Singing about ‘Floating in Tears’

Sonia Sarkar

Farmer Probir Mandal, 51, recently planted seeds of two traditional paddy varieties on his one-acre land in Kalitala, the last border village in the Sundarbans, the world’s largest mangrove forest on the Indo-Bangladesh frontier.

He is fervently hoping for rain, so he can transplant the gobindo-bhog and kamini seedlings into the field.

“I’m keeping my fingers crossed for the rains”, said Mandal, who lost 25,000 rupees (US$300) from low yields arising from unexpected drought, cyclone and floods over the past three years. “We have been cursed with erratic weather for more than a decade, making it extremely difficult to produce rice”.

To convey their desperation at the lack of rain and the changing weather pattern, Mandal and two other local farmers have written some 50 songs in Bengali, encapsulating the challenges of economically and socially marginalised farmers in the Sundarbans–a region commonly ravaged by rains, floods, cyclonic storms and cyclones caused by climate change.

Part of Tridhara (which means “three tributaries” in Bengali), a cultural group formed in 1982, the three farmers composed bhatiali songs–a form of folk music to bring rivers and their communities to life– that describe the stories of struggle, loss and resilience of farmers in the Sundarbans.

In one song, Mandal wrote: “Disastrous excessive rain, you destroyer, flooding my farmland, breaking my happy home …I am an unfortunate farmer, floating in my tears”. In another, he wrote: “Farmer provides food to the nation, death of a farmer is a stigma for the nation”.

Tridhara co-founder farmer Palas Mandal, 58, said that little was known worldwide of the farmers in the Sundarbans, a region famed as one of the last habitats of man-eating royal Bengal tigers, but their songs will tell the world about human lives there.

A New Delhi-based non-profit in 2021 recorded 42 songs by Tridhara and filmed six videos featuring the singer-farmers. The songs and videos were subsequently released on YouTube, to bring Sundarbans’ rice farmers closer to global rice consumers.

In truth farmers in the Sundarbans had been written off as “hapless” future climate refugees. But as nobody knew the land and the ecosystem better than these farmers, recording these songs was a “nascent attempt” to give them a voice and “sense of agency” to tell their own stories of resilience.

In 1999, after Cyclone Aila killed more than 78 people in West Bengal, Tridhara’s singer-composer Bishnupada Sarkar, 65, wrote in a song: “Cruel Aila, you turned our golden [West] Bengal into a crematorium.”

The cyclone had ravaged houses, fields, livestock, roads, grain storage and river embankments, and contaminated drinking water across Sundarbans.

“Aila was the turning point in the life of people in Sundarbans,” Mandal said. “People started migrating to other states–Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh– to work as daily wagers in an unprecedented manner.”

Few like Mandal, who refused to migrate, remain in rice cultivation despite significant losses.
Last year, Mandal lost 28,000 rupees (US$340) to pesticide-free production of the traditional variety of black rice because of a lack of buyers.

“Changes in weather have forced many local farmers to switch to fish and prawn cultivation and poultry farming, while some have started driving public transport and running grocery shops to earn their livelihood”. It is important to archive songs about the daily struggles of people of Sundarbans because they reflect their perception of climate variability and climate change and their effects on ecological and socio-economic systems.


Back to Home Page

Vol 56, No. 11, Sep 10 - 16, 2023