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An extraordinary wayfaring musician who protects the environment

Folk singer Naren Hansda is a musician from West Bengal, with a passion for the environment, who has helped regenerate forest land in Purulia district over a decade. The wayfarer musician has composed over 120 songs mostly about ecology in Santhal and Bengali languages. This year, his team plans to plant fifty to sixty thousand trees in the Purulia District

At first impression, Naren Hansda exudes a few of the typical rockstar vibes – expressive eyes, long hair loosely tied in a ponytail and a stringed instrument latched on his back. A closer look reveals his slightly frail physique complementing the fitted shirt, sleeveless jacket and jeans. His rockstar identity is sealed the instant he starts singing. As he croons, words like ‘jungle (forest), pahad (mountain), phul (flower), nadi (river)’ are enough, even for those not familiar with his language of choice, to decipher that his rendition Jungle Mohol is invoking nature.

By the time he switches over to the next song, his expressions seem to suggest he has traversed to a different world blessed with natural bliss and comes back to reality only after a roaring round of applause by the audience.

“I don’t necessarily have to ‘imagine’ a world blessed with natural beauty. I have seen such a place. In fact, I live in a place blessed with natural abundance and my songs take inspiration from there,” clarifies Hansda, in his late 40s, after his performance at Samvaad 2021, a conclave organised recently for indigenous communities in Jamshedpur, Jharkhand. The song is written in Santhali, a language widely spoken by the Santhal tribes who are natives of the eastern Indian states.

Indian classical music has a long-established connection with nature, which is well-recorded in the pages of history. Several ragas (melody), like malhar (associated with rain) and basant bahar (associated with spring), which form the base of Indian classical music, are said to be inspired by natural occurrences. While the indigenous communities have their own language and dialects, ecological knowledge is often passed down the generation through music.

Over a decade ago, it was the passion for music that prompted Hansda of the Santhal Community, to leave his home in Jahajpur Village in Purulia District of West Bengal. A wayfarer musician who sang mostly in Santhali and Bengali languages, he would roam around villages and cities, singing songs composed by him mostly related to social issues. During the course of his musical journey, he discovered the uninhabited Bhalidungri Village in the foothills of Ajodhya Hills and was mesmerised by the serenity the place offered. Untouched by human presence, the place offered him the perfect inspiration for his songs.

“I was closest to nature in those two years. I slept under the sky, roamed in the forest and spent time admiring nature. When it rained, I would walk to a school, a couple of kilometers away for shelter. Living in the lap of nature for a long time instilled an undying love within me. Unintentionally, I started becoming a conservationist,” Hansda says.

Purulia District’s topography, where the Ajodhya Hills lie, embraces the descent from the hills of Central India and Chottanagpur Plateau to the Damodar plains of Bengal, says the 1985 West Bengal District Gazetteer. Transitioning from the land of jungle mahals (jungle estates) and then onto the Manbhum District under the British, to being partitioned between Bihar and Bengal in 1956, Purulia, once a land of luxuriant moist tropical deciduous forests, has gone through phases of extensive logging, especially in the early part of the 19th Century when forest was primarily regarded as a ‘resource’.

British agrarian interventions at the expense of forests, disruption of the tribal communities’ hydrological management system and demand for teak and certain other timbers suitable for shipbuilding and railway sleepers accelerated the “wanton destruction” of forests, the gazette says. Despite notifying two small patches as Government Protected Forests in 1894, most of the forests that had been surveyed and mapped, and belonged to the British government to enable the application of the Indian Forest Act of 1865, did not receive serious protective action required to stem the destruction of privately owned forests in Purulia.

In the first half of the 20th Century, demand for timber in the two World Wars added further pressures on the forests, altering their ecological balance, imperiling wildlife and the relationship of the tribal communities with nature. Good timber “almost vanished as there was hardly any effort at regeneration and to strike a balance between cutting and planting”. Afforestation activities started in “right earnest” in the late 1960s with soil conservation schemes; however, homogenous tree plantations affected the flora and fauna, says the gazetteer.

The latest figures in the India State of Forest Report 2021 show a minuscule 3.36 sq km increase in forest cover in Purulia District. The 2021 assessment shows that Purulia has 37.38 sq km of very dense forest, 307.36  sq km of moderate dense forest and 574.50 sq km of open forest in 2021, as against 37.36 sq km, 306.94 sq km and 571.58 sq km, respectively, in 2019. A 2017 study that analysed in detail the degradation of forests in Purulia has attributed over-dependency on forest produce, shifting cultivation, overgrazing, forest fires and mining as some of the determinants of degradation.

While enjoying the natural bliss in Ajodhya’s foothills, gradually Hansda had also begun noticing the depletion of forest cover. Wandering through the villages and even growing up, he had seen landscapes change due to the felling of trees for individual use or for a commercial purpose. Though instinctively concerned for the ecology, he avoided confrontations and would instead politely ask people not to cut trees. His voice fell on deaf ears. “When I told people not to cut trees, they would always come up with a justification, citing some development project or some other necessities. It would sound complicated to me, and my ignorance often gave them an advantage. I realised sloganeering was of no use, so I should instead use my music abilities to generate awareness on conservation of natural resources,” says Hansda, who quit studies after standard eight and has composed at least 120 songs.

Hansdaroams around villages playing phet banam, a traditional string instrument, and uses simple words to relay the message – ‘Gach Bachao, Gach Banchle Paribesh Banchbe, Paribesh Banchle Manush Banchbe’ (Save trees, saving trees would save the environment, saving the environment would save humans). His unique music style garnered attention and he took another step from an activist to becoming a self-proclaimed conservationist. Besides singing songs on conservation, he continued resisting the felling of trees. But when people paid no heed to his words, he would quietly walk away only to come back the next day and plant a sapling at the same spot from where the tree was uprooted. His strategy was simple – if resistance was futile, switch over to action mode.

The wayfarer musician found help from kids, mostly orphans in the age group of 5 to 10 years. His musical capabilities earned him so much respect, that people of neighbouring villages encouraged him to start a school. Hansda runs three ashram schools, including a residential school for orphans in the Purulia District. The tiny tots have become his pillar and lend their support to him. Living in the woods, the children are aware and help identify the black spots in the forest and keep a strong vigil to prevent any destructive activities. When they spot anyone cutting trees, they gather together and drive them away.

“Initially no one would pay heed to me or the kids. One day, an individual managed to cut down a tree despite repeated warnings. I gathered the kids and some villagers and went to his house and gave him an earful. There was no violence or fine imposition, but we kept nagging until he understood his mistake. He was so scared to see so many of us together that he promised to never cut down a tree. That day I realised, even though I have young kids by my side, I shouldn’t take their strength lightly,” adds Hansda who sustains himself through invited performances and the schools.

Hansda and the children also continued planting saplings given by local NGOs and other organisations. The team effort has led to the regeneration of several acres of land in Ajodhya forest itself. As a result, they have joined countless indigenous communities who are protecting forests on their own, without any government support.

Naren Hansda, whose tryst with environmental protection happened by chance, has a concrete plan now. This year, he plans to plant fifty to sixty thousand saplings in barren lands of the Purulia district. Music, of course, will continue. He has already spoken to a few NGOs to procure the saplings and the plantation will begin around June-July. Though he is aiming to re-generate forest land, he is still unsure of the larger implications. “I have heard of climate change, though I am not sure what it exactly means. As a part of my cultural identity, I have been taught that it is a sin to harm nature. If someone like me can understand and implement this, why are educated people who study science continuing to destroy our ecology?”

(Courtesy: Mongabay India)

September 2022