The Santhals are among
the major tribes of India. They are also among the most numerous of India’s
tribal communities, the other two being Gonds and Bhils. Unlike the other two,
the Santhals live in a contiguous area consisting of Jharkhand, South Bihar,
the western part of West Bengal and Mayurbhanj district of Odisha. It’s a tribe
deeply conscious of what it considers its Great Tradition. This sense of a
Great Tradition seeks to recall a glorious past in which the tribe enjoyed
material prosperity and cultural efflorescence. Subsequently, due to the cruel
machinations of the non-tribal world around them, they have fallen on evil
The Santhal society of today is characterised by what social anthropologists like Orans call the solidarity-emulation conflict. They want, on the one hand, to emphasise their superiority vis-à-vis the other neighbouring tribal groups and, on the other, are eager to follow the lifestyle of the non-tribal groups, whom they secretly envy.
The Santhals have a cycle of festivals, most of which have religious overtones. During these festivals the tribal deities are worshipped and their blessings sought for the welfare of the community, for peace and plenty.
The prayer songs accompanying these festivals are known as Bakhen. One other specific and important song is the Binti. This song celebrates the Santhal concept of the origin of society and the migration of the community in historical times. Apart from the Bakhen and the Binti, they have also a very large repertoire of love songs, marriage songs and songs for celebrating the spring season.
The Santhals are extremely fond of singing and dancing and many of their festivals extend over a period of a week or, sometimes, even two weeks. The celebrations are also spread out over time in different villages, thereby enabling participation by men from outside the village.
The Santhals also have a large variety of musical instruments—drums of various types and string instruments, and of course, the inevitable flute. There have been a fair number of collections of Santhal songs, both in the original Santhali and in English translation. The songs illustrate various aspects of Santhal life, their rituals and social mores and customs. The songs are essential parts of ceremonies spread over the entire year apart from love and marriage songs.
Binti: Cosmology & Migration
Binti is the Santhal song of Cosmology and is recited by a group of three or more singers at the time of marriage ceremony. They give an elaborate description of the migration of the tribe during historical times and bring the story down to the particular occasion of marriage.
After the members of the bridegroom’s party arrive at the bride’s house, they are asked several intriguing questions and are expected to give proper answers. No food or drinks are served unless these questions are correctly answered. The rigidity of this test has somewhat declined in recent years.
Both questions and answers are in the form of songs. All along, as the questions and the answers go on, there is jest and good humour. Thereafter, the members of the bride’s party introduce the Binti song and handia is served liberally.
The entire song is meant to put the particular occasion in a wider context, the universal context of society and tradition.
Marriage as an institution is referred back to the beginning of human creation and the particular occasion of the marriage is sought to be viewed in the larger context of the creation of the world, the dawn of human civilisation, the emergence of the Santhal community, its migration in historical times etc.
The whole song is a part of an important oral tradition. In every village, there are some professional singers, who learn the Binti from their forefathers and recite it from memory. It is true there are occasional additions or modifications, which is common to all oral tradition. The singers introduce the subject saying that they have not witnesses the incidents they are going to narrate, but have learnt about them from their ancestors. It has not yet been written down and published.
The Binti song is repetitive and there are many refrain lines. This makes its performance lengthy. After the recitation relating to the particular families of the bride and the bridegroom and their respective villages, the song goes on to describe the growth of the population of the tribe, its migration through different places such as Hihidi, Pipidi, the wars that had to be waged with local inhabitants as they continued their victorious onward journey and how they finally came to the land where they now live. It ends by stating that all this is remembered with gratitude to their ancestors whose blessings are invoked for making the particular marriage ceremony a happy communion of souls.