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Taking Bihu to the World

Prashna gogoi  (12).jpg

Whenever we talk about culture and traditions of Northeast India, especially related to music and dance, one of the first names that comes to our mind is none other than Dr. Prashanna Gogoi – an ethnomusicologist who had earned world-wide acclaim with his numerous research studies, spell-binding performances, choreographer of prestigious national and international festivals with his constant hallmark being innovation. The recipient of numerous awards and distinctions from across the world, and one of the youngest members of the prestigious Sangeet Natak Akademi, Dr. Gogoi has spent an entire lifetime, trying to understand the nuances of our diverse folk traditions and practices, taking them in front of the global audience and being in a constant bid to experiment and innovate, while keeping the basic rules in mind. To talk about his latest achievement, he has been entrusted with the music production of the entire SAARC games – an event which brought immense fame to Assam.

While very little needs to be said about him, for the uninitiated, Dr. Prasanna Gogoi is the illustrious son of late Bhuban Chandra Gogoi and Srimati Kiran Gogoi. Although his family hailed from Konwar Gaon of North Lakhimpur, Dr. Gogoi was born and brought up in Ziro of Arunachal Pradesh on account of his late father’s posting and where he did his initial schooling. A multi-faceted personality who excelled in numerous streams, Dr. Gogoi passed out from Ziro HS in 1st division. A keen sportsman with a passion for medicine, he later on joined the Assam Agricultural University to pursue his B.V.Sc and A.H. degree.

Although the recipient of numerous fellowships from the Indian Government, like the ‘Junior Fellowship from Ministry of Culture, Govt. of India in Sept. 2005 for the Research Project-An Echo of Assamese Folk music with special reference to Scientific and Acoustic improvisation of the traditional ”Bin” and recognizing it as one of the major assisting instrument in Tokari Geet, Deh-bichar Geet, Borgeet and Satriya Dance of Assam’, ‘Senior Fellowship from Ministry of Culture, Govt.of India in 2014 for the Research Project-Semantics & Semiotics of Bihu Dance of Assam with reference to music & musical notations’, Dr. Gogoi shot to international acclaim when he won the bronze medal in  Double Reed Traditional Wind Instrument (juria pepa) and the prestigious Delphic Laural Award in Traditional One or Two Stringed Instrument (bin), representing India, in the  III Delphic Games – 2009, held at Jeju, South Korea.

Having performed and conducted seminars and workshops and felicitated in more than 25 countries, he was nominated as a Guru for Bihu dance by the Union Ministry of Tourism & Culture, Govt. of India, in the year 2003, under the “Guru Shishya Parampara” scheme. Earlier last year, he received another major honour when he was appointed as a member of the Advisory Committee of the Sangeet Natak Akademi, New Delhi, for Folk & Tribal Arts – one of the youngest cultural personalities to be bestowed with the honour.

A regular artist of AIR, Doordarshan and an artist who has performed in countless programmes across the country, some of his most memorable achievements are personal Bihu performances in Delhi for the President of India Group of the Inter-Parliamentary Union, composing the music sequence of Bihu dance for the Republic Day tableau parade in 2005, performances in the closing ceremony of Commonwealth Games-2010, organized by Zonal Cultural Centres Ministry of Culture, Govt of India,  on 13th October, 2010, besides countless others.

In the international arena, some of his notable performances include performances of folk music and dance of Assam in Mauritius and Reunion Island, France in November’ 2001, presentation of folk music & dances of Assam as a solo performer and with troupe in Mauritius, Ethiopia, Djibouti, Kenya, Botswana, South Africa & Dubai in November’ 2007, performance during during Incredible India’s @ 60 Festival – depicting a panorama of rich Indian Culture, besides many others.

While Dr. Gogoi’s expert as a performer and musicologist is well known, he is all a choreographer of repute, having choreographed prestigious shows on Dance & Music of India during the ”Festival of India Celebration” under the sponsorship of Ministry of Culture, Govt of India, at Bushan & Seoul, South Korea and Naminara Island Republic in 2009. Besides composing and directing the music sequence for the Republic Day Tableau for Assam in 2005, some notable choreographic shows include choreography of a cultural programme on musical ensemble of Manipur, Tripura and Assam with folk dances in honour of Her Excellency Smt. Pratibha Devi Patil, President of the Republic of India and Her Excellency Dr Michelle Bachelet, President of the Republic of Chile at the Rashtrapati Bhavan Auditorium, New Delhi on March’ 16, 2009 to commemorate the 60th Anniversary of Diplomatic Relations between India and Chile.

A north-easterner at heart, he was also the choreographer and Music Director of – ”Unity Dance” & “Drums of the Hills” in the opening ceremony of Hornbill Festival-2013  during the visit of President of India on 50 Years of Statehood Day in Kisama, Nagaland.

