Tunes as exquisite as the tribe of Santal

Vathsala V P, Feb 10 2018, 18:45 IST
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Santalis, the people belonging to the Santal tribe, enjoy music and dance over everything else. After a hard day's work in the fields and forests, they unwind in the evening by playing music and dancing. Their traditional musical instruments include bamboo flutes called tirio, drums named tamak, ankle bells named junko, and fiddles known as banam, among others.

Of all these musical instruments, the one that caught my attention was banam. Probably because of the interesting story behind the shaping of it. According to myths among the Santalis, there once lived seven brothers who decide to kill their sister for food, and do so. While six brothers feast over their sister's meat, one of the brothers, consumed by guilt, finds himself unable to eat the meat, and buries it in an anthill.

After a few days, a beautiful tree grows out of the buried meat and starts emanating melodious music. A passerby, on hearing the musical notes coming from it, cuts a branch, fashions a crude fiddle, and starts playing it. That was the first ever banam. Today, banam is a popular folk fiddle played by the Santalis of North East, West Bengal, Jharkhand, Bihar, Odisha and Bangladesh. A variety of banams is made, but the most common ones are the tendor banam, huka banam and dhodhro banam. It is interesting to note that these banams are classified according to their ornamentation, and not structure. One of the most attractive musical instruments of Northeast India, each banam is the result of the artistry of its maker who carves out the designs of his choice to make it unique. One common motif used in the carvings on banams is human figures. Banams are as unique as the Santalis. Being the third largest tribe in India, Santalis are known for their never-say-die attitude. Even today, they are known for the resistance they offered to the British during the British regime in India.

Another musical instrument from the Northeast that caught my attention was pena, the traditional folk music instrument of the Meitei community of Manipur. This single-stringed instrument, known as tingtalia in Nagaland, is played using a bow. Once played only in the royal courts, this instrument soon became a part of the folk culture of Manipur.
However, one cause for concern for the Manipuris is that the playing of pena is fast becoming a dying art. Pena owes its name-origin to the Sanskrit term vina. It comprises a body made of bamboo that is fixed to a coconut shell cut in half, and a bow made of wood with a curved metal finish at one end. The string of the instrument, which was originally made of horse hair, is now replaced by metal or wood fibre. Pena also has two more holes in the coconut shell to aid in acoustics.
While one of the holes is covered with animal skin, the other one is left open.

The sweet music from these instruments have to be heard to be believed!
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