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“Identify, Create and Spread Stories of the Past” – An interview with Somdeb Basu

Somdeb Basu has been associated with the footwear & accessories fashion industry in india, in areas of product creation, brand management, sales & profitability and even supply chain management.

Apart from being passionate about his work and career, Basu loves travelling and exploring newer places. He has a keen interest in the folklore and folk culture of India. He also has high-value research on food and the folk traditions of music, theatre and dance.

Pratyay Raha had an insightful discussion with Somdeb Basu regarding the folk culture and folklore of India which is diverse, age-old yet dynamic and entwined with Nature and natural surroundings.

Pratyay: As per your observations, what is that one thing that has made you value folk culture and folklore even more today?

Somdeb Basu: I love it due to the surface simplicity of the subject yet the depth within. Many of the art forms that have emerged have a duality – a beautiful, attractive outer appeal & a deep thought hidden beneath. Example – the Baul songs, Kabir’s dohas made into songs, Amir Khusro’s poetry, the folk paintings – look attractive to people from other countries who do not know the back story of the subject due to the skill or the colours or the overall beauty. For those who get into the inner meaning & the story, it’s even more fascinating.

Pratyay: Undoubtedly, the folk culture of the country is very diverse, but have you observed any similarities that can be mapped?

Somdeb Basu: The similarity is that each one uses the themes/objects that are relevant to their region & makes something beautiful out of them. The boatmen songs have themes regarding boats, the mahout songs have things to say about the elephants, Bhawaiya songs for plains, dried ‘tal’ leaf being used to paint Patachitra in Orissa while cloth being used somewhere else where such palms are not available. Colours of artefacts were mostly found from the natural objects that were available in that region. Things would change by season as earlier it was not easy to store things the way we do them now. Certainty of life was way lesser & hence that of objects owned as well.

Pratyay: We put North-East India under one bracket but all the states are so different and diverse. What are your thoughts on that?

Somdeb Basu: North-East India is a vast subject which, very few people from elsewhere have had the opportunity to explore. There is a need to bring to the foreground of India & global stage, the art & craft of the North East of India. My brush with loin loom weaving of Nagaland, how they still today make thread by hand & wrap around their thigh, how they dye through natural colours & the weaving on portable looms whose one end is tied to their own back, was hugely overwhelming.

Pratyay: Which states have you explored in the northeastern part and what are your observations on life and the people?

Somdeb Basu: I have been to Assam & Nagaland for leisure travel & for work to some others. Absolutely fascinated by both.

Pratyay: How have the traditions changed or evolved with time?

Somdeb Basu: Traditions change or evolve over time with the intent of making a product better or making the process easier / cheaper / faster. In the process sometimes the end result is better but many times the age-old wisdom gets lost over decades. When we were kids, our country did not have a good supply system & hence we had no choice but to eat seasonal vegetables. Over time, the concept of eating seasonal food was fading away. Thanks to a strong food-loving community on the internet, organic food, food grown through traditional methods, almost lost foods & recipes are making a comeback. Celebrating regional food is coming up. In the case of music, it is heartening to see many modern-day musicians reviving the lost folk songs & folk instruments. Some are beautifully pairing Western & Oriental musical instruments with the songs. In the case of paintings & artefacts, artisans are getting help or are coming up with the same art but in a form that is needed in the modern-day. For example – the leather puppet making community of Andhra Pradesh has started doing paintings with the same technique, the Bengal Patachitra artists have started drawing modern-day themes so that visitors can take back a souvenir while going back, like the Krishnanagar realistic dolls were created more than a century back for the sahibs to take back home something other than idols of gods & goddesses of India, Madhubani painters have started doing painted masks, papier-mache trays, kurtas etc. In all of them, the traditional craft is being used to create a more relevant medium that will be accepted easily.

Pratyay: What is your understanding of the North-Western part of the country? What is your take on the folk culture of Rajasthan?

Somdeb Basu: In the North-Western part of India my exposure is more of Rajasthan, Punjab & a bit of Haryana and in the North, of Kashmir & Himachal Pradesh. Folk Culture of Rajasthan has thankfully been marketed beautifully not only in India but the whole world. Be it the music or the handicrafts. It has been positioned as ‘exotic’ really well. There are of course many layers than what is on the forefront – the Manganiyar singers of Rajasthan have been around for centuries but it took 1 album I guess 2 decades back, to shoot them up to fame.

Pratyay: How do soil and climate affect the life and culture of a place?

Somdeb Basu: The existence of human beings has always depended on the soil & climate. It has influenced their art & craft, their songs & their lifestyles. Rajasthan food does not have too many vegetables on the list as those were not available in the deserts those times. So, Ker Sangri which grew abundantly is a part of the unique vegetable of the desert state. Most of their sweets & vegetarian food are based on lentils (could be stored yearlong). The meat dishes are just spice & meats – no vegetables, like in the East or North-East.

Pratyay: You have posted a lot on the food of different regions; do you think that food is an important marker of the culture and the occupational typologies of a place? How have you explored this aspect of culture?

Somdeb Basu: Food is an integral part of the culture of a place. Food habits are based on climate, geography, soil & much more. In places where farming is difficult, carrying out daily existential activities & even fetching water was tough; food is simple & less elaborate. Some ingredients were seasonal & hence people found ways to preserve them for the rest of the year. A good part of food in difficult terrains / extreme climate areas was not cooked every day e.g. pickles, papad, dried fish, dried meats etc. Where climate have been easier, crops grew easily, the variety has been way more.

Pratyay: West Bengal is your home state, though you have lived in other parts of the country, how do you see the cultural landscapes of West Bengal?

Somdeb Basu: A large part of Bengal, unfortunately, stays out of Bengal. So, nostalgia value is high & there is a feeling of belongingness for Bengal. This has somewhat led to the continuation of traditions & culture in the first-generation migrants. For those who have stayed back in Bengal too, the bond of culture & tradition has been there. For both, the original purpose might have been lost but people enjoy doing it – for many people, Durga Puja is not about worshipping goddess Durga but many more activities. For many Hindus in Bengal, Christmas is an important part of the culture.

Pratyay: We end for now by asking what do you feel about the future of the traditions and the ways to revive them?

Somdeb Basu: I see the future of tradition this way -Identify – list – find the uniqueness – present the same in a form that is relevant in today’s day – charge a slight premium (do not compete with Chinese goods) – create & spread stories of the past, its interpretation & what has gone into ‘making of’. 

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Published inInterview

One Comment

  1. Kamal Kamal

    Excellent insight 👏

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