|Naveen blows a conch at a meeting in Berhampur and (above) a man sells conch shells at his kiosk in Puri on Thursday. Pictures by Gopal Krishna Reddy and Sarat Patra
Bhubaneswar, Feb. 20: The conch is riding an unprecedented popularity wave with the BJD seeking to turn its election symbol into an emblem of Odia pride, a clever election strategy.
“Lord Jagannath undertook the Kanchi abhijan (campaign to conquer Kanchi by Puri King) to uphold the self-respect of the Odias. We, too, are committed to keeping the flag of Odisha flying high with His blessings,” Naveen declared in chaste Odia after blowing the conch at Samarjhola, a village that is part of his constituency, Hinjli, in Ganjam district, to kick off the party’s “Sankha Bajao, Swabhiman Banchao” campaign.
Conch, a popular item in Odia households, has so far proved to be a lucky mascot for the ruling party.
Besides, the invocation of Lord Jagannath was also deliberate because there is no better way of connecting with the state’s rural folk than making a reference to the lore of Odisha’s presiding deity.
The campaign that follows high-profile rallies by BJP prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi and Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi will cover the length and breadth of the state till March 4.
“Development and self-respect are two pillars of the BJD. Though the Centre continues to neglect us, we are trying to move forward. Let’s make Odisha a developed state,” said Naveen.
The speech, however, was drowned in the defeaning sound of hundreds of conchs blowing in unison. White being his colour of choice, Naveen blew the one with a milky white hue supported by the two professional conch blowers drawn from the Subhashri Sankhadhwani Folk Dance Kalakendra of Ganjam.
Consequently, conchs, especially the milky white ones, are selling at a premium at local markets. The prices have gone up from Rs 500 a piece to Rs 1,500.
“The business has picked up suddenly. There are around 30 to 40 vendors selling conchs in Puri, but since we can’t meet the sudden rush of demand, we are importing shells from outside. Besides, our conch shells are small in size which may not suit the needs of big occasions,” said Loknath Mohapatra, a seller in Puri.
The sellers in Bhubaneswar, too, admitted to the sudden rise in demand. “We are getting enquiries about the price of the conchs for the past two days,” said Raghunath Das, 38, a shopkeeper at Unit-I.
Another shopkeeper said that with local supply falling short of demand, conchs were being brought from the Andamans and Rameswarm in Tamil Nadu. “We also get some from Calcutta, but these are artificial and generally frowned upon by purists,” said a seller.
Panchayati raj minister and BJD vice-president Kalpataru Das said the party should have little problem arranging enough blowable shells in the coastal belt. “Nearly 40 per cent of the households in this belt keep it. But, we will have to make arrangements in other areas (west and south),” said Das.
Even the artistes from 30-year-old kalakendra, who specialise in blowing jodi sankha (double conch), admitted to the paucity of quality conchs. “We need thin-layered conchs, which produce good sound. These are becoming scarce,” said Sweta Mohapatra, who can blow jodi sankha for an hour at a stretch and hopes to etch his name in the Limca Book of World Records some day.
Odisha, incidentally, has a long history of producing conch shells. Among others, Arab and the Persian writers of the ninth and 10th century have made references to white conch shells finding the pride of place on the merchandise-laden ships sailing to foreign shores from the ports of Odisha.