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Bengal revisited in Pennsylvania village

MY SANTINIKETAN

BETH A. PAYNE

Itís hard to believe that itís already been a year since I was last exploring West Bengalís countryside and culture with my camera in hand. Luckily, it seems like every week something sparks a fond memory from my three years in Calcutta ó whether itís opening my morning paper to find a photograph of US secretary of state Hillary Clinton with West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee, or meeting a colleague who grew up in Calcutta and sharing our longing for mishti doi.

I recently spent a long weekend in rural Pennsylvania in a special place called Big Valley, home to the most traditional Amish communities in the world and my ancestral village, and I thought of similar weekends in West Bengal. Big Valley is my abode of peace and as I visited my favourite spots in the valley, I thought of Rabindranath Tagore and his love of nature and the special lure of Santiniketan.

Like my trips to Big Valley, a long weekend in Santiniketan would start early on Saturday morning.

Excitement would build as we loaded the car with suitcases, snacks and a cooler filled with drinks. As we crossed the Hooghly river, I would start craving the dal puri and special milk tea at our regular dhaba on the Durgapur Expressway. I loved the energy and diversity of the travellers who also stopped for a snack or just to stretch their legs.

This man sells great Baul instruments and will take the time to teach you how to play as well

I had to be careful not to ruin my appetite, though, because lunch was waiting for us at Banalakshmi, a small farm just outside of Santiniketan that serves wonderful malai chingri and mishti doi. My parents both grew up on farms and Big Valley is filled with beautiful farms, many still run without electricity or tractors by traditional Amish. I like Banalakshmi because they also are running their farm using traditional methods to grow their produce and prepare their classic Bengali dishes.

I would always stop at Confetti Exportsí workshop where local artists craft world-class pottery. Iím proud that Confettiís owner, Shanta Ghosh, who has ties with my home state of Pennsylvania, is dedicated to reviving the creation of terracotta earthenware, a once-dying cottage industry. Artisans in the areas around Santiniketan have been making terracotta products for centuries and now, thanks to Confetti, artists from these same villages are creating works of art that merge ancient techniques with modern design.

After lunch, I would head off to Ballavpur Danga Tourist Lodge. I like this lodge because it is quiet and clean and run by local villagers, who are very friendly and helpful. There are smaller home stays that are also quite nice in Santiniketan, but I usually had family or friends with me and this Tourist Lodge was perfect for a crowd. The Government Tourist Lodge is also a good option, but it can be noisy since itís on a busy street.

You can find so many things at the Saturday Haat, ranging from beautiful pottery to locally made pickles

After a quick nap, we would head off to the Saturday Haat, an open-air artistsí market that brings Santhal artisans, Bauls and local craftsmen together in a festive atmosphere. My niece had a wonderful time learning how to play the ektara and is very happy she bought one to bring home. My mom loved the handloom kantha-stitch kurtas, buying several as souvenirs. While my friends and family shopped, I would try to capture the essence of the Saturday Haat on my camera, so I would always have the memories.

One of my favourite places to visit in Santiniketan was Visva-Bharati University, where I could still feel Rabindranath Tagoreís spirit and soak up his love of art and life.

I particularly enjoyed the art school, the best in India, in the early morning when the rising sun gives the open-air art a special glow. I was honoured to visit the homes of local artists, including Jogen Chowdhury and Gautam Das. Their art and support for young artists is inspiring.

My favourite time of day in Santiniketan is the early morning, as the sun rises. In these early mornings, I would walk with my camera to a Santhal village and try to capture the essence of Santhal village life.

Like the Amish in my home village, the Santhals are struggling to preserve their culture and traditions in an ever-modernising world. One of their strongest supporters, Lippy Biswas, lives on the edge of the village where she has one of the most interesting artist studios in India. I would show up just in time for a tantalising breakfast of patishapta and strong coffee, and marvel at her beautiful pottery, which has both a traditional and a modern flair ó proving that Santiniketanís inspiration is timeless.

This young woman is my favourite vendor at the Saturday Haat. She not only has creative and beautiful jewellery but is always happy and energetic. My family now has dozens of her beautiful necklaces!
Pictures: Beth A. Payne

I also enjoyed exploring Amar Kutir, which has a wide selection of local crafts, and visiting the many temples surrounding the town. The Kali temples are particularly interesting. Iíll never forget the time when I wandered away from the temple with my camera and happened on a local sadhu who invited me in for tea. Somehow, my driver and bodyguard didnít notice that Iíd left the temple and when they discovered me settled on the porch of the local sadhu, talking about traditional music and the power of Kali, I thought they would have a fit! I then did promise to stop wandering off without them!

I once spent New Yearís Eve in Santiniketan with good friends. We had a scrumptious meal at the Green Cup, a small restaurant run by an Indian-Spanish couple with the best gazpacho Iíve ever had. As we rung in the New Year, I could feel the magic of Santiniketan promising us a wonderful year ahead, and it was!

When it was time to head back to Calcutta, I always felt sad saying farewell to my weekend of inspiration, great food and Bengali tradition. I would cheer myself up by thinking about the langcha waiting in Saktigarh, a mandatory stop on my way back home!

I am so lucky to have such fond memories of Santiniketan ó it is a slice of Bengali life that should be preserved and treasured ó and I look forward to returning one day!