Let’s go home,” I told my wife. It was insufferably humid, there were mosquitos everywhere, and the air conditioner wasn’t working. How had I let this woman drag me to this evil town at the ends of the earth? We were in Dhubri, the insalubrious port at the edge of lower Assam to which my father had travelled on business when I was a child, and vowed never to return.My wife assured me that we were about to strike gold — that here lay the hidden stories of Assamese folk music.
In the murky world of media, it’s hard to be sure of anything. But one thing I’ve become certain of is that wherever there is a mainstream story, marginalised realities are being ignored, or even deliberately suppressed. My wife was convinced that she’d been only given a partial story of the music of Assam, so here we were; in a part of the world not even the Lonely Planet guide had reached, looking for suppressed voices. I wondered if she was aware of mine.
Georgie had begun her research into Assamese folk music eighteen months back, with little preconceived notions about the place or its music scene, and ready to hear what the first commentator had to say. She was recommended to travel in April, during the Spring festival of Bihu, when she was taken on a glorious introductory tour of upper Assam. There she found the beautiful, gold- and red-uniformed, government-encouraged and apparently ubiquitous phenomenon of Bihu. Dancers young and old adorned the streets, schools put on neatly choreographed but virtually identical performances, and everyone spoke of the uniting and joyful force of this cross-tribal celebration.
Something felt amiss. If we knew anything about Assam, it was that it was full of different communities. Not necessarily at odds with one another, but all of them dancing and singing to the same beat seemed a little optimistic. So we headed off the tourist map and downstream of Guwahati in search of something we’d heard of called Goalpuria lok geet.
Our guide, a balding, bespectacled gentleman in his mid-fifties, was a self-made impresario whose brother worked as a mechanic in Bilasipura. “He makes the money, and I spend it,” he told us joyfully. His job was to train and manage a troupe of musicians and dancers, and to know things about the local culture that other people didn’t know.
He jumped into our car and directed our driver to Gauripur, the heartland of Goalpuria music, and home to its late royal proponent Pratima Pandey. With a sinking heart, I imagined a tour of a museumified house, rather like the sad tribute to Tagore in Kolkata, and a lot of talk about the good work of this late singer.
We approached a beautiful timber-framed house bathed in morning sunlight. Pratima’s brother showed us up the gracious steps of his mansion — now divided between the several offsprings of the erstwhile royal family — into a room full of photographs.
One thing I’ve become certain of is that wherever there is a mainstream story, marginalised realities are being ignored, or even deliberately suppressed. My wife was convinced that she’d been only given a partial story of the music of Assam, so here we were.
As we drank tea and ate the sweets, to our utmost joy, musicians began to arrive. This was no museum — this was to be a living testimony to a musical form. They pulled out their instruments — the four-stringed banjo-like dotara, the exquisitely carved sarinda, a flute and a khol, and then the female singer began to sing a slow melodious song of loss and longing. We’d hit gold.
They performed the sweet, mournful songs of the elephant trainers — the Mahouts — and the catchy rhythmic songs of the boatmen, sang in time to the pulling of their oars.
“Our music has been over-looked”, Pratima’s brother told us, as the musicians took a short break, “The tourism industry favours upper Assam; and television never comes here.”
It was Bhupen Hazarika, the great doyen of Assamese music, who discovered Pratima and gave her the moral and publicity boost she needed to make her art sustainable and reach beyond her region, but the forces of mainstream cultural governance have proved stronger, and eroded her short-lived fame.
As I listened to the full-throated song in this glorious house in Gauripur, I wondered what other unsung phenomena have been lost by the willful homogenisations of culture. In a part of the world as wracked with political division as Assam, one can fully understand a desire for cultural unity. But the cracks should never be smoothed over if it means the silencing of voices like these.
Somnath Batabyal is a backpacking social theorist. When not travelling, he teaches at SOAS, University of London.