The vibrant Khoai Mela of Shantiniketan
‘Khoai Mela‘ or ‘Shonibarer haat‘ is a weekly Saturday afternoon bazaar set up by local artisans in Santiniketan, Birbhum district, West Bengal. It takes place on Saturdays in the khoai region, which is a geographical formation of small canyons resulting from constant erosion caused by wind and water. This place is characterised by Shyambati canal on one side and a patch of dry forest of Sonajhuri (Acacia Auriculiformis) trees on an eroded landscape of red laterite soil on the other side.
Sonajhuri literally means “droplets of gold”. In winters, the sonajhuri trees shed their tiny yellow flowers and the whole forest seems to have a downpour of gold. This unique look of the forest was immortalised by Rabindranath Tagore in many of his compositions. Khoai is surrounded by the famous meandering Kopai river with its knee-deep water ( Tagore’s ‘Amader choto nodi’) and Bonerpukur Adivasi (tribal) village dotted with mud houses. These houses have walls decorated with tribal paintings and murals of daily life. The traditional life of the santhali community with their local art and culture and mesmerising music and folk songs by the ‘baul singers‘ stringing their ektaras and singing to the tune of the winds has made this weekly fair a nostalgic and heritage destination. Apart from the crafts and baul song, the atmosphere is awesome.
Mahatma Gandhi, father of our nation, dreamt of having a free India, a confederation of self reliant, self employed villagers, earning their livelihood by producing goods in the village itself. He wanted to ‘renew India’s vitality and regenerate its culture’ through this system. I think this market is the result of some similar thought. Few good-hearted people took the initiative to help the surrounding villagers with appropriate skills, resources and means to enable them to cross the poverty line. There is no direct monetary help to the villagers rather they get ideas, knowhow and a market place to sell whatever they produce the whole week.
This is a place where various handmade items, organic vegetables and homemade food items are sold on weekly basis. Unlike any other shops or markets here the producers bring in their weekly produces and sell them directly to the customers. Their products ranges from Kantha embroidered sarees or artifacts, locally made musical instruments, slate carvings, and wooden artefacts to organically grown vegetables or traditional food items and various jewelleries made from terracotta, dokra and seeds. The sellers use local raw materials and make it unique by their fresh and innovative ideas and craftsmanship. For instance locally grown Kashi ghas baskets and trinket boxes, or jewelleries made with rice straws. This is a very pertinent idea as we Indians have always liked to live in harmony with our surroundings. This Haat celebrates this harmony in an unique way to revive Indian traditional arts and crafts for a long term survival. After all the spirit and soul of India rests in the rural communities and in Gandhiji’s own words “The true India is to be found not in its few cities, but in its seven hundred thousand villages. If the villages perish, India will perish too.”
Even if you don’t get into all these serious talks or the changes it is bringing, still you cannot miss the serene beauty of this place. Sellers sitting on the grass under Sonajhuri trees in the backdrop of lush green paddy field, with their beautiful creations spread in front of them and the live baul songs will definitely take your breath away. If you like Indian handicraft then this is a place for you to visit. So it is a sure thing for nature lovers, music lovers and shoppers. But please do remember: It is an open air affair and starts every Saturday in the afternoon depending upon the heat and the sunrays, sometime at 2:30 if its cloudy or at 4 if it is very hot, and stays as long as there is sunlight.