The colourful napkin in Charubala Kalindi’s hand glimmers like lightning for a moment. The red and blue ghaghra swings vigorously to the Jhumur song. The musicians gathered for the performance begin to play in unison.
An audience of 80-90 people – old and young, men, women and children – is watching the performance in Senabana village in Arsha taluka of West Bengal. Though 65 years old, Charubala dances briskly.
It is said that the word ‘jhumur’ came from the sounds made by the anklets worn by the dancers. The dance form is popular mainly in the south-west parts of West Bengal and adjacent regions of Jharkhand (while another variant is performed in Assam). Most of the poets who have traditionally composed Jhumur songs are from the oppressed castes, and some of their songs speak of social issues, and of drought, flood, politics and other ills. The love and longing between Krishna and Radha is also a recurring subject of Jhumur songs.
Charubala's own life reflects some of these themes. She once lived in Belma village in Purulia II taluka of West Bengal's Purulia district (Puruliya in the Census). When she was around 16-17, her father Mohan Kalindi – the family belongs to the Kalindi community, listed as a Scheduled Caste in some states – an agricultural labourer and construction site worker, got her married to Shankar Kalindi of nearby Dumdumi village.
Shankar was in his 20s, and he too did whatever labour was available. He turned out to be physically abusive. The beatings got so severe that Charubala left him and returned to her father. But Mohan turned her away, saying he was too poor to take care of her. So Charubala became homeless and lived on the streets for a while.
This is where she met Shravan Kalindi (neither of them remembers the
year). Shravan, a Jhumur artist,
took her in. He trained Charubala to be a nachni, with help from Bimala
Sardar, another nachni who lives in a neighbouring
village. Over time, Shravan, now 75, became Charubala’s rasik – her manager, agent and
coordinator of her performances. He also collaborates with groups associated
with Baul, Bhadu, Chau, Karam Kirtan, Tusu,
Kirtan and other performing arts. And he is an occasional agricultural
A rasik is regarded as a connoisseur of poetry and music. The nachni and he are usually in a conjugal relationship, which can often be exploitative of the woman. Just like other rasiks, Shravan too is married, and his large family includes his wife Sarala, sons, daughters, daughters-in-law and grandchildren. Charubala and he have a daughter too, 24-year-old Kamala, who is married and has moved to Uttar Pradesh.
The pressure to earn for the large family keeps Charubala performing even at her age. This, however, has not earned her the respect of Shravan’s wife, Sarala, who still refuses to accept her.
Charubala earns Rs. 1,000 per show organised by the state government; these shows are around 1 to 1.5 hours long, and Charubala, manages, at her age, to do just one or two shows a month. She also gets Rs. 1000 a month as a stipend for folk artistes from the state’s Department of Cultural Affairs.
During the Juhmur season, from around October to May, private shows, organised by clubs or puja committees, can go on for the whole night, during which a nachni has to sing and dance for at least five hours. For this, the troupe of five to seven people is paid Rs. 6,000- Rs. 8,000, which is divided among them. The supporting musicians play the dhol (a double-sided drum), a madal (a small double-sided drum made from a hollowed tree trunk), a dhamsa (a large kettle drum), a maracas (a hollow gourd or gourd-shaped container filled with dried beans) and the shehnai.
Charubala has accepted this work as her destiny. “What more can be done? If the almighty had written it as my fate to be a nachni, who am I to change that? What will I eat if I leave this profession?” she says with a wry smile.
A different version of this photo story was published on Sahapedia on October 25, 2018.