Madhusree and I feel a sense of ownership towards the Surajkund Crafts Fair because it has been five years now that we have made a colony around the ground as our home. What is even more pertinent is that each morning without fail, our pet bitch goes there for her shit. She has also made friends with some stray dogs in the grounds who are now regular partakers of Pedigree dog food. Our pet, called Georgina is a freak for freshly cooked hot meals and does not touch any form of processed and packaged food. But the canine species who inhabit the fair ground called Tuktuki, Rini, Jojo, Bhuto, Coco and so on gorge on the food we give them to keep them in good humour so that they accept Georgina’s footfall there every morning. These dogs and bitches are very helpful as they chase unfriendly dogs away and do not let the monkeys bother us. Besides the canines and the crowd of monkeys, there are others too in the ground like Rani, the camel, Ramesh the bull, numerous peacocks, a blue-winged pair of robin, some long tailed drangoes, patridges, hoopoes, white eagles and the best among them a small nuclear family of the nilgai, the bull, the cow and their calf. Sometimes, when a fire rushes through the Asola forest during the dry months of an early summer, more of such families of the blue bull and a few sambhar deer come for shelter in the Surajkund fair ground.
Besides these animals, also found in the ground are the peepal, banyan and babul trees. There are ketaki shrubs and some juliflora procipus, the dreaded shrub that sucks water out of the ground drying ponds, springs and marshes. There are fungi and mosses, especially when after the winter mist leaves the ground they proliferate into becoming a green velvety carpet on the earth. Then there are grasses, some are short and stalky and some grow tall. They create trouble for Georgina by entangling themselves around her ankles, feet and ears.
Some of us are regular visitors of this ground. These regulars seldom talk to each other or exchange pleasantries but we know one another as familiar faces. There are the yoga freaks, the laughter club wallahs, the elderly women who exercise in sarees with amazing dedication and regularity; there are some joggers, some walkers and some deep breathers. The men are mostly old and retired and who have little need to return home because there is little use for them there; there are the potbellied housewives who are bending backwards, forwards and on the sides to regain some agility that once was theirs but now forsaken them with hours of grueling housework; and there are the young men, who jog, run, jump not so much for fitness but to be qualified in the Haryana or Delhi police examinations. And there is also another very important set of visitors who come to Surajkund but remain mostly hidden behind the bushes and shrubs, and include men, women, boys and girls who come to defecate in the open because the toilets in the villages have no water. However, the star among us is an elderly couple and a young athletic boy who come to feed the animals in Surajkund. They look like the Pied Piper with the canine, bovine, apian and avian species faithfully following them around. When they come, Surajkund looks like the Tapovan of some Vedic heritage.
During the two and a half months of the fair, fifteen days for the fair and two months before that for the preparations, Surajkund is closed for us and along with that our lives get badly disrupted. In the fortnight of the fair, our roads are jammed, sometimes with cars and buses but also because people unfamiliar with the treacherous winds and bends of the road unsuccessfully negotiate the traffic. It is not always easy to drive along such winding and narrow roads with sharp bends and blind curves. Such cars sometimes slow down and at other times bang against trees and culverts and often ram into two wheelers and on coming traffic. The long and short of it is that our roads are congested and I can hardly reach office on time and take longer hours behind the wheel to reach back home in the evening. Georgina gets a bit upset at this. We have prolonged power cuts because the electricity is diverted for the numerous rides at the fair ground. All the surrounding grounds are taken over for parking and we have to go very early in the morning with Georgina because the parking contractors catch us and make us pay for using what we generally consider is ours. The morning visitors disappear and with them one does not know where the dogs and the monkeys and the peacock disappear too. Sometimes I spot Jojo running to greet us, or the robin couple trying to dig into a pool of mobile oil left behind by a leaking automobile. One morning I saw the mother cow with her calf of the nilgai trembling at the sight of a mammoth earth remover that had come to dig the earth out to create another parking space. The peacocks seem to have vanished and there seems to be no trace of Tuktuki or Bhuto. The other day I saw a heap of green and as I moved close I saw the entire row of ketakis lying uprooted and chopped off lying in the sun as garbage and slowly and painfully dying. Those who had the cover of the shrubs to save their honour while they defecate now have to do so in the full gaze of the people as the shrubs and trees have been mercilessly uprooted as a facelift for the fair ground.
As I walk the road to catch a sight of the crowds thronging into the fair ground dressed in glitter and gloss, I see a familiar face of Rani, the camel. She looks on pathetically at us as I call out her name. She is with a young urchin who is enticing the visitors to ride Rani and I learn that her owner has rented her out to this dry skinned unkempt adolescent from the street that is making some money out of her.
