NUGGETS of LIFE: When the New meets the Old

Art is just used to depict those emotions.

When I recently visited my parent’s house, my mother took out a stack of yellowish worksheets. Some of them were from my kindergarten days, while others were from various other junior classes. My daughter sitting in my lap carefully observed or I would rather say inspected them. She pulled out a particular sheet with men and women dancing and asked, “Mama, who are these colourful uncles and aunties?”

The very next second I was in uncontrollable laughter. I tried my best not to embarrass my daughter but she was spot on with her remarks. Of course, my mother stepped in and chided me for not answering her granddaughter. “These are men and women celebrating a very special day…” my mother explained, “…long time back people were thankful and celebrated all plants and trees when they gave us food to eat.” My mother spoke in very simple terms so that my toddler could understand the message she wanted to convey. Still giggling I chipped in, “Yeah mama BUT who dances like that in the fields on Vaisakhi ever?  Why did they even make us draw that in school?”

My mother was in no mood to extol a lecture, so came in a sarcastic gibe “If you haven’t seen doesn’t mean people never celebrated! There is something called Punjabi folklore! Thank God you kids did all this in school otherwise you wouldn’t even know what Vaisakhi is!” (For parents you are always kids even when your hair starts to grey). 

This made me curious. Even though I come from a family with agricultural background I haven’t seen Vaisakhi being ever celebrated with bhangra on dhol beats or folk songs being sung by women with saggi phul glittering in the daylight. So I asked my mother if she has ever seen it. “No” came the straight reply. “Art, culture, folklore are immensely symbolic. May be in the bygone era they actually did it but it mainly symbolizes culmination of hard work into a fruitful yield. Even the LokGeet are all about husband and wife bickering around the harvest time because there is so much work to do and they do not get to see each other for days. Eventually the bountiful harvest brings good times making every one forget the bickerings”, she smiled. “Art is just used to depict those emotions”, my mother added.

That day when I went to bed I was wondering what the next generations are going to draw. They are more familiar with ballet dances, moon walking and remix music than bhangra, jindwa or traditional Lok geet. As far as bountiful harvest – with change in climate and dropping water levels, yields are affected now. I do not know what the next generation is going to paint for Vaisakhi but if we continue to ignore, somebody in next generations might certainly paint Edvard Munch’s famous painting ‘The Scream’ again.

Published in THE POST INDIA on 29.4.2022

SUNDAY FEATURE: In the Island of Masks – Majuli

Throughout the world masks have been prevalent in rituals and festivities since antiquity. Hollywood movies and popular English Literature has much familiarized us with masks at the masquerade parties in the West. But not many know that India too has a unique cultural legacy of masks and mask making. This fantastic mask craftsmanship has been preserved and is being passed on from generation to generation on a tranquil riverine island of Majuli on the Brahmaputra River in Assam. Today Majuli has carved a special place for itself amongst culture aficionados across the world, especially for its art of mask making.

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Beauty of Majuli lies in its remoteness

Inside Majuli

The island of Majuli can be accessed by ferries via Jorhat city. The dock on the island gives it a barren and desolate look but do not fall for this mirage because as you wheel inside, Majuli welcomes you with lush greenery and offers you the colours, tastes, music, art, languages and traditions of Assam and its tribal communities, especially if you visit it during the festive season around Dussehra and Diwali. Inside Majuli, the island is best enjoyed on bicycles and bikes. The rustic thatched bamboo huts in traditional Mishing style on river side or in the fields create picturesque scenes that calm the mind. As you traverse across Majuli, it is worth observing the everyday life of the agrarian folk here. Homestays are quite popular on this island where the local freshly brewed rice beer and authentic delicacies like Porang Apin (rice cooked in tora leaves), Pamnam (fish baked in banana leaves) among others provide a new experience to the palate.

