Sursamalaya’s Documentary Series “Folk Stories” – Assam Beyond Bihu, Borgeet and Sattriya: Dipanjali Deka

Guest post by DIPANJALI DEKA

I recently finished watching Sursamalaya’s “Folk Stories” on Youtube, a documentary series made during the lockdown.

 “Folk Stories” depicts the art and life of folk artists from many lesser known genres of Assam. It has released one season as of now and is amply promising, for many reasons. One of them is the accessibility offered, in short crisp episodes, to the social and cultural landscape of Assam beyond the genres of Bihu, Borgeet and Sattriya popularly known to the mainstream.

In the first episode, we meet Mehu Bora from Golaghat who builds traditional instruments like tokari (stringed instrument), dotara (stringed instrument), bahi (flute), pepa (hornpipe) etc.

Sur Samalaya Resource Centre for Arts was established in 1990 by renowned folk artist Dijen Gogoi. What began with a small workshop on instrument-making, later took off to train many local youth in producing almost 100 indigenous musical instruments belonging to various communities of North East India. The Research and Documentation cell of Sursamalaya looks into research, publication and documentation on indigenous cultures, under the ambit of which the series “Folk Stories” has come into fruition.

In recent times amidst debates around Citizenship and Indigeneity, it has become crucial to understand deeply the social and political landscape of Assam. Assam with its culturally intricate and complex terrain needs to be studied and understood, now more than ever. Sursamalaya opens up a way of doing that through these stories.

Debojit, a doctoral scholar from JNU working on Assamese Theatre history and Dipjyoti, an independent folklore consultant with UNICEF who are both coordinators of this project. Says Debojit:

While thinking about a kind of documentation or archive, we wanted to break the academic confinement where often we hijack many expressions of folk life and make it a sophisticated ‘classy’ thing available only for the educated class. Hence instead of only archiving them, we decided to open up some parts of it for common people in the popular domain. Then the thought of an online series came in…

Here, in the second episode, Birensingh Mili from Disangmukh takes us through the sonorous melodies of Oineetom, Tebo tekang etc. of the Mising community, that has a distinct set of cultural practices and folk songs altogether. Marginalized faces like these, which usually remain hidden from limelight, are brought into focus here.

 

In the third episode, below, Kamala Gogoi of Jorhat sings and talks of the history of Diha Naam and Tokari Geet in Assam. Tokari Geet often carry dehbichar themes – fragility of the human body, impermanence of the physical life etc., much like the Baul songs of Bengal. Similar themes appear in many Kabir songs sung in Malwa that Linda Hess calls the “Songs of the Body”. As a researcher studying the bhakti music of the subcontinent, I find it interesting to compare the varying shades of musicality of dehbichar geet in different regions.

In the 4th episode, Debojit talks to Syed Hakikur Rehman, a cultural activist and researcher from Sivasagar, about Zikir songs of the Assamese Muslim communities. Zikir songs are attributed to the 17th century Sufi-Bhakti poet of Assam, Azan Peer Fakir. Many of these songs contain messages of syncretism and communal harmony in them. Rehman talks of different other styles of Islamic music in Assam, like Qasida, Baul and Ghazals, which many people even within Assam do not know of.

 

The 5th episode (below) leads us to Bhadra Rajwar, who through his sharp and vibrant voice demonstrates songs of the tea-garden community of Assam. He narrates how innocent people from Jharkhand and Odisha were fooled by the Britishers to be brought to Assam. They were told that a certain tree is found in Assam that yields silver and gold, only to be made to work for more than 16 hours a day once they came in. Later, they could only sing out their sorrows through their songs. The labor or work songs of these communities are often replete with the lamenting voices of the subaltern that contain political overtones with critique of the authorities. Rajwar remarks on the conflicts around cultural representation in the state and that despite being a population of more than a crore, there is no state holiday for major festivals of the community.

 

In the 6th episode, the story of Tulashi Oja, disciple of the legendary drummer Moghai Oja, is musically presented with a mix of nostalgia and humor.  While serving as the president of Asom Dhulia Sanmilan, Tulashi Oja even took measures to bring women into the performance space amidst much criticism from conservatives.

What “Folk Stories” Did and Did Not Do 

The issue that these stories highlight well is the scanty economic attention and financial assistance provided to the folk performers as opposed to the popular modern artists. For the folk artists, it is often just “travel conveyance and a meal” that is thought enough to be provided by organizers of any event, as Bhadra Rajwar laments.

However, what this series does not do is dig deeper into the political questions, which we only get a peek into. For instance, in the episode on instrument making, Mehu Bora remarks that getting raw materials like buffalo horn, which is used for making pepa (hornpipe), is tough nowadays. So he gets it from Dimapur in Nagaland. This makes me wonder whether this non-availability is largely connected with the recent beef politics in the country and which is indirectly affecting the music industry in Assam. I would also be intrigued to learn more on the role of women in many of these performance spaces, for instance in case of Zikir, which has only recently opened up for women singers.

Debojit confesses that due to the rising restriction around Covid they are yet to document many marginal tribal cultures and lesser known cultural forms, which will give a comprehensive picture of the larger cultural politics. With the first season capturing Upper Assam, the next season hopes to focus on the cultural landscape of Lower Assam and Barak Valley.

The episodes are preliminary, but they succeed to open many threads of inquiry for any inquisitive researcher. These videos can become important sources for researchers to find key resource figures to connect with in the field. With sufficient funding and motive, this kind of documentation holds the possibility of becoming rich spaces of representation for the marginalized folk artists as well of becoming important cultural artifacts from the state. Moreover, more of such stories will help demystify the Orientalized image of the North East that sadly still prevails outside of the region.

Dipanjali Deka is currently pursuing PHD in the Department of Theatre and Performance Studies at the School of Arts & Aesthetics in Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), New Delhi. Both in research and in musical practice, she takes pleasure in diving into the music and poetry of the Bhakti and Sufi poets of the subcontinent.

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