It’s well past noon but there’s a nip in the air. Wrapped in woollens, I walk along the ranga maati (red soil) path shaded by trees, among students wearing khadi kurtas, women in crisp cotton saris, and uncles sporting oversized shirts and monkey caps. I am in the university town of Shantiniketan, home to the Visva-Bharati University, which Rabindranath Tagore started in the 1920s. Shantiniketan is charming throughout the year, but it gets a shot in the arm during the Poush Mela, a three-day celebration of song, dance, and handicrafts that dates back 100 years. Once a small village fair, the mela now draws over 10,000 patrons and practitioners of Bengali arts.
There is much to see. Fairgrounds are lined with stalls selling leather bags, terracotta figurines, and jewellery of dokra metalwork. It’s mostly traditional handicrafts, made by artisans from Shantiniketan and villages in nearby districts. Piled on a bed sheet on the ground are hand-carved wooden combs. A cart close by sells monkeys carved out of coconut shells. I find myself lingering at a stall selling terracotta crafts, and before I know it, I’m bargaining for a pair of three-foot-tall horses.
In the centre of this bustling mela is the mancha, a stage for dancers and singers. The bigger performances take place in the evening, but there is always melody in the air. My shopping is punctuated by students singing the tunes of Tagore, and Baul singers strumming their ektaras, singing of love beyond judgement.
Poush Mela is also a great place to sample traditional Bangla food. I take frequent breaks, sampling piping-hot kochuris, phuchkas (pani puri), and a winter-time indulgence called pithe: rice flour dumplings stuffed with sticky date jaggery, coconut, and khoya.
As dusk approaches, I choose a spot in front of the stage, settle down with an earthen cup of steaming tea, and lap up the action of the jatra: a dramatic tale of love and betrayal accentuated by the bright makeup and exaggerated acting typical of this style of Bengali folk theatre.
Appeared in the July 2015 issue as “India’s Better Kept Secrets”.
Poush Mela will take place between Thur December 22-Mon December 26, 2016. Entry and all events for the 3-day festival are free. Shantiniketan is 170km/4 hr from Kolkata. The nearest station is Bolpur, 2 km/10 min, from the town centre. Regular trains connect Kolkata to Bolpur.
Rumela Basu is former Assistant Editor at National Geographic Traveller India. Her favourite kind of travel involves food, literature, dance and forests. She travels not just to discover new destinations but also aspects of herself.