The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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In synergy with Village Mother
- Gajon rituals a research topic for Chicago varsity anthropologist

Reciting lines from the Chandi — the official mandate for Durga puja rituals — is fairly easy for this anthropologist from Chicago University, who calls the “Bengal delta” his second home. Settling down in Kelomaal village, in East Midnapore in the early 1960s for his doctoral fieldwork, Professor Ralph W. Nicholas delved into the lives of the local rural folk and discovered his “primary love” — the socio-religious institutions, beliefs and practices of rural Bengal.

On a visit to Calcutta to release his second book, Fruits of Worship, at Oxford Bookstore on December 16, Nicholas — who is William Rainey Harper, Professor Emeritus of Anthropology and the Social Sciences at Chicago University and president of American Institute of Indian Studies — took time off to speak at the Asiatic Society about his current field of research: the origins and rituals of Gajon, or Charak puja, heralding the Bengali new year.

“I was this strange, bizarre creature from Mars amidst the village folk,” he jokes, remembering the initial stumbling blocks he had to encounter. But language was never a problem, as he had coaxed Edward Dimock, Indologist at Chicago University, who had published a complete English translation of Sri Sri Chaitanya Charitamrita, to teach him Bengali. Besides, “Bengalis have been educating me since 1960,” Nicholas confesses, frequently slipping into heavily-accented but fluent colloquial Bengali.

And being born and brought up in Arkansas, in the US, where his family “used a handpump to draw water and people had to kick the new-born chicks out of their way to go to the toilet that lay beyond the backyard”, his mettle was hardened enough to “set up and run a household in rural Bengal 40 years ago”.

His first published work was Kinship in Bengali Culture (1977), a subject close to his heart, as he felt the same kinship with things Indian since his childhood, which led him to give up his favourite subject in college, chemistry, and move to a different branch of study altogether. The religious life of ordinary people in Bengal and the Bengali attachment to goddesses and the Mother figure proved to be interesting research topics for Prof Nicholas, who has dedicated an entire chapter to her in his new book, called The Village Mother in Bengal. He has also traced and analysed the origins and popularity of goddesses like Sitala (the goddess of small-pox, or mayer daya, as referred to in rural Bengal), Santoshi Ma, Olaichandi, Manasa and the rest.

Village deities, the concept of maternal energy and the worship of motherhood as in Ganesh Janani (Durga), miracles, mythological narratives and the popular concept of manat before the Gajan festival continue to interest him. The underlying significance of rituals, like the jewel-theft dance or manikchuri naach of devotees during Gajan, offerings to the sun, and the use of rattans during Charak are areas that Nicholas is currently working on.

A love for simple village life often draws Nicholas and his wife to their farm – “a rural retreat, which is an hour’s drive from Chicago”. Raising dairy goats to make cheese is something they both enjoy as a hobby, though his wife, a radio producer in Chicago, also loves to travel and accompanies him on most of his trips to India, particularly Calcutta and Midnapore. “I’m used to rural life and love Bengali rituals and entertainment. Amateur village theatricals— the jatra, torja or shong — continue to attract me,” Nicholas admits.

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