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Sunil Thandar, Raibneshe
Address: Village: Murundi
P.O: Charkolgram
P.S : Nanoor
West Bengal

49 year old Sunil Thandar belongs to a family of traditional Raibenshe performers from Birbhum who have been performing for three generations.

Traditionally, this martial art form involves vigorous and manly movements of the body along with the acrobatics of a raibnaash (a long bamboo stick), from which its name originated. During the performance, the performers enact the actions of drawing a bow, throwing a spear and waving a sword. In the early days, the Raibneshe employed only the quarterstaff or rai-bnaash. This was later modified to include various other objects , including wheels, stilts and so on. 

With the decline of Bengal as a military power, however, the Raibneshes were no longer in demand.  Forced to look for alternative occupations, and with only their training in the use of sticks, staves, daggers, short swords to back them up, some of them found jobs as armed bodyguards for rich landlords, some others opted for robbery (the colonial rulers looked upon the Raibneshes primarily as gangs of robbers) while some of them found occupation as entertainers in social occasions like weddings.  

Raibneshe  in Birbhum was given a fresh fillip after it was discovered by Gurusaday Datta in the early 1930s, who helped popularize a form that was hitherto associated with thieves and robbers. Well known practitioners of that time were people like Hem Paramanik who had taught Sunil`s grandfather, Dibai Thandar. The latter went on to form his own group, Dhali Raibeshe Brotochari Sangho in 1931. 

Sunil, who was unable to attend school beyond class III, started training along with his brother, from the time he was 7 or 8. He has passed on the tradition to his son, who was  six or seven years old when he began his lessons and is 22 years old now. Sunil has also taught the youth of his village. Being mainly daily wage agricultural labourers, it is not until the evening that his group can practice. Practice takes place every day, without fail or rather, it took place, until the Coronavirus hit and a country-wide lockdown began on March 25, 2020. Sunil`s team of 20 plus dancers are of varying ages, the youngest lot being about eight years old. Several members of his group belong to the Santal community as well. 

Not so long ago, the only invitations they would receive would be for weddings and other social functions. Therefore their art was never a dependable source of income. However, things began to look up about 10 or 15 years ago, and they have been receiving invitations to perform for government functions, pujas and so on. Sunil feels that being the holder of an "artist card" given out by the present government has opened up newer opportunities. Thus for the festive  season between October and March each year, Sunil and his group would normally receive 2 or 3 invitations per month. 

In addition to the Dhaali (shield) dance which has always been part of the Birbhum Raibneshe,  for the last three years or so, Sunil has also included Ronpa dance (on stilts) to his group`s  repertoire. 

This year though, things are drastically different, as it is for all folk artists and specially performing artists. With the Coronavirus lockdown and social distancing, programmes have ceased and the group is not even able to congregate and practise. Hungry, despondent and filled with dread, they fear for the future of their traditional art. 


Sunil Thandar : Sunil Thandar & his Raibneshe team