India is a land of festivals. Festivals that are celebrated with much pomp and show. Festivals that are colorful. And when one is talking about colorful festivals, how can the mention of Holi be left out? The Indian festival of colors, Holi is celebrated in spring to celebrate the bounty of the season. People smear colors on each other and celebrate a joyous humanity. Though primarily a Hindu festival, the festival has risen above communal lines and people heartily participate in the celebrations irrespective of their religions, castes and creeds.
Vasant Utsav in West Bengal
Holi is celebrated in a variety of ways throughout India. Customs differ from place to place. In the state of West Bengal, ‘Doljatra’ or ‘Vasant Utsav’ (the festival of Spring) is celebrated one day prior to the rest of the country. Festivities in Shantiniketan are particularly famous.
Shantiniketan: the Abode of Peace
Shantiniketan (Bolpur) located in the Birbhum district of West Bengal is of particular cultural and historical importance. The small town is nestled in the banks of the Kopai river and blessed with nature’s bounty of ‘laal mati’ (red soil) and picturesque forests. The Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore set up the Vishwa Bharati University in this town to promote learning in harmony with nature. Tagore was a highly opinionated educationist and completely opposed to the idea of staying confined within classrooms. His labor of love, the university, upholds his rich legacy today promoting the cultivation of fine arts and cultural ties with other nations. The campus lavishly endowed with sculptures from masters and nature alike coexisting in harmony attracts some of the brightest and most creative minds into its folds. Tourists flock to the campus for a taste of Bengali culture and history.
Vasant Utsav is just another excuse.
How to Reach?
Shantiniketan is located 150 km away from Kolkata, the capital city of West Bengal. A number of trains are easily available from the Howrah station. One can also reach Shantiniketan by bus from the nearby towns of Bardhaman and Durgapur. Buses plying on the roads can be operated by both private companies and SBSTC (South Bengal State Transport Corporation).
Of Yellow Saris and Red Palash
If you want to see thousands of people sing and dance in unison, celebrate spirits of cordiality by smearing color on each other’s faces and simply come alive, then you cannot afford to miss the Vasant Utsav. Thousands of people from far and wide, the young and the old submerge themselves in the spirits of celebration with great candour. The day starts with a two hour cultural program replete with Tagore’s songs, dance dramas and poems reproduced by the University students. A procession of students reestablish the relevance of Tagore in every aspect of Bengali lives. Folk music and instruments create an ambience that even one oblivious of Bengali culture cannot help but enjoy.
Once the program is over starts the episode of playing with colors. Strangers put abir (dry color powder) on each other’s faces with joyous chants of “Shubho Basanta” (Auspicious Spring). The color permeates the very spirit of the surroundings and the entire university campus teems with visitors. The university students break into spontaneous song and dance routines under trees throughout the campus. Folk, contemporary, fusion, traditional- there is not a form that is left out. There are musical jams, strangers singing and dancing in unison. There are people dressed up in traditional finery. It is a breathtaking experience that touches your soul so deeply that it cannot be justifiably put into words.
One thing that stands out about the celebrations is the yellow sari (the nine yard cloth that Indian women prefer to drape) that is the established dress code for the day. Everyone dresses up in yellow saris, a batik print shawl (indigenous of Shantiniketan) and floral or silver jewellery. ‘Palash’ garlands (a typical red flower that blooms in spring. Bengali poets have always symbolised palash with spring and passion.) adorn them. Tagore’s tunes seem to ricochet from the very soil of the place. You can see kids with their innocent smiles indulging in the freedom of a day out. Five minutes later you will come across a street musician and his rendering of ‘baul’ songs. And then you can see old couples dancing to Rabindrasangeet.
What to shop for?
Shantiniketan is also quite well known for the plethora of handicrafts it has to offer. On the day of the Vasant Utsav artisans from nearby villages set up shop with their wares to attract the tourists. And boy, are the wares tempting. You have Shantiniketani jholas, colorful fans, shawls and kurtas with the traditional batik print, woodwork, shantiniketani leatherwork wallets, hairpins and a whole array of exquisite jewellery to choose from. Brightly colored earrnings and necklaces made from dry fruits, twigs, seeds and dried barks of local plants are as rich in artistic quality as they are beautiful. (The shopkeepers will also let you choose among different shapes and colors of beads available and string you a necklace with a matching pair of earrings on request- then and there!)
If you are in Bengal in spring, you know what not to miss.