Assam to Goa


goaMitra Phukan delivered the keynote address at the fourth edition of the Goa Arts and Literary Festival where the focus was on Assam. We present excerpts from her address.


At this fourth edition of the Goa Art and Literary Festival, the focus is on Assam. Several of us have come here from that distant State to bring before you the music, literature and dance of those valleys and interact with you in various other ways.


The softly moulded, gently curved hills way up in the Northeast of this country are a long way away from this place where the waves of a busy sea lap cheerful shores. If the one is crisscrossed by great rivers, the other has been the place where people from distant lands have made landfall, sometimes in peace, sometimes not.  These differences are played out not just in terms of distance, but also in terms of climate, ethnicities, and to put in a blanket word, in terms of “culture”.


So what, then, is “culture”? It is, to put it in a nutshell, what we do. To describe it in another way, culture is the characteristics of a particular group of people, defined by everything from language, religion, cuisine, social habits, to music,literature, the arts and much else besides. It is specific to a particular group of people.  It is the sum total of our activities, it is the way we conduct our lives. It is the manner in which we speak, the way in which we respond to our environment. It is how we behave with others, it is the dances we create, the stories we tell, the beliefs we hold dear, the religions and rituals we practice, the clothes we wear, in fact, it is even the thoughts we think. It is actually the very fabric of our lives, the way we acknowledge our past, even as we live in the present, while looking forward to the future.


Culture, specifically the positive aspects of culture, is actually a nation’s, and a people’s soft power. This is a misnomer. For it is always soft power that is a nation’s, or a region’s best ambassador. It is, in the end, much more enduring, much more powerful than the power which flows out of the barrel of the gun. We, from the NorthEast of this country, living in what has sometimes been described disparagingly as the “periphery”, have come to know this. Through all the cycles of trouble and unrest, through all the terrible events that have scarred our land, it is the “soft” power that has endured. The empire that was painstakingly built up by the mighty Ahoms over six hundred years of enlightened rule, was destroyed by the horrific Burmese Invasions from 1817 to 1826. And yet, through all those years when hardly an able bodied man was left alive in this bloodied land, the effulgent beauty of Srimanta Sankardev’s paeans in praise of the Lord survived, through music, dance and drama, and through the luminous beauty of his writings. These are radiant outpourings of pure devotion, and are the very embodiments of peace and love. Today they stand, in all their glorious exquisiteness, as testimony to the beauty that humankind is capable of creating, and the lastingness of those creations.


In this swiftly changing world, where migrations are a fact of life, “culture” is what we take along with us on our various journeys. Migrations can be voluntary, or enforced. When a person, or a group of people, is forced to migrate, or flee, they often have to leave their properties behind. But though the material possessions that they are able to take with them as they flee the lands of their ancestors may be pitiably few, what they take along with them, individually and as a group, in their minds and their memories, are their cultures. These strands of “culture” show up sometimes in the most surprising ways, in the most unexpected places. A sudden flash of it can be heard when the immigrant labourer, while toiling at a building under construction in a foreign land, begins to sing a song from the land of his birth. Within minutes, all the other labourers, bearing headloads of heavy bricks, join in, even as they go about their work, singing of distant rivers they have left behind, but whose memories they will carry around with them till their last breath.


Even those who migrate voluntarily, in search of better opportunities, and leave their countries behind, mostly cherish their root cultures.


But not everything about culture, and cultural markers, is tinged with gold. Culture can be the cause of dissension, a bone of contention. Cultures are fiercely guarded, since they are part and parcel of a peoples’ identity. A group may give up economic independence without much fuss to outsiders who colonize their land. But let them tamper with their culture, let there be even a hint that their language or cuisine or music is being looked at patronizingly, and these same unfussy people will be up in arms against the colonizers.  Because of the very fact that culture is such an integral part of our lives, we tend to have strong emotions about it. We are fierce in our defence of it when we perceive it to be under threat. Wars are fought over culture, just as they are over territory, and resources. Just as there are uprisings over food scarcities, there are language riots, too, a case in point being the Language Riots of Assam in 1960-61.


“Culture”, then, becomes even more important in times of conflict. And yet it is the flame of that very culture that wavers and falters when the culture of the gun takes precedence over the culture of Truth and Beauty. When the dominant colour of entire communities becomes rage-red, the quieter hues are blotted out.  It is not possible to dance the Bihu under leafy canopies beside a vast river if the sounds of the dhol and pepa are obliterated by gunshots and bomb blasts. The grace of the Bagarumba, the rhythms of the Jhumur are wiped out by the sounds of trampling boots. And yet it is only through the ambiance brought in by these joyous rhythms that an atmosphere of tranquillity can be ushered in, which is conducive to the sorting out of problems. For of course there are problems, in all parts of the world. But it is not by the gun that these can be sorted out, but through give and take, through discussions, through dialogue.


It is the best defence, in the long run, against the forces of destruction. Art, literature, dance, music, and all the other ways in which humankind expresses emotions and thoughts are the moral compass that guide the people of a troubled land, and show the way forward. For the best literature, the best works of any kind of artistic endeavour, are firmly rooted in values. Not the values that are made by social groups, which change from generation to generation, place to place, but the enduring moral values without which humanity itself would spiral down to barbarism, flounder and perish.


