NOTE: Dear Readers, I will be posting this topic in two to three parts depending on the length of the topic as the writing progresses.
As I talk about the various lost and fading professions in this series, I would also like to emphasise the fact that many of these professions were not confined to Bengal but were relevant in many parts of India. However, in this blog, I will be mostly presenting facts and aspects mostly relating to Bengal.
Professions mentioned in this Part
'Dak Harkara' or The Postal Runner (Fading (F))
The Professional Mimics or 'Harbola' (F)
'Bhisti' or the Water Carriers (F)
The 'Pankha' Pullers (Lost or (L))
'Napitani' or the Lady Barber (L)
The 'Bahurupis' (F)
The Caller of the Fire Brigade (L)
'Shil Katau Wala' or the Grinding Stone Etcher (F)
I often listen to Bengali songs by Hemanta Mukherjee on repeat as they feel nostalgic, gives me a sense of belonging to a time I wasn't even born, and remind me of days when life used to be more slow-paced. Among all his songs, one of my all-time favourites has been 'Runner' (the Postal Runner or 'Dak Horkora' in Bengali). The lyrics of the song are actually a heart-wrenching poem about the life (in general) of a Postal Runner written by poet Sukanta Bhattacharya and beautifully sung by Hemanta Mukherjee.
Few lines from the Bengali Poem রানার
A crude English Translation of the Poem 'Runner'
রানার ছুটেছে তাই ঝুম্ঝুম্ ঘন্টা বাজছে রাতে
রানার চলেছে খবরের বোঝা হাতে,
রানার চলেছে, রানার !
রাত্রির পথে পথে চলে কোনো নিষেধ জানে না মানার।
দিগন্ত থেকে দিগন্তে ছোটে রানার-
কাজ নিয়েছে সে নতুন খবর আনার।
এমনি ক’রেই জীবনের বহু বছরকে পিছু ফেলে, পৃথিবীর বোঝা ক্ষুধিত রানার পৌঁছে দিয়েছে ‘মেলে’। ক্লান্তশ্বাস ছুঁয়েছে আকাশ, মাটি ভিজে গেছে ঘামে জীবনের সব রাত্রিকে ওরা কিনেছে অল্প দামে। অনেক দুঃখে, বহু বেদনায়, অভিমানে, অনুরাগে, ঘরে তার প্রিয়া একা শয্যায় বিনিদ্র রাত জাগে।
রানার ! রানার ! এ বোঝা টানার দিন কবে শেষ হবে ?
The tinkling of the bells at night is because of the runner who is running carrying loads of news. Since he moves at night, he does not face any prohibitions of the road. He runs from one horizon to another as he has taken up the job of delivering fresh news.
Years pass by as he toils away carrying the burden of the world on his shoulders and delivering them, while his lonely lover surrenders herself to another sleepless night. She will never receive a letter from him, for he has sold all his nights to traverse horizons for the women who will, to never slow down and never look back – his pain forever enveloped in the dark.
Will he ever be relieved of this burden?
It's as if I could visualize the Runner myself through the lyrics of the song. Truly speaking, I wouldn't have known about them or the profession, which provides glimpses of a bygone era, had they not been immortalised through this song. When I heard this song for the first time as a child, I couldn't understand the meaning of it and the word 'Runner'. It was then my father had explained it to me and I wondered aloud as to why haven't I seen them at night. I was then told that they are not found in cities and towns anymore but they may still be there in remote villages.
While the profession of the Postal Runner may have been immortalized by the song, or by some other literary works ('Dak Harkara' by the eminent writer Tarashankar Bandyopadhyay) or a movie/documentary (a Bengali movie named 'Dak Harkara' released in 1958 made from Tarashankar Bandopadhyay's story; a more recent documentary made by Anirban Dutta in 2019 titled 'The Last Run' which depicts the life of one of the last surviving postal runners), or even by Post offices (through statues and other memoirs), other professions which were relevant and intertwined with the lives of the people of the bygone era may not share the same luck and may be completely erased from history and memories by the upcoming generations.
The ancient towns and cities hold many such stories of lives and occupations that were integral to existence for people in the past but are not relevant anymore, thus reminding us of the fact that with progress as the working of the society changes, the professions become redundant at some point of time.
In this blog, I'd like to share some such stories of livelihoods of old Bengal (majorly Kolkata) that were a vital part of day-to-day life in the distant past but are already lost or are fading into obscurity. Though many of these professions viz. the 'Dak Harkara', the Pankha Puller, the 'Bhistis' etc., are not exclusive only to Bengal, they are vestiges of a rich history with the Bengal of yore.
