Frontline Volume 20 - Issue 25, December 06 - 19, 2003
India's National Magazine
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EVENTS

The spirit of Darjeeling

SUHRID SANKAR CHATTOPADHYAY
in Darjeeling
Photographs: Parth Sanyal

The `Queen of the Hills' showcases its rich and diverse cultural traditions in a 10-day carnival, hoping to make it a major tourist attraction in the years to come.



Darjeeling Run, on the final day of the carnival.

This dream of today, this little hope
Let this flame turn into a blazing fire
Just a little sacrifice is all we need
Just a little thought, just a tiny seed
Of freedom written on the blue hill sky
Of peace and joy far and nigh.

- From the Darjeeling carnival theme song.

THE hills came alive with the sound of music, as Darjeeling, the `Queen of the Hills', burst into a flourish of song and colour for 10 days, celebrating its first-ever carnival. What was unique about it was not its duration, but the fact that it was entirely the result of the initiative taken by the citizens of Darjeeling, in order to breathe fresh life into their hill station, which for long has been reeling under political turmoil, growing unemployment, and dwindling tea and tourism industries. Every community of Darjeeling participated in the extravaganza, showcasing the uniqueness of its culture - in terms of food, clothing, dance and music. In short, Darjeeling in its entire diversity came together to show that if people want, they can do well without strife based on religion, caste, creed and region.



Darjeeling town, surrounded by snow-capped mountains.

The carnival was conceptualised by a group of 30 young residents, who on a shoe-string budget harnessed the support of the community, business houses and sponsors, and executed the entire programme. Although the Darjeeling Gorkha Autonomous Hill Council (DGAHC), the Darjeeling Municipality and the Darjeeling Police were officially partners in the carnival, the 10 days from November 7 to November 16 belonged to the town's people who through 25 sociocultural organisations and numerous volunteers hosted arguably the biggest ever event in the town. Even the weather blessed the occasion.

Ajay Edwards, one of the main organisers, told Frontline when the event was on: "We have included each and every aspect of Darjeeling in the carnival. From the ponywallahs to the drivers, everyone has been given space here. We want to let the world know that there is much more to Darjeeling than the mountains." Municipal Chairman Pasang Bhutia said: "We fully support the programme. It is entirely by the citizens of Darjeeling, and once this becomes a yearly affair it will work wonders for the tourism industry."



Nepali mask dance, at the carnival.

THE carnival began on November 7, with the centenary celebration of the Happy Valley Tea Estate. Happy Valley, just a few kilometres from the town, was at one time one of the focal points of the Gurkha National Liberation Front (GNLF) agitation. It turned into a place of colour and joy. That evening, at the chowrasta, the town's main concourse, more than 300 workers of the estate marched, carrying torches, singing and dancing. This time they were greeted with thunderous applause by the thousands gathered there - a total contrast to the days of GNLF militancy, when such a sight would only be seen in hushed silence through the slits of curtains, from behind windows shut tight. It was the workers who lit the inaugural lamp marking the start of the carnival, accompanied by music and fireworks.

Darjeeling is traditionally known as a breeding place of musicians. Almost every other person, old or young, sings and plays some instrument or the other. So it was not surprising that the central theme of the carnival was music. Every day at the chowrasta, thousands would sway to the music of bands, both local and from Kolkata, as they played popular numbers in English, Hindi, Nepali and Bengali. A big hit was the police orchestra, which entertained the audience for an entire evening with songs in all the four languages. The carnival was an occasion that Louis Banks, known as the `godfather of Indian jazz', could not keep away from; he returned to his home town after 30 years.



A school band at the carnival.

The carnival also saw the reunion of Turquoise and Jade, a popular old rock `n' roll band of the 1960s, whose members Puran Gongba, P.J. Pradhan (Sano) and P.J. Pradhan (Thulo) went back on stage after 36 years. Even after such a long time off stage, the old-timers, backed by the Kathmandu-based band Rusty Nails, taught the young guitar-pickers a thing or two about music. Gongba spoke to Frontline about the `good old days' of Darjeeling: "Those days will never come back. But this carnival has certainly brought life back into Darjeeling. The politics and the killings destroyed life, along with music, here. The hills are supposed to be green, not red." Lead singer Pradhan (Thulo) said: "Somewhere down the years the smile had disappeared from the faces of the people of Darjeeling. This carnival has brought the smile back again."

It was not only music that generated the excitement. Every day the local people and the tourists were treated to different experiences such as dog shows, pony rides, para-sailing, rafting on the Teesta river and, of course, a host of cultural programmes specific to different communities. There was even a momo-eating competition. The carnival took time out to pay tribute to war veterans and drivers of the Darjeeling Himalayan Railways. Hundreds gathered to listen in respectful silence to the war veterans' accounts of events on the war front.



The performers of the Tibetan Institute of Performing Arts from Dharamshala.

