Amader choto nodi chole aanke baanke
Boishakh maashe taar haatu jol thaake…
[Our small stream moves forward in bends and curves
In the month of Baisakh it only has knee deep waters]
I had asked our TOTO driver where he was taking us. In answer, he recited this poem that was based on the place we were going to. Followed by the actual answer – Kopai Nodi (Kopai River).
Welcome to Shantiniketan.
This famous abode of Rabindranath Tagore, is just 166 kms away from Kolkata, located near Bolpur in Birbhum district of West Bengal. And yet, this was the first time I was visiting it, after living in Kolkata for more than 2 decades. Maybe because when it comes to weekend trips, the beach or the hills always seemed like the more logical choice compared to this tiny town with the notorious reputation of being the den of intellectual Bengalis – or to use the more colloquial term – aantels.
Now, you’d have to be a Bengali to understand the problem with being referred to as an ‘intellectual’ in a city full of intellectuals. Most of us do not want to be at the receiving end of the gross generalization of what a Bengali intellectual is like – women in big bindis, terracotta earrings, geek glasses, kurtas, carrying jhola, smoking cigarettes and flaunting a smug expression, who are expected to break into a poetry or two, hum rabindra sangeet or debate over Russian writers like a pro – which is too much pressure, if you ask me.
So when the TOTO driver recited an entire poem, which I had read in school and conveniently forgotten, I tried my best not to feel inadequate. My friends and I were on our maiden Shantiniketan trip, which began with an excruciatingly slow rikshaw ride to our hotel [not a generality – the rikshaw pullers we got preferred to take it slow], kochuri for breakfast, and a tour through some of the nearby spots in the town. Then, after a quick lunch, we began the second and more anticipated part of our tour – Kopai Nodi, Shonibaarer Haat and Sonajhuri.
We had gone there in February, which incidentally is a good time to visit as the weather is pleasant. Summers will not be an ideal time to be here. Because, Birbhum. The temperature then shoots well above 40 degrees and you do not want to be around when that happens.
The first thing you realise on entering Shantiniketan is how the place truly does justice to its name. Except for the occasional buses with dysfunctional silencers, the entire place is wrapped in a silence that was music to my city battered ears. Winding roads, lined with greenery on both sides, the red earth, the occasional twittering of a bird, the crisp air – it all seems quite unassuming until you become a part of it. That’s when the magic starts to happen – you can hear your thoughts, feel your breath and notice what’s around you with a clarity that’s startling.
Our first stop was the Kopai Nodi, made famous by the aforementioned poem. Our Toto went on at full speed on the smooth winding road, lined on both sides with stretches of trees and smatters of red soil. The river itself was surrounded by fresh greenery, twigs floating on its bed and yet again, the characteristic Shantiniketan silence. Looking at it, you can’t help but recite that poem in your mind, watching the words read in yellowed pages become a real and tangible picture.
The Kopai River flows past towns of Santiniketan, Bolpur, Kankalitala and Labhpur in Birbhum district, and is a tributary of the Mayurakshi river. The river itself is quite small and still, but it overflows its banks during the monsoon, as per our Toto driver. After a really sunny Toto ride, we were relieved to be in the cool shade near the Kopai river. A few selfie hits and misses later, we were on our way to the most anticipated part of our trip – Shonibaarer Haat [Saturday Market].
On our way to the Haat, we crossed a tribal village, which is apparently the hotspot for many Bengali serial shoots. Our driver excitedly pointed out to me the set for some serial with a character named Baha...and I nodded back with a smile that said I have no clue what you’re talking about but I’ll smile and nod so that you don’t get into the details. We had to get down at quite a distance from the Haat, as the roads were being paved. We walked the stretch, taking in the rush of the people going towards the Haat and the satiated grins and overfilled bags of the people returning from it.
On reaching the Haat, all I could see was people. The area was jam-packed with crowds, leaning over fares spread all over the undulating field dotted with beautiful Sonajhuri trees – from Kantha stitched sarees and kurtas, handcrafted bags, terracotta or dokra jewellery, locally made musical instruments, wooden artifacts, slate carvings, to vibrant artisan household decor. No wonder this place is a magnet for the ones visiting Shantiniketan for the 1st or the 100th time – the colourful and creative extravaganza of traditional craftsmanship using local raw materials & unique designs is a sight to behold.
The market begins at around 2.30 – 3 pm, every Saturday. It’s an open-air affair, only made more enchanting by the picture perfect backdrop of Sonajhuri trees and the Baul music filling the air with soulful tunes. The spot where the group of Baul singers were sitting, was gheraoed by an enthusiastic bunch, who were clapping, singing and even dancing along with the music. Even for someone as uninitiated in Baul music as me, the sights and sounds kept me rooted to the spot for quite some time.
After shopping until our bags were almost tearing at the seams, we strolled into the patch of land filled with the Sonajhuri trees. The sun was about to set, which filled the place with a reddish golden glow. After the hustle bustle of the market, the solitude of this place was a welcome relief. All you could hear was the distant murmur of people strewn all over the place and the rustling sound of the leaves in the breeze. This place was perfect for some nostalgic loitering. The three of us stood there, in silence, watching the sunset, each lost in our own thoughts.
And then, the trance was broken, by a loud clap. We looked around, only to find our driver, shuffling his feet and clapping, trying to get our attention. With a sigh, we started walking towards him. Jete hobe toh! [we have to go] he said enthusiastically. We nodded. None of us felt like leaving those trees, the red soil, the air filled with Baul tunes and the serenity.
On our way back to the hotel, the driver began reciting yet another poem. Which, surprisingly, one of my friends seemed to know by heart. So she joined him in the recitation, grinning all the way. Listening to them recite, looking at the trees, roads, and the people masked by the dusk, rushing past us, and feeling the terracotta earring I had bought and instantly worn dangle in the breeze, I felt strangely at home. You really can’t take the ‘aantel’ out of a Bengali. And the thought made me smile.