Dak Harkara or the Postal Runner:
The romance of the post office must always lie in the mail runner, or harkara. The number of tigers sated with his flesh is past count, the Himalayan snows have overwhelmed him and flooded rivers have carried him off and oozy swamps sucked him down. But in the face of all these dangers, has the runner ever failed to do his duty? According to the stories, never, and in real life perhaps not more than once or twice. -- Geoffrey Clarke, Director-General, Imperial Post Office Department, 1919-22.
When there was no internet or even roads in most parts of India, the Runner wielded a spear and lantern in one hand and a sack containing all the messages good as well as bad in the other to be delivered far and wide. The spear had bells tied below the tip so that the noise of the bells kept the wild animals at bay. Again the same jingle of the bells marked the arrival of the much-anticipated mail.
The Postal Runners were appointed by the British Raj in the 1850s and were the embodiment of 'Service before Self'. Their realm often began where the roads ended and they had to often face insurmountable odds to deliver the mail. They had to cover miles off the beaten path, cross rivers, climb mountains and sometimes traverse their own route to deliver the messages. They had to face all sorts of risks, hazards and hardships in carrying the mail through the jungles, terrains, and deserts. They encountered wild animals, bandits, and risked their lives in difficult terrains. Many a time, the Runners on duty were carried away by tigers, drowned in flooded rivers, bitten by venomous snakes, buried in avalanches, or murdered by robbers. The Runners also played a vital role in the Indian independence movement.
The Professional Mimics or 'Harbola':
The term 'Harbola' was coined by Rabindranath Tagore in 1935 when he met the famous 'Harbola' Rabin Bhattacharya. Amidst the cacophony in our day-to-day life sounds, we seldom stop to ponder how sounds shape our experiences, control our emotions, and connect us with reality. 'Harbola', which revolves around this very notion of sound was once a most popular performing art form; but is nearly on the verge of death at present with very few men striving to keep this art form alive. These men have perfected their art with years of training and they can imitate a wide range of sounds from a sweet call of a Robin, to the crying sounds of a baby, to the sounds of aeroplanes or moving trains. These men can imitate both familiar as well as exotic sounds, which need the patience of observation, concentration, a good ear, and exceptional memory to remember and replicate.
Before the advent of ‘sound effects’, upgraded recording devices, and other advancements in the field of acoustics, ‘Harbola’ artists were in demand for radio shows, theatres, movies and local cultural programmes. These artists also have travelled abroad to various countries to showcase their art at a time when they were given their due credit as performing artists. Many background sound effects in movies and radio shows were used to be performed by these artists. As the radios are on a steep decline, so are the ‘Harbolas’. Without any government support, social apathy, and absence of protégés, this indigenous performing art has almost reached its final years, cornered and made invisible with the cloak of glamorous entertainment and other new age platforms.
Some mentions of 'Harbola' in different mediums:
'Sujan Harbola', a short story for kids by Satyajit Ray tells a story of a boy who eventually becomes 'Harbola' and does wonders with his talent.
In 'Kedara: A symphony of Silence', a film by Indraadip Das Gupta, the protagonist who is a ventriloquist, laments about the dying art form of 'Harbolas'.
The Youtube video (below) shows two Harbola artists, Basudev Banerjee and Jayanta Dey, showcasing their talents and talking about their struggles to keep up with the dying art form (Source: www.kaahon.com)
'Bhisti' or the Water Carriers:
The name 'Bhisti' for the water carriers comes from the Persian word 'behesht' meaning paradise. Before the days of easily accessible piped water supply, or bottled water, or refrigerated water, these 'Bhistis' or the water carriers of ancient times, were the source of succour to any thirsty soul or to anyone who ran out of water for their needs, especially on road. According to history, these 'Bhistis' were a Muslim group from Arabia who followed the path of Mughal ingression to India. Initially, they supplied water to villages for free, but later they had to adopt it as their source of income due to changing times.
They carry water in a bag made from goat skin known as 'Mashq', made in the shape of an upturned goat that holds about 20-30 litres of water. A strap is tied to both the hind and front of the water bag, which stretches across his right shoulder, the bag being on the left side. A stopper is placed in the mouth of the bag, which the carrier holds with his left hand. The goat skin 'Mashq' costs about 3000/- which needs to be replaced annually. Earlier the 'Mashq' used to be made of camel skin but the exorbitant rate of camel skins compelled the 'Bhistis' to shift to goat skin water bags.
From serving the Mughal troops in war fields, the Bengal Nawabs, and then the British to watering the gardens of Zamindars, offering water to worshippers at Mosque, and giving water to weary travellers, 'Bhistis' have provided water to a varied class of people in varied walks of life. They have also served as employees of the Kolkata Municipal Corporation (KMC) (at that time it was Calcutta Municipal Corporation (CMC)) in the past and were later replaced by water-carrying carriages. They have also been seen as altruists who would at times provide water to anyone who needed it without any monetary gains.
