With onset of monsoon, boat races set to enthral rural Bengal

Though the tradition in the State does not enjoy countrywide popularity like in Kerala, the boat races in Bengal are held on a far greater scale and go on till November

Updated - June 29, 2024 11:23 am IST

Published - June 29, 2024 11:22 am IST - KOLKATA

Dr. Swarup Bhattacharyya working on a model of Chhip, one of the popular race boats of Bengal.

Dr. Swarup Bhattacharyya working on a model of Chhip, one of the popular race boats of Bengal. | Photo Credit: SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

With the south-west monsoon gradually setting in, boat races will soon begin in several rural pockets of West Bengal — in Murshidabad, Nadia, North and South 24 Parganas — even though the tradition here does not enjoy the kind of countrywide popularity as enjoyed by the one in Kerala.

“Boat races usually begin in the middle of the rainy season and they continue till September, sometimes till October, even November in some places. That way, boat race in Bengal held on a far greater scale in Kerala, where it is held only during the Onam festival with only one kind of boat participating,” said anthropologist Swarup Bhattacharyya, who has been documenting Bengal boats for nearly three decades now.

He has been making scientific models of the boats for the past few years to preserve them for posterity.

Lesser-known tradition

Mr. Bhattacharyya held an exhibition in Kolkata of his boat models sometime ago and his most recent creation is a model of Sorengi, one of the traditional racing boats of Bengal. “Unlike in Kerala, here four to five kinds of traditional boats are used for the races; that way we are ahead of them, but unfortunately, we are not as famous. Even people in Kolkata are hardly aware of the boat races of Bengal,” he said.

According to Mr. Bhattacharyya, boat race — called nouka baich in Bengal — is essentially a part of Southeast Asian culture and is most common in countries such as China, Vietnam, Cambodia, and, of course, Bengal, including Bangladesh as well as West Bengal. Sorengi, whose model he crafted most recently, is of Bangladeshi origin.

“Someone requested me to make this model, but I also made it for another purpose: to tell people, through social media, that such a beautiful boat is used for our boat races. Sorengi is about 90 ft long, the front is narrow and the rear is like the tail of a fish — a shining example of how boats imitate nature. This boat is an essential part of Bengali culture,” he said.

Variety of boats

Other boats that are commonly used for races in Bengal include the Chhip, Kaile Bachhhari, Chande Bachhari, Chitoi and Sorpi. “Not only that, in Nadia I have seen people using earthen pot as a boat. I have also seen plantain raft being used in a Sundarban village,” said Mr. Bhattacharyya, who is currently working on a model of Chhip, among the most popular race boats.

Boat races in Bengal are no longer a male bastion. The recent years have seen the participation of women too. “I was always fascinated by boats. Each time we crossed the river, going from one town to another, I always felt this urge to be at the helm. Then one day, while in college, my netball coach asked me if I would like to join a boat race association, and that’s how it began for me, about eight years ago,” said Unnati Mondal, 32, of Koikhali village in Nadia.

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