As mentioned earlier, innovation is the hallmark of Dr. Gogoi’s career and he personally manufactures his own musical instruments. The same have been widely appreciated and he has been invited on numerous occasions to teach and showcase his instruments. Some of his visits on those lines include a musical training tour to Reunion Island (France) on the eve of “ Dipawali Celebration” there in October, 2011, invitation to demonstrate the crafting of folk musical instruments of Assam and teaching folk music & dance to the students of University of Valladolid, Spain, amongst others.

As a researcher and master craftsman on traditional / folk musical instruments of Northeast, his sole efforts are aimed at their revival for the upcoming new generations. Amongst his innovations, he is the inventor of ‘Hansa-Bin’ – a chordophone (fiddle-string instrument) of Assam, which he developed under the research project – An Echo of Assamese folk music with special reference to Scientific and Acoustic improvisation of the traditional ”Bin” and recognizing it as one of the major assisting instrument in Tokari Geet, Deh-bichar Geet, Borgeet and Satriya Dance of Assam, in September, 2007. He is the inventor of Cane Drums for a 50- member Nagaland State Cultural Delegation in 2013 to take part in the Royal Edinburg Military Tattoo Show in Scotland and for Hornbill Festival 2014, at Kisama Heritage Village, Nagaland. Not just craftsmanship, he is presently working as a research person for the documentation of all traditions of Bihu of various communities of Assam, for archives under Sangeet Natak Akademi (SNA), New Delhi.

In the field of academics, he has been teaching traditional/folk dance, music and musical instrument crafting to various interested students and individuals by organizing workshops in different places since 1997 till date. Regularly invited to demonstrate the art of musical crafts making across the country and globe, his list of achievements are simply endless and not possible to recount here.

In recognition of his immense contributions to the field of culture and innovation, he has been bestowed with a plethora of awards, which includes the ‘Asom Shrestha Pepa Badak ” ( best buffalo horn pipe player of Assam ) award consecutively for three years since 1993, 1994 and 1995 in Guwahati Bihu Sanmilani, Latasil ; in 2002 & 2003 again the  same  title  in  different places of Assam, the ‘Asom  Bihuwa 2002 award’ at Chandmari, Guwahati in  April,  2002, ’Shrestha Asom  Bihuwa’ (best Bihu all-rounder of Assam ) in 2003 and the much prestigious ‘BOR BIHUA’ title in the year 2011.

Dr. Gogoi lives in Guwahati with his wife Mousumi Saikia Gogoi, a Bihu Samragyee herself, a son, Chao Boncheng Gogoi, who has already started performances on stage and in films and a young daughter, Nang Chenxun.

I recently got in touch with him for a candid conversation. Although the conversation stretched on for quite many hours, following are excerpts:

Aiyushman: Thank you for taking out time.

Dr. P. Gogoi: It is a privilege on my part.

Aiyushman: You were born and brought up in Ziro. How did you develop a fascination for Bihu?

Dr. P. Gogoi: Well, you are right. But during the winter months, we always used to come down to our native place. And we had a very strong influence of tradition and culture at home. So Bihu was something which came naturally to us.

Aiyushman: You studied medical sciences. So there were no initial plans to be part of Bihu project as such?

Dr. P. Gogoi: Bihu has always been there in our lives. My aim ambition was to join the Army which was followed by medicine. So even while I joined AAU, not many people that I was really keen abour horseriding. In fact, I had represented the NCC for two years in the horse squad of NCC during the Republic Day celebrations.

Aiyushman: So how did Bihu happen?

Dr. P. Gogoi: You can call it accidental. We were performing our cultural activities simulataneously.We always used to perform Bihu songs as per their original structure. When I was performing, Mukul Bora noticed me and approached me to be a part of their troupe. My first public performance as such was at Rangapuriya Silpi Samaj in Ganeshguri. While everyone was playing modern versions, I stuck to the original Bihu traditions. I received the first prize then. And from 2005 onwards, I started getting invited for shows abroad.

Aiyushman: As a performer and ethnomusicologist of repute, what are your views on the current spate of Bihu in Assam?

Dr. P. Gogoi: Well, I always tend to get in the midst of controversies but I need to speak what is in my mind. Bihu today is no longer what it used to be in the ancient days. Most of the people of Assam are merely acting like parrots, totally avoiding any adaptation. One should understand that Bihu was never meant for stage. The moment it came to stage, it lost its basic essence. We have to adapt to changing times. Most of our performers play by learning. But I play with staff notation. You can call it like a classical form of music. There was a big controversy about it because people did not want to accept it. But at the end of the day, folk is also like classical music. We also have our own matras, just like classical music.

To put it simply, Bihu was earlier performed in the Rajdarbars while table used to be performed in kothas. But table today enjoys classical status while we don’t. Even Sattriya dance would have, in all probability, remained a folk dance if it was not the efforts of late Dr. Bhupen Hazarika.

