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 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.
The banam is meticulously carved from a single log of the Gulanj Baha (Plumeria rubra) tree .
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”.
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.
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 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.
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.
This object of legend is played during the public retelling of the stories that narrate the heritage, history, and the identity of the Santhals.
The ‘body’ of the banam consists of four different parts.
Each part represents one of the five major elements that make up this world.
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 stomach of the banam is called the lac. It is an oval hollow that represents both the stomach, and the womb.
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.
The different parts of the banam collectively represent the body, or the earth.
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.
Figures of dancing women often adorn the top of the banam.
These dancing women are engaged in a specific dance, dedicated to fertility.
Every banam has its own unique artistic touches.
An instrument of artistic expression, each banam varies in its decoration and ornamentation.
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.
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.
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
Credits: East Zone Cultural Center