09, Apr 2021 | Mohammed Ripon Sheikh
A haat is the Bengali term for a weekly marketplace, most in rural Bengal. They are more than a mere shopping zone, and often become a hub where locals gather and meet. It is here that area residents who do not really have opportunities to travel far, can interact with customers who often came from far away to get specialty goods at these hyper local markets.
Many years ago, one such haat was encouraged to be set up by the revered Rabindranath Tagore in Bolpur Shantiniketan. It was set up beside the Sonajhuri Forest, and was intended to provide local residents and artisans to sell their handmade goods and produce by setting up small business ventures. Soon, they began getting used to the marketing system and would sell the specialty goods on Saturday afternoons, and as soon as dusk settled in, they would wrap up shop and head back home.
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There were no “fixed shops” or designated outlets for any particular business or product. They were all set up as and when the artisans came in and found a vacant spot they liked. The ‘market’ layout was organic, and one would often find a couple selling homemade sweets right next to a grandma selling handmade crafts, and another selling clothes she had made. Old timers recall the ever popular and beloved Shyamali Di, who would sell handmade origami ‘toys’. Every week, children would come and ‘buy’ them in exchange of locally traced crystal stones they would ‘pay’ with.
However, as the years went by, that little weekly haat got bigger and bigger. Businesses boomed, and buinesfolk blossomed. Many business owners then began coming back everyday to sell their goods. Adivasi women would dance, and Baul fakirs would sing. There’s a lot of entertainment available for tourists. The quaint little weekly haat was over. Instead it quickly became a chaotic and crowded commercial of this town. It’s always full of noise and people. It was so crowded on some days that locals worried that an ambulance wouldn’t be able to find a clear path if it had to cross this area.
Now, there was also a growing resentment among the local tobal communities. Some angry residents of a neighbouring Santhal village told us that this haat is quickly becoming a problem for them. They say the commercialisation is objectionable and is a blow on their traditions and livelihoods.
“The rich and powerful are taking over our land, and are pushing our homes away to the extreme end,” they say. According to the villagers, nobody is paying any attention to their need for education, distribution of power or healthcare here. They accuse the tourists of treating them as if they were “lesser beings”. It upsets the villagers that their children would have to “witness this indecency”. They ask if the tourists would behave like this in their own place too?
An elderly villager asked, “Why does this ‘haat’ run in our forest land? Is there no other place? Our women dance on special traditional days. Now they have to dance for a show just because these rich people throw their money at us?” Honestly, as a visitor myself, it was very uncomfortable to listen to his words. He was right of course, this was the way many visitors who came from the city behaved when they were here in the tribal area.
A group of locals even organised a community meeting to call for the shutting down of the haat. This is, unquestionably, an important issue and they are very vocal and clear about their demands. All they ask is that the urban elite listen to their concerts, engage with them, and together find a solution to a problem that threatens to grow and create bigger problems in the future.
This report is part of CJP’s Grassroots Fellowship Program, and has been written by researcher Mohammed Ripon Sheikh, who is travelling around rural Bengal, tracking and documenting social and cultural movements of indigenous people.
Meet CJP Grassroot Fellow Mohammed Ripon Sheikh
This young man, who has graduated with a B.Sc degree from the Burdwan University, loves trivia. Sheikh’s passion to research and seek “unknown information about World History” has earned him many medals and trophies at various University and state-level Quiz championships, and youth festivals. Sheikh is a born orator and a natural community leader. He has the potential to represent his community, state and country at a global level one day. His immediate goal, however, is to find a job so he can support his parents.