Naren Handsa is a Santhali folk singer from West Bengal, who offers free education to underprivileged children, has adopted 30 orphans, and is working to convert barren lands into mini forests through his NGO Sido Kanhu Mission Foundation
Naren Hansda, a member of the Santhali community, lives in a small yet scenic plateau surrounded by Ajodhya hills in the Purulia district of West Bengal.
Having studied only until Class 8, in 2012 he left his native village of Jahajpur to follow his passion and take music lessons from radio artist Lasaram Tutu. He performed on the streets to earn a living, and soon, his skills had become so popular among locals that his reach increased to villages across the district.
As his popularity increased, he started performing concerts in other parts of West Bengal, as well as states like Jharkhand, Bihar, Delhi, Punjab and Maharashtra.
“I kept my base at Bhalidungri village, on a half-an-acre of land donated by my mentor Lasaram. But I continued to travel to perform concerts. However, in 2015, during one of my performances in Boruakocha village, I received an unexpected proposition,” the 47-year-old tells The Better India.
Naren says that the villagers approached him to seek his help to support four orphans from their village. “The residents requested I adopt these children since I lived alone and could provide them with shelter. I was moved by the plight of the children, and sought approvals from concerned authorities and took them in,” he says.
To meet the children’s educational and living expenses, Naren started Sido Kanhu Mission Foundation, an NGO to accept donations.
Today, Naren is a guardian of 30 orphans from across the district. Moreover, 400-day scholars receive free education at Sido Kanhu Mission School and its branches, located in Nayagarh, Jhalda, Boruakocha, Harada and Chharra.
Going above and beyond
The school offers education to children whose parents cannot afford it.
Among these children are those of daily wager Subhash Murmu, a resident of Savada Dumduma. Subhash’s son is a student of Class 3, and his daughter is a student of Class 1. “ I have no financial means to send my children to a private or government school. I pay Rs 50 to Naren as tuition fees because I cannot afford much else. But he provides uniform, stationery and other educational material for my children,” he adds.
Besides educating children, Naren is working for an environmental cause and has turned 43 acres of barren land into a lush green oasis.
Naren explains that his village is about 5 km away from the Ajodhya Hills. The area stretches over 10,000 square kilometres of forest, consisting mainly of barren land and deciduous forest.
“Over the years, I have seen heavy deforestation in the nearby forest land. The green cover is being lost at a rapid rate. I felt that despite humans knowing the importance of oxygen and the vital role trees play to provide it, we are slowly killing ourselves,” he says.
Naren adds that he feared that oxygen will become so scarce that it will have to be sold in bottles, the way clean water is now. “So I identified a hill under the jurisdiction of the forest department and decided to plant trees. The children and I carried water bottles and planted saplings on the hill, including varieties such as Palash or sacred forest tree, banyan and ebony and more,” he says.
Observing Naren’s consistent work, even forest officials decided to chip in to help his initiative.
Over the years, as the saplings on this hill have increased, so has the number of orphans in Naren’s home. “We all visit a hill every morning with water bottles to irrigate the plants. So far, we have covered over 40 acres of forest land with over 10,000 saplings, many of which have grown into trees,” Naren adds.
He says the efforts attracted wildlife such as snakes, wild rabbits and many species of birds. “At present, all the 30 orphans and 100 students that come to study in the school contribute to the cause,” he says.
Besides increasing the tree population at the hill, Naren works to prevent forest fires. “Many community members are unaware about the importance of trees and resort to setting fires in the bushes to keep the wildlife away and protect their farms during harvest season. But the fire becomes uncontrollable and spreads over a wide region,” he explains.
To address the issue, Naren uses music to create awareness and change the mindset of residents. “I compose songs for people and write slogans such as Ekdin Gacher Phal Kheye Manus Benche Chilo, Tai Sobai Gach Lagao. It translates as ‘Once upon a time, humans lived by eating fruits from trees. So everyone should plant one for survival,” he says.
One for the tribe
In recent years, his NGO has also started supporting five distressed women who had been ostracised by their respective communities.
Panwati Mandi from Boruakocha village has been living with the NGO since 2015. “I am a widow, and according to Santhali tradition, such women get labelled as witches. The villagers disowned and mistreated me. Naren dada gave me shelter at his NGO,” she says, adding that eventually, other women facing similar social stigmas moved into his place as well.
Naren says the women also offer required help to care for the children and their routine activities.
In recognition of his work, Naren has received the Sidhu Kanu Smriti Award by Anagrasar Shreni Kalyan O Adivasi Unnayan Adhikar, West Bengal, in 2021.
But despite the accolades he has earned, Naren’s financial struggles continue.“There are only two elements that have supported my entire cause – my voice, and the 2.5-foot long Santhali music instrument. I often have to request rice or money from donors, depending on the requirement. There are a few who offer steady financial support. But the COVID-19 pandemic has reduced the number of donors,” he says.
Naren adds that travelling to other villages has also been restricted due to the pandemic, so he conducts online concerts to entertain people and earn money. “A concert earns about Rs 1,000 and 1,500,” he says.
But despite all the hurdles, Naren is determined to continue working for his cause. “I want to focus on educating the Santhal tribal community. There is poor awareness about education among the villagers. Also, our culture of music and lifestyle is dying, and I want to keep all of it alive. I hope to change the picture for the better in the next 15 to 20 years,” he adds.
Edited by Divya Sethu