One of the highlights of the cultural programmes was a splendid and colourful performance by the renowned Tibetan Institute of Performing Arts from Dharamshala. The troupe's theatrical song and dance presentations and renditions with a wooden string instrument unique to the hills were a huge hit with the crowds, at whose insistence the troupe continued a little over its scheduled time of performance. There were also flower shows, kite-flying contests, archery competitions, taekwondo demonstrations and various performances by the different schools of Darjeeling. The Loretto College of Darjeeling organised a Victorian fashion show to recapture the old world charm of Darjeeling during the British Raj.



A dance performance at the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute, whose golden jubilee coincided with the carnival. The dancers performed at the carnival too.

The Himalayan Mountaineering Institute's golden jubilee celebrations coincided with the carnival and the cultural programmes and rock-climbing demonstrations held by the HMI were included in the list of events. Among the participants in rock-climbing was national champion Ganesh Chhetri. The carnival also became an occasion for the release of Millie and Sweetie, two female red pandas bred in captivity in the Padmaja Naidu Zoological Park. The two animals belonging to an endangered species were released in the Singalila National Park, 45 km from Darjeeling town. For the next two years, radio collars will monitor how they cope with their new-found freedom.

THE spirit of the carnival found its full expression on the final day. Among the multitudes of citizens and tourists who took part in the `Darjeeling Run' for peace and unity was 61-year-old Jeevan Thapa, who lost his right leg in an accident in 1969. Thapa, a social worker, said after completing the 2-km-long run across the town: "My intention was not just to run for Darjeeling, but also to inspire the members of the new generation, who are often in the habit of squandering money and taking drugs, to do something constructive like organising the Darjeeling carnival. I am very proud to have participated in the run." Later in the day, the organisers found themselves around Rs.2 lakhs short of their total budget, as some of the sponsors could not live up to their promise. Once again the community feeling among the people was in evidence, as in a span of just two hours almost everybody present in the mall dug into their pockets and raised Rs.1.7 lakhs. Among the contributors was a beggar who gave Rs.10.



Louis Banks, who spent his childhood in Darjeeling, giving a performance.

Although the carnival was an occasion to celebrate the spirit of Darjeeling, it was held with the memory of the recent ropeway tragedy still fresh in the minds of the people. The accident in October came as a great shock to the organisers, especially because they intended to make the event an annual one, to attract tourists. Tourist traffic in Darjeeling has decreased so drastically that in 2001, only 30 per cent of the total foreign tourists who come to the country went to Darjeeling. Apart from tea, tourism is the only industry that has a direct impact on the economy of the region. Practically all businesses of the region depend on tourism. With the tea industry in the doldrums for the fifth consecutive year, tourism has become all the more important. D. Pariyar, Additional Director, Department of Tourism, DGAHC, told Frontline: "This carnival will do wonders for tourism in Darjeeling. The DGAHC fully supports it. We did not get enough time to give it sufficient publicity, but now that it will be a calendar thing, we will definitely be more involved in it."



An impromptu performance by Puran Gongbo (right) and P.J. Pradhan (Thulo).

However, despite all good intentions, some major problems of Darjeeling remain un-addressed. It does not have proper infrastructure to become a major tourist centre. When the British first planned the town, it was only meant for 30,000 people. Today the population of Darjeeling town alone stands at over 1.2 lakhs, and the number almost doubles during the peak tourist season. Other difficulties present themselves during a good tourist season - an acute shortage of water and electricity and problems relating to railway reservation. This discomfort is most acute during the domestic tourist season, which ends around November.

Dinesh Sharma, general manager of one of the main hotels in Darjeeling, feels that it is very important for "big-spending" tourists to know that Darjeeling can offer them the quality that they are used to. "Despite the lack of infrastructure in the town, the carnival will become a major attraction for foreign and domestic tourists, though this time of the year is off-season for domestic tourists," said Sharma. Shaseesh Prasad, one of the main organisers of the carnival who also runs a hotel, said: "One of the things we are hoping to get through the carnival is quality tourism. The middle-level and small hotels do good business throughout the year thanks to domestic tourists and travel concessions granted by various agencies. But the bigger hotels suffer."



At a rock-climbing demonstration held by the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute.

Only time will tell whether the carnival will attract tourists, but it has already done one thing - it has turned the jaded hill station into the most happening place in the hills. "The whole idea is to show our solidarity for a better Darjeeling," Sameer Sharma, one of the spokespersons for the organisers, told Frontline. It was an attempt by the citizens to show that Darjeeling is trying to regain its past glory. Colin Surways from Scotland, who took part in the Darjeeling Run, said: "The event showed the community's ability to organise itself, and that is the sign of a healthy community. I congratulate the people of Darjeeling on hosting this fabulous carnival."



Rafting in the Teesta river.

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