So basically, I feel that the mindset of the people should change and they should be more receptive to adaptations and change. Things are getting modernised. We have to adapt to changes. That is why research plays an important part here so that we can bring in new influences while retaining our traditional influences.

Aiyushman: How would you define tradition and culture?

Dr. P. Gogoi: Very interesting question. See, culture is not just about music and dance. It is about our way of life. Of Course, music and dance is there but in today’s age, cultural practitioners have been relegated to mere entertainers. One one hand you talk about retaining tradition, and on the other you have a traditional cultural performance before any event, be it a political event or sports ceremony. The mindset needs to change.

Aiyushman: What are your views on the current trend of Bihu workshops and Bihu shows being aired on channels?

Dr. P. Gogoi: To be honest, it is a good sign. Parents want to teach their children about the basic of their culture. But at the same time, people should know as to who the experts or teachers are. Who are conducting the workshops? Do they have sufficient knowledge about it? For instance, the kind of Bihu performances that are being aired during Magh Bihu are not performed at this time. While the exposure is definitely good, we should not teach wrong things.

Aiyushman: How did your interest in developing your instruments start?

Dr. P. Gogoi: It all happened by chance. When I was in the Veterinary College, we had to go to the 9th Mile area to collect parasites. While there, I saw a lot of buffalo horns which were thrown away. I started collecting them and tried experimenting with the tone and scale of the sound. That is how I developed my own pepas – all of which have their own scale. The research continued further on.

Aiyushman: How do you feel with the immense recognition that you have attained?

Dr. P. Gogoi: I definitely feel good. But it gives me more pleasure to know that I have taken our own instruments to the world outside and see people appreciating the same. It has been a tremendous exciting and learning experience for me as well, which I believe will continue to go on.

(First published in The Sentinel)

 

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Nostalgic homecoming for legendary anti-establishment B’deshi musician

Mac during a concert in London

B’deshi rockstar with Asomiya roots arrives in city next week

Coming to one’s ancestral land is always a special occasion. But for this rockstar, it is a homecoming of a different kind. Nostalgia mixed with a plethora of mixed emotions is what has engulfed legendary anti-establishment Bangladeshi rockstar, poet, writer and philosopher Maqsoodul Haque (Mac) ever since he got ready to visit Guwahati. His family on his father’s side hailed from Gorajan and mother from Borholla (both near Jorhat) before his family migrated to the then East Pakistan in 1952. Maqsood was born in Naryanganj, near Dhaka in 1957.

“I can hardly contain my excitement Aiyushman. 16 years is way too long a time to be coming back home. Looking forward to seeing you all,” he messages me late yesterday night. His excitement is understandable. And why not, the atmosphere, urgency, emotion and socio-political change reflected in his music all along has over the years engulfed both Assam and Bangladesh in more ways than one. It certainly would be a homecoming of a different kind for him.

Mac’s band, Maqsood o’ Dhaka or dHAKA, is today ranked as the most phenomenal and unconventional jazz-rock fusion band to have ever come out of Bangladesh, a country which is known to have produced some of the most respected musicians in the rock circuit. The band, which has all along been at loggerheads with the Bangladeshi establishment, is credited for bringing in a fresh wave of music in the Bangladeshi industry.

Mac’s musical career however can be traced back to the late 1970’s. A pioneer in progressive Bangladesh music and a well-known figure among fans in the country’s rock fraternity, Mac performed as the lead vocalist for then mainstream band FeedBack for almost 20 years, before he finally left it in 1996. The same year dHAKA, the first ever band from South Asia to fuse jazz and rock with ethnic music from Bangladesh, was formed based on the philosophy provided by Mac’s lyrics and music.

Mac Haque. Pix credit – Arif Hafez

A man who introduced genres like funk, reggae and Jazz to traditional Bengali music, Mac’s ethnic repertoire includes more than just Baul music. It has traces of philosophies of varied cultures, including Vaishnavite culture as reflected in the song, Bolai Dador Gumcha – a blend of Fakiri, Murshidi and Kirton. This is possibly the only Baul song to have an Assamese reference.

For Mac, it has been a journey marked by constant personal evolution and change. His first band, Feedback, would in the initial stages render western pop, rock and reggae cover tunes to suit the B’deshi crowd’s fixation on dance numbers. As the frontman, he soon established himself as a prominent vocalist and a flamboyant performer, covering over 500 songs from different genres of pop/rock to funk/reggae and on to blues and jazz. Though he was absent from the band’s first album, the second, Ullash (Euphoria), which went on to become a smash hit when it was released in 1987. The album contained smash hits like Chithi (Letter), Chokh and Majhee (Boatman – with strong Assamese folk music intonations) – all penned, tuned and sung by Maqsood. For trivia’s sake, Chithi is the first reggae tune in the Bengali language. The album Mela (the Fair) Feedback’s second album in 1990 was a monster hit and was described as a seminal masterpiece by the BBC for it captures the essence of youthful vigour during Pohela Boisakh, the Bengali New Year. The title track Melai Jairey  written, composed and sung by Maqsood propelled him to national limelight, and the Bengalee Pohela Boishakh celebrations in the last 22 years is today considered incomplete without the song.

