CADENCE AND COUNTERPOINT: Documenting Santal Musical Traditions

National Museum - New Delhi

The Santals are known for their rich seren-enec, or song dance traditions. Music, dance, song and poetry are integral to Santal culture, intimately related to the seasons, festivals and rites of passage. It is said that amongst the Santals there is no woman who cannot dance or sing and no man who does not beat the drum 
or play the flute. In intonation pattern, rhythmic structure and metric frame, as well as in underlying aesthetic principles, Santal 
music displays very distinctive musical elements. The exhibition documents aspects of the tangible and intangible heritage of Santal music over time, including the remarkable sculpting skills embodied in the musical instruments of the tradition.

Musical knowledge is transmitted through a collective oral-aural, participative method, in which memory and tradition are the basic principles. Music skills are acquired by listening and repeating, by assimilating formulary materials, and by participation in a kind of communal retrospection.

Over time, different influences and determined interventions from without have affected the form and manifestation of Santal music. But alongside, there appears as well to be a growing professionalism, which may yet create a space conducive for Santal music to survive and flourish as an independent and context-free art form.

The Santal comprise the single largest tribal community in India. Though spread across the eastern states — Jharkhand, West Bengal, Odisha, Bihar and beyond — they form a distinct geography and culture. The Santal are best known for their rich traditions of dance and music, especially 
the latter, which has influenced mainstream music in India. Their very distinct culture has attracted researchers, scholars, travellers and explorers into their midst, who have brought back Santal stories and objects.


Version 1

Like all tribal communities, the Santal have very interesting myths of origin, or Santal Janam Katha, which depict how the world was created and humans came into being.

This version is from a children’s book, We come from the Geese, Ruby Hembrom (Author) Bosky Jain (Illustrations), Adivaani, Kolkata, 2013.

We are very grateful to Ruby Hembrom of Adivaani, Kolkata, for permission to display this work.


Version 2

Jadu Patuas are traditional painters who depict in painted scrolls the Santal myths of origin, or Santal Janam Katha. This version of the origin myth is based on a scroll painting by Jadu Patua, Harish Chandra Chitrakar, and narrated in song by Baul Chitrakar at the Crafts Museum, December 2014.

We are very grateful to Ravi Kant Dwivedi for recording and translating the narration.

Santal Janam Katha (Origin Myth of the Santal)

Many million years ago the universe was submerged in water. Water was everywhere. The Supreme gods Marang Buru, Jaher Era and Sing Bonga decided to rescue life.

Marang Buru brought two cows from heaven. From their saliva two moths were born. When the moths grew, they turned into birds. The two birds kept flying because there was water everywhere and no place to rest. Marang Buru then created a fish, a crab and a prawn, and asked them to bring mud from Pataal (the lowest level of the universe) and settle the mud on the water. But they failed. Then he created the earthworm, which managed to put a small quantity of mud on the water. Marang Buru next created a tortoise, so the earthworm could put the mud on its back. But the tortoise found it hard to keep floating with the weight of the mud. So Marang Buru asked Shesh Naag (the Ultimate Snake) to spread its hood, so the tortoise could rest on it. This is how the Earth was created. The two birds laid their eggs on the Earth. From these, two humans were born: one male, Pilchu Haram and one female, Pilchu Budhi. They were the first Santals.

Santal Janam Katha (Origin Myth of the Santal), contd.

Pilchu Haram and Pilchu Budhi had seven sons and eight daughters. Finding it difficult to raise so many children they went to Marang Buru for advice. Marang Buru told Pilchu Haram and Pilchu Budhi to go to Khararai forest and collect some Bakar (a fermenting agent) to prepare Hanrhiya (rice beer) and call him when it was ready. They made the beer but forgot to call Marang Buru. They drank it all themselves, got drunk and started beating each other.

Marang Buru rushed in to settle the matter. Pilchu Budhi was reluctant to stay with her husband. So Marang Buru decided they should separate. He told Pilchu Haram to take the seven sons and Pilchu Budhi to take the eight daughters. Pilchu Budhi and the girls went to live in Surhur forest while Pilchu Haram settled with the boys at Khararai forest.

Years passed. The children grew up separately and reached adulthood. One day the boys went to hunt and the girls went to gather fruits and vegetables. They arrived at the same forest. The boys saw the girls singing and swinging under a Banyan tree. They started to meet every day and became friends. Soon they fell in love. One day the seven boys married seven of the girls by smearing dust into the parting of their hair. They sang and danced in celebration. The eldest girl, Kanta Budhi did not marry.

Santal Janam Katha (Origin Myth of the Santal), contd.