Madhusree and I decided to visit the fair only as a matter of formality. The fair is very much the same, more of an entertainment than education. One has to look at the crafts of the various parts of India to see how uniform the country really is. One who holds on to the idea that India is a unity in diversity has only to take a look at its crafts to see how such a vast expanse of diversity collapses into a unity of colour, design, shapes and skill. Most of the stalls have stuff that is sold at astronomical prices because of the high rents of the fair ground. What passes off as the handicrafts of the master craftsmen are surprisingly poorer and yet more expensive version of Dilli Haat or even of Sarjoni Nagar. Many of the wares are found by the highways to Jaipur or Agra and with the unauthorized hawkers in the streets around Swabhumi of Kolkata. There seems to be very little innovations in the garments, sarees or even the jewellery or furniture. Madhubani paintings are the same as ever and the durries, footwear, jute bags and stone carvings are unchanging and repetitive. But some had innovated like a craftsperson used walnut wood and ceramic pottery to create boxes or some had used jute to make some interesting footwear; one innovative craftsman had used very tiny beads and threads to make coasters and there was one who experimented with interesting colours for his pottery. I would have gone for more of paper machier, but unfortunately not many crafts persons were engaged in this craft. I was also disappointed with the terracotta craftsmen and wondered why the excellent artisans had not come from Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand.
Surajkund draws crowds and the sight of innocent crowds which in turn attracts terrorists and suicide bombers and hence in the name of protecting civilians, the fair ground runs thick with police persons. The police is everywhere, you can find them breathing down your neck when you bend down to look at some wares, you bang into them on your way to the toilets and you have to skirt them around when you have to move across the path to move into another arena. The women police are quieter sitting down in a corner but the men are moving around, jostling and brushing with the crowd, especially the women among them. I caught the glimpse of a policeman deliberately making a respectable woman dressed in a somber suit of black tweed very uncomfortable.
Surajkund has traditional folk musicians playing their music in every nook and corner, under trees and inside chaupals. But the visitors are forever missing their companions, or leaving behind their purses, or having buses to catch and hence all one gets to hear over the microphone are announcements in Haryanvi Hindi of how visitors have to collect their belongings and companions and get on to their buses that are now ready to depart. The noise pollution overwhelms Surajkund and once you leave the fair ground with your ears taut with the cacophony of announcements than with the pleasing strains of the folk music.
Madhusree and I found the food court to be like any other chaat corner of any market in Delhi. Cold samosa, soggy papris, stale golgappas, badly mixed bhel and insipid fruit juices that were supposed to be free of any preservatives were served here. On our way out, Madhusree spotted Giani’s stall and the Belgian chocolate half way between a frozen mousse and icecream was delicious. I was relieved to learn that Giani was a Sikh from Fatehpur in Haryana and not an Italian as a young friend seemed to believe.
But the stars of Surajkund were the musicians and the dancers. There were drummers from tribal Orissa, folk musicians of Karnataka, the seamen of Tamil Nadu, the desert dancers of Rajasthan, the dancer from Afghan hills, the Konkani fisherfolk, the Gujarati nomads and the snake charmers from the east all were performing and the women, young and old from among the visitors entered the arena and danced to their hearts’ content. The conservative Bengalis from among the crafts persons were initially shocked at the wanton enjoyment of the women folk of Haryana but soon enough they forgot their reservations and looked on appreciatively from their stalls.
As I watch the snake charmers and the bauls, or the Egyptian belle dance away with her many plaited hair, the Kerala masked men, the fisher women from Goa and the Gonds from the hills of Chhattisgarh, I realize that how similar the folk forms of dances are across the various parts of India and Eurasia. It is not merely the crafts but dance and music too seem to weave vast expanses of geography into a unity of culture and history. I also realized how and why Michael Jackson was so unique, because he started a brand of break dance that was centred on the naval and the body parts shot out into the air in defiance of the centre. In the folk dance forms that I was witnessing, flying movements of limbs and hips converged strongly and collapsed into the centre. America is outward, Eurasia is inward, a crucial difference in ways of seeing and being in the world.
Madhusree and I returned from the fair ground feeling cold as the breeze was rising with the sun going down. We had bought a walnut box with ceramic drawers to keep our nail cutter and dental floss in them. We also bought a candle stand which we immediately installed and put a burning candle in it. We made ourselves tea for the evening counting the days for the fair to get over and for everyone of us to return to the normal daily routine.