JOAR a compilation of FeedBack hits was released by HMV/EMI in India and 1992 and is the only Bangladeshi band to have been recorded by an international label. dHAKA, on the other hand, has always dwelt more on protest against the issues and tensions prevalent in Bangladeshi society today, that too in a hitherto unknown free-flowing way. dHAKA’s first album was Prapto Boyoshker Nishiddho (Banned for Adults) a thumping rejection of the establishment and status quo.

I would like to reproduce the wordings of London-based writer Ahsanul Akbar and BBC Bengali Bureau Chief Sabir Mustafa who once wrote, “Nishiddho boast several songs that are, in essence, protest numbers. It is hard not to attribute much of the kinetic brilliance of this music to the inherent issues and tensions that are prevalent in today’s Bangladesh. The most salient examples are Parwardigar (Creator), attacking ‘religious extremists; Giti Micchil: Gonotontro (Musical Procession: Democracy), a procession of the dispossessed and the marginalized youth and Abar Juddhay Jatay Hobey (Got to Go to War Again), about the struggle to establish freedom of speech and expression.”

As Ahsanul and Sabir noted, the music Maqsood wanted to pursue had to be a vehicle for him to give vent to his strongly held apolitical views and allow him to raise socio-political awareness of the youth. “Maqsood O dHAKA’s repertoire is a tour de force in which every song uncoils with a passionate voice often delivering maverick messages, facilitated by lightning lyrics, mellifluous melody and more. Clearly, the infernal force of personality of the band front man has much to do with their appeal,” noted the writers.

In this present stage of history, Mac’s visit to Assam would certainly make him ponder on new issues and maybe fuel his imagination for more creative outpourings. He will be performing during the 2nd Guwahati International Music Festival in the city and also delivering a seminar-talk on Bauliana music and philosophy. I look forward to meeting the man himself.

Northeast gets its first handmade paper industry

In a first-of-its-kind eco-friendly initiative in Eastern India to revive one of the numerous desi industries nurtured by Mahatma Gandhi, the pioneering LB Group of Industries recently launched a Handmade Paper Project through its SBU LB Agro Private Limited. Located in the Koraibari area of Guwahati, the project was inaugurated by respected Gandhian and eminent social activist Natwar Thakkar, and the same is expected to open up scores of employment avenues for the youth of the region. The state-of-the-art handmade paper unit is the first of its kind initiative in the entire eastern province of the country.

In today’s age when issues like climate change and global warming have become a cause for concern across the world, the opening of a eco-friendly handmade paper project in the Northeast is a significant development in itself. Handmade paper is one of the few Swadeshi industries that were nurtured during India’s Freedom Movement under the leadership of Gandhiji. and later Kumarappaji. It was Kumarappaji who was instrumental in organizing this traditional paper making practice into the form of an industry. With technological up-gradation and more widespread utilization of handmade paper, this industry has come a long way since those early days, and India today is one of the leading handmade paper suppliers and manufacturers in the world. A major reason for this stupendous growth is the financial and technological assistance extended to this industry by the Khadi & Village Industries Commission (KVIC) due to which the industry, during the last four decades, has not only survived but also made its impact felt in other developed countries by exporting quality paper.

Because of its environment friendly manufacturing process and products, the handmade paper industry is termed as emerging in the Indian context, with its present growth rate being labelled at 10 per cent in the domestic market and at 25 per cent in the export market. Experts, however, feel that the scope of this industry is immense as utilization of paper is only bound to increase in the country. A source in the Indian Pulp and Paper Technical Association (IPPTA), which is a national-level association of professionals engaged in the pulp, newsprint and allied paper industry of India, said, “Our country’s per capita consumption of paper, which is an index of the educational and socio-economic development of a country, is only around 4 Kg only in India as compared to a world average of 45 Kg. With the growth of literacy and development, the per capita consumption of paper is bound to increase, at least in India.”

Contrary to popular belief, production of handmade paper is based on the use of non-forest-based resources and recycling techniques. The potential of a handmade paper project is immense in the Northeast, primarily because of the availability of a variety of fibres that is rich in cellulose (the main ingredient required in the production of paper). As Bijaylakshmi Borpujari, a graduate in environmental studies, says, “Besides checking the onset of global warming and the greenhouse effect, the production and utilization of handmade paper will also help in stopping deforestation and checking our forest resources.”

