The Charak Festival of Kolikata (Kolkata)
Tunoya says, ‘The city teaches you Kotwali’.
Drum-beats can be heard in all four corners of the city of Calcutta, the chorki’s back itches; ironsmiths prepare baan, dashlaki, kanta and bonti, various pointed and sharp instruments made with iron. There is no limit to the joy of the Carpenters, Milkmen, Perfume Merchants and Braziers. Everybody is roaming around covered in jewelry, wearing anklets, caps embroidered with gold, chandrahaar around their waist, clad in sarees with sipai borders worn in a peculiar way, carrying towels soaked at Tarekeshwar and with a thread tied with bel-leaves around their neck. ‘There is Gajan at our Babu’s palace’, they say.
After the Company took over Bengal and before Nandakumar was hanged, our Babu’s great-grandfather was a Salt Officer. There was certainly the opportunity to earn 10 rupees in the Salt Department (diwani) in that age. So Babu’s great-grandfather worked for five years and left behind a sum of 20 lakhs—since then Babu’s family turned into a rich aristocratic household. Our Babu possesses all the things that one needs to be called an aristocrat in Bengali society. He has a group of his own and some obedient Brahman pundits, sons of Kulins, a few Shrotriyas, Kayastha Baidyas, Oil mongers, Perfume Merchants, Braziers and Ironsmiths from Dhaka. No ritual is improperly performed in the house; the Brahmins earn quite a lot during the yearly shradhha; and an idol placed on a handsome platform, the shaalgram stone as well as Goddess Lakshmi’s jar filled with Akbari gold coins are also regularly worshipped.
On the other hand, wearing anklets and the sacred thread, the Dule Beyara, Hari and Kaoras are dancing to the drumbeat in all liquor shops, brothels and courtyards, carrying the baan and dashlaki as symbols of their firm resolve and nobleness. The drummers, having tied fly whisk, bird feather and a string of bells on the left of their drums, are going from one locality to another playing drums and collecting Sannyasis. Guru Moshay’s school is closed—boys have turned the gajantola into their home; no food, no sleep, they are walking behind the drummer all day long. At times they are joining the clamour, ‘bolo bhoddeshwore Shibo Mahadeb’ (‘Hail to Lord Shiva’), at others tearing off the fly whisk or beating the back of the drum—their parents are frantic lest they fall sick.
Gradually the day comes close; kanta jhaap will be performed in the afternoon today. The four- generation–old main Sannyasi of our Babu arrived in the drawing room panting, with a handful of bilbapatra (leaves of wood-apple tree), some of them tucked around his ear. He is himself a Kaora, but today he has achieved Shivatwa/Shivahood. So Babu did him namaskar. With his feet full of mud, the main Sannyasi walked over the white carpet and touched Babu’s head with blessed flowers—Babu was startled!
Our Babu’s gajantola was now filled with people. Drums started beating. The ritual of matha chala began before Shiva. Sitting on their haunches, the Sannyasis are whirling their heads. Some, out of devotion, are prostrating on their knees. Shiva’s priest is constantly sprinkling Ganges water. For half an hour the whirling continued but to no avail. Not a single flower fell down. What will happen now! The news went indoors. ‘There must have been some mistake’, said the housewives and sat down mournfully. Those who were present started arguing amongst themselves, ‘Perhaps the main Sannyasi has abused some substance, such things happen only because of some fault on the Sannyasi’s part.’ At the end, the priest and the housewife together decided that it was best to call Kartababu, the head of the family. A spirited Brahmin ran to the Babu along with four or five Sannyasis and said, ‘Sir has to kindly get up and come to the Shibtola once. It’s almost evening and not a single flower has fallen yet.’ Babu’s Phaeton car was ready, he was all dressed up, and was perfuming his handkerchief before going out—as soon as he heard this, he fainted. But what to do! The rituals were seven generations old and could not be stopped like this. Hence, out of compulsion, Babu went to the gajantola, in full attire, with his 'pineapple dress'’ on. Seeing Babu approaching, the gatekeepers went ahead, and the professional sycophants, sensing that Babu was in great difficulty, followed behind.
Drums and dhols started beating loudly in the gajantola. Everybody began to yell, ‘bhoddeshwore Shibo Mahadeb’. Lying down, Babu offered his pranam to Lord Shiva. From both sides people started fanning him with grand hand-fans. If somebody was not aware of the situation, he might have thought that Babu was being prepared for human sacrifice. At last a garland was tied around Babu’s joined palms. With a silken scarf around his neck, Babu stood on one side, as if he was just going to break out into tears. The priest appealed to the Lord again and again, “O Father, give us the flower…please give us the flower, o Father!’ Another jar of Ganges water was poured on Shiva’s head. The Sannyasis whirled their heads frantically. After half an hour of such toil, a bunch of bilbapatra fell from Shiva’s head. Everybody was happy beyond bounds and started shouting ‘bole bhoddeswore Shibo’. All of them agreed, how could this not happen, such a great lineage after all!
