Man, Myth and Media is the outcome of an the spot recording of human behaviour in response to an one in a lifetime and widely publicized event the total solar eclipse (TSE). The study was conducted in West Bengal and Bihar.
Man is ever inventive, not only in mobilizing a wide range of information but also in activating latent forces in dealing with situation (s). The very brevity of a TSE was a challenge that demanded mobilization and activation. These roles were completely taken over by the media which is acquiring the dimensions of a social institution.
Studied like these provide us opportunities of immediate correlation between reported and actual practice during events about which people have traditional values, taboos and beliefs. The Anthropological Survey of India an attempt to test the application of standard anthropological methods to transitory events, started studying the phenomena of elections. Then there was a catastrophe the Latur earthquake which we studied. TSE was one event in which the media took upon itself the responsibility of tackling information, beliefs, knowledge of human beings at various levels.
This study is if interest from the above points of view for another glimpse into human behaviour.
The 24th October, 1995 brought a rare and unique opportunity of watching the Total Solar Eclipse (TSE) in some parts of the country at a variant level of its visibility. This historical phenomenon which came after a lapse of about 400 years were viewed by a large section of population belonging to different socio-economic and ecological background. Prior to the occurrence, the scientists and rationalists at large became extraordinarily active along with the media to dispel the age-old superstitions of the people and the consequent cultural compulsion prohibiting them from watching such ominous incident in the stellar body. The scientists, biologists, sociologists, literateures, social and public workers have all contributed their might in bringing a positive change in the minds of the people about this universally sensitive happening of the physical world. From pre-history to modern times one finds a huge accumulation of very important oral tradition and written references in this matter. The scientific advancement of knowledge has fought a perennial battle with the murky imagination of people of all shades and in all countries. The anthropologists as a small community of observers of social facts have hardly traversed the unusually wide field of this nature. They have remained confined because of their traditional professional training, to observing human behaviour from a close range on a smaller unit of study; This small unit, whether it is the Eskimo of the polar region or the Munda of a hilly terrain, or whether it is the traditional Chinese or the Babilonian, to cite only a few example, each one of them has created their own world of cognition related to the wonderful celestial body. The history over time has provided an enduring cultural milieu around these different people, no matter whether they are food gatherers or herders or cultivators or even intellectuals of higher order.
The Anthropological Survey of India could not afford to miss such an important opportunity being available perhaps once in one’s life time. At the instance of the Director, almost at the last moment and without adequate intellectual field preparation, two teams were quickly formed to go to the locations where the total solar eclipse fell in the centre line. The idea was to study on the spot spontaneous reactions and response of the people living in a few tribal and non-tribal villages. The first location was identified in a suburb of Calcutta and the other was near Barkakana in Bihar. The Calcutta team was constituted with four scientific officers from the Head Office and the Eastern Regional Centre whereas the Ranchi team was formed with three scientific officers from the Ranchi Field Station .and ne from Eastern Regional Centre, Calcutta.
The Calcutta team proceeded to Baruipur, the nearest location from Calcutta and finally settled down at the base camp at Kalyanpur. There are a number of villages of different size belonging to Kalyanpur Panchayat Samity. Mainly three hamlets/villages were covered in the evening of 23rd and also in the morning of 24th October, 1995 before and after the total eclipse. Talking to people at Chandipur (the Christian village) and Chakrabera (a Muslim village) was not that difficult because of some initial contact. But another group of the team which observed Dhopagachi (a predominantly Hindu village) had initially a discussion with Mr. D. Bhattacharya, a physicist and an employee at the Saha Institute of Nuclear Physics and another person Mr. A. Chatterjee, a retired personnel from the Voltas and now turned a social worker. Both Mr. Bhattacharya and Mr. Chatterjee gave us a positive picture on the ground work regarding the spread of information and knowledge about the total solar eclipse in this region. There was no organised monitoring centre set up by the science forum or any other forum. But at individual levels each one of them had organised a number of small group meetings where they propagated the idea of mobilising r people of various sections to encourage to watch the total solar eclipse this time. Mr. Bhattacharya had personally taken interest to bring some tested solar specs for this purpose aid he personally took initiative to make some improvised device in this regard. It was also gathered that due to continuous media coverage, Diamond Harbour had emerged as the main centre of observation for this event though literally, Mr. Bhattacharya told, Diamond Harbour location was not actually the centre line whereas Baruipur location was along the centre line. But due to media campaign the people were largely influenced. A number of enthusiastic young men of this area also visited Diamond Harbour. Among the respondents belonging to the Christian population it was revealed that by and large they were free from such superstition as not to watch solar eclipse and to observe taboo for cooking and eating meals. In the Muslim hamlet of Chakrabera it was observed in the morning of 24th October at many of them were watching the total solar eclipse with their own device largely by using X-ray plate and also photo negatives. This time they have not tried to watch it through the collected water in a plate. Among the Christian it was also noted that many of them were engaged in different economic activities including services and some of them also worked in some Middle-East countries. Mr. S. Mandal of Chandipur village, who is a Christian, observed the total eclipse with bare eyes in front of the team without any precautionary measure. He also gave us his address in Bombay so that one could trace him to know whether he was ultimately affected by this daring act. The shops on the way were all open in the morning of 24th. Some of the aged
Muslim respondents told that they would perform Namaj (a ritual prayer) after the duration of total eclipse. It was in fact observed that some of them had entered the mosque for that purpose. One of the respondents also told that they have also partially observed eclipse this time by using some available device.