The Key features of Handmade Paper Project are:

1. It is a prominent industry based on decentralised production and environment friendly technology.
2. Prevents deforestation by utilising non-woody raw materials.
3. Converts waste into wealth by recycling.
4. It is the solution to the problem of energy and pollution.
5. The durability of paper is long, compared to machine-made paper.
6. Increasing domestic consumption and bright export potential.

The initiative of LB Group to start its handmade paper factory is another instance of its attempts at “business with a conscience”. A pioneering business house that has consistently promoted excellence and best in-class performance, the group has opened up countless employment avenues for scores of unemployed people of the Northeast. Talking to Bazaar View, founder chairman of LB group Dipok Borthakur said that their recent inaugurated factory is an extension of their commitment to the local community, Assam and Northeast. “We had made a commitment to share our achievements in everything that we do with the local community and people of the Northeast. Our project is aimed at promoting sustainable industrial growth of non-polluting agenda and is a step forward in the ‘Green’ agenda of the Government. The factory is based on the idea of promoting an environment-friendly industry. Our papers, which are prepared in an environment-friendly way, are acid and lignin free. We are firm believers in responsible trade practices; we offer a wide range of handmade paper and paper products that are of superior quality and are 100% wood free.”

The LB group opened a new era in entrepreneurship and business in Assam and the Northeast when it started its journey in 1969 under the leadership of Dipok Borthakur. The group has today emerged as a frontrunner in the pharma-distribution network of the Northeast region; also harbouring plans to venturing into the healthcare manufacturing sector by 2011. The group is much respected for its continuous commitment for the unemployed people of the region. As Borthakur said, “The work environment in our factories are comfortable and our craft workers are paid well above the local average; thus motivating them to perform better. With this new handmade paper unit, we hope to provide a bigger avenue of employment for the local community.”

Harmonica Thrills!

As an instrument, the harmonica has slowly fallen into disuse. What is more upsetting is the fact that in our own supposedly music-crazy region, very few people have managed to explore the varied possibilities of this particular instrument. Its usage has been, more or less, limited to being an add-on instrument in a few background scores, the number of which can be counted on the finger tips.

As such, it was indeed nice to get my hands upon Sonpari, a western music album that was produced recently by Kanak Music Productions. At a time when Asomiya music albums are found to be getting increasingly stereotyped, Sonpari is a welcome surprise. The album is a heady compilation of love-lorn lyrics presented in a western style of singing and which is supported by a guitar, piano, blues harp and the harmonica, of course!

Though a new concept, the album has been very judiciously executed by the team of artistes involved. The vocalists include Chitralee Goswami, Rupam Bora, Jaya Chakraboty, Max, Ronnie, Tridip Basumatory, Tuhin Sharma and Debojit. The somewhat westernised Asomiya accents of both Max and Ronnie, who are musicians from the neighbouring State of Meghalaya, help give a quaint feel to the entire album, making it more trendy and palatable for those from the new generation with an eclectic taste. The guitars were handled by our very own Annirudha Barua, Rajiv Hazarika and Endu, while Ribor was impressive as usual on the keys. However, the real credit goes to Bala Bhadra Hagjer, the man behind the entire concept. The harmonica player whose musical prowess helps elevate the album to new heights, Hagjer has also composed six out of the eight songs in the album.

The last time that the harmonica made its presence felt in our lives here was during the Virtuoso in Tour concert organized as part of the Rockarolla Music Society’s official launch in Guwahati. The concert saw a performance by Chinese harmonica virtuoso Jia-Yi He, who amazed all those present by portraying the varied possibilities of the instrument with comparative ease. But as I said, very few people have managed to exploit the immense musical possibilities associated with the mouth organ. Hagjer is one of them. Having listened to some of his earlier studio recordings and also his collaborations with flautist Dipak Sharma, I am aware of Hagjer’s mastery over the instrument of his choice. It is imperative that he takes a more proactive role in helping draw the new definitions of this instrument, which hardly finds any takers among serious musical enthusiasts nowadays. I feel a solo album of his own compositions would be an apt step in this regard.

Coming back to the album, the efforts of Kanak Music Productions towards bringing out this album is indeed appreciable. I would recommend this album to all lovers of western music here.

Storyteller of the Red River…

Asom’s glorious and chequered history has been the pet subject of writers, artists and other creative professionals alike for a long time now. Not only have litterateurs beautifully exploited the rich and varied traditions and diverse cultural history of the State, they have also successfully raised the standard of regional literature to an altogether new high. Though a lot has been written on Asom, its history and the chaotic situation prevailing in the insurgency-stricken State, it remains a fact that very few writers working in English have taken the pains to document the life and essence of the people living here. Meet Jahnavi Barua the doctor-turned writer, who is creating waves in the national literary scene with her debut collection of short stories, Next Door. Jahnavi is special, for besides being one of the very few homegrown talents to have made a mark in the national literary scene, she has also successfully managed to shift the focus of people from the State’s political and social insecurities to something more vital — the very beauty and grace of the lives of the people residing here, and the overpowering Brahmaputra, which floods the novel with its force.

