Northeast Echoes 05-01-2009

History as teacher Talent pool Quid pro quo Social icon

  • Published 5.01.09

History as teacher

A tough-talking Union home minister P. Chidambaram was greeted with three blasts in Guwahati on New Year’s day. Assam Police said the blasts were not unexpected. They knew it would happen but could not prevent it completely. Well, it is a bit difficult to predict exactly what the bomb-bursting maniacs, running amok in this region, are capable of inflicting.

Perhaps the actionable intelligence was what prevented a major catastrophe. As a result, only five lives were lost and some 60 odd were injured. The truth of the matter is that there is really no ideology left in the repertoire of any of the militant groups operating here. These recurrent blasts are their way of announcing that they are not yet ready to rest in peace.

But the people are certainly tired of these mindless, contorted expressions of dissent. People need a platform to speak up. But will anyone come forward to provide this platform and help the silent majority to verbalise their innermost angst?

This article is not another discourse on terror. There are many more refined and progressive activities happening in Assam and the Northeast which unfortunately do not receive adequate attention because everything is overshadowed by reports of blasts and gunfire.

There are sparks of genius in music, cinema, art and literature, which this region has produced. Many more budding geniuses are struggling to claim their place in the sun. It is time to look at such alternative narratives and to showcase the finer aspects of the cultural wealth and talent pool of this region.

Talent pool

A major lacuna in tribal societies is the absence of documentation of their cultural wealth and of recognising personalities who have enriched their culture through songs, poetry, literature and the performing arts. Khasi bard, singer and radio artiste Skendrowell Syiemlieh spent a good part of his adult life serving the society through songs for which he created his own lyrics and tune. Every singer is in some ways a historian who is either lamenting the current state of affairs, extolling the immediate past or inspiring hope for the future. The Khasis have a natural flair for singing. This is perhaps one reason why no one is celebrated as an outstanding singer. Syiemlieh died this year, unsung and unrecognised by his own people. It took a Guwahati-based trust, the Jeewan Ram Mungi Devi Goenka (JRMDG) Charitable Trust to recognise this humble soul with a lifetime achievement award, posthumously, on December 6, 2008. Two other veterans, theatre director Atul Bordoloi and actress Anupama Bhattacharyya, were also honoured.

Assam, of course, has a culture of recognising its cultural personalities. Actors, theatre artistes, singers, filmmakers and directors all have their moments of glory. This is society actually paying tribute to its cultural doyens, which is, of course, made possible through the spirit of philanthropy of a few individuals.

Philanthropy is not necessarily the reserve of the rich and famous. At a function at Maria’s Public School earlier this year, this writer witnessed several scholarships being instituted by families, who are not necessarily the wealthiest, in the names of their dear departed parents. There is perhaps no better way to perpetuate the memory of a loved one than by enabling meritorious students to pursue their educational career with the scholarship they have earned.

Quid pro quo

With the exception of the Bodos, philanthropy among the tribes is rare. Whether it is because in tribal societies the present generation is also the first generation wealth creators, or because they have not appreciated the culture of philanthropy is unclear, but one is yet to hear of a charitable trust started by any wealthy tribal in Meghalaya. At best you have the wealthy paying a few thousands as donation to social organisations a couple of times a year. They are, however, particular about paying the politicians particularly before the elections. But this is no philanthropy. It is a quid pro quo. When the politician is elected, he/she will have to promote the interests of the donor. This very selfish existence is not the best way to spread wealth. Apart from promoting the arts, the JRMDG trust also gives scholarships to needy students after carefully identifying the most deserving ones. Recently, during the award ceremony at the ITC Pragjyoti, Guwahati, Shankarlall Goenka, managing trustee of the trust, donated Rs 10,000 to the Rotary Club of Guwahati for its social projects. Earlier, the trust commissioned noted writer and historian Dipankar Banerjee to document the narratives behind the heritage buildings of Guwahati in a wonderfully bound coffee table book. Banerjee’s next project includes the heritage buildings of Shillong.

A consummate writer, Banerjee has also chronicled the life and times of Jyotiprasad Agarwala — a scion of the illustrious Agarwala family that had migrated to Dibrugarh from Rajasthan. The Agarwala family is perhaps one of the few that imbibed and embraced the Assamese culture completely. Yet again, it is this Guwahati-based trust that has supported Banerjee in this project.

Writing about such a multi-faceted personality requires extraordinary skill. Writers are faced with the dilemma about what to include in their texts and what to leave out since everything about the person is important. But Dipankar Banerjee has chosen to focus on Jyotiprasad Agarwala’s forte as a filmmaker and his distressing experiences while faced with limited equipment.

Here was an exceptionally talented man who wrote his own story, his script and lent his own lyrics for the songs in the films he made. Agarwala was a master craftsman who made his characters come alive to the theme. This remarkable flair for the performing arts was discernable in the man at a very early age. To Agarwala goes the credit for making the first Assamese film, Joymati.

Social icon

In an age that knew only the values of patriarchy, this filmmaker seemed to have an intrinsic gender consciousness. He was very aware of the sterling role of women in history. Not afraid of being culturally incorrect, he made a woman, Joymati, as the protagonist in his film. She was neither screechy nor given to hysterics as most heroines are wont to. Joymati carried herself with the grace and dignity of a princess who has her own share of struggles but does not wilt under pressure. According to Banerjee, Agarwala gallantly admits that he has drawn lessons from the Russian and English models of direction to lend character to his actors.

The book on Agarwala, roughly six square inches in measurement and in glossy print complete with photographs, is a collectors’ delight. Historians like Banerjee may be enthusiastic writers but they can achieve little without the support of philanthropists and other interested sponsors. Good writers must be encouraged with fellowships/scholarships to use their time meaningfully partly to record history in the making but also to look at the past and document the lives of those who have made incredible contributions to the enrichment of our social and cultural anthologies.

(The writer can be contacted at