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Performance at a Satra in Majuli

The island of Majuli is also the seat of neo-Vaishnavite culture of Assam that houses Satras or monasteries that have been established here by Mahapurush Sankardeva in late 15th century. The fine details on the decorative wood panels on some of the ancient Satras here represent the tribal art, folk culture and also the heritage of Ahom Kingdom. These Satras are now important centres of traditional performing arts. Each Satra has a distinct identity and serves as a sanctorium to a different art form. For instance, the Auniati Satra stores ancient artifacts and is famous for traditional Mishing tribal dances and Paalnaam which is form of congregational prayer.

The Dakhinpat and Garamur Satras stage raas leela and bhaonas which are theater performances that make use of the popular dramatic masks made exclusively in Majuli. The most renowned amongst these is Shamaguri Satra that has brought Majuli to the foreground for its art of mask making with some of its remarkable folk creations also being exhibited in Victoria and Alberta Museum in London.

Use of Indigenous material

Majuli is world renowned for its folk art of mask making

What differentiates these masks from other folk masks across the country is that they are made from indigenous material of the island and not plaster of paris, and without the use of synthetic colours. The techniques used for it are in fact being used since medieval times where special attention is paid to the intricate details and technicality (now there are also new kinds of masks that have movable jaws making dialogue delivery easier). The traditional art of making masks is passed down from father to son or from the guru or teacher at the Satra to the students.

The technique involves making a three dimensional bamboo framework onto which clay dipped pieces of cloth are plastered. After drying it, a mix of clay and cow dung is layered on it for adding details and giving depth to the mask. Jute fibers and water hyacinth are used for beard, mustaches and hair. Once the mask is complete, a kordhoni (bamboo file) is used to burnish the mask. And finally, the zeal and drama is given to the masks through deft painting. The mask makers of Majuli preferably use vegetable dyes and colours derived from hengul (red) and hentul (yellow) stones.

The three dimensional bamboo framework

There are three different types of masks that are made. The ‘Mukha bhaona’ covers the face, ‘Lotokoi’ which is bigger in size extends to the chest and ‘Cho Mukha’ is a head and body mask. The masks are made exactly the way luminary Sankardeva described the characters in his ‘Ankitya Natya’ from which bhaonas have emerged. These bamboo masks are very light in weight, making it convenient and comfortable for the performers to put them on. It takes approximately ten to fifteen days to make them.

It is but natural that when you visit this Satra, you have faces of gods, goddesses, demons, fiends, ogres and all kinds of interesting otherworldly characters with raised brows and flared nostrils from Indian mythology and folklore, as attendees either smiling or scoffing at you, spicing your visit to the otherwise peaceful Majuli.

Masks of Majuli
 Fact File

Where: Majuli is the first island district of India located in the Brahmputra river that passes through the beautiful and enthralling Assam.

What else to watch: Majuli is a birdwatchers delight. Rare species of migratory birds arrive here in winter.

Best time to travel: The Island is open throughout the year but October-November is the best time to experience the island in its full vibrancy and festivity.

How to reach: It is a 15km drive from the city of Jorhat to Nimati Ghat from where the island of Majuli can be accessed through ferries. If you’re in luck you can catch a glimpse and enjoy the extraordinary scenes during sunrise and sunset (although ferries generally start by 8:00 am and end by 4:00 pm; timing varies according to season).

Where to stay: There are many hotels and homestays in Majuli. The Satras also offer guesthouses to the devotees and tourists alike.    

Published in The Tribune on 29.11.2020

SUNDAY FEATURE: The Old Bazaars of Punjab

The history of Punjab unfolds this land of five rivers as the birth place of Indus Valley Civilization, the land of warriors and of-course for its gastronomy. But little is realized that it has also been the land of remarkable trade and commerce that was quite sophisticated for its time. It is the old bazaars of Punjab that testify and give a glimpse even today to this rich history and culture as we lose ourselves in the charm of its old winding alleys.

