As dusk sets in, the open courtyard of a fancy Sundarbans resort sees a lot of activity. Chairs are being lined up and a wooden podium pulled out for the evening performance by a troupe of tribal artistes. In a small room nearby, seven women are in a hurry to finish make-up before rains wash away fun for the guests is washed away by the heavy showers.
Rita Sardar of Radha-Krishna Jhumur Nritya Sampradaya is in charge, putting wild hibiscus around the hair buns of her teammates, finishing their makeup with a dab of powder, kajal and a big vermillion bindi on the forehead. The troupe will dance as the leader sings Tusu songs in a bid to entertain guests visiting the world’s largest mangrove forest.
“Tourist season is over and we weren’t expecting any more shows this season. But when we got a call from the lodge manager that there are guests who want to see the Jhumur dance, we were overjoyed,” says Sardar, who has been performing since 2009.
This estuarine region of Bengal lacks any stable opportunity to earn a living, especially for its women. So a folk song and dance group to cater to the annual tourist inflow is a good way to make some money. “Initially, I started doing it just because I didn’t want our folk culture to disappear. These songs are not written anywhere and is something I learnt from my grandmother and mother,” says Shila Sardar, leader of the group, which claims to be the oldest in the region set up some 20 years ago.
In 2009, when the devastating cyclone Aila struck the region, houses by the river banks were washed away. When the subsequent penury hit them harder, setting up a folk group was more a necessity. “After Aila, farming wasn’t an option anymore. The salty waters had made our fertile lands barren. Men had to leave the island, but we couldn’t. We had to find something here for the sake of our children,” says Saraswati Sardar. Had it not been this, she says she wouldn’t have been able to sustain after her husband’s demise. “Forget education of my children, I wouldn’t have been able to feed them,” the mother of three adds.
Even before last decade’s tourism boom, thanks to the better connectivity to the Sundarbans, the wild terrain and the thrill of seeing the native Royal Bengal Tiger in its own habitat have always drawn people from all around the globe. “Yes, the number of tourists in the past five years has increased a lot. We get more shows now, almost daily during the peak season from December to February. But it’s only for three months,” stresses Anjali Mridha to underline that this is not a consistent income stream for them.
“Each group has about 10 members and we earn around Rs 1000 or Rs 1200. We don’t even make Rs 100 per day as around Rs 400 is spent on our journey,” explains Mamata Mondal, a resident of Satjalia Island. Most hotels and lodges are located in Pakhiralay on the opposite bank of the Dutta river and every performance means a tedious journey first by a motor van and then a boat eating into their earnings. Most of Adivasi groups come from the Satjalia and Lahiripur islands home to most of the tribals.
“We mostly rely on tips from the guests, but even that is not more than Rs 30. If they are really impressed then we might get higher,” says Bina Sardar.
The issue of migration too affects these troupes. “The drums and instruments for our shows are played by our men and when they leave for work and go to other states, we have to decline show offers. Guess we are not as independent as we think we are,” laments Sardar.
“The only thing that keeps us going in those nine months of no shows is the stipend we receive from the state government. Most of us have artiste cards, against which we get Rs 1000 a month and that’s all we have got,” says Anima Sardar.
For most of the year, the small villages in this mess of creeks of rivers are without its men, who leave in search of jobs. “There are no jobs for women here and the money our husbands sends is never enough. But no one thinks of generating jobs for us,” says Kabita Sardar. “We can’t leave behind our children and go outside. Shows are not available throughout the year, neither is cutting paddy. What do we do to help run the family?” asks the mother of two.
The female residents claim although they have MGNREGA cards, they don’t get any work for it. “We have jobs cards but it’s all with them [local party/panchayat leaders]. We don’t have it with us. When money is credited against our job cards in our accounts we have to withdraw it and pay it to them. We are helpless. As our husbands don’t stay here they tell us not to protest against the party leaders,” laments Arati Sardar.
But employment isn’t the only problem that bothers them. While there is water on all sides, the availability of drinking water is inadequate. Fetching water for the family is a major task fulfilled by the women at home. “We walk for kilometres to fetch water twice a day and spend so much time queuing up near the tap. When ten years ago pipes were laid we hoped it might reach our homes too in a few years. That hasn’t happened yet,” complains Namita Mondal.
Although the condition is better than what was before, there is still no supply of drinking water at home. “TMC didn’t get this water. It was Kanti Ganguly [erstwhile CPI(M) minister for Sunderbans Development] who got the pipes. In these past eight years, couldn’t Didi expand it and bring water to our homes?” ask Mondal.
“Even when women here are pregnant they have to walk and bring water back to their homes. We don’t even have a hospital in our villages if God forbid something happens,” stresses Shibani Mondal. Expecting mothers have to undertake a long journey when they slip into labour. The best hospital is in district headquarters in Gosaba and going there is a journey with multiple changes – both by road and in water. “Can you imagine travelling by vans and boats to deliver a child? But who cares about us women anyway” rues Mondal.
“We hear tribals will get pakka house, but did you spot any homes like that around? If there are some, they belong to party people and their favourites,” says Bimala Sardar.
With elections just around the corner, they claim party-politics is all for men and they don’t recognise women’s problem. But then the sitting MP here is a woman. “We only saw Pratima Mondal once five years ago, and never again. How will she understand our problems, she doesn’t face our day-to-day problems, for her maybe walking a mile with two pots of water isn’t an issue. But for us it’s all that matters,” Nupur Sardar sums up their frustrations.