Today, that person’s gajontola will witness Chitpur’s hor. Singi garden’s pyalaa will be held in another playground. In yet another locality women will read out from the panchali. Indeed it’s a grand show today in the gajontala of the city—the watchmen of the chaumatha (crossroads) are the luckiest lot. Liquor will be sold all night long even if the wine shops are not open, ganja will be smoked up continuously…It’s impossible for anybody to sleep tonight—every now and then there would be drumbeats, loud yells by the Sannyasis and shouts of ‘Hail Shiva Mahadev.’
Time passed and the church clock struck seven. The city became unbearable now with its loud clamour. The roads are forested with people; drumbeats, incense-smoke and stench of alcohol all around. The Sannyasis are dancing fiercely on their way back from Kalighat. They are pierced all over with baan, dashlaki, sutoshan, fishing rods and thin bamboo sticks. The verandas of the brothels are full of flamboyant-type gentlemen; most of them are amateur panchali singers, or supporting singers of half akhraai songs or members of Gul Garden. They have gathered since the morning to watch Gajan.
On this side, the drawing rooms of the rich men are being crowded with various babus. Some ‘hate’ Gajan on the basis of ‘civilisation’. Some others, despite being Brahmos, celebrate Charak because that has been their tradition for seven generations. In reality, they are quite unhappy with it but what can they do—family elders are alive and kicking, and on top of it, Grandmother hasn’t yet kicked the bucket!
Today is Charak. The Brahmos have duly worshipped the One and Only God at the Brahmo Samaj (Brahmo Society) in the morning—some will even make an offering of the Brahmo water-pitcher. This year some teacher of the said society celebrated Kali Puja with great grandeur and did not forget to eat cow dung in the name of Lord Vishnu at the zamindar’s house so that he could expiate the sin of participating in a widow remarriage. Nowadays it is becoming increasingly difficult to comprehend the essence of Brahmo dharma, one will celebrate Durga Puja and will also go to the Samaj every Wednesday, sit with eyes closed and cry like one cries over dead people. Is the Absolute One a north Indian or a Brahmin from Maharashtra? Will He not listen if not invoked in Sanskrit verses corrupted from the Vedas or if not called from a gathering? It seems preparations are being made so that Brahmo and Christian rites gradually become the same.
The Charak tree has been taken out of the pond and made to stand upright. The horizontal pole, called moch, which actually revolves, has been tied to its head, and ghee and banana have been applied as lubricants. Gradually, as the heat subsided, Charaktala became densely crowded. The babus, dressed in a variety of clothes, have come out in juri cars, Phaeton and state carriages to watch Gajan. Some are seated on the roof of palanquin cars like the coppersmiths who perform shong—most of them are low-grade rich men or jumped-up babus.
Celebrations do not easily end in the city of Calcutta, even after worship the idols of household pujas are not disposed of before 12 days. Charak too becomes stale, rotten, fragile and after a point, falls down—this book will increase in volume if I start telling you that story and gradually it will become bitter. So, I am concluding the fresh description of Charak on a fresh note. ...
A Chorki, with his back pierced, came dancing up to the Charak tree and embraced it—he was raised to the top with a ladder and the revolving began. Everybody was looking at the sky, their eyes fixed on the Chorki’s back. Holding the rope and at times leaving it, and throwing his legs around, the Chorki kept rolling. As the crowd cheered, ‘Go on, keep rolling’, nothing seemed truer than the saying, ‘What is sport to the cat is death to the rat.’ Somebody’s back has been pierced and he is being whirled in the sky while thousands of others are watching the fun!
Reader! You have been given an insight into the present society of Calcutta through a more or less adequate sketch of Charak. Your knowledge will keep increasing as you become more familiar with us. That is why we started by quoting, ‘The city teaches you kotwali.’
 The last day of the Gajan festival, famous for the hook-swinging ritual.
 The work of a kotwal or police officer.
 A form of Indian semi-classical vocal music, immensely popular in elite households of 19th-century Bengal, the zamindars being its chief patrons.
 The man who gets his back pierced with an iron-hook, that is used to suspend him from the charak, the bamboo-made structure at the centre of the Charak festival.
 Leaves of the marmelos.
 A black stone that represents Vishnu.
 Resting place for the Gajan Sannyasis, where many of its rituals also take place.
 The ritual in which the Gajan Sannyasis jump on the thorn bed.
 The rule is to take Shiva’s permission before jumping on the thorn bed. In order for the permission to be granted, the Sannyasis have to keep whirling their heads frantically in front of Shiva’s temple until a flower falls down from the Shivalingam, confirming the Lord’s consent.
 A special kind of thin cloth, fashionable in the 19th century.
 Long verse narratives, dedicated to one deity or other.
 A weapon made of iron.
 In the words of Arun Nag, the editor of the critical edition of Hutom Pyanchar Noksha, ‘Half akhrai derived from (full) akhrai in 1832, Mohanchand Basu was the creator.’ Like akhrai songs, half akhrai songs were also based on raags and raaginis, but they were less complicated than the former.
 The ritual of offering purna-kalash or full size water-pots in religious ceremonies. Here Hutom is sarcastically referring to the alcoholic babus who offered pots of alcohol.