However, with improved access to water in most localities, and increasing inhibitions about drinking water from goat skin bags, the 'Bhistis' are becoming a dying tribe. There are only a handful of them left in Kolkata and these remaining 'Bhistis' do not want their future generations to carry on with the same profession.
Though Rudyard Kipling has immortalised the 'Bhistis' in his poem 'Gunga Din', they may not be seen anymore on the streets of Kolkata (or Delhi or Mumbai) after a few years. What we may get to see instead is a cast iron sculpture of the 'Mashqs' hanging from bamboo stands at the entrance of City Centre 1 at Salt Lake, whenever we visit the same.
“The bhisti, in short, practices what Red Cross societies aim to accomplish, and what churches profess to do. He is the one star that shines brightly through the dark, traditional sky of India — a messenger of life in a land of suffering and death.” — Samuel Murray, Seven Legs Across the Seas: A Printer’s Impressions of Many Lands
The Pankha Pullers:
The ‘Pankha’ is a large swinging cloth fitted on a frame and was used as a fan in the hot tropical Indian summers much before the British Raj in India. The swinging cloth would be pulled backwards and forwards, to create a gentle breeze through the circulation of air, by the ‘Pankha’ Puller. During the British Raj, the 'Pankhas' were installed everywhere from offices to courtrooms to cantonments to schools to the European as well as Indian Elite households. The ‘Pankha’ Puller would often sit outside the premises (so that he was out of earshot of the babus who would often discuss confidential matters) and pull the chord attached to the ‘pankha’ which reaches the puller after passing through a network of pinions and pulleys. However, this profession was labour-intensive which was taken to inhuman levels during the British Raj. The ‘Pankha’ Pullers would often be tortured, at times beaten to death for sleeping on the job instead of keeping the 'heads of the lords cool'.
Often they had to pull the ‘pankhas’ throughout the day and night with very few breaks in between. They were made to work through the summer months from April to October after which the 'pankha' would be dismantled for cleaning and to be put up again at the start of the next summer.
Within the deep verandah's shade
There lurks a form I know,
It is the punkah-pulling fiend
Hi! Juldee chuti do
Noor Ahmed! chase him from my sight,
That evil form and brown.
And recollect, ere I return,
Have all the punkahs down.
A necessary evil he,
And somnolent withal,
Who snored through fifty steamy nights,
Nor wakened at my call.
But stay—my soul is filled with peace,
E'en towards my Aryan neighbours—
Eight annas shall be his beyond
The pittance of his labours.
------ From 'Descent of the Punkah' by Rudyard Kipling.
With the progress of technology and the advent of fans and ACs, the profession of the 'Pankha' pullers became redundant.
'Napitani' or the Lady Barber:
'Napit' is the Bengali word for barber which was a profession for men of low caste. The lady barbers were called 'Napitani' or 'Naptebou' (literally, wives of the barbers).
In India, professions have been passed on from one generation to the next (e.g. from father to son like the 'Bhistis') and have always been interlinked with caste practices that dictated the professions of castes and their many subsets. This passing of professions is more prominent in the lower classes such as the 'nais'/'napits' (the barbers) or the 'Jamadars' (the sweepers/cleaners).
In the earlier days, women lived very private lives, confined in their homes, with very little contact with the outside world. So, while the 'Napits' attended to the needs of the male customers, their wives, the 'Napitanis,' doubled up as masseuses, and pedicurists for the Bengali women (wives, daughters, sisters) in the households of Zamindars, or other aristocratic families and they were paid for their services. The 'Napitanis' used to apply 'Alta' (a red dye) and made beautiful designs with it on the feet of these women. Bengali women would adorn their hands and feet with 'Alta' for marriage and any other cultural festivals and others.
With the changes in society and the empowerment of women, the custom of putting on the 'Alta' by calling in a 'Napitani' has long gone. They have been replaced by beauticians who offer services from beauty salons. Women rarely put on 'Alta' nowadays except for marriage or Pujas.
I first learned about the 'Bahurupis' through the story 'Srinath Bahurupi' written by Sharat Chandra Chattopadhyay in which the protagonist dresses as a tiger.
