There is something magical about the little town 200 kilometres from Kolkata that greets me like a summer breeze every time I visit there. No matter what time of the year I decide to drive down, it is always summer there. The flowers are always in full bloom. The earth is always red. The mood always yellow with jubilation. Welcome to Santiniketan.
I was there just last week to drop in to the Joydev Mela around 30 kms from Santiniketan. Even though there was no dearth of ba’uls there, my mind kept harking back to the ba’uls I had encountered in Santiniketan during the Poush Mela. There was a clear difference of standard which made me drive back to Santiniketan after spending just an hour at Joydev. I was only too happy to sit quietly at the banks of the Kopai river under the full purnima moon and hum ‘aaj jyotsna raate shobai geche bone…’ All around me there were huge sal trees which seemed to join me in chorus as they swayed in the cold winter breeze. And along with the cicadas and the soft murmur of a nearby stream created a heady symphony that almost lulled my senses. The moonlight filtered through the trees went berserk as they etched designs of their own on my batiked shawl which I had wrapped tightly around me. Santiniketan is not a holiday spot. It is not a weekend getaway. It is a sensation that one has to feel using all five senses.
Last year I had spent Ashtami and Navami at Santiniketan. So that I don’t feel isolated from Durga Puja revelry, I travelled to Sonajhuri in Santiniketan. The venue of the Durga Puja was bang in the middle of a forest inhabited by Santhals. In a clearing stood the pandal and the idol of the goddess was unlike any idol I had ever seen. If the dakai saaj Durga of Bengal is said to be the prototype of the ‘fierce’ goddess, the Durga of the Santhals at Sonajhuri far surpasses that. Made of wood, iron and clay this idol Durga exuded raw sexuality, power and a Persephone like promise of fertility. She was not adorned in her usual Benarasi with her long wavy locks cascading over her breasts and gleaming gold jewellery covering her from head to toe. The Durga at Sonajhuri wore a simple blue skirt and a red blouse. Her only jewels were the sankha-pola and her only make-up was the vermillion smeared across her entire forehead. Never had the ‘married woman’ come across as so oozing with sexuality. The Santhalese Durga broke all barriers.
A trip to Santiniketan is incomplete without shopping at the Amar Kutir cooperative 15 kms from Santiniketan. The batik silks and tassar kantha stitch sarees are the best one can get. One can see the process of dyeing the saree and it being batiked if one has about an hour to spare. And top it off with a quiet cup of ‘cha’ under Tagore’s statue that oversees the cooperative. Must visits also include the chhatim tola, Santiniketan bari and Upasona Mandir. One must never miss the ‘Shanibarer Haat’ or Saturday flea markets held at Sonajhuri, vending everything from hot steaming patishaptas to terracotta jewellery as well as musical instruments like the ektara, dotara etc.
I have scheduled my next visit at the end of February during the Dol Utsav. I can’t wait to top-up my sensations with yet another visit! And till I bring back some fresh memories, I’ll just slip into the comfort of the old ones…