on at National Musuem, Janpath, till May 17)

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Printable version | Jan 17, 2022 10:02:50 PM |

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