The village, Chakrabera has about seven to eight hundred households divided into a number of hamlets like Mollarpur, Sonapur, Gazipur, Sunpur, Naskarpur, Khanpara etc. The Muslim people here are mainly cultivators. Some of them also have small business and some trade in fruits. Higher education has not entered into their community in considerable strength but there are a few school final passed and college going students. We had also discussed with S. Mandal a retired supervisor of Texmaco factory. The village, Dhopagachi has also a number of hamlets covering one hundred fifty households. The hamlets are Mandal Para, Naskar Para, Sahapara, Biswas para, Muslim para, Channapara and Daman para. This village is singularly dominated by PuondraKhsatriya people. It was noticed that they watched the eclipse in large number but the women did not do any cooking. One social worker among them, Shri P. Mondal, categorically confessed that though they have been able to wipe out some misgivings but quite considerably they have not been able to enter into other aspects like cooking and taking food during the eclipse. The Dhopagachi village has four members in the village panchayat of whom one member is an woman. One woman from this village represents the Panchayat Samity. It was gathered that due to the systematic coverage or campaign of the Door Darshan, All India Radio and the newspapers and simultaneous campaign and meetings organised by various science forums, there has been a perceptible encouragement and excitement among the people for watching the total eclipse this time which was far more greater compared to the events of 1980. But it was also a fact that lot of confusion had remained in the minds of people who took part in the group discussion. This was reported through Media especially, the statements that came from the renowned ophthalmologists, astronomers and political leaders. The village, Dhopagachi is also basically dominated by the cultivators. There is a primary school and a village panchayat office. The students for higher secondary and college level education have to go to to Baruipur and Purandarpur which is a little far from here. This village has not yet produced a physician, but there are one or two engineers as scholar teachers. In addition to cultivation , trade and business are also reported in this village. Quite interestingly considerable development has taken place in respect of manufacturing surgical instruments in this area since last fifty to sixty years. About 70-80 families exclusively are engaged in this small scale engineering work. They bring raw material from Calcutta and manufacture the product here. The indigenous village blacksmiths also take some part in these operations.
The locations in the Bihar were selected in the district of Ramgrah under South Bihar in Chhotonagpur plateau. Few villages were selected around Barkakana which fell along the centre line for this year’s solar eclipse. The populations covered were primarily the Munda, Oraon and Bedia. The Ranchi term had also covered a few non-tribal population groups like Goala, Kurmi, Chamar and Dusads. It was reported by the team that people were mostly oriented to traditional beliefs of their own. But the large scale propagation of the media network also could make some impact of bringing some of them out from that superstitious load to watch the solar eclipse this time.
Although the quick reconnoiter was not thoroughly well before undertaking the field survey, but through the intimate observations in selected locations a cross section of people belonging to various ethnic groups were covered in both the locations . The picture that emerged was quite interesting and instructive of a positive change in the attitude of the people as compared with various reports on the same event in 1980. The papers in the present volume give a glimpse of that incidental reactions both in the suburb of Calcutta and also in a distance tribal locations in Ranchi. And in both the locations this trend of changes was visibly marked. The spread of education, both formal and informal can perhaps alone makes a real department for a positive change not only in scientific attitude to life but also towards the development of collective social awareness..
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