Kamarpara (all the ‘a’-s pronounced as in ‘afternoon’ and the ‘r’ as a hard sound, the replica of which I cannot readily think of in English). A small village in the Birbhum district of West Bengal, barely eight kilometres away from the Bolpur railway station, where one alights to reach Tagore’s Shantiniketan – the abode of peace. Kamarpara literally means the area where blacksmiths live, though in my many years of knowing this village – I haven’t seen too many blacksmiths. A friend of mine and I had discovered this village way back in 2002. A thatched roof with muted light seeping through what appeared to be stained glass had caught our attention. Stained glass in a village with barely any sign of urbanisation, in the red laterite district of Birbhum, not one of the more affluent and developed districts of the state? It was an unlikely enough sight to compel us to walk towards that direction the next morning. About a kilometre from Dwaranda (first and last ‘a’-s pronounced as in ‘afternoon’ and the middle one as in ‘awe’), the adjacent village where we were lodged, along the red laterite road next to Lakshmi Sayar, a fairly big natural water body in the otherwise dry area, was Kamarpara – and the mud house with thatched roof from where the muted light emanated the evening before.

‘Anek Akash’ (the first ‘a’ pronounced as in ‘awe’ and the other two as in ‘afternoon’ – literally meaning a lot of sky) was the name of this house with the wondrous roof-window. But not stained glass, paintings on rice paper – we discovered on arrival – through which the light shone in the evening. The owner was a self-taught artist who had built this mud house with the help of local people and decorated it himself. Though a private house, we had the luxury of walking around the compound and even steal a peek inside – thanks to the owner’s warm hospitality.

Opposite Anek Akash was another property of his: a two storied mud house surrounded by an open compound. Breathtakingly beautiful with a serene expanse surrounding the house that gave me a feeling of grandeur: ‘I am the monarch of all I survey’ style. I was filled with such a sense of solitary bliss, unlike Alexander Selkirk, that I had to explore options of staying in that house for a while. To my glee, the owner informed us that this second house – Aro Akash (both ‘a’-s pronounced as in ‘afternoon), meaning ‘some more sky’, could be rented. I have been a guest at Aro Akash innumerable times since then and have seen the village change gradually. A painful experience of seeing my favourite little getaway from the hustle and bustle of the city get concretised – losing the charm of nothing other than green fields and water bodies with coconut palms around them encompassing you while you laze at Aro Akash.[1]

Birbhum is a largely rural district with only 12.83% urban area, with a population of 3,502,404 – constituting 3.84% of the total population of West Bengal. The population density is 771 persons per square kilometre – significantly higher than the density level nationally (382/ km2), but considerably lower than that of the state (1028/ km2). Hindus form the majority population (62.29%), followed by Muslims (37.06%), with the presence of followers of other faiths being statistically negligible. The district has a sex ratio of 956 females per 1000 males, higher than that of the country (943:1000), as also of the state (950:1000).[2]

The eastern part of the district is greener and is a continuation of the rice-growing region of the state, but the western part with undulating red laterite soil is dry. It was this topography that had attracted Tagore to set up his abode of peace, as also the university where he dreamt the world will bring its wisdom to meet that of India. Hence the names Shantiniketan  for the campus and Visva Bharati  for the university. Born in an upwardly mobile Bengali academic family, Shanitiniketan has been an integral part of growing up. At least one visit every two months was inevitable. After all, this is where all six seasons of Bengal could still be distinctly sensed – my parents taught me. That belief and the connection continue till date. So does the thought of this domain as a favourite getaway whenever one feels twenty thousand leagues under the sea due to life’s inescapable pressures; or there is something to celebrate quietly; or just the need to have some tranquillity and peace.

Though the domain has more or less remained the same, I’ve had to learn to gradually move away from the campus area towards other nearby spots surrounding it. Middle to upper middle class elite Bengalis kept deciding in ever increasing numbers to settle in/ around Shantiniketan – churning different career options to opt for the plain living high thinking philosophy – roughly from the 1990s, I would say. People from my generation, to be precise, who decided – in their early to mid-thirties – to open a guest house/ run a small restaurant/ sell their artefact in the Khowai boner anya haat[3], a Saturday market where artisans sell their products directly, without the help of any middlemen. Soon, the area around the campus was far too crowded and people were buying land and building small houses in the fringes. The once empty landscape with few beautifully painted Santhal[4] households in the Phooldanga (literally, the land of the flowers) and Kusumdanga (also means the land of the flowers) areas soon got overcast with many houses: some of mud, some concrete. With the advent of people came up shops to cater to everyday needs. Prantik, the station named by Tagore to signify the end of the campus area, soon saw a huge hotel come up and then a sprawling housing complex to provide the cultured rich of Kolkata with weekend and vacation getaways of their own. Lost was the serenity for which people from Kolkata would once run to Shantiniketan and roam these fields.

So, people turned to the other side. That is how I located the village Dwaranda, and then Kamarpara. And now, over the years, I’ve had to see Kamarpara also fill up with innumerable small and big houses belonging to city people who reserve a room for themselves and rent out the others. More and more people are going to this village. From the typical touristy type hiring Santhal dance troupes to those just wanting to laze in the peace and quiet of the village. But the latter is becoming increasingly more difficult. Too many houses. Too many people. Many of them the conducted tour type, creating a bustle in this once laid-back village in their eagerness to get a spoonful of everything in two days, at the cost of soaking in the atmosphere maybe.

It’s a poor area, with just one crop of paddy and one of potatoes. If there is a bumper crop of potatoes, the farmers are in trouble. Landless people are many and the establishment of a private engineering college near Kamarpara and all these guesthouses mean increasing employment opportunities for the villagers. Especially since there is virtually no industry to speak of. Yet, the loss of the ambience is painful. It forces me to confront that eternal paradox of development: it destroys to create something new; but how to decide whether that which is destroyed was more necessary? Or, is it just the lament of a selfish city person who wants the villages to remain in their pristine poverty so she can get a fresh breath of serenity?

 

Notes

[1] Those interested may visit www.aaroaakaash.com.

[2] All data have been derived from www.census2011.co.in

[3] This phrase literally means: an alternative weekly market in the woods along the canyon. ‘Khowai’ is a Bengali word denoting a naturally formed dry, deep and spread-out gorge – a familiar feature of the Bolpur area of Birbhum district. However, one of the biggest of these, lying between Eucalyptus forests on both sides, is known as ‘the canyon’ of Shantiniketan.

[4] A scheduled tribe of India found mostly in the eastern state of Jharkhand and some districts of West Bengal, parts of Birbhum among them.

 

Paramita Banerjee

Paramita Banerjee

Paramita Banerjee is a social development professional with a passion for travel. This black-coffee drinking bookworm, music lover, movie buff and adda enthusiast travels both for her work and in leisure, making the most of every trip – soaking in the atmosphere deeply.

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