The annual fair of Poush Mela starts on the seventh day of the Bengali month of Poush, which in 2013 falls on December 23. The actual Poush Mela continues for three days; so this year it would end on December 25. The popularity of the fair, though, ensures that vendors stay up until the first week of January. The fair offers visitors the perfect picture of the heritage of Shantiniketan. Each day of the three-day fair is filled with different activities. The fair is a colourful mélange of the various aspects of the folk culture of Birbhum district.
The Poush Mela draws lakhs of people every year
Besides being the abode of Rabindranath Tagore, Santiniketan is also famous all over West Bengal for this fair. It is a huge tourist attraction, becoming more and more so now. And as with many things in Santiniketan, the fair has a close Tagore connection as well.
A scene from Basanta Utsav
It was on the 7th of Poush in 1250 Bangabdo (i.e., Bengali year), which fell on December 21, 1843, that Debendranath Tagore, Rabindranath’s father, at the age of just 22, along with twenty followers, was accepted into the Brahmo creed by Ram Chandra Vidyabagish. A Brahmo mandir, called Kanch Mandir (called so because it is decorated with beautiful stained glass) or Upasana Griha or Prayer Hall, was established on Poush 7th in 1891 in Santiniketan, to celebrate the anniversary of the induction into the Brahmo path.
To celebrate the fifth establishment anniversary of Kanch Mandir in 1894, Debendranath organised a small fair on the ground opposite the temple. On the opening day a year earlier, a tradition of fireworks display had also started, which was held after the evening prayers. What started as a small homely fair now attracts people from all around. As the fair increased in size, it was shifted to the field in Purbapally, where it is presently held.
In fact, Shantiniken was first developed by Debendranath Tagore. It was
originally the location of a small village called Bhubandanga. He was
charmed with the calm and quite surrounding of the village. At that time
he was in search of a location where people of all religions can seat
together for prayer and meditation; and found Bhubandanga the most
suitable location. He purchased the place in 1860, and started
developing it. Later, he changed the name to Santiniketan. The
university town as we know it today, though, is the legacy of
Debendranath’s son, Rabindranath Tagore.
The basic intention of starting the fair was to create a platform of interaction between the rural community and the well-educated followers of the Bramho creed who gathered at Santiniketan on the auspicious day. The rural folks were allowed to showcase and sell their products. The organisers of the Poush Mela provided added entertainment like elaborate fireworks, jatra palas, folk music, etc. It thus became a meeting ground of tribal, rural and elite cultural elements.
Rabindranath Tagore at Poush Mela
The fair has a unique opening. At dawn on the 7th of Poush, Santiniketan wakes up to the soft music of shehnai. The first to enter the scenario is the Baitalik group, at around 5.30 am. It goes round the ashram (hermitage), Gour Prangan, singing Rabindra Sangeet. It is followed by a special prayer meeting called Upasana at Chhatimtala at 7.30 am. Then the entire congregation moves on to Uttarayan, singing songs of Rabindranath.
The three days are filled with cultural activities. Live performances of Rabindra Sangeet, baul, other Bengali folk music, dances, tribal sports, and presentations by students of Santiniketan are the main cultural attractions. A lot of tribal art and craft is sold, which is another major attraction. Plus there the normal attraction of fairs, like the food, Ferris wheels, etc.
Bauls at Poush Mela
An interesting fact connects Satyajit Ray and Poush Mela. According to
Satyajit Ray in his autobiography, Childhood Days: A Memoir
Bengali title, Jakhan Chhoto Chhilam
), it was at the Poush Mela in 1934,
when he was in his early teens, that he had gone to see with his
mother, that he first saw the Chinese martial art, jiu-jitsu. As
recounted in the book, he later learned it from the
later-to-become-internationally-famous Japanese master, Shinzo Takagaki,
who had earlier taught it in Santiniketan on the invitation of Tagore.
It was also when he had gone to Santiniketan in 1934, as recounted in
the book, that he had obtained the signature of Tagore, in an autograph
book he had bought specially for the purpose. Along with the signature,
Tagore also wrote down these few lines of his famous poem.
“It took me many days; it took me many miles;
I spent a great fortune; I travelled far and wide,
To look at all the mountains,
And all the oceans, too.
Yet, I did not see, two steps away from home,
Lying on a single stalk of rice - a single drop of dew"
Charming people through the ages
The more-than-a-century-old fair has retained its basic character. It is still an ideal platform for the meeting of the tribal, rural and urban. People buy artefacts made by the rural folk, listen to performances of baul songs Rabindra Sangeet, etc., see demonstration of tribal sports activities, and, in general, have a gala time.
Tribal dance at Poush Mela
A few changes have come in though, the inevitable result of the passage of time. Notable among them is the fact that the ever-popular hand-pulled nagor dolas have been taken over by the motor-driven giant Ferris wheels. The snake charmers are also not seen, the activity having become banned as per conservation laws. Activities of ‘Brati Balaks’ or boys and girls scouts activities are no more showcased at Poush Mela. In fact, Visva Bharati these days do not promote ‘Brati Balak’, and has instead switched over to NCC and NSS activities.
Nearly 1500 stalls take part in the fair, and every year the crowds are as thick as ever, enjoying every moment. Lakhs of people congregate at the fair, in spite of the cold weather. People come from all over the state, as well as from other parts of the country, to savour the sights and sounds of the huge congregation. Now, hundreds of foreign visitors also throng the fair ground. They buy a lot of local items, and can often be seen engrossed in baul songs.
Craft items are a big hit at the fair
Giant Ferris wheel at Poush Mela