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An author & a trailblazer personality - Personality

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By Teresa Rehman profiles a versatile woman who is intent on making history with her cultural revolution
  • Published 9.02.04

Sheela Barthakur

It is truly awe-inspiring — the manner in which Sheela Barthakur has nurtured and is realising her dream. Founder of the Sadou Asom Lekhika Samaroh Samiti, a close-knit women’s literary organisation, in 1974, the visionary is on a mission to make the women at the grassroots level discover the might of the pen.

“I still have the same verve, the same energy and the same childlike enthusiasm that I had when I initiated the organisation three decades ago,” she says softly. There is, however, no mistaking the intensity and single-mindedness of purpose in that tone.

On what has been an exceptionally long journey, she has spearheaded a “silent cultural revolution” among women. When she had initiated the samiti several years ago, few people understood what she was up to. She recalls an incident in early Seventies, when she had requested the Asam Sahitya Sabha, which was organising a yuva sanmilan, for a few hours’ slot for women. Her plea was turned down.

The movement, which had started with just two members, now has more than 60,000 members in over 208 branches of the organisation all over Assam. It also has branches in Calcutta, Shillong, Delhi and Dimapur.

But is all this work guided by one central philosophy? Yes, she asserts. She refuses to confine herself only to the women writers who have already carved a niche for themselves. “I want a woman even in a remote village to express herself, be it through a poem, a letter, a story or a small speech at a public gathering. I want the woman to discover herself,” says Barthakur.

Her petite looks can be deceptive. As she tucks in the pallu of her mekhela chador and swiftly moves in and out of the pandal, Barthakur issues directions to her fellow members who are aiding her organise the 20th biennial meet of the organisation. The programme was held at Chabua in Tinsukia district recently.

The trailblazer that she is, she has motivated the women in the different branches to initiate their own publications from local financial support. The various units of the samiti work in a democratic manner, which is a unique phenomenon in the country.

It is a labour of love for the women writers. “We treat each other like sisters and we have a sense of mutual obligation. These women come out and participate willingly and take pleasure in their work. They are happy that they have found a platform to express themselves,” says Barthakur.

Born in Charingia village in Jorhat in 1935, she spent a few years of her childhood at Dhaka (now in Bangladesh). Her father, Nabin Sharma, was sent there as an inspector of the tea expansion board in order to popularise the brew. “I have beautiful memories of Dhaka and I still get nostalgic when I think of that place. I remember singing Assamese songs at the convocation of Dhaka University. I used to dance to Nazrulgeeti and Rabindrasangeet,” she recalls.

She owes a lot to her mother Pritilata Devi who was a liberal and broadminded woman. “She was educated at Brahmo Girls School in Calcutta and was, therefore, open to new ideas,” she says.

As a spirited young girl, Sheela loved to sing, dance and play. Despite opposition from family members, she acted in Rupkonwar Jyotiprasad Agarwalla’s famous play Sonit Konwari, when she was a student of J.B. College.

She had also qualified at an audition held by All India Radio at Jorhat Sangeet Vidyalaya. “I had to come to Guwahati for the recording and my family members disapproved of it. I protested and came for the audition,” she says.

The turning point in her life was her meeting with her soulmate, Saranan Barthakur. Her husband, who was a very good dancer himself, was a disciple of Kalaguru Bishnu Rabha.

She shares a wonderful synergy with her husband. “He helps me with all the household chores and is my source of support and inspiration,” she says. She smiles, “My son, too, is ever ready to accompany me to the various seminars and conventions of the samiti with his car and camera.”

After marriage, she came to Tezpur and joined Tezpur High School. A visharad in sitar under Ustad Illias Khan from Bhatkande Sangeet Vidyalaya, Lucknow in 1961, she had also taken lessons in Rabindrasangeet at Vishwa Bharati, Shantiniketan. “I even had my own cultural troupe here and we used to perform dance dramas, ” she recalls.

With her never-say-die spirit, she went on to complete her masters after marriage. In 1991-92, she completed her PhD on Social Change in Assam since Independence with special reference to Sonitpur district. She retired as a lecturer of philosophy from Darrang College in Tezpur.

She was also the founder principal of Gopinath Bordoloi Kanya Mahavidyalaya, the first girls’ college in Tezpur in 1979. She had also conducted several adult education programmes in five villages near Tezpur in 1975.

Since its inception, the samiti now has a long list of accomplishments to its credit and it has become a powerful forum upholding the age-old creative instinct in women. “A writer cannot be created but an atmosphere for intellectual development can be,” she says.

A common meeting ground for its members has been its 19 state-level conferences held so far. In each of these sessions, they try to deal with the socio-economic problems of the women of the area.

Barthakur recalls an unpleasant incident during their session at Barpeta in 1988. “We had gone to the satradhikar of Barpeta satra with a petition to allow women to enter the main temple premises which had been banned since ages. But, the temple authorities had incited a group of women to physically assault us,” she says.

Lekhika, the mouthpiece of the samiti, has helped create many new women writers. Barthakur herself has edited 15 editions of the Lekhika, and has carried and biographies of several women writers who have almost sunk into oblivion. She has also written several short stories and essays.

She has edited the complete works of three eminent women writers — Nalini Bala Devi, Dharmeswari Devi Baruani and Sneha Devi. “It was a difficult enterprise because people till the 19th and even in the 20th century did not think it worthwhile to preserve the works of women writers,” says Borthakur.

Assam chief minister Tarun Gogoi has promised to pay the samiti Rs 5 lakh, which she wants to utilise in instituting an award in the name of the first female filmstar of Assam, Aideo Handique. “Till date, the people of Assam have not accorded her due recognition. Through our samiti, we want to honour the great lady,” says Barthakur.

Taking joy and pride in her work, she is pondering on the idea of encouraging women writing in other regional languages. “This is just the beginning. With the pen as our weapon, we want to reach out to the international fora,” she says. Going by her words, we are sure to hear more of her in the future.