Jahnavi’s debut offering, Next Door, is a collection of 11 short stories, all set in Asom, which neatly strings together a multitude of characters and situations, with the varied nuances and settings of the State colouring the background. In this mesmerising collection of fictitious tales, the author expertly plays around with words, thereby opening up an entirely new dimension for Asomiya writers working in English, besides creating the best possible dialogue between the characters and the locale. With Next Door, Jahnavi weaves a sensitive portrayal of a varied set of characters, while the universal themes ensure that the compilation, despite its Asom settings, can be transposed anywhere and everywhere. Apart from anything else, the book, which has been very well received throughout the country, has marked the emergence of another prolific writer from the State.

Presently based in Bangalore, Jahnavi is married to Anand Shyam Barua and both are blessed with a seven year old son. I recently sat down with Jahnavi for a tete-a-tete. Following are excerpts from our discussion.

Aiyushman: Could you please share with our readers something about your childhood?

Jahnavi: I was born in Guwahati as the first child of Bhaskar and Krishna Barua. At that time, my father was posted in Shillong and I spent the first few years of my childhood in the bustling household of my paternal grandparents in Laban. My great-grandfather Late Raibahadur Kamala Kanta Barua’s house – ‘Kamala Kareng’, which is now over a hundred years old – contracted and expanded with the comings and goings of other family members and that closeness has remained a constant feature of our large, extended family. After a couple of years there, my parents and I moved to the picturesque hill-town of Haflong where my father took charge as the DC of North-Cachar Hills. The beauty of that quiet town stayed with me and I have worked it into some of my stories. While we were there, my brother, Deepak, was born. Within a couple of years, we moved back to Shillong and a few months later to Guwahati, where my father assumed charge as DC, Kamrup.

It was there, in that bungalow above the river, that I fell in love with the Brahmaputra and I have carried its images with me throughout our later nomadic existence. The river appears in almost my works, a sort of leit-motif, a constant friend and a symbol of the incredible beauty of my homeland. My sister, Padmaja, was born during that stay in the bungalow above the river. There followed more wanderings – few years in Delhi interrupted by a brief sojourn in England, in Manchester, then back again to Asom, this time into the thick of the Assam Agitation. From Asom, I then made my way to Bangalore to study and work in St. John’s Medical College. Even after marriage my wanderings did not cease: we lived in Ahmedabad, Cohin and Kolkata before making our way, this time, back to Bangalore , where I live now. My childhood , therefore, has been a full one, packed with new places, sights and experiences but in the background constantly flowed the warmth of our large extended family, providing me with stability and grounding and a strong sense of place and identity.

Aiyushman: You are a trained doctor. Why the sudden transition to full time writing?

Jahnavi: I began my MD in Pathology, enjoying tremendously the richness of the subject I had chosen. But when, after my marriage, my studies required me to stay on in Bangalore, while my husband moved as dictated by his professional requirements, I rethought my plans. There was absolutely no pressure from anybody – people assume that family pressure led me to reconsider my path in Medicine. It was not pressure at all, but considerations about family that prompted me to discontinue my work in Medicine. I realised soon on, that my husband’s career would require us to move around, and I was clear I would move with him. At the same time, I knew that such a life would not allow me to sustain a credible medical career. After all, a year in one place and two years in another was not the kind of hospital experience I was looking for. So, I turned my attention to another critical aspect of life: raising a family and that is what had occupied me since.

We have a son, Arjun, who was born while we were in Calcutta and who is now seven years old. It was during the early years of looking after my son that I took to writing. For long periods of time, I was housebound which led me to read a lot. After much reading, I somehow began writing short stories that I absolutely did not think of publishing. I somehow had the impression then that no one published short stories – and they remained tucked away in a folder, until one day I submitted one of them, for a competition hosted by a publisher called Unisun publishers and the British Council. That story won the first prize, the British Council gave me a Charles Wallace Trust Fellowship and that enabled me to go on to a Creative Writing workshop in the UK conducted by the Arvon Foundation. I continued to write, was picked up by Penguin and that was how my first book, Next Door, a collection of short stories came about.

Aiyushman: One of your first awards was for a short story that you had written for The Sentinel. Would you please elaborate a bit on this front?

Jahnavi: The award from The Sentinel was the first public award for Creative Writing that I had received although I had received prizes in school before that. It was when I was in High School that the Sunday supplement of The Sentinel announced a short story; I joined, my story was called The Face at the Window and it won the second prize.

Aiyushman: All the stories in Next Door seem to be annotated by disease and death. Is this a result of your profession as a doctor?

