Friday, May 1, 2009

Maajhi/Boatmen of Bengal

The boatman/maajhi’s presence is woven into the fabric of rural Bengal. You can’t imagine the Bengal countryside without its stretch of river and a few boats plying on the surface. Rivers came before roads were even dreamt of.
On the map of West Bengal, rivers appear like so many veins on a leaf. And, rising like a mist from the rivers, is the figure of a boatman as the ages have known him. He is dark and sinewy with muscles like so much rope running down shoulder and arm. The furrows lie deep on his forehead, for the sheer effort of rowing causes him to crease his brow. Atop the heavily tanned face rests a thin turban, more a sunscreen than an ornament. The oars are held by chapped, work worn hands. The eyes are screwed against the harsh light of the sun on running water. He is thin, he is overworked. As likely as not, it’s the plug of tobacco in his mouth that keeps him going, unless it be the brave, indomitable spirit of his forefathers.
The boatmen of Bengal come of different stocks. Many belong to the Bagdi caste which is spread over a wide area in the districts of Burdwan, Hooghly, Midnapore, Bankura, Birbhum and the 24 Parganas. Bagdis are mostly agricultural laborers but their passion for fishing has lured them to the waterways.
There are members of other communities too, among the boatmen of Bengal, chiefly Muslims. But there is little to tell them apart from one another save perhaps the mode of dress which extends to a lungi and skull cap as well as a full beard. For the rest they are the same – with similar lifestyles and the same fears, the same concerns. Both Hindus and Muslim villagers offer prayers before a river journey. The deities differ from place to place.
Along the Ganges, worship is offered to images of the Ganga riding a makara (a mythical aquatic animal with the body of an elephant). Teesta, the most turbulent river of north Bengal, is personified as Teestabudhi (old lady Teesta) and is offered ceremonial worship to the accompaniment of music and dance. A certain river deity in Bengal is known as Dariy-Pir. He is said to be a deified Muslim saint who presides over rivers in general. Members of all communities offer worship in his name, in the hope of having a safe journey by boat. In the coastal region, the names of goddess Ganga, Bahruddin Ghazi and the (unspecified) Five Pirs along with Dariya-Pir, are chanted by Muslim boatmen before setting out on a journey on any big river.
The method of ceremonial worship is very simple. A small pit, symbolizing a river, is dug in the ground. It is filled with milk and two small human images are taken across the pit a number of times symbolizing a safe journey by river Uncooked food is also offered to the deities and legend of Dariya Pir is narrated to focus on his miraculous powers.
And well might the boatmen worship his gods for his life is fraught with dangers. Even he has grown to manhood on that same river, handling an oar when others handled no more than a hoop, even if he understands all the signs and portents, he is at the mercy of the elements. There’s danger from storms and cyclones, particularly in coastal areas. In and around Midnapore district for example, cyclones are fierce and frequent and for the light country boat out by itself on river or sea, the lashing, howling winds spell terror. Even the sudden localized storms known as Norwesters can whip up the waves to a fury. A savage shark is no friend, neither is the tall wave known as a ‘bore’ that suddenly goes riding upstream from the mouth of the Hooghly. And every time a ship plies the waters, even on a peaceful, windless day, it sends the surface of the river and the country boat into a tizzy.
One sometimes wonders why boatmen remain boatmen. It must be because they are trained for no other profession. Or why else would they live out their lives precariously balanced on the poverty line? Like other unskilled/Semi-skilled laborers, they are haunted by insecurity, fear of illness and a sudden, unavoidable financial drain. In recent years, with the advent of fishing trawlers and power driven ferries and motor launches, the country boat is less in demand. A fisherman cannot match the performance of a trawler and a motor ferry will leave the best country boat far behind. But, plying a row boat or sail boat, skiff or catamaran, the boatman is here to stay.
Rivers are the lifeline of rural Bengal and worship of rivers (as distinct from river deities) is also deeply ingrained in the psyche of the rural population. During the ‘Sedo’ festival, which falls on the last day of Paus (December-January), Hindu women prepare small, floatable, boat-like structures out of banana trunks, placing inside them small round balls of jaggery and lighted candles. Decorated with marigold flowers and laced with prayers, these boats are floated down the river at sundown. To a villager, a boat is highly symbolic. It is a means of reaching somewhere, be it the opposite bank, the next village, the open sea or the shrine of the river goddess itself. At the time of fairs and festivals, country boats are much in demand. The Ganga Sagar mela (fair) held on an island at the mouth of the Hooghly, witnesses whole fleets of country boats converging on the sacred ghats.
To the boatman, his boat is a home away from home. If he wanders far, a rough canopy of wood and tin offers a place to cook and sleep and a little niche to keep his things safe against the ever flying spray. And when loneliness grips him, he sits in the prow of his boat and sings. Most often his songs are based on the style known as Bhatiyali. This is regional in Character, inasmuch as it is sung all over the lower regions of the eastern districts of Bengal, known as Bhati (the lowlands). The whole region of Bhati is covered by vast stretches of water, particularly during the rainy season. The boatmen playing their boats in this area sing such songs. Bhatiyali is never sung in groups, but always individually, expressing the deepest feelings of love and devotion of the human soul. This is essentially a song of loneliness, sung by boatmen during their leisure, helm in hand, while the boat floats on by itself down the river, at low tide.
Bhatiyal is a-rhythmic, as compared to Sari, that other sytle of singing which is rhythmic and often fast. Sari is the style adopted during manual work, a perfect example being the pulling of oars in unison during the boat races sometimes held in lower Bengal.
The boatmen of Bengal have long been a motif of great inspiration to painters. How many have depicted the Bengal countryside: paddy fields – an incredible shade of green, coconut palms rising to meet the sky, and the river floating by with one lone boat on its bosom. Or a clutch of country boats, supremely river-worthy craft, with sails unfurled. Tattered sails made of canvas and patched with other materials, in different colours. Or else the silhouette of a boatman in the prow of his boat gliding into the sunset.(Collected)
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