Book Review in The Hindu June 19, 2012 Distinct, But Not Dissimilar– Murali Sivaramakrishnan

For many in the rest of India, the North-East region holds a special charm as it is geographically and anthropologically unique primarily on account of the multi-ethnic nature of its population. Bounded on almost all sides by international borders — Tibet and Bhutan to the north, Myanmar to the east, Bangladesh to the south and west, North-east India is most strategically situated and hence it is geo-politically an extremely sensitive area as well. The region despite all its uniqueness is certainly very much an integral part of India, but according to Birendranath Datta — a committed folklorist and art enthusiast, author of this extremely interesting and informative book — this strategically vital and rich cultural region is close to being sidelined on account of this rich distinctiveness and exclusivity.

Through his long years of research as well as personal experience with this area Datta highlights what he holds as two realities: first this region presents a picture of almost bewildering variety where apparently there is little of commonness and compatibility.  And yet, there runs through the heart of North-east a stream of affinity and togetherness that on the one hand, binds it together and, on the other, marks it out from the rest of India.  Secondly there still exists tremendous misinformation and misconception about these people and their culture at the all-India level.  This, he points out, applies not only to the political arena but, unfortunately to the intellectual and academic areas as well. It is imperative, as the author argues, to see this unique area in a pan-Indian perspective that is inclusive and integral. This book is certainly a commendable endeavour to highlight the claim for attention and recognition of this strategically vital part of India.

Escape mechanism

The prevalent oral narratives and folk traditions of this region play a pivotal role in the process of understanding its cultural contours, and it is not without significance that the chapter on the changing functions of traditional narratives occupies the central focus of the book. Folklore might function at several levels — including amusement, entertainment, education, traditional wisdom, or simply as a mere escape mechanism for the people. The burden of folklore is actually just a stone’s throw away from the centre of any culture. As so pithily phrased by AK Ramanujan: “Even in a large modern city like Madras, Bombay or Calcutta, folklore — proverbs, lullabies, folk medicine, folk tales — is only a suburb away, a cousin or grandmother away.” The North-east Indian region has been the meeting ground for Hindu-Aryan and the Indo-mongoloid or Kirata elements and the folk narratives have been shaped and manipulated by the political, cultural, and economic lives of the people of this region.

As far as religious communalism is concerned, Assamese Hindus and Muslims have been living here for centuries in an atmosphere of mutual understanding and amity; and so have been the segments of Christians and Buddhists and Sikhs in this region. This has been attributed to the immense influence of the life and thought of Sankaradeva who believed in casteless equity and essential human virtue. Sankaradeva (1449-1568) who spearheaded the neo-Vaishnavite Bhakti Movement in Assam was the harbinger of an extraordinary resurgence in the life of this region, and the chapter “The Sankaradeva Movement” examines its legacy of cultural liberalism.

The 17th century Muslim saint Shah Milan, popularly known as Ajan-Phakir, is said to have come here from Baghdad, with the express intention of leading the Muslims of this region toward the one true god through devotion and worship. Ajan Phakir had imbibed Sankaradeva‘s spirit in full. Sankaradeva had made his religion very simple, free from all rituals. His disciple Madhavadeva gave cogent expression to this attitude in his famous work, the Namaghosa : “In singing of the praise of God, there are no rules of place, time qualifications, rituals, and rigours”.

Many Ramayanas

Madhava Kandali’s Assamese Ramayana happens to be the earliest version of Valmiki’s Sanskrit work in any of the desi traditions of northern India — preceding the Bengali, Oriya and the Hindi versions by a century or more. The essay that explores the uniqueness of this North-east text argues that the poet of Assam had eliminated the embellishments while keeping the essence of the ur text.  The depth and range of this epical narrative in the region is re-examined in the study of the Rama katha tradition in Assam, Manipur, Meghalaya, and Mizoram. There is a localised flavour apparent in the folk performances even today. Apart from the minor Rama-katha texts that go beyond the Sanskrit versions, there also exist tribal versions among the Tiwas and the Karbis, and the Khamti Ramayana which is of Buddhist religious affiliation.

The author also delves deep into the performative traditions and the visual cultures of the North-east, like the Kamarupa art forms dating back several centuries. The art of painting was also definitely intimately connected with life in general herein. In the Kamarupi dialect of the Assamese language there are still current expressions which point to the practice of painting associated with the patas andnatas , although both have ceased to exist as professional classes now. The manner in which pictorial composition is discussed is quite erudite, whether in the context of manuscript miniatures or while dealing with the traditional arts and crafts. The book is rife with rich information on folklore and culture of a unique way of life that exists in the North-east of India. Difference, uniqueness, and heterogeneity in terms of folk and cultural elements might distinguish this part of India; however, the life of the people from early history also reveals their intimate connection to the rest of India.

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