Jahnavi: I, for one, do not think that all my stories are annotated by death and disease. In this collection of eleven stories, there are six stories (River of Life, Sour Green Mangoes, The Patriot, The Favourite Child, Tiger and Next Door) that are not about death or disease. In The Favourite Child, the real story is not about the dying mother but what is happening around her. As for the rest they have as much to do with death and disease as real life has, since my stories are representations of life in the real world. The themes of the stories have little to do with my profession as a doctor.

Aiyushman: You make strong references to certain areas of Asom which outsiders are not able to relate to or recognise that easily. Was it intentional?

Jahnavi: The stories have been set in places that the plots demand; the locations have not been chosen with the intent of either avoiding well-known landmarks or with the hope of attracting an outside audience. Tiger, is one story that has been located in a place that is instantly recognisable – Manas National Park – but that is again because the plot required it to be set there. However, one very visible landmark flows through almost all my stories: the Brahmaputra; its beauty and power and unpredictability a metaphor for life in Asom.

Aiyushman: Most of the characters in your stories are shown to be in some conflict with their own selves or families. Is this some sort of reflection of the conflicts of familial and social life in modern Asomiya society?

Jahnavi: Conflict is one of the central requirements of storytelling, be it in the novel or in short fiction. In fact, it is constantly emphasised that there can be no successful story without conflict; the reader fully relishes a story only when there is conflict and that tension is subsequently resolved. Hence, each of my stories has at its core, a conflict, be it the protagonist’s internal conflict or versus family or society or environment. This conflict is not a reflection of modern times but is an eternal one, being around ever since man has existed.

Aiyushman: How did you handle a delicate subject like insurgency, to which you made certain references in your book?

Jahnavi: The subject of insurgency has been addressed in depth and more skilfully by many accomplished authors in other Indian and Asomiya literature; it comes into my stories only obliquely, as a part of everyday life in Asom. I have not written a story around that theme but as and when it requires the political situation collides with the lives of the characters in a story – very much like our lives today in Asom.

Aiyushman: Your stories are highly moving emotionally. Is it an extension of your own self?

Jahnavi: As a reader, I have always particularly admired literature that reaches out and touches a person and I have attempted to do the same in my writing.

Aiyushman: All the characters of your stories are vastly different from each other. How do you go about deciding your characters?

Jahnavi: It is always a challenge to step into the skin of different characters and be able to detail them convincingly – especially when they are far removed from you. For instance, it was tough to visualise an old man or a young man from a vastly different background. It required hard work but I was prepared to do that and I suppose that and a lot of patient observation is what helped me sketch out my characters.

Aiyushman: What aspects do you try to keep in mind while writing short stories?

Jahnavi: There are a few basic elements of the short story that a writer has to keep in mind when writing one – the plot, the characters, the setting, the tone of the story and dialogue. I try and ensure that the plot is a convincing one so that the story comes across as one with depth. Again as far as characters are concerned, I attempt to build up a credible character with a voice that is believable and that resonates with anyone reading about them. The setting, which is the physical location of the story, is something which I consider to be very important and I try to describe it and relay its flavour as accurately as possible. In the same context, I try and create a dialogue that is a good match with the characters and the locale. In the end, I try and write a story not only with the above elements in mind, but also with integrity so that it moves and touches the person reading it.

Aiyushman: What kind of literary influences do you have?

Jahnavi: There are so many that it would be hard to list all of them! My interest in short fiction led me to the works of writers such as Anton Chekov, Alice Munro, Raymond Carver, Richard Ford, among many others. My mother was a student and teacher of English Literature, in fact, her doctoral thesis is on Indian women writing in English, and that fuelled a lot of reading and discussions in our home while we were growing up and that has always led me to seek out books.

Aiyushman: Any suggestion for other aspiring writers from the region?

Jahnavi: Being a new writer myself, I will not presume to give any advice. But I would definitely like to say that honest writing from an author who knows his or her own voice well will always find a place.

Tejimola of our Times

A tete-a-tete with Sahitya Akademi Award winning novelist Rita Chowdhury.

Aiyushman: Most of your childhood was spent travelling to different areas on account of your father’s job postings. Were the seeds of a prolific literary career sown somewhere on the way? Please tell me a bit about your childhood.

Rita: Well, it is very difficult to describe one’s childhood. How can you possibly confine an entire episode of one’s life in just a few words or sentences? But yes, I used to read a lot during my younger days. Even when we were tiny-tots, I remember reading pieces like, Daoror Xipare Dhuniya Dekh, which made me start dreaming about foreign shores. This kind of reading must have definitely made it easier for me to start writing.

So deep was my interest in books that once we went to Haflong, I even started learning Bengali there! Owing to its cosmopolitan culture, the time we spent Haflong was definitely a learning point. For it was in this town that my younger sister succumbed to cerebral malaria. As I said, I might have read a lot, or I might have seen a lot of harsh reality that made me start writing — I can’t say but I do know that my childhood stopped there.