When they did not return home, Pilchu Haram went out to look for the boys. He reached the forest at the same time as Pilchu Budhi, who had come to look for the girls. The two met after 12 years and recognised each other. They were surprised to discover that their own children, who were brothers and sisters, had married each other. Marang Buru appeared, approved their marriage and blessed the couples. He divided the seven couples into seven clans and asked the eldest unmarried girl, Kanti Budhi, to look after the pregnant mothers and the newborn babies. He renamed her Marang Dei and asked everyone to worship her during the Bandhana festival. The elders gathered to make a code of conduct for the community. They sat on lotus leaves and dictated that there would be no marriages between brothers and sisters or within the same clan.

Time passed and the population increased. There was a man named Gadai Marandi who was very handsome with a brilliant head of hair. He also had a disease, which made his legs swell. A girl from the Kishku clan fell in love with him because of his good looks but when she saw his swollen legs, she refused to marry him. This so enraged Gadai Marandi that he cut off her head. After this the Marandi and Kishku clans became arch rivals and marriage between them became taboo.

Santal Janam Katha (Origin Myth of the Santal), contd.

The myth ends with the ritual of Chakkhudan performed by the Chitrakar, Jadau Guru. When Pilchu Haram and Pilchu Budhi died, they were cremated so their souls could rest in peace. Their siblings went to Marang Buru and asked how the dead might achieve salvation. Marang Buru, who was taking a bath, then created the Chitrakar, Jadau Gugu (Jadupatua), from the rubbings of his body. Jadau Guru was given the task of guiding the departed soul to heaven through the ritual of Chakkhudan.

The journey of the departed soul is made smooth when the family donates to Jadaub Guru, any used objects of the deceased - cloths, utensils, a hen or goat, an umbrella, some money.

On Sohrai festival, the Santals worship cows and bulls as a symbol of gratitude for their contribution to the work on the land.

The Santals used to wear the sacred thread. One day when the seven sons of Pilchu Haram were bathing in a pond, the Dhaimana snake took away all seven sacred threads, which had been left on the grass. Since then, Santals do not wear the sacred thread and kill the Dhaimana snake whenever they see it.


A stringed instrument, a bowed mono-chord, and the only Santal instrument to be categorized as a chordophone. The Banam is carved out of a single piece of soft wood and the Chhauni or skin cover is made from animal skin, usually goatskin. In the past, the skin of the Gosaap, a type of monitor lizard, was used. The bow of the Banam is made from a thin piece of bamboo or wood, which 
is curved.

A traditional Banam is played with the bow held in the right hand. The notes are produced by lightly pressing the index and middle fingers of the left hand on the string or Sadom (made of silk thread). The Banam follows the melodic structures of songs.

Myth of the Dhodro Banam

Once upon a time there were seven brothers who
 lived with their sister. One day the sister cut her finger, and the blood ran down onto the vegetables she was preparing. The brothers found the meal very tasty and thought that if her blood alone was so delicious, her flesh would be even more so. So they decided to kill their sister and eat her.

The youngest brother, dearly fond of his sister, found it impossible to eat of her flesh and hid his portion in a termite hill.

Time passed and a tree grew on this spot with beautiful white scented blossom. The tree made a wondrous sound.

One day, a wandering yogi (ascetic) heard the sound and marvelled at it. He decided to cut a branch from the tree to carve a musical instrument. This instrument, made from the wood of the Champa tree, is the Dhodro Banam.

A number of specialised tools like Banki, Badari, Haturhi and Kurhul are used to make a banam.

Banki: for cleaning animal skin, made of iron with wood handles

Badari: for cutting animal skin, made of iron with wood handles

Batali: for cutting the inside of a log at the initial stage of making a Banam, made of iron with wood handle

Karat (Bengali): Saw

Shan Pathar: type of stone used for sharpening tools


A branch of approximate length 80cm is cut with a Kurhul and cleaned. Before this piece of wood is scraped to make the Banam shell, a Badari is used to mark the wood to determine the sizes of the various sections which are not equal in size. Four sections are cut in the Banam shell and are scraped with Batali and Chong Batali.

The edge of the first section of the Banam shell is smoothened by the large Badari to fix the Chhauni. A hole is made in the middle of the wooden partition between the first two sections. The second section of the shell is hollowed to enhance the sound. Another hole is made by an Agar on the top of the fourth section to take the string inside to tie it to the peg. The insides of all four sections have wooden partitions.

Fixing Chhauni

The area on which the Chhauni is to be fixed is examined a final time with the fingers to ensure it is smooth. The Chhauni is then scraped to remove any hair or remains of flesh. It is soaked in water for about an hour. After all water has dripped off the skin, it is placed on the mouth of the first section of the shell to check if the size is correct.

The skin of the Chhauni is then fixed tightly with adhesive. Earlier, small wooden nails were used. The extra portion of the skin is trimmed with a Badari and three holes are made in the lower portion of the Chhauni for better resonance.

Fixing the Peg
By the side of the last part of the Banam a hole is made to fix the peg. A particular kind of thread is tied to this peg for playing the instrument.

