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Communities Connecting Heritage: Learning Together

What happens when youths from two diverse societies living 13,000 km apart get to meet and know, and explore and understand each other’s lives and lifestyles, and likes and dislikes!? This is exactly what is happening over the course of Communities Connecting Heritage or CCH, a program supported by the U.S. Department of State and administered by World Learning. In an ambitious and adventurous cultural exchange initiative, a group of young American students travelled to West Bengal in February 2018, spent nearly two weeks there touring creative artistes’ hubs in the rural hinterland, staying in the villages, and exploring the world of folk artistes and their art in this part of the planet!

In a reciprocal visit, a five-member team of young artistes from West Bengal, including two Baul folk singers and a traditional Patachitra scroll painter, headed for Washington D.C. by the end of June. The parleys and creative exchanges between them and quite a few of their fellow students and colleagues had, however, continued in the virtual world through digital platforms between February and June. This was instrumental in paving the way for a lifetime experience for the American participants and their counterparts from the eastern Indian state of West Bengal! The team from West Bengal, sent by Contact Base (trading style: banglanatak dot com), and the American team, from the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage (CFCH), are partners in the ‘Learning Together Towards a Brighter Future’ initiative under the CCH program.

As the team from West Bengal continues its tryst with America in Washington D.C. and takes part in the Folklife Festival (between June 26 and July 15, 2018), we switch to flashback mode to catch a few glimpses of the CFCH team’s visit to West Bengal earlier in the year…It was the first visit to India, and West Bengal, for all the young members of the American team and the first In-Person Visit under the initiative. The weather in West Bengal in February is generally pleasant. It is the end of winter and spring is round the corner. The year 2018 was no exception. On February 1, the three Smithsonian students Ashley Martinez, Maris Jones and Violeta Palchik, accompanied by their coordinator Betty J. Belanus and Maya Potter, a member of the CFCH staff, landed in Kolkata. It is a 350-year-old city that was the capital of British India till 1911. The Contact Base team that would accompany the visitors during their stay in West Bengal included Manas Acharya, Arpan Thakur Chakraborty and Shalini Majumder.

On the next day, the team visited Victoria Memorial, a landmark heritage structure of Kolkata. Their next stop was Mohar Kunj, where the eighth edition of the World Peace Music Festival, Sur Jahan (previously called Sufi Sutra), was about to begin. Betty Belanus joined other distinguished guests on the stage to light a lamp to inaugurate the event. The team’s next two days would also be full of the Sur Jahan experience. Apart from music, Sur Jahan hosts an exhibition of folk crafts created by artisans of rural West Bengal. It was an added attraction for the Smithsonian team. Reminiscing about Sur Jahan, Belanus wrote on CFCH’s official website: “In Kolkata, we hit the ground running by attending the Sur Jahan World Peace Music Festival (February 2-4), meeting musicians and craftspeople, and comparing the event to our own Smithsonian Folklife Festival.”







On February 5, the American team caught a glimpse of the built heritage of Kolkata in its native quarters — north Kolkata. It was a memorable trip for reasons other than heritage also! It was time to savor the sweetest part of West Bengal — its traditional sweets, and that too from the best of the city’s old, Bengali sweetmeat-makers!


Come February 6, and it was time to leave Kolkata and head for West Bengal’s traditional artists’ hubs in the rural hinterland. However, the morning was spent by the visiting team meeting the Honorable Consul General of the United States in Kolkata at Akhra@Baitanik and sharing with him their experiences in Kolkata. Two Baul singers, Sadhu Das and Shyam Khyapa, and a young Patachitra scroll painter, Mamoni Chitrakar, performed on the occasion.



