Melodious Memories from a Forest in a Pitch Black Night

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It was a visit to the Tribal Museum that rekindled memories of that night. In order to preserve and promote the skills as well as tradition of their unique wall paintings, the Museum had gotten a few Saura men to Bhubaneswar and employed them to create paintings in their style that could be sold or displayed.

It was a different matter that they now used bright artificial colours and paint brushes instead of the natural white colour on mud walls and bamboo shoot brushes, but seeing them work on the distinctive paintings reminded me of the exciting few months that were etched firmly in my mind.

It was in 1995, that thanks to a couple of architect friends of mine, I joined the Kalinga Project led by Padma Bhushan Rajeev Sethi.

Initiated (with active support from the then Chief Minister Biju Patnaik) by the Government of Orissa, as it was known then, in collaboration with INTACH, it was conceived as a holistic project to revitalize the rich legacy of arts and crafts of the state and make them a driver in economic growth of the artisans and craftsmen.

The Kalinga Project was envisaged with seven components, each focussing on one aspect of the programme.

Kalashree was a plan of action for the design, development and marketing of handicrafts as well as the renewal of traditional skills.

Bhaskarjya aimed to become East India’s first resource for traditional building techniques and crafts.

Gunjara was proposed as an inter-media event to solicit public participation in the Kalinga Heritage Programme.

Pallishree sought to promote ecologically sound and innovative products to re-energize cottage industries.

Kalinga Vastra was a development project for the textile heritage of the state.

Kalapunja was to create State-of-the-art interactive directories which would be a gateway to the state’s heritage based resources.

The final component was a Conservation Lab that would be a fully equipped training and lab facility for the conservation of manuscripts, objects, monuments etc.

As a part of the Kalinga Project, I got the opportunity to travel all around the state with Rajeev and the rest of the team – Rahul Vohra, who is now a well known actor, Akshaya Behuria and Shailaja, now among Odisha’s leading architects and Jayanta Sahoo, then a researcher, among many others, visiting almost all the places renowned for their arts and crafts. 

From the weavers of Kotpad to the pottery craftsmen of Papadahandi, from the lacquer craftspersons of Nabarangpur to the dhokra craftsmen of Baliguda, and so many others, I was fortunate to see them in their traditional homes and observe their craft first hand.

It was on one such recce trip, while travelling from Koraput to Gajapati, a little before our destination, we made a halt to meet the local resource person who would be taking us the next day to a Saura village.

The only issue was that while we were expected to meet him in the afternoon, due to various factors, one of them being Rajeev’s fascination for village haats, we were considerably delayed and by the time we reached the bottom of the hill on which his residence was located, it was already around 8 PM. 

Being mid December, it was already night, and when the car engine was shut and headlights switched off, it was absolute pitch black darkness, with only the soft sounds of the forest to hear.

It was decided that only Rajeev and the guide provided by the government would go up the hill to meet our resource person while Rahul, Akshaya, Jayanta and I would wait below.

It was as we were waiting in that pitch black darkness that we heard faint sounds coming from some distance. As they came closer and the sounds grew louder, we could make out that they appeared to be some sort of a musical group, though we could not make out what was being sung.

It was only when they turned a corner and became visible that we realised that it was a group of people, some 25-30 strong, carrying lamps and singing lustily. As they finally came close enough for us to see them properly, we noticed the cross they were carrying and realised that in their own language, they were singing Christmas carols!

While Rahul scrambled to get his recorder to capture the songs, I was mesmerized by the ethereal experience of the heart touching melody produced by so many mellifluous voices that somehow seemed completely in sync with the silence of the forest, whose beauty was enhanced by the stygian darkness from which it came forth and vanished into.

The next day, it took us more than four hours to traverse twelve kilometers to reach the Saura village up a hill. On reaching the village, we noticed that despite the terrible road conditions, a modern church building had been constructed, and we were informed that as most of the residents had converted to Christianity, there was only one person in the village who still made Idital – the paintings made in a dark corner of the house in honour of their deity of the same name. 

While we were happy that even in such a remote village they were able to get education and medical support from the missionaries, it was tinged with sadness that this caused the loss of traditions reaching back thousands of years.

But though a quarter of a century has passed, the memory of those few minutes in the dark forest still remains fresh in my heart as one of the most moving pieces of music that I have ever heard.

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