Sunday, 10 January 2010

My father, Munin Barkotoki

Munin Barkotoki (1915-1993)

Excerpts from the 'Foreword' written by Ranjit Kumar Dev Goswami to A Munin Barkotoki Miscellany (1998, Guwahati: Book Hive).

A distinguished mind of our times, Munin Barkotoki was a man of wide-ranging curiosity and exceptionally varied interests. His passions included literature, journalism, theatre, film, music, painting, sports and - of course - politics. Though his literary output was sparse - comprising almost wholly of just twelve stories and sketches, five poems or pastiches, a one-act play, sundry essays, notes, belles-lettres, reviews, letters to the editor and a book of biographical studies(Bismrita Byatikram) all publishd over a long span of six decades -- Barkotoki exerted a quiet but effective influence on the literary scene in Assam in his role as a conscientious man of letters open to new ideas and experiments. Deeply contemplative, yet warm-hearted and convivial he lived a rich inner life untainted by any mundane quest for glory, power or profit. ....

Munin Barkotoki was born at Jorhat on the Kati Bihu day (October 16-17) of the year 1915, the younger son of Raisaheb Durgadhar Barkotoki, then Divisional Inspector of Schools, and Kamalini Devi, daughter of Padmavati Devi Phukanani (1853-1927) whose Sudharmar Upakhyan (1884) marks an early phase of the development of Assamese prose fiction in the nineteenth century. From his mother's side, his great grandfather was Anandaram Dhekial Phukan (1829-59), pioneer of the nineteenth century Assamese renaissance, and his great great grandfather Haliram Dhekial Phukan (1802-32), an important custom official at Hadira Choky during the Ahom rule who rose in the esteem of the East India Company officials by virtue of his intimate knowledge of revenue administration and socio-political history of Assam. [End of Excerpt]

A few other sundry facts worthy of note:

Munin Barkotoki's elder brother was Satyen Barkotoki, whose Escapades of a Magistrate (1961), is perhaps the first book of its kind in English written by an Assamese.

In 1959, Munin Barkotoki married Renuka Devi Barkataki, who was elected to Parliament in 1962 and again in 1977, when she became the Minister of State for Education, Culture and Social Welfare in the Janata party ministry headed by Sri Morarji Desai.


My favourite artist

Neelpawan Barua

For me, Neelda is the absolute 'top' Assamese artist, and I am putting him into my blog because I would really like him to be much better known. Also because he and Dipali Baidew are the sweetest couple I know. You cannot help loving them. Although his absolute inability to take care of his own paintings drives me nuts everytime I meet him, thinking about it later invariably makes me cry. More about all that later, first a little more to help you place Neelda ...

For those of you who know the region a little, Neelda is
(a) son of eminent Asamiya poet Binanda Chandra Baruah,
(b) a graduate of Kala Bhawan, Vishwa Bharati University in Shanti Niketan, and
(c) husband of well-known Asamiya singer of yesteryears Dipali Borthakur.

He founded the Assam Fine Arts and Craft Society, Guwahati, and still runs a Sunday morning art school for little children in his house.

Though originally from Jorhat, his present co-ordinates are: Saurabh Nagar, Beltola, Guwahati -- 781028, India.

Rather than talk about this art, his technique and his work, I'm posting a few of his paintings -- let them speak for themselves.

The one above right is called 'Lora-Roja' -- the boy-prince, the second one on the left clearly depicts the ten-headed king of Lanka 'Ravan' (Curtesy: Helena Pihko) and the one below is titled simply 'Three Birds'. All three are done in 'mixed media', and have a special 3-D effect. He also paints on canvas and believe it or not, on newspaper, matchboxes, what have you... Do let me know if you would like to see a few more of his paintings.

Now back to what I had started to tell you: Neelda and Dipali Baidew are both lovely people. They are also very well-known and much admired in Assam. So much so, that between them they have probably won every possible award that they could have possibly won in Assam. But that is not even half the story...

But let that be... I want you to judge Neelda on his merits, and give him his due. So, if you happen to like his work, have some space on your wall, and some money to spare, then do please pamper yourself and gift yourself one of his creations. Your best chance would be to visit him when you are in Guwahati next -- I would strongly recommend a visit to his beautiful ashram-like home in any case, I can assure you you will come away with more than you had gone in with.

But let me warn you, it will not be easy to get a painting from him -- first he will tell you that he has no paintings at all (don't believe him, he is plainly trying to fend you off), and if you did manage to get to the point when you have coaxed him to show you a few, he will refuse to quote a price for any. But please don't give up -- he usually gives in once he is convinced that you will take good care of his 'daughter' (Hope you begin to see now why he can be so difficult :-)

Finally, and please treat this as an absolute last option, if you want me to intervene at any point, especially if your chances of being able to visit him in Guwahati are not very high, then let me know. I go home to Assam at least once every year and will be happy to help in whatever way I can.


Monday, 4 January 2010

The Tangsas in Assam – in quest of a new identity in an altered world


The Tangsas are a small hill tribe who have migrated to India from Myanmar and China mostly probably within the last three centuries and have settled in the north-east Indian states of Assam and Arunachal Pradesh. Although probably of the same stock as the Nagas, the Tangsas have over time evolved into a distinct and separate ethnic group.

According to a recent count, the total Tangsa adult population in Assam is not more than 15,000. However, they do not have a common language, but speak the language of the sub-tribe to which they belong. Furthermore, since none of the Tangsa languages have a written form, most Tangsas learn to read and write in Assamese, Hindi or English.

The old Tangsa communities living in temporary settlements in remote hilly areas in earlier times were mostly hunters and agriculturalists doing shifting cultivation. But many have since moved down to the plains, hence have been forced to give up hunting altogether and have starting breeding pigs and poultry instead, and have taken to permanent wet-rice cultivation. This has brought about a drastic change in their life-styles.

The old Tangsa hill communities were mostly self-sufficient and had very little contact with the outside world. Recent governmental efforts towards development of infrastructure, mainly in the form of better roads and a better communication network, have made these remote areas more accessible. Better facilities for education, increasing exposure to the pan-Indian culture through cinema and television, better prospects for employment and better connectivity with the outside world has meant that the younger generation of Tangsas are slowly opting for the new ways over their own traditional life-styles. This has resulted in a massive loss of cultural and traditional knowledge in the past 3-4 decades.

Finally as a result of intense missionary activity in north-east India, many Tangsas have converted to Christianity in recent times . This has, in many cases, implied giving up almost completely their old cultural traditions, and this has further aggravated the loss of traditional knowledge.

However, many of the educated Tangsas are now slowly waking up to the realisation that in trying to become modern and Christian they have also endangered their own distinct identity as an ethnic group. The past two decades have seen intense efforts, in some of these sub-tribes at least, to recover or reinvent their own traditions and culture – with some surprising and unexpected consequences.

In this paper I wish to investigate some of these consequences in the light of the social, cultural, linguistic and environmental background of the Tangsas on the one hand, and the rapid changes – economic, cultural and structural – taking place all around them on the other. Language, more explicitly, multilingualism, will be shown to be the thread of continuity and the crucial factor which could unite the old and the new worlds of the Tangsas and secure their identity in the future.