Finally, the CFCH team and their friends from Contact Base left for Pingla, a Patachitra hub in the district of Paschim Medinipur. It was a three-hour drive. Arrangements for the overnight stay and meals were made at the local Resource Centre run by a collective of Pingla’s Patachitra artists.At Pingla, the CFCH team interacted with the artists, explored the world of Patachitra and its natural colors, watched the color making process, and discussed their ideas and reflections on the art form. The visitors also marveled at the mythological stories and the contemporary issues painted on the scrolls and narrated through songs by the Patachitra artists, also called Patuas. It was like making new friends for the young Americans, and in a world thousands of miles away from home!Senior Patuas like Swarna Chitrakar and Monu Chitrakar, and young ones like Mamoni Chitrakar shared their experiences of international visits. The CFCH team members shared a story on the social rights movement in America and its connection with the Washington D.C. Mall which, every year, hosts the Smithsonian Folklife Festival. The Patuas became interested in making a Patachitra on their story and it was decided that it would be part of a step-by-step development in the virtual exchange process.Next morning, the CFCH team toured Naya village where they had spent the night. Patua Monu Chitrakar showed his works in a book titled ‘The Promised Land’. It was on the life and times of Martin Luther King Junior. Maris bought the book and requested Monu to sign it. Monu obliged with all smiles!



In the afternoon, they headed for Bishnupur in Bankura district, famous for its Terracotta (burnt clay) works and Terracotta temples. What struck the visiting team most was the ancient method of storytelling by arranging sequences through pieces of Teracotta tiles. They also visited local shops selling the famed Terracotta horses.By evening they headed for Tepantar, a theater village run by a group of resident young artistes in Bardhaman. It is also close to Joydev-Kenduli, a throbbing hub of Baul musicians. Tepantar was the place where the CFCH team would anchor for the next three days.Next morning, after a traditional Bengali breakfast, they set out for Bikna in the adjoining district of Bankura. Bikna is a hub of Dokra, an ancient metal casting craft. Somnath Karmakar, a young Dokra artisan, welcomed and guided them through the village and showed finished products and the process at work. The American students were visibly excited watching and learning the lost wax method that lies at the heart of the Dokra craft!




A visit to the local Resource Centre and Community Museum followed before the team returned to Tepantar for a quick lunch and headed for Joydev-Kenduli. Joydev is eponymous with the famous 12th century Sanskrit Vaishnav poet who is believed to have been born in that village. The Joydev Temple, built in late 13th-early 14th century, still stands tall. Joydev resonates with the music of the Bauls, a community of wandering balladeers who spread messages of love, peace, tolerance and harmony through their songs. The place also hosts the biggest Baul festival, called the Joydev-Kenduli Mela.The most exciting part of this trip was the young Americans meeting Sadhu Das and Kangal Das, two Baul brothers, at their akhra — a shared space for practicing music. The akhra overlooks the Ajay River and offers a grand view of the resplendent natural beauty of the region, that also stole the young hearts!Sadhu and Kangal’s music charmed the American students. Over time and songs, and brief parleys on Baul thought and Baul lifestyle, they soon developed a bond of trust and friendship. The camaraderie reached a new high the young Americans singing the famous song of Woodie Guthrie — “This land is your land, this land is my land” — with the Baul brothers joining in with their Dotara and Khamak!
But just as all good things come to an end, so did the American team’s tryst with Sadhu and Kangal, for then! The visitors reached Tepantar in time for dinner.


Next morning, they went to Santiniketan, home to the famous Visva Bharati University founded by polyglot Rabindranath Tagore, the first non-European to win a Nobel Prize in Literature in 1913. The philosophy of Visva Bharati was summed up by Tagore in a simple line in Sanskrit that meant: “Where the world is at home in a single nest.”The American team called on many members of the faculty from the fine arts department, including Prof. Goutam Das, the Principal of Kala Bhavan, and discussed teaching methods, cultural exchange, and approaches in teaching languages like Chinese, Japanese, Arabic and Persian. The team members also visited Santiniketan Museum, two ongoing art exhibitions and some landmarks within the university campus. They also visited Khoai where they had a first-hand experience of a Haat (local weekly market) and took a stroll by the Kopai River.That evening at Tepantar, the guests were invited to watch a theatre production by the resident artists of the ‘Ebong Amra’ group. The play was ‘Mahakabbyer Porey’. In reciprocation, the CFCH team presented ‘Red Riding Hood’.The morning of February 10 started with the American team visiting the Deul of Ichai Ghosh that is essentially the remains of an old temple holding ground against the ravages of time and nature. Back at Tepantar, the team started packing as it was time to return to Kolkata and then wrap up the tryst with West Bengal and head for home. Only this time, they would take back with them some refreshing memories of a homely place and some friendly people whom they befriended in a distant land, and with whom they could identify and share their commonalities and learn and respect their strikingly different culture!





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