Welcoming a River’s Return

Welcoming a River’s Return

Nov 6, 2023

Susana Higueras Carrillo

On the evening of the 6th of November, we embarked on a visit to a Rajbanshi village in the Jalpaiguri district of West Bengal. We were accompanied by an artists' collective from Kolkata, known as Cultural Monks. Since 2012, the Cultural Monks have been engaged in cultural activism through theatre, performance, art and storytelling. Their mission is to use art as a transformative force for social development.

Our guide and contact person was Sudipta, founder and artistic director of Cultural Monks. Sudipta and his colleagues introduced us to the Rajbanshi people, an indigenous group with a long history in the city of Jalpaiguri and the Teesta River. A specialist in Rajbanshi cultural expression explained to us that the Rajbanshi people, who share a unique language, customs and struggles, have existed since the time of the Koch dynasty. Previously marginalised by regional migration (200-250 years ago) and then by British colonial domination, the Rajbanshi people today are struggling not to be absorbed by the hegemonic cultures.

Sudipta, founder and artistic director of Culture Monks.

In the context of this cultural backdrop, Sudipta explained that the aim of the evening was to build a connection with the Teesta River through culture and art. Specifically, it was to immerse us in the experience of Rajbanshi music, dance and song, an integral part of their traditions with an ancient heritage. In his opinion, these elements are key to understanding our connection with nature that has been obscured by the legacy of colonialism and capitalism. The Teesta River, he declared, was a living entity, and it was dying.

We walked through the village, through some puddles and across fields of grass to an open ground, where the people were gathered around a group of Rajbanshi performers. Five women, dressed in vivid saris, danced and sang to the melodies played by several men and one boy of about 12 years old. It was interesting to see that there was no young population participating in the event, only the child mentioned. This suggests a common concern that traditions are fading among the younger generation. This was confirmed by one of the dancers who later mentioned that young people do not seem too interested in preserving these cultural practices.

The path through the grassy riverbanks to the open space where the performance took place.

This ritual traditionally takes place in summer and close to the riverbank but was performed in November, especially for us, in the dry expanse that, until two years ago, was submerged in the waters of the Teesta. Now, it has been transformed into a grassy field where cattle and goats roam and graze. Each song was a narrative, an expression of the daily struggles, fears, dreams and memories of the Rajbanshi people.

Rajbanshi women dancing to the return of the daughter, Teesta River, who is wearing a white sari.

In their songs, the Rajbanshi embraced the paradox of the Teesta as a force of life and destruction, a goddess who was respected as both mother and daughter. In one particular song, the river Teesta takes shape through one of the dancers. She embodies the essence of the river and the music and dance convey the image of the daughter's return home. When she joins the group of dancers, they symbolically bathe her with puffed rice, imitating the water falling from the sky. This ritual is often performed in anticipation of rain. As this song shows, despite the destructive potential of the Teesta River, there is no need to fear it because it is perceived as one's own daughter.

The ritual was a dance of respect and worship, a supplication to a river that had nurtured them and yet had the capacity to destroy them. The songs continued, referring to the sufferings faced by the Rajbanshi people in the mortal world, from political corruption to economic hardship and inflation. Faced with these problems, the song raises the question of how they are going to welcome their daughter when everything is so expensive.

With the last rays of light, the villagers began to collect their animals to take them back to their homes. Although the Rajbanshi's traditional dependence on the Teesta for fishing and agriculture has diminished in the last two to three decades due to the shift towards urban employment, the essence of the river remains deeply rooted in their identity. Likewise, there is a common sentiment expressed in the songs for the Teesta River to return. However, they do not want a destructive river but a benign one.

As night fell, the musicians returned to play their instruments and invited us to dance with them before heading back to the village. On our return, we were warmly hosted by the villagers, who offered us tea and traditional sweets. This evening gave us a better understanding of the spiritual and contemporary importance of the Teesta River in the lives of the Rajbanshi people.