- Naren Hansda, a folk singer from West Bengal, has been helping to regenerate forest land in Purulia for over a decade.
- The songs were composed by the wayfarer musician, and focus on ecology in Santhal or Bengali languages.
- His team plans to plant fifty-sixty thousand trees in the Purulia region this year.
Naren Hansda’s first impression is one of rockstar-like charisma. He has expressive eyes, long, loosely combed hair, and a stringed instrument attached to his back. The sleeveless jacket, fitted shirt and jeans show his frail frame. The moment he begins singing, his rockstar status is confirmed. As he sings, words like jungle (forest),pahad (mountain), phul (flower), Nadi(river), is enough, even for those unfamiliar with his language to decipher his rendition Jungle MoholIs invoking nature.
His expressions are so expressive that it seems he has travelled to a world of natural bliss. He returns to reality after a roaring round from the audience.
I don’t necessarily have to picture a world with natural beauty. I have seen such places. Hansda, in his late 40s after performing at Samvaad 2021 (a conclave organized recently for indigenous communities in Jamshedpur and Jharkhand), clarified that he actually lives in a place of natural abundance. The song is written using Santhali, an eastern Indian language spoken by many Santhal tribes.
Indian classical music has a long-standing relationship with the United States. NatureIt is well-recorded in the pages history. Several ragas (melody), like malhar(associated with rain) basant baharThese are the foundation of Indian classical music and are associated with spring. Although indigenous communities have their own languages, dialects and ecological knowledge is often passed from generation to generation. Music.
Ajodhya hills, connecting with nature
Hansda, a Santhal community member, moved from Jahajpur village in Purulia District of West Bengal a decade back because of his passion in music. He was a wayfarer musician who sang mostly Santhali, Bengali, and other languages. He would wander around villages and towns singing songs that he composed, mostly related to social issues. He discovered the uninhabited Bhalidungri village at the foothills Ajodhya hills, and was captivated by the peace and tranquility it offered. The place was unaffected by human presence and provided him with the perfect inspiration for his songs.
Those two years were the closest I ever got to nature. I spent time under the trees, in the forest, and sleeping under the moon. I would walk to school a few kilometers away if it was raining. I have a deep love for nature that has been cultivated over many years of living in the laps of it. He says that I became a conservationist unintentionally.
Purulia district’s topography, where the Ajodhya hills lie, embraces the descent from the hills of central India and Chottanagpur plateau to the Damodar plains of Bengal, says the 1985 West Bengal District Gazetteers. Transitioning from the Land of jungle mahals (jungle estates) and then onto the Manbhum district under the British, to being partitioned between Bihar and Bengal in 1956, Purulia, once a land of luxuriant moist tropical deciduous forests, has gone through phases of extensive logging, especially in the early part of the 19th century when forest was primarily regarded as a “resource.”
British agrarian Interventions at the expense of forests, disruption of the tribal communities’ hydrological management system and demand for teak and certain other timbers suitable for shipbuilding and railway sleepers accelerated the “wanton destruction” of forests, the gazette says.
Despite two small areas being designated Government Protected Forests by the British government in 1894, most of those forests that had been surveyed, mapped, and belonged the British government to allow the application of the Indian Forest Act of1865 were not subject to any serious protective action to stop the destruction of private forests in Purulia.
In the first half century of the 20th Century, timber demand increased. This caused further damage to forests and endangered wildlife. Good timber “almost vanished as there was hardly any effort at regeneration and to strike a balance between cutting and planting.” Afforestation activities started in “right earnest” in the late 1960s with soil conservation schemes; however, homogenous tree plantations affected the flora and fauna, says the gazetteer.
The most recent figures from the India State of Forest Report 2021The 3.36 sq km increase of forest cover in Purulia district is a small one. Purulia’s 2021 assessment shows that Purulia has 37.38 sq km of Very Dense forests, 307.36 square km of Moderate Dense forests, and 574.50 square km of open forest in 2021. This compares to 37.36 sqkm, 306.94sq km, and 571.58sq kilometers respectively in 2019.
A2017 StudyPurulia’s forest degradation was detailedly analysed by the researchers. They identified over-dependency on forest produce as well as shifting cultivation, overgrazing and forest fires as the main factors.
From music to action in the environment
While enjoying the natural bliss in Ajodhya’s foothills, gradually Hansda had also begun noticing the depletion of forest cover. He had seen the changing landscapes as he walked through villages and grew up. This was either due to individual or commercial tree felling. Although he was naturally concerned about the environment, he avoided confrontations and instead politely asked people not to chop trees. His voice was lost on the ears of many.
People would always find a reason to not cut trees if I told them. They would cite a development project or other necessities. It would sound complicated to you, and your ignorance often gave you an advantage. Hansda, a former student who quit her studies after eighth grade, said that sloganeering was useless and she should use her music talents to raise awareness about conservation of natural resources. She has composed at most 120 songs.
He roams around villages playing Phet Banam, a traditional string instrument, and uses simple words to relay the message – Gach Bachao, Gach Banchle Paribesh Banchbe, Paribesh Banchle Manush Banchbe(Save trees, save trees would save the earth, and save the environment would save humanity. His unique music style attracted attention. He went on to become a conservationist and activist.
He continued to resist the destruction of trees, singing songs about conservation. When people didn’t listen to his words, however, he would silently walk off and then return the next morning to plant a seedling at the same location where the tree was removed. His strategy was simple – if resistance was futile, switch over to action mode.
The musician, a wayfarer, found help from children aged 5-10 years old, mainly orphans. His musical abilities earned him such respect that he was encouraged by the people of nearby villages to open a school. Hansda has three ashram schools. He also runs a residential school for orphans located in the Purulia region. The little ones are his pillars and they support him. The children are able to spot the dangers in the forest and keep an eye out for them. They gather together to chase down anyone cutting trees.
At first, no one would listen to me or my children. Despite repeated warnings, one day, a man managed to down a tree. I went with the children and some villager to his home and gave him a scolding. Although there was no violence or fine imposition he didn’t seem to understand his mistake. We kept nagging him until he did. He was so afraid to see all of us together, he promised not to cut down any trees. Hansda, who sustains herself through performances and schools, said that the day was when I realized, even though I had young children by my side.
Hansda and her children also continued to plant saplings donated by local NGOs or other organizations. This team effort has resulted in the regeneration of many acres of Ajodhya forest. They have been able to join countless other groups as a result. indigenous communitiesWho are protecting forests for themselves, without government support.
New Year’s resolution
Naren Hansda’s attempt to protect the environment was accidental. He has a plan now. He plans to plant fifty-sixty thousand saplings this year in the barren Purulia district. Music will continue, of course. He has spoken to several NGOs to procure the seedlings. Plantation will start around June-July. Although he wants to re-generate forestland, he is not sure of the wider implications.
Although I have heard about climate change, I am not certain what it means. As part of my cultural identity, I was taught that it is a sin harming nature. This is why educated people who study science continue to destroy our ecology, even if they can understand and apply it.
Banner image Naren Hansda has written at least 120 songs in Santali or Bengali languages. Photo by Tazeen Qreshy.