Through the history

The undivided Punjab enjoyed an advantageous geographical position on the world’s silk route. This overland route created a potential market for the agricultural and non agricultural material resources of the region. Punjab became a commercial hub and crossroad for trade across Europe, Persia, Central Asia, Deccan and Delhi. A well developed process of bills of exchange called hundi system was used for the purpose of trading by the kafilahs or caravans of merchants, pilgrims and travelers.

However, the location of Punjab on the famous silk route was on one hand good for the trade but on the other hand was the source of instability bringing repeated invasion. The 18th century undivided Punjab  saw a low state of trade, not only because of foreign invasions but also because of the policies of various independent Sikh and Non-Sikh chiefs of Punjab. Nevertheless, the trade managed to chisel out its path through the vicissitudes of political turmoil. It is in the late 18th and early 19th century that the stability of the region restored under the powerful reign of Sher-e-Punjab Maharaja Ranjit Singh as Punjab entered its golden era.

Maharaja Ranjit Singh in the bazaar of Lahore; 19th century

With the partition of India in 1947, some of the old historic bazaars of undivided Punjab that included Multan, Lahore, Rawalpindi, Shikarpur went to the other side of Wagah border but the indelible imprint of the collective culture stayed. Within Punjab, as William Francklin puts, there was never a fixed route for trade but the most significant one lied between Amritsar to Patiala – the two cities that till date house the oldest bazaars of present day Punjab.

Amritsar to Patiala – The bazaars in the olden days!

The city of Amritsar was founded by the fourth Sikh Guru Ram Das ji in 1574 A.D. To initiate the economic activity he invited fifty-two traders from different sectors to settle here who started the first thirty-two shops in the city that was to become the grand emporium of trade in the coming times. Sugar, spice, rice, wheat, indigo, utensils and white cloth (the togas of upper class Romans and turbans of Central Asian Turks were all made of Indian white cloth) were the main items that the bazaars of Amritsar offered to the traders from other regions. The Asiatic Annual Register of 1809 mentions that Amritsar was the prominent hub of trade for shawls. Pashmina was imported from Kashmir and Tibet. Lungis and Dohar manufactured at Pakpattan, the famous ghee from Kamalia and Qabuli, ‘Nemuk Lahooree’ or salt from Lahore, turmeric from Kathua and saffron from Kashmir found market in the bazaars of Amritsar. From Persian side came the swords, horses and dry fruits.

An old picture of Hall Bazaar in Amritsar

During the British Raj, Amritsar was not only trading in shawls but also carpets, and piece goods, silk and woolen cloth. Indian textile industry catered to a quarter of worlds demand and Amritsar became one of the most flourishing textile production centres. Author Gurcharan Das points out that this trade with Europeans, however, was mainly balanced with gold and silver in the balance sheet as Indians were not much interested in British goods until the Industrial Revolution of 19th century. In fact, it is during this time that the cloth and carpet trade and production in Amritsar started to decline as the machines in the west supplanted the handlooms. However, this did not alter the energy of the bazaars as the city developed expertise in the culinary niche – making it the ‘Food Capital of Punjab’ – putting it on the world map for its mouth watering cuisine.

In between Amritsar and Patiala, the ancient cities of Jalandhar and Ludhiana were the other commercial hubs. Jalandhar founded by Devasya Verma as mentioned in Vedas, was famous for its fine textiles and the Nakodar chandeli fabric which were marketed to Lahore and Kashmir through the bazaars of Amritsar. While Ludhiana founded by the chiefs of Sikander Lodhi who was at the helm of power at Delhi in 15th century, had a full-fledged bazaar popularly called Chaura Bazaar renowned for its white cloth. The bazaar got further boost during British Raj as the city became an important British cantonment.

The Patiala State was founded by Baba Ala Singh in 1763 with the foundation of Quila Mubarak or Patiala Fort. It enjoys a special place in the history of Punjab as can be observed from folklore and tradition. After the decline of Maharaja Ranjit Singhs Empire, it was the royal house of Patiala that provided patronage to the artisans and musicians of the declining empire. Similarly, they gave patronage to the members of disintegrating Mughal court at Delhi and welcomed all the silver and gold smiths, parandi (ornament) makers, jutti  (shoe) makers and other artists. Eventually, the bazaar of Patiala began to develop and flourish around Quila Mubarak and became a creative hub. The Darshni Gate right outside the Quila in the bazaar became the jewelers’ souk with a Shiva temple opposite to it. While, paranda hattis andtraditional embroidery shops got established in the by-lanes webbed across.

Jump into the heart of action!

The bazaars of Punjab are as lively and bustling with energy as they were in the past. Only the wide alleys of these souks of past now look narrower in the present as we jump into the heart of action. There is chaos but also exotic vibrant charms as the architectural legacies overlook these bazaars.

As we enter the connected labyrinth of bazaars in the old walled city of Amritsar through the Gandhi Gate (also popularly called Hall Gate) and dodge across motorbikes and rickshaws or wander across the Town hall whose architecture reminds us of the imperial era, marvel at Sikh architectural features and frescos at Quila Ahluwalia in Hall Bazaar or take a deep sigh looking at the grandeur of Ram Bagh Gate that still stands in its original form in nanakshahi brick – there is plenty to occupy the mind (and senses!).

Quila Ahluwalia in Amritsar

The famous lassi (buttermilk), Amritsari Kulche (a unique bread) and kulfi faluda (ice cream)at Katra Jaimal Singh Bazaar; the tongue tantalizing aam papad, pickle and papad wadia (spicy lentil balls used in curries) at Ram Bagh Bazaar; the beautiful gold jewellery at Guru Bazaar (a souk much frequented by British ladies during British Raj); exquisite textiles at Shastri Bazaar; or a walk through the newly revived Heritage street to visit Golden Temple simply transports to the olden days.

Creamy lassi at Katra Jaimal Singh Bazaar

 Not to miss the Bartan Bazaar that provides market to the brass and copper utensils that are made in Amritsar which have been enlisted on the UNESCO’s list of ‘Intangible Cultural Heritage’. The curious fascinating feel of walking through these bazaars, comes from the knowledge of the fact that there is a network of ancient tunnels (some branch out from Quila Ahluwalia and Ram Bagh Palace to mention a few) underneath, above which the whole bazaar bustles every single day.

Similarly, the Chaura Bazaar in Ludhiana extending from famous colonial clock tower to the Ghas Mandi is now famous for hosiery, apparel and garments, machine parts. The World Bank ranked Ludhiana as the city with best business environment in India in 2009 and 2013. The only surviving structure from ancient period in the city is the Purana Quila or Lodhi Fort which is about twenty minutes away from Chaura Bazaar. Heading to the bazaars of Patiala, the old world charm starts much before we reach the Anardana chowk. Some of the old shops still have clearly defined Sikh architectural features like embellished parapets, chattris or domes and pilasters. These shops stand distinct and graceful next to the new fashionable facades in the market.

Busy lanes of Adalat Bazaar

 The pulsing Adalat bazaar is replete with beautiful phulkaris (folk embroidery of Punjab) and rich fabrics like silks and satins showcasing some of the finest embroideries that are done by karigars or craftsmen of Patiala, Lucknow and Kolkata. The dyers of Patiala who have been traditionally dying the turban cloth of famous Patiala Shahi Turban, in the royal state colours of soft pink and lemon, are till date running their shops in Adalat Bazaar. As we go deep into the souk, there are many offshoots to other bazaars and popular lanes.

Silk thread Phulkari

The colourful paranda (traditional silk or cotton thread hanging used as hair ornament by Punjabi women) bazaar near Quila Mubarak; the famous jutti lane near Tope Khana road in Adalat bazaar; the heat and the smell of spices in the Gur Mandi are all exotic experiences with their own enticement that these bazaars offer even today. These bazaars of Punjab are living specimens of our grand history – the thriving hubs of our culture and tradition.

Published in The Post India on 22.9.2020