Fixing the Thread
First, a long piece of Sadom (a kind of silken thread) is twisted firmly. It is then rubbed with resin, tied and taken over the wooden shell of the Banam. This is taken through the small hole on the top of the fourth section and tied to the peg. A small piece of wood is cut and loosely kept on the Chhauni under the thread.

Making the Banam Aah (Bow)

A piece of bamboo is cleaned and curved to make the Banam Aah and a few strands of thread are firmly tied with it.
With this the making of the Banam is complete.

Santal membranophones are all fixed pitch instruments. Unlike in other music traditions, these instruments are not tuned according to the basic note of the singer; it is the singer who follows the pitch of the instrument. 


A cup-shaped single-headed kettledrum made with an iron shell and animal skin. Tamak is made in two sizes: the smaller one is played along with a Tumdak, while the larger one accompanies Borho Dhols. Tamaks, worn around the neck using a leather strap, are played with two sticks.


A hand-struck two-headed cylindrical drum made of burnt clay shells and animal skin. Tumdaks are always made in pairs and tuned together in the same pitch. The left side produces a deeper sound than the right one. The Tumdak is worn around the shoulders with a Kandhach (leather strap), and played with the hands.


A large side-blown bamboo flute. It is without a beak and has a special blowhole. It is made of a specific type of bamboo called Muli. The piece of bamboo that is used for making this instrument must have two nodes. It has seven holes — one mouth hole for blowing, and six finger holes.

Chadar Badar puppetry is unique to the Santal. The Chadar Badar is made of wood, bamboo and fabric, and works on a simple mechanism. The name Chadar Badar, often referred to as Chadar Bandhani, may be derived from the practice of Bandhani - tying or covering a Chadar (cloth) around the lower part of the set.

Chadar Badar puppetry, popular among the Santal of Bihar and West Bengal, is accompanied by musicians and depicts closely the actual dance of the Santal. The songs are the kind women sing on their way home after a day’s work.
During the Durga Puja festival – Saptami (seventh day) to Dusshera (tenth day) – the puppeteers travel through villages engaging communities with their performances.

The unique construction and mechanism of Chadar Badar puppets makes it distinct from all other conventional puppet systems such as rod puppets, glove puppets or string puppets. One composite and portable set contains the stage, characters and props. One person manipulates it by simply tugging (or pulling) and releasing one string.

Chadar Badar has a square fixed frame with canopy and a circular platform on which two rows of puppets are fixed facing each other. A hollow bamboo attached at bottom serves as stand. A string runs through this bamboo and ties all the puppets. When played, the circular platform can rotate, and the head and hands of the puppets move up and down.

A player performs the puppet show with a coordinated pull and push of his hand and leg. According to the puppeteers, the basic principle involved in its construction is that of a Dhenki or husking paddle, (which uses a lever and counterweight) and is very popular in Rural Bengal, particularly among the Santals.

These photographs have been taken by various photographers and researchers who have documented Santal culture over several decades.

Santali Song, 1914
Recording of Santali song, 1914, 2:40 min. The Linguistic Survey of India under the direction of George Abraham Grierson Collection of The National Library of France, Audio-Visual Department

Santali Song, 1914


Photographs by Alain Daniélou (1907–1994) and Raymond Burnier (1912–1968). Taken in a Santal village close to Santiniketan.

Daniélou Photographic Archives, India Europe Foundation for New Dialogues (FIND), Zagarolo, Rome.

Alain Daniélou was a French musicologist, Sanskrit scholar and Indologist, who spent a large part of his life in India (1932–1958). He was accompanied on his travels by the Swiss photographer Raymond Burnier.


Photographs by Deben Bhattacharya (1921–2001)

Taken in January 1973 in the Santal village of Kamarbaudi (District Midnapore).

Digitized by Brenda Turnnidge in Paris © Jharna Bose Bhattacharya, Paris and Kolkata

Deben Bhattacharya was a Bengali musicologist, record producer, documentary filmmaker and writer who, when not on his frequent travels on work, lived in Kolkata and Paris. Much of his work was carried out under the auspices of UNESCO.


Photographs by Ravi Kant Dwivedi (b. 1954)

Taken in 1988, in the Santal villages of Navasar (District Dumka, Jharkhand), Uttar Shiala, Dhanshara, Kashpukur, Benedanga, Kakash Nonedanga, (District Birbhum, West Bengal) and Baghmara (District Burdwan, West Bengal).

Photographs by Ravi Kant Dwivedi
© Ravi Kant Dwivedi, New Delhi

(From the Field)

Photographs by Ravi Kant Dwivedi (b. 1954)

Taken in 2014 in Modidih, Labandia and Panduba (District Godda) and Navasar, Kukurtupa and Hatiapathar (District Dumka) in Jharkhand, and Bannab Gram, Uttar Shiala, Bonerpukur Danga, Gargaria, Surull and Patharghata (District Birbhum) in West Bengal.

