I’ve decided to stay in Santiniketan for a while, probably much of March. I’m excited about working with the women from the Santal Villages (I was writing “Santal” as “Chantal” in earlier posts because that’s how it’s pronounced, but now I know how to properly spell it!) as well as doing some projects with the students at the Antaranga School. I had hoped to find someplace to really settle into when I got to India, a place where I could know more about what it’s like to live here rather than visit here. That’s the way I prefer to travel. So, it feels very serendipitous that I’ve found this funny little arts community.
On Sunday, all of my Santiniketan acquaintances loaded into two cars and drove out into Santal land for the annual showcase of the Suchana group. Started by a British woman and her Bengali husband, Suchana is an after-school arts program for village children. I don’t know exactly how many people are involved, but I’d guess they had about 200 students from the ages of 4 to 18 participating in the 3-hour event. There were modern dances, classical dances, three short plays, a magic show, songs, and a gymnastic event to round it all off. On top of all that, there were sculptures, needle works, paintings, masks and puppets on display.
Over the last 20 years I’ve taught a lot of kids and been involved in a lot of “sharings” where parents get to see what their children have been doing, this was one of the most exciting, partly because of the sheer size of the event and partly because of it’s utter unexpectedness.. 400 people were sitting on the ground on a cool Indian evening, completely mesmerized. I was blown away by the modern dance numbers which were self-choreographed because the teacher up and disappeared (“That happens in India”). The dance numbers were as tight and focused as anything I’ve seen at Seattle Children’s Theater, but instead of there being one boy and 10 girls, there were as many boys as girls and the boys were the ones really rocking the stage. To get an idea of the style, think Michael Jackson meets Bollywood. You’ve got to remember this is a very macho society, so the amount of self-confidence and guts it took for those kids, especially the boys, to get up and pull out those dance moves was unbelievable.
There was also a “domestic drama” that involved a drunken husband and a mother who had to hold the family together. All the actors were 14 years or younger. They were performing for their parents, many of whom are certainly living this scenario in their real daily lives.
The gymnastics number was put on by a young Santali gym teacher who had come up through Suchana himself; He is now teaching students to tumble and build human pyramids and do handstands.
Afterwards our little entourage went to Santiniketan College to listen to a group of kids from Nepal who were giving a classical music concert. The songs were fantastic, as was the venue: a stage in a grove of trees in which were hung brightly colored cutout Sanskrit versions of “Do ray mi fa so la ti do,” At least that’s what I think they were, since I haven’t learned how to read Sanskrit yet.
I suspect you are beginning to understand why I might want to hang around here for a while.
But in case I need to paint the picture a little more, here are some other things I like about this little town:
There are very few cars and a lot of bicycles. The sound of bike bells is everywhere. Women and families ride behind the man “driving” the bike the way women and families ride behind the men driving mopeds in the cities.
Shops are closed on Tuesdays because Tagore didn’t want people in Santiniketan to have a normal weekend. It’s just so illogical that I find it charming.
Many shops at night are lit by old-fashioned kerosene lamps, so going down the road in the evening often feels like going back in time. The air is thick with darkness, broken by the deep golden glow of flames which illuminate deeply wrinkled brows of men hunched over sewing machines or bicycle wheels or teakettles.
I ride my bike everywhere, often having to swerve to avoid running into a cow or dog who might be eating, sleeping, or roaming right in the middle of the path.
There might also be a great gust of lemon verbena scented breezes.
Monkeys could also show up at anytime.
Men and women wrap themselves up in long woolen blankets of various colors and designs, then ride their bikes down the road looking like nomads from another era plopped on two-wheels instead of camels.
The town doctor sings Tagore songs when he operates. I know this because he came over to our house last night bringing with him a bottle of rum to go with Eva’s bottle of beer. We closed the doors and shutters so no one would know that we had alcohol.
There is music everywhere. The birds in the trees, the monkeys calling, bicycle wheels on the dirt road, the call of various wallas as they pitch their goods while walking down the lane, dogs barking, radios strapped to handle bars wafting tunes as people ride by, all of these contribute to the daily soundtrack. For several days I thought a musician nearby was warming up his trumpet and then I realized it was the sound of a horn on a rickshaw. Instead of a steady note, this horn plays a little tune.
To illustrate my point, a flock of Indian Sparrows, which resemble gray turtle doves more than the sparrows I’m used to back home, have just set down in the yard next door and, boy, are they chattering up a storm. There are squeaks and chirps and cheep-cheep-cheeps and rat-a-tat-tats. Barbara and Eva are on the veranda chatting away in German, Chompa, our care-taker lady, is yelling at someone in the back yard, a dog is barking, a bike is being ridden, the bell is being rung, a motor-bike is zooming past.
Like that tootling rickshaw horn, life in India is never static. Maybe that’s why I’m happy to remain in one place for a little while.