Goa is now a popular destination for the people of the North East of this country, as it is for so many from around the globe. Besides the attractions of the sea and the sand, and its relaxed atmosphere, there are other aspects that fascinate people from that region.


Goa’s culture of inclusiveness that is so different from what much of Assam is now going through, constantly amazes.  Of course it is nobody’s case that smaller groups, and ethnicities should be overlooked, or swamped in any way. But in Assam today, what we are witnessing is a sharp and terrifyingly violent fragmentation of a once-rich mosaic that made up our totality. There seems to be no space for dialogue, no give and take leading to meaningful discussions between groups, as the whole entity corkscrews into small, and unviable sections. Things have come to such a pass that there is even debate going on about the definition of Assamese. Who is an Assamese? An Asomiya? Not this group, not that one, certainly not these. Never mind if all groups have lived together in the past in this same land. Today, the othering within the boundaries of the State itself is so complete that there are very few who identify themselves as Assamese. And with no end to this in sight, it is a foregone conclusion that Assam today stands at the brink of an even greater disaster than ever before. Yes, it is a failure of governance, but it is also a failure of society as a whole. And that insidious, invidious phenomenon, Identity Politics, is also playing a part.  We have only ourselves to blame. For it was not always like this. The Bard of the Brahmaputra, Bhupen Hazarika, sang ceaselessly of peaceful co existence, harmonious living on the banks of the Red River.


Mahabahu Brahmaputra MohamilonorTirtha,


Koto Jug Dhoriaahiseyprokaxixommonnoyourartha…


Mighty armed Brahmaptura, a pilgrimage of unity…For aeons, it has shown the meaning of co existence.


One of the inevitable fallouts of the conflict is that today, the young are moving out. Young people are being sent outside the State by concerned guardians and parents, to pursue higher studies in conditions of peace. Besides, young people are venturing out in droves to places where peace ensures economic survival. For decades of conflict have left the economy of their own States in tatters, and earning a living outside the region is the only viable option. Goa therefore, along with places such as Bangalore, Pune, and the metro cities, is Opportunity for the young working class population of Assam, lakhs of whom have left home in hopes of a better future.


In Assam today, and indeed in much of the North East of India, many people have grown up in the shadow of the gun. Entire generations have been born, and are living without knowing what peace is about. When our children come out of these strife torn lands to pursue higher studies in other cities, other countries, what strikes them first is the absence of violence. They cannot imagine that bandhs and bombs are not part of the contours of everyday life in these new places where they now live. They have grown up seeing killings and kidnappings, extortions and executions happening routinely all around them. They know that life and death are but the luck of the draw. They know that one can be alive today because he or she stepped out of the house later than usual. Otherwise, she would have been on the flyover when the bombs burst, killing scores and maiming hundreds. They have grown up experiencing the mindless randomness of death. And it is therefore important for them , for us all, to experience the order, the sense of control that every citizen of a civilized nation has the right to expect. It is imperative for us to experience, and believe, that there is stability and lawfulness too on this planet, in this country, that parents will live to a fulfilled old age, and not die at the point of a gun or by some senseless act of violence, that our children will not fall to stray bullets, and will be able to live harmoniously in an enabling environment of tranquillity.


It is an eye-opener for these young people to move from the stifling atmosphere of their own home States to the invigorating air of freedom in these places. The fears and uncertainties back home result in closing off the mind to fresh ideas, fresh perspectives, even to fresh emotions. When the minds of the youth become ossified in this way, it becomes impossible for a State, a society, a region, even, to move forward. It is absolutely vital that the young and even the old move out to experience the way other States, other regions have been moving forward, and developing. It is important for these stifled minds to come to a State such as Goa where literature is being written in several different languages. Amazingly, Konkani is written in four different scripts, yet it is the same language.A vibrant Writers’ Group encompasses within itself several tongues. Konkani, Marathi, English, Hindi, at one time Portuguese.  It has been pointed out that historically, Goans have written in thirteen languages. And miraculously, this diversity is not divisive, for together, these form the writings of Goa.


It is sometimes said that the uniqueness of Goans is that they understand different cultures. Not only that. They also help others understand each others’ cultures.  To people like us, who are coming in from a region that seems to be self destructing, this quality, thismindset, is of immense value.


Conversely, it is also important that through this festival, people from outside Assam should know that there is more to the State than conflict. For that is the cliché that Assam appears to have become. A conflict ridden zone. And if not conflict, then floods. It is important for us, the Assamese, that others understand that, in spite of everything, there is more to us, as a people, as a culture, than these.


It is extremely important, then, to keep the flame of culture alive, in this atmosphere of strife and violence. True, when guns fire and bombs explode, it may seem naïve to sing the melodies of Ajan Fakir as he roamed the land, singing Jikirs. But it is important to do so, to remind ourselves that beauty exists, that order exists, that peace is achievable, and once existed. It is important to place the beauty of a poet’s imagined seascsape as a barricade against the advancing madness. This bulwark, this fortification, for all its gossamer delicacy, is the only thing strong enough to hold the darkness back, to give civilizing forces the upper hand against the horrors of the advancing hordes who, with