Aiyushman: I heard that you wrote your first novel during the Assam movement…

Rita: During the movement, we used to keep travelling to different places so as to hide from the security forces. When I was “underground”, I used to stay alone in Margherita by adopting different names. And can you believe it, people still call me by those names (laughs)! Once while still remaining underground, I got the news of a State-level short story competition. I wrote my first book while remaining in hiding, submitted the manuscript while in hiding and got my first award for the book while being jailed!

Aiyushman: So you were in jail when your debut novel won the award?

Rita: Both me and my father were caught by the police in Guwahati. We were first kept in Guwahati jail and then transferred to the Dibrugarh jail. Once we reached Dibrugarh jail, I learnt that my book has won the award. That is really a momentous feeling — the first book you write winning an award. But I was not even allowed to go and receive the honour.

Aiyushman: I am sure that the Assam Movement must have played a major role in shaping your future life. Is it so?

Rita: The movement taught me a lot of things. But most importantly, it taught me about the existence of a greater life. I came to know about the guided set of patterns through which society functions; about the deeper essence of human relationships. The movement taught me to look above individualistic gains and ideals; it taught me to rise above oneself. Of course, negativities are always there, but it is up to you to discern the positives and work on it. It also taught me about the meaning of sacrifice, which brought in tremendous mental upliftment for me. Spending days, months and years in lock-ups, travelling in police cars, hiding away in exile — all this was definitely a new experience for me.

Aiyushman: After having sacrificed so much for the sake of the movement, were you satisfied with the end result?

Rita: At the end of the Assam Movement, I learnt that a powerful, social movement can change the entire outlook of people and give it an entirely new direction. I might not subscribe to the end result, but on a more personal note, the movement has helped free me of all earthly desires. Its not that I have become a saint or that I have renounced the world, but yes, I am free from materialistic and other desires which confront normal human beings.

Aiyushman: Did the success of your debut novel inspire you to take up writing seriously?

Rita: My aim was never to become a novelist. After coming out of jail, I had to wade through a lot of problems. I was young, immature and I wanted to sacrifice the rest of my life for the sake of the movement. Then the movement ended and I got married to Chandra Mohan Patowary, who was a Minister at that time. That was the time I started thinking about my identity; about who I really am. Am I just a Minister’s wife, I thought? It was at this juncture that I took the help of the pen to wade through the severe identity crisis gripping through my soul.

Aiyushman: Most of your novels are based on human emotions. Can you please elaborate on your works?

Rita: Well, most of my works contain elements of incidents that have occurred in my life or they reflect the socio-political situation of those times. The movement might have had stopped, but my quest for a greater life continued; something which I have sought to portray through my novels.

Aiyushman: You novels are regarded to have a lot of emotional depth. Can you elaborate?

Rita: Freedom is something which I have always strived for; I never did like the word “confinement”. Even as a child, I used to get fever whenever I accompanied my father on his hunting expeditions or even to the zoo. Secondly, I have always been highly sensitive so the quest to understand human emotions continues till date.

Aiyushman: Have you faced any difficulty managing your literary and familial existence along with your husband’s political life?

Rita: I am very clear about drawing the line between both. Politics is something very powerful, one has to tread very carefully. Being a minister’s wife, it continues pervading into every aspect of my life but I have automatically developed some sort of internal resistance against it.

Aiyushman: If there is one mythological character you would like to identify yourself with, what would it be?

Rita: I have always compared my life with Tejimola. There have been many manifestations of my soul. Just like her, my identity has been crushed many times; I have died so many times. But each time, I have successfully resurrected myself once again.

Aiyushman: How did you get the idea for Deu Langkhui? Did you ever fathom the response it would get?

Rita: I got the idea of working on Deu Langkhui when I was once browsing through some books in the History and Antiquarian department in the city. Many years passed since then but I never got down to working on it. Then one day, I woke up and went into depth. I even brought a political map of Assam to help me understand the basics while writing. But I really never thought that it would become so popular. Who would read a historical novel? — I remember thinking.

Aiyushman: Do you think your book has helped bring focus to the need for documenting our oral traditions, like that of the Tiwas?

Rita: Until Deu Langkhui, no one really knew about the Tiwas. When people read the book and saw the Gobha Raja himself inaugurating it, they became more conscious to know about the Tiwas. The book has already provided the spark; the fire will catch on by itself.

Aiyushman: Any message to upcoming writers, especially the new generation?

Rita: From my own experience, I can state that there is no shortcut to success. At the end for a satisfying life, you need dedication and perseverance. I would also urge the new generation of writers as well as students of History to seriously think about documenting the rich oral traditions of the State and the region.