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India's Surajkund Crafts Fair, Where Pakoras Meet Pizza

 

The Surajkund Mela is an eye-opener for the city slicker to the best skills from rural India as Thommen Jose found out. Photographs by Raushni Abraham

 

You reach Surajkund even before you can say ‘Surajkund Mela’. You are there even before you realise that you are in the outskirts of Delhi. For Delhi-ites used to getting into Gurgaon or Noida for work or shopping, the drive to the annual gala-mela is hardly a drive. Then, it is not exactly supposed to be one either. This little village in Haryana which hogs the limelight every February is hardly 10 kilometres from south Delhi.  And that is exactly what the mela is all about: rural India knocking on the doors of urban India and announcing “It’s about time you sat up and took note of me.” Going by the wares our hinterland cousins have in store, you not only take note, but you go all gape-and-fawn. Embrace them and welcome even some of them home.

This annual get-together of the finest craftsmen from four corners of the country is organised by the Haryana State Tourism Department. Showcasing their finest handicrafts and handloom are 400 handpicked artisans who are recipients of prestigious awards or masters in their respective fields – be it painting or pottery, sculpting or weaving. Participants also include renowned names from SAARC countries. Adding to the gaiety quotient are musicians, folk singers and dancers, street magicians and snake charmers (but without the snakes. “Too many kids running around,” as one charmer explained). Every year the fair focus is on a particular state and this year it was on Assam. A model of a representative village is recreated giving the curious and the interested visitors a peek into the slice of life there. Here you can sample their food, feel their fabric and generally breathe in their air sitting on their veranda. Chat up a few of them lazing about in the charpoys. And if you are really nice, you are even offered tea. It is, as I said, like stepping out of your home into theirs.

Walking around the ground, you cannot help but wonder whether the mela is anything more than an overgrown village fair. The looming giant wheels whizzing with squeals of delight, the motorised horses galloping to peals of laughter and the pink candyfloss strung against a blue sky, gobsmacking in the wind...all make it more festive than an exclusive fair. For every wrought-iron art and pashmina stalls you could throw hoops or shoot balloons to win goodies. You could try on a kolhapuri or slurp on a kulfi. Or you could do it all. The choice was yours. It was a village fair that had arrived. In town. Then, probably that is also the charm of it. For the denim-gen, this was like walking into the fond reminiscences of the ‘good old days’ by their dada and dadi. They could now marvel at the narration, even ask informed questions.

This year’s edition was bigger than all the previous years: in terms of both vendor and audience participation. But I was told that it was difficult and too early to quantify with exact figures the business volume and the footfall. But suffice it to say that the organisers and participants were all ecstatic with the response. Asking a stall-keeper after business, I got an incredulous smile in return – she was handling three customers the same time. The burning question for a typical Delhi-ite would be how different is the Surajkund Mela from the Dilli Haat next door? For one, the Surajkund Mela is more, fairy. Here, the pervading gaiety mingles with free-wheeling bargains and you are only too happy to take home that hardy leather bag from Agra or the pearl necklace from Hyderabad.

Spare a quiet moment from all the jam and jamboree reflecting on the venue. This ‘lake of the sun’ is believed to have been built by the Tomar king Suraj Pal during the 10th century. Suraj Pal was a sun worshipper so he built the lake in the shape of the rising sun in an eastward arc. There was even a Sun Temple on its banks from which the lake supposedly got its name. Today, unscrupulous mining in the catchment areas – the surrounding villages of Lakkarpur, Anangpur and Maharajpur – has affected the flow of rainwater into the lake.

The choice of the Mela venue is undoubtedly a tribute to this historic kund. It would be great if each year’s instalment could also adopt some progressive measures to restore The Surajkund to its original glory.

 

(The writer is a travel writer and can be reached through his travel blog Wanderink.com)

 

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