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Pulling the right string

Pulling the right string
They tune their lute and begin on cue. Sitting under a large mango tree on the premises of a school in Jaher Than, the sacred grove of the Santhal tribe, three elderly men play the banam (fiddle or lute), filling the ambience with music.

Kinhu Suraj Tudu, Pradhan Hembrom and Salkhan Soren sing a song in Santhali, but the language is no barrier to getting lost in its rhythm. Raindrops and the chirping of birds add to the melody, while two children run around pillars playing hide-and-seek.

Hembrom and Soren are in their 70s, while Tudu is 80. Tudu is the senior-most and is called guruji. The trio teaches banam and other traditional instruments at Jaher Than in Karandih block of Jamshedpur, Jharkhand. Born and brought up in Santhali families, music and dance were part of their daily lives. As Tudu points out, of the 14 musical instruments the tribe plays, banam is much revered.

Tudu began playing the banam as a teenager along with Pandit Raghunath Murmu, a stalwart Santhali playwright and creator of the Ol Chiki script of the Santhal tribe. ‘Everyone played it. The banam is so old that we cannot even begin to trace its history,’ says the former employee of Tata Steel. According to legend, seven brothers once conspired to kill and eat their sister. It so happened that when she was cooking, she accidently cut her hand and a few drops of blood fell into the food. The food turned out to be very delicious, so the brothers thought that she would make a tasty meal. When they had killed their sister, the youngest brother was full of guilt and could not bring himself to eating his sister’s meat. He took his portion and buried it in an anthill. Later, a beautiful tree grew in its spot. One day, as a man was passing by, he heard music coming from the tree. Out of curiosity he cut some wood from the trunk and made a musical instrument out of it, which later came to be known as the banam.

The banam looks like a violin and is played with a bow. The instrument has different versions. It is usually made of the light and durable wood of the Gulanj baha plant (Plumeria acutifolia), a common ornamental flowering shrub. The hollow wooden sound box in the banam is covered with animal skin – either of chameleon or goat. The skin is pinned to the sound box traditionally with handmade wooden pins, which are now being replaced with pins available in the market. Hembrom, who retired as a driver with Tata Steel, is the head mistry in the group and makes and supplies banams. He uses a double-stringed banam, its strings made of horse’s hair. It usually takes 8-10 days to make one, and the work requires concentration, for the strings have to be carefully aligned. Soren believes that the banam today is at the risk of being edged out by modern instruments, like the keyboard and guitar. ‘To keep our tradition alive, the younger generation will have to learn to play it,’ he says.

Some 20 years ago the instrument was innovated to accommodate an electronic output source to connect it to a loudspeaker. But it was rarely used as musicians preferred to use the traditional banam. It is only since the past four-five years that banams that can be fitted to loudspeakers are being used more as this helps draw attention to the instrument during stage shows and ceremonies. During the last few months, Soren has had the chance to play the banam in Delhi, Bhopal and Thiruvananthapuram as a part of a Santhali theatre group. They performed a play called ‘Fevicol’, based on the issue of displacement of the tribals and scripted by Jeet Rai Hasda, a native of Jamshedpur and graduate of the National School of Drama.

Down to Earth
Savvy Soumya Misra

Savvy Soumya Misra

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