Photographs by Ravi Kant Dwivedi
© Ravi Kant Dwivedi, New Delhi

Ravi Kant Dwivedi is an artist, photographer and filmmaker based in New Delhi.

He has documented rare practices and art forms such as Jadupatua painting, Dhokra metal craft, Gajon ritual of Bengal, mask dance of Rajbanshis, rain-invoking rituals of North Bengal, design of fishing traps and boats in Eastern India, and tribal and folk puppetry of Eastern India, especially Chadar Badar puppetry of the Santals.

(From Crafts Museum, New Delhi)

Photographs by Sudhanshu Shandilya (b. 1984)

Photographs by Sudhanshu Shandilya
© Museum Rietberg, Zurich

Sudhanshu Shandilya (b. 1984) is a young photographer based in New Delhi. He photographed the Chadar Badar puppetry troupe in residence at the Crafts Museum in December 2014. The photographs show Bhulu Murmu (Chadar Badar maker), Shibdhan Murmu (Chadar Badar performer), Sonadhan Murmu (accompanist musician) and Babudhan Murmu (accompanist musician).


One of the outcomes of the exhibition ‘Cadence and Counterpoint: Documenting Santal Musical Traditions’ is an essay by one of the curators, Mr Mushtak Khan, on the Banam, the Santal stringed instrument sculpted from wood. The exhibition brought together Banams from three different collections and the essay discusses their distinct perspectives.

For a PDF copy, please click here.

Credits: Story

All sources have been credited individually at respective places.

Cadence and Counterpoint, Documenting Santal Musical Traditions was mounted at the National Museum 15 April -17 May 2015.

The exhibition was a a collaboration between Museum Rietberg, Zurich, Switzerland, National Museum, New Delhi and Indira Gandhi Rashtriya Manav Sangrahalaya, Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh

Script and Curation - Ruchira Ghose, Mushtak Khan, Krittika Narula, Marie Eve Celio-Scheurer, Johannes Beltz, Arun Kiro

Exhibition Design - Kanu Kartik Agrawal, New Delhi; Deepak Das, New Delhi

Graphic Design - Pierre Girardin, Lausanne; Philippe Karrer, Lausanne

Photographs - Alan Danielou, Rome; Raymond Burnier, Rome; Ravi Kant Dwivedi, New Delhi; Munshi Asif Iqbal, Burdwan; Sudhanshu Shandilya, New Delhi; Brenda Turnnidge, Paris; Rainer Wolfsberger, Zurich; Ingrid zur Buchen, Hattersheim a. M

Contributors - Jayasri Banerjee, New Delhi; Jharna Bose Bhattacharya, Paris; Marine Carrin, Toulouse; Shibani Das, New Delhi; Ravi Kant Dwivedi, New Delhi; France Grand, Paris; Ruby Hembrom, Kolkata; François Pannier, Paris; Ludwig Pesch, Amsterdam; Joy Tudu, Kolkata

Exhibit Compilation - Ruchira Ghose, Rajalakshmi Karakulam

National Museum New Delhi
Sanjiv Mittal, Director General; K. K. S. Deori, Curator (Display); Anju Sachdeva, Deputy Curator (Anth.); R K Verma, Deputy Curator (Exhbn.); Sushmit Sharma, Technical Assistant; Renu Nawani, Hindi Officer; Rajesh Kumar, Hindi Translator; Kuldeep Pokhriyal, Layout Artist; Joyoti Roy, Outreach Head; Rajalakshmi Karakulam, Coordinator; Yogesh Pal, Photographer; Priya, Artist

Museum Rietberg, Zurich - Albert Lutz, Director

Indira Gandhi Rashtriya Manav Sangrahalaya - Professor Sarit Kumar Chaudhuri, Director

UNESCO India - Shigeru Aoyagi, Director; Moe Chiba, Programme Specialist; Vijay Raghavan, Programme Assistant

Embassy of Switzerland in India
Ambassador Linus von Castelmur and Françoise Gardies; Sarah Bernasconi

Swiss Federal Office of Culture (FOC) - Benno Widmer, Head of Specialised Body for International Transfer of Cultural Property; Marcho Eichenberger, Scientific Collaborator

Accentus Foundation, Elena Probst Fonds, Zurich

Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris - Pascal Cordereix

India-Europe Foundation for New Dialogues (FIND), Rome - Jacques Cloraec, President

ECAL/University of Art and Design, Lausanne - Alexis Gorgacopulos, Director

We extend our warmest thanks and appreciation to the Santal artists with whom we had the privilege to interact: Babudhan Murmu, the late Bhulu Murmu, Shibdhan Murmu, Sonadhan Murmu, as well as Sangita Murmu and Joshodi Murmu.

Credits: All media
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