'Bahu' means many and 'Rup' means forms, i.e. 'Bahurupi' means one who can take up many forms like a chameleon. 'Bahurupis' are wandering folk performers from Bengal who portray multiple religious and mythological characters by physically disguising themselves into those characters. A combination of body paints, make-up, prosthetics, masks, wigs, costumes, and jewellery help them achieve the physical transformation into the concerned character they wish to portray. Along with the physical transformation, the 'Bahurupis' also need to become adept at mimicry, dancing, imitation of body language and exaggerated gestures. They visit village houses, fairs, and pilgrimages and entertain people with their acting skills, excellent mimicry, and storytelling skills. The villagers would then reward the 'Bahurupis' with food and clothes or money.
These 'Bahurupis' hail from the 'Bedia' tribe belonging to eastern and northern parts of India. They were originally hunters who made their living by hunting, herbal medicines and snake charming. The social caste system did not allow them to try any other trade. However, with the implementation of forest laws, even hunting became restricted for these people and they were forced to take up the 'Bahurupi' trade.
However, this unique profession which was once a grand cultural part of Bengal, is slowly dying, mainly because of the loss of income. The modern media addiction and the younger generation's unwillingness to take the tradition forward are the other reasons.
The Caller of the Fire Brigade
Before the days of telephones and cars (in the early and middle 1800s), amidst the colonial structures, Kolkata housed many tiled huts or thatched houses which were prone to a fire breakout, especially during the months of March-April. In the year 1780, about 15000 thatched huts burned down in a fire near Shobhabazar. In addition to polluted water, and malaria, the leaders of the John Company also faced the problem of frequent fire breakouts in Kolkata.
A firefighting army was built to tackle this problem, and 5 firefighting carriages were imported from England in 1865. Among these 3 were horse-drawn carriages and 2 were smaller for narrow lanes and to be pulled by men. And the 'Bhistis' were employed to supply the water needed for firefighting. While all these arrangements were made, the main task still remained as to who will inform the firefighting department in the incidence of a fire breakout. To that effect, personnel were recruited and posted at various locations (like Bhowanipore, Lalbazar etc.) in the city who would occupy elevated positions overlooking the locality. Whenever they would locate smoke anywhere in the neighbourhood, they would inform the fire department and the firefighting carriage would be sent to the location. And hence, the post 'The Caller of the Fire Brigade'.
However, with this arrangement, by the time the fire department got the news and reached the destination in the horse-drawn firefighting cart, the fire would have already consumed much of the structure. Thus, the Company leaders thought of another arrangement. They installed 'Fire Alarm Call Boxes' at regular intervals in the city so that fire department officials could be alerted in case of a fire breakout.
At the southeast corner of the Hedua More crossroads, one can find a rusty, old, and dilapidated iron box (Picture on the left), not more than 5-ft tall. The box is more than 150 years old and is a 'Fire Alarm Call Box', that has withstood the test of time. This iron box encased a lever and a bell and was protected by glass on the front and back. In case of a fire breakout, a person had to break the glass and turn the lever repeatedly. This alarm was connected to a nearby fire station through underground wires. With the turning of the lever, the fire office would be alerted and they would reach the scene quicker than before. These alarms were functional for a period of about 100 years.
However, with the advancement of technology, these became redundant and lost into obscurity.
'Shil Katau wala' or the Grinding stone etcher
Before the advent of the mixer grinders, every Bengali household (rather every Indian household) had a 'Shil Nora' or the grinding stones which were used for grinding spices or smashing food items as per requirement.
The large flat rectangular stone is the 'Shil' and the small roll or pin shape is the 'Nora'. Both the surfaces of 'Shil' and 'Nora' are pitted which makes the grinding surfaces coarse and thus makes the grinding efficient and easier. On regular usage, as the stone surfaces gradually smoothen, they need to be chipped with a hammer and a chisel to make them coarse again. This is done by the 'Shil Katau Wala' or the Grinding Stone etcher.
The food in my mother's kitchen is still cooked with spices ground using grinding stones. Whenever, the grinding stones needed to be chipped, if the 'Shil Katau wala' hollered out on the nearby streets, he would be called home to etch the stone surface. These 'Shil Katua walas' would often make different designs on the 'Shil' surface. I used to love watching them working and also the rhythmic sound of chiselling away on the stone surfaces. I vividly remember a fish design made by a 'Shil Katau wala' long back.
With the increasing popularity of food processors and mixer grinders in modern kitchens, many modern Indian kitchens do not own grinding stones. Hence, the demand for the 'Shil Katau walas' are also decreasing accordingly. Their hollering out on the streets of their profession to get work has become less frequent (more so in the cities). As modern appliances overtake more and more Indian kitchens, these 'Shil Katau walas' will also probably fade into oblivion someday.
To be Continued...
References for Part 1
'The Lost Generations: Chronicling India's Dying Professions' by Nidhi Dugar Kundalia