Living Myths

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An internationally acclaimed short film tells the Santhals’ story

THIS IS AN old story. In the beginning there was only water. Deep, endless ocean and darkness all around. Half asleep, Thakur Jivi had a dream. It was a vision of what earth would be like with trees, birds and other forms of life.” These shamanic words-in-translation, part of a creation myth of Santhals, open Prantik Basu’s 26-minute film Rang Mahal, an official selection for the 69th Berlin International Film Festival (selected for Berlinale Shorts in-competition) held in February. The Santhali-language short, produced by PSBT (Public Service Broadcasting Trust), is shot in West Bengal’s Purulia district, which shares a border with the Bokaro and Ranchi districts of Jharkhand (both places with a significant Santhal population).

Its voiceover, performed by Balika Hembram and Sanjay Kumar Tudu, narrates the story of how the deity Thakur Jivi set about creating the Earth as we know it, and Santhals in particular (since Santhali is not a written language per se, these stories are part of an oral tradition). The visuals show people using coloured rocks from a chalk-stone hill called Khodi Dungri to draw patterns and murals on their walls and houses— seemingly, in preparation for Sohrai, the winter harvest festival.

Talking about his film, Basu says, “I first came across Khodi Dungri when I was shooting a documentary about Chhau (a kind of semi-classical dance with militaristic elements) dancers in Purulia. The people who were helping me with that film explained how the chalk-stone rocks were used to paint houses around the time of the Sohrai festival. I found this to be fascinating— and a bit like the khori maati (white clay) used in Bengal for drawing alpana (ritual patterns/paintings drawn on the floor on auspicious days) during puja.” As Basu discovered, Santhals look at this annual ritual as a kind of repair, both literal and metaphorical. The fact that these myths are retold on festival days also points towards the myths- as-microcosms aspect of the story. For instance, the Thakur Jivi story in Rang Mahal points out clearly that the deity created animals first (‘First came the crabs, then the crocodiles, then the fish, tortoises, earthworms; they all came one by one’) and only then did humans enter the picture. Santhals are extremely self- aware about their status as interlopers on this planet, and that also shows in their harmonious relationship with the environment.

But then, a creation myth (a story that explains the genesis of the universe) is so much more than just a story. Often, the narrative encapsulates an entire belief system. It strikes at the heart of how people go about their daily lives. This is the reason why mythologists put such a high premium not only in the way creation myths are structured, but also how they are re-enacted.

A tree is not just a tree or a pond is not just a pond to Santhals. There are familial values attached with
these things. I see it as the way we were born, and something we move away from gradually,” says Prantik Basu

Mircea Eliade, in his book Myth and Reality (1964), wrote, ‘In most cases it is not enough to know the origin myth, one must recite it; this, in a sense, is a proclamation of one’s knowledge, displays it. But this is not all. He who recites or performs the origin myth is thereby steeped in the sacred atmosphere in which these miraculous events took place. The mythical time of origins is a ‘strong’ time because it was transfigured by the active, creative presence of the Supernatural Beings. By reciting the myths one reconstitutes that fabulous time and hence in some sort becomes ‘contemporary’ with the events described, one is in the presence of the Gods or Heroes.’

Therefore, when a Santhal recites or listens to an origin myth, they reaffirm their commitment to being what Raymond Williams called ‘ecosystem people’; folks whose very mode of existence is a carefully maintained equilibrium with nature, a symbiosis. Basu says, “A tree is not just a tree or a pond is not just a pond to them. There are familial values attached with these things… I see it as the way we were born, and something we move away from gradually.”

It’s no coincidence, then, that Santhals reiterate these stories on some of the most important days of their lives. As Eliade wrote, ‘Among the Santhali […] the guru recites the cosmogenic myth for each individual, but only on two occasions.’ The first time is ‘when a Santhal is granted full social rights .... On this occasion the guru recites the history of humanity from the creation of the world and ends by narrating the birth of the person for whom the rite is being performed.’ The same ceremony is repeated during the funeral service, ‘but this time the guru ritually transfers the soul of the deceased to the other world’.

Rang Mahal has several absolutely gorgeous shots of Khodi Dungri, fading in and out of scenes where houses are being decorated with a little help from its colourful chalk-stones. And the nature-synergy motif shows up in the creation myth voiceover as well—one of the most beautiful moments happens when Hembram explains the aetiology of the Santhal house. She says, “At one point, the boys saw an elephant and they thought of making pillars as thick and strong as the elephant’s legs. Then a snake came along, and he told the boys to make some poles, thin and long as the snake’s body. Then they came across the skeleton of a buffalo... They saw the rib cage and thought of making something similar for a roof.”

The film is bookended by sequences of rare serenity—just the mighty mountain and its natural, many-hued patterns. The effect is quietly hypnotic. During the making of the film, Basu was clear about the fact that he wanted to stay far away from the stereotypical imagery associated with Adivasis. He says, “A lot of people have gone up to Santhals and said stuff like ‘Aap thodaa dance karke dikhaao, gaana gaao’ (Please show us a little song-and-dance), which I find really obnoxious.” This is reminiscent of Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar’s short story ‘The Adivasi Will Not Dance’, wherein a Santhal man goes on a Howard Beale-like righteous rant criticising much the same pattern of behaviour Basu is talking about.

Which is all the more reason why contemplative films like Rang Mahal should reach a wider audience—for too long, we have convinced ourselves that we know what ‘development’ means in the Adivasi context. It’s worth pointing out that the single most important Adivasi news story over the last couple of years is the progress of the Pathalgadi (literally, ‘stone slab’) movement, wherein Adivasi villages have declared themselves ‘self-rule zones’. The sections of the Constitution of India that give them the right to self-rule are inscribed onto large stone slabs, often placed right at the village entrance. Beyond that point, outsiders are not allowed and in fact, on the eve of the Lok Sabha elections, many villages across Jharkhand have demanded separate, special election measures for Pathalgadi areas.

What films like Rang Mahal do is to remind well-heeled folks that belief systems other than their own exist and are probably wiser (and more sustainable in the long run).