Representation of Santals by Bengali Artists
In the state of West Bengal the Santals and Bengalis have resided together for a long long time. It is very hard to specify a time period of their association nevertheless it is impossible to deny the symbiotic relationship between these two communities. Exchanges as we know occurred on all fronts and it is interesting to observe these interactions. One way to observe these interactions is to look at the exchanges between Bengali and Santali languages which still is quite significant. Both the languages have considerably influenced one another, but in art we get to see another interesting level of interaction which is the subject of this article.
To discuss this I must begin from somewhere, perhaps it will be proper to begin from the time of Santal rebellion. I choose the year 1855 to begin the discussion since prior to this there is not enough material or documents which can throw ample light of the social status of Santals in Bengali community. It is because of the intensity and the popularity of this landmark event that produced so many documents and literature about the Santals. Before Sepoy Mutiny, Santal rebellion was an event widely covered by the press and every day development was presented with renewed interest. Probably one report will help us to understand how the rebellion was covered by the press.
“It is extremely painful to write about the atrocities of the mountain dwellers. They have committed unprecedented violence while sacking Jhikarhati, the nature and intensity of which cannot be imitated by the fiercest wild animals. They have involved themselves in slaughter and arson.
The unity among Santals is truly amazing. They can assemble thousands of their comrades by beating their drums. The reader may wonder about the amount of force necessary to keep them at bay. As what caused this rebellion, the reason is yet unknown but there is a rumor that two infidels have raised themselves against the Government. Since the wretches have sacrificed a few before goddesses Kali, I am convinced that they are not infidels. Some say the rebellion is due to the atrocities on the Santal women by the railway workers, some say it is all about land revenue, no one knows the actual cause, I will try to post about it as soon as I know.” (Translated from bengali) Amra, Sambad Prabhakar, 13th July, 1855.
This is a picture of how the news was covered in a nutshell. Just as in recent time, one fine morning we get to know that communal violence in Assam, we learn about the ravages and the atrocities, and then we get curious to know what might have caused it. It worked similarly then as well. But apart from exposing the violence the report does raise an important question- what were the causes of the rebellion? When the cause was known the Bengalis partly sympathized with the Santhals however the violence committed by the rebels still remained fresh in their memory. With the growth of nationalism and reformation especially after 1890 a renewed interest on the Santals was slowly gaining ground. The Bengali revivalists started to look at the Santals with a feeling of empathy and appreciated their innocence and vitality which was quite lacking in their own society. Santali society was becoming the embodiment of an “ideal society” where they could find the essence of long lost Oriental values. I will discuss below how some of the key figures of Bengali renaissance endorsed this perception, became interested in the Santals and represented in them in various art forms in the early half of the twentieth century which in effect became the inspiration for other artists to come.
Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar
I would like to begin with Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar, the eminent Bengali social reformer. As a matter of fact while endorsing and implementing
Swami Vivekananda the fervent religious cum social reformer was vocal to spread the message, “forget not that the lower classes the ignorant, the poor, the illiterate, the cobbler, the sweeper, are thy flesh and blood, thy brothers”. I think that was a very important message passed down to his people for in essence it contained his wish to unite people than to divide. If one considers the time then we will see that this was quite a radical idea. And not just in speeches and lectures but it was put into action in the maths where Vivekanada and his monk brethren regularly feed the Santal construction workers. When one of the monk follower asked him, “Why do you fuss so much over the Santals?”. He said, “They are as much the children of God as you or I”.[ii]
THE SANTAL woman hurries up and down the gravelled path under the
shimool tree; a coarse grey sari closely twines her slender limbs, dark and compact; its red border sweeping across the air with the flaming red magic of the palash flower.
Some absent-minded divine designer, while fashioning a black bird
with the stuff of the July cloud and the lightning flash, must have improvised unawares this woman’s form; her impulsive wings hidden within, her nimble steps uniting in them a woman’s walk and a bird’s flight………….
I sit on my terrace watching the young woman foiling at her task
hour after hour. My heart is touched with shame when I feel that the woman’s service sacredly ordained for her loved ones, its dignity soiled by the market price, should have been robbed by me with the help of a few pieces of copper.
This is none other than our very own bard observing a Santali woman at work, making the poet’s mud house. After poetry let’s consider a prose.
“Baire theke misti sure awaj elo (The sound of a sweet voice came from outside)
Babu dekechis kene? (Babu, why have you called me)
Baire ese dekhi camellia (I came to see the camelia)
Kalo galer opor alo koreche (Brightly arrayed on her dark cheek)
Se abbar jiggesa korte, dekechis kene? (She asked again,” why have you called me?”)[iii]
I hope you can notice a different perspective of viewing and representing the Santal here, is it not? It is something beyond seeing the Santals as long ignored and betrayed people, but this is something exquisite. It is about their beauty, it is about the charm which yet remained unexplored. Tagore throws a pleasant light on this aspect of the Santals. It is certainly not socio-economical perspective which can only measure abject poverty, misappropriation of lands etc, but about something more passionate more emotional. This is also different from the mostly anthropological perspective presented by the British civil servants and ethnographers.
This aspect of the Santals perhaps could only be covered by artists, and this is where the Bengali artists of the early twentieth century made a remarkable contribution. The Bengal school produced some finest painters who dealt with the Santals in varied and interesting perspective. The painters of Bengal school in Kolkata and Shantiniketan brought a fresh breath of air in Indian art. One of the greatest aspects of it was to bring the previously unexplored elements or subjects in art. Like the representation of the Santals for example, before this Indian art was centered on Hindu mythology or Mughal retrospective or perhaps some alternative art from the company paintings. But all these covered the already known elements of the society, the grandeur of Nawabs and Kings, a vivid picture of the festivities, of old and new mansions, the tales of mythology but something unique was waiting to happen.
The Government College of Art and craft one of oldest art colleges in India was founded in 1854. Eminent artists like Percy Brown, Abanindranath Tagore and Mukul Dey served as the principal of this college. This college produced some of the best known artists like Jamini Roy, Nandalal Bose, Devi Prosad Roy Chowdhury, and Kshtindrananth Majumdar. All of them painted the Santals and each of them represented the Santals in a unique perspective.
Kshtindranath Majumdar an eminent artist from Murshidabad was a student of Government Art College and a disciple of Abanindranath Tagore. He painted a Santal woman as Jamuna (refer page 28 of the book), it is a beautiful painting please have a look. Kshitindranath was a devoted Vaishnavite and had painted a number of scenes from the Hindu mythology. The naming of the Santali woman as Jamuna is quite interesting and draws attention. Kshtindrananth draws a connection of the Santals with the fate and status of the river goddesses Jamuna, who is dark, beloved of Vishnu and is second in place after Ganga. Second in place, but both Ganga and Yamuna is considered as a lucky charm in India. So in the naming part Kshitindranath depicts the Santals as important as the elite classes of the society and the same children of God. It has a tinge of irony in it, but Kshitindrananth reacts to the “skin color prejudice” by making the woman beautiful and pleasing to
So clearly Kshtindranath’s work is a deviation from the Colonial interpretation of the Santals. It finds beauty in a simple Santali woman and it represents it with purity and with the natural aura which is intrinsic to the Santals. Nevertheless in doing this work Kshtindranath understand the status and position of the Santals with respect to the Vaishnav worldview and perception.
One of the important aspects of the Santals which immensely attracted Bengali artists was the Santali dance. As a matter of fact the Santali dance is a wonderful visual art form and is a treat to watch. The Bengalis initially love this because of its visual grace and then later they appreciate its rhythm and grammar. Jamini Roy who worked for a new style and new mode expression represented the Santals in a unique setting. His Santali women give the impression of strength, of motherly affection and the enduring the struggle meet with simplicity. He depicted the Santali dance in his paintings much like the potuas (Bengali village scroll painters). In fact in 1935 Jamini Roy received the highest accolade at the Academy of Fine Arts in Calcutta for his Santal and Child.[iv] Nandalal Bose also captures this great art form of the Santals in his painting the – The Santali Dance. It is fascinating to watch the Santal dancers in action, in full swing.
In fact a significant counter current was flowing inside the Bengali society led by Rabindranath. His idea of “Shantiniketan” an abode of peace where teachers and pupils would jointly study in the lap of nature was an antithesis to the materialistic and urban centric development imported from the West. This idea to go back to the basics, to go look for once own root, right from where civilization began was a very formidable idea brought forth to challenge the Western blue print to design India at their own sweet will. To support this theory or to market this idea a suitable subject was necessary and that happened to be the Santhals. It was not only the Santals though in general it was the peasants of Bengal who were well represented by Sarat Chandra Chattopadhay and later by Bhibuti Bhusan Bandhopadhay but that was in literature.
It was necessary then to rediscover the simple and uncorrupted life of Santals and project it to support the theory of going back to roots (or back to basics theory). The easy going life of the Santals, their simplistic approach to life, their song and dance were displayed passionately by the artists to show the “the nature’s children”. Ramkinkar Baij exhibited the dynamic and the relentless struggle of the Santals against odd time in his monumental sculpture- The Santal Family. In doing this he displays the strength of the Santal women perhaps both inner and outer, also their temperament and
I also get the feeling that the artists in Shantiniketan poised themselves against the Anglican views of the indigenous people of India. The British civil servants and ethnographers represented the Santals as very distinct from the Hindu society, their culture, their habit, and pointed that their social injunctions and customs shared very little from their elite neighbor. In effect this representation produced some separatist demarcation of an indigenous people and endorsed the idea of a “noble savage” much better than their corrupt Aryan neighbors. The hardcore Hindu Nationalists in countering this threat projected the Santals as a long forgotten Hindu brother and showcased their culture, rituals quite in harmony with the basics of Hinduism. However the secular artists of Shantiniketan and Bengal freed themselves from all these prejudices and represented the Santals in the way they are and found a way of unity with them, in doing this they passed the message of unity among diversity. It was perhaps also an answer to the Anglican Protestant Missionaries working in Eastern India converting Adivasis who aimed to reshape the Santals in their own line.
The representation of Santals in this new perspective was instrumental in re-shaping the common Bengalis notion about Santals. The works of Jamini Roy, Nandalal Bose, Jamini Roy, Ramkinkar Baij, Binode Behari, Devi Prosad inspired the later generation of artists, writers and filmmakers. Mahesweta Devi, Ritwik Ghatak, Satyajit Ray touched and handled the “Santal” subject in their own way. In fact Satyajit Ray’s last film
[My sincere thanks to Dr. Daniel Rycroft of East Anglia University, who made me interested in this topic. ]
[i] The Bengalis: The People, Their History, and Culture. Bengali Renaissance, edited by S.N.. Das
[ii] Sculpting the Middle Class: History, Masculinity and the Amar Chitra Katha, By Deepa Sreenivas
[iii] Studies on Rabindranath Tagore, Volume 1, By Mohit Kumar Ray
[iv] The Triumph of Modernism: India’s Artists and the Avant-Garde, 1922-1947, By Partha Mitter
Image of Santal family from http://utharakalam.com/english/?p=204.