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An Embodiment of the Santhal Soul


The Santhals are an indigenous people who today live in parts of Eastern India, in the states of Jharkhand, Bihar, Odisha and Chhattisgarh.

The lives of the Santhal people are intertwined with the nature that surrounds them. Trees, birds and animals are often revered and feature prominently in Santhal folklore.

The sal tree (Shorea robusta) is the most sacred of trees, for it represents Thakurji , the Supreme deity. The space beneath the sal tree is the Janerthan- a holy grove inhabited by other deities.

The link between the Santhals and their environment is reflected in their cultural practices- in their stories, their festivals, and their everyday lives.

The banam is an instrument that occupies the centre of this complex, interconnected, vibrant landscape.

A wooden folk-fiddle, this string instrument is unique to the Santhals, and features prominently in their festivals and ceremonies.

There are three types of banam- Dhodro, Tendor, and Huka.

The banam is meticulously carved from a single log of the Gulanj Baha (Plumeria rubra) tree .

Once completed, the log of wood transforms into an instrument with a distinctly human form.

While it plays a melodious tune, the banam is more than an instrument of music.

In the Santhali language, its name translates to “the one that draws the best towards you”.

To the Santhal people, the banam is a medium of communication with the natural - and supernatural- world around them.

The Santhals share their world with the bongas- invisible spirits who are either benevolent or dangerous.

While the dangerous bongas must be worshipped and appeased, the benevolent bongas guide and protect the Santhal people.

In times of need, it is the banam that connects this world to the world of the bongas.

It is no coincidence that the banam is shaped like a human being.

To the Santhal people, the banam is an extension of themselves; it is a living being- like all of us.

The reason for this lurks in a Santhal legend.

The legend tells us of seven brothers who killed and ate their sister, after they accidentally tasted her blood and found it to be delicious.

The youngest brother regretted killing his sister, and wept in sorrow next to a pond, a piece of her flesh held in his hand.

The fish and crabs in the pond heard his wails, and emerged to comfort him.

They instructed him to bury her flesh in a mound of white ants.

The grieving brother paid heed to the creatures’ advice and did as he was told.

From that mound emerged a Gulanj Baha tree, with its elegant branches and fragrant red flowers.

One day, a yogi (an ascetic), visited the tree and realised that it sang- in a human voice, no less!

The yogi took a branch of this peculiar tree, and with it crafted the first banam.

The legend can be spotted in the art and sculpture of the Santhals, like this metal one at an exhibition, that depicts the Gulanj baha tree alongside the banams that were carved out of its branches.

This object of legend is played during the public retelling of the stories that narrate the heritage, history, and the identity of the Santhals.

These stories are part of a vast oral tradition that the Santhals have inherited from older generations. They are known as the Bintis.

The ‘body’ of the banam consists of four different parts.

Each part represents one of the five major elements that make up this world.

Like in the physical world, where all elements must harmonise for life to exist, the individual parts of the banam must find the perfect balance, before it can come into being.

The botok, or the head, is cubical, with a hollowed-out back. It has a hole for the string, which is attached with a peg that passes through the head, to look like ears.

The top-most part of the banam, the botok represents the element of sky, or space.

The hotok or neck is hollow and slender.

It is connected to the korum or the chest- a hollow, rectangular box.

Together they represent the element of air.

The stomach of the banam is called the lac. It is an oval hollow that represents both the stomach, and the womb.

The lac represents two elements- fire, and water.

Like a human being, the banam cannot live without its breath.

The most important part of the banam, is the thin string that runs down its centre.

It is the prana- the breath, the life-force of the banam.

The different parts of the banam collectively represent the body, or the earth.

The body of the banam is always female, and combined with the element of earth, the banam symbolises fertility and life.

Since it is not merely an instrument, the banam is governed by its own distinct set of rules.

In its design, for instance, the banam always takes on the form of a female human, but it can only be played by the men of the Santhal community.

If an animal is depicted, it is made to look like it is being ridden by a human.

The banam is an extension of the person, and therefore it must resemble one.

Figures of dancing women often adorn the top of the banam.

These dancing women are engaged in a specific dance, dedicated to fertility.

The fertility dance is a means of asking the deities for a bountiful harvest, and ensuring a prosperous year for the Santhal village.

Every banam has its own unique artistic touches.

An instrument of artistic expression, each banam varies in its decoration and ornamentation.

The different types of banam that exist- Dhodro, Tendor and Huka- are classified not on the basis of their use, or sound, but their design.

While it is an instrument that articulates the collective ideals of the Santhal community, the banam is also a very personal assertion of artistic expression, owing to the sheer effort and vision that goes into its design.

For this reason, the banam becomes a part of its maker.

It cannot be given away, and usually exists alongside its maker as an extension of their body and soul.

When the maker dies, the banam is usually buried or cremated alongside them.

There are exceptions, where one banam has been passed down generations, with each one adding its own mark of artistic expression to it.

These banams can be identified by the patina or shine on their surface- a sign that they have been handled often, and for a long time.

The banam is an object of reverence- A witness of Santhal history,
An active participant in their festivals and ceremonies.

It is a medium between the Santhals and their environment,
Between the natural and the supernatural world.

Like the human being who crafts it,
It too sings,

Like the pran that keeps our body alive,
The banam is the life-force that sustains the Santhal identity

The banam is not just an instrument, it is instrumental in the persistence, preservation, and declaration of the Santhal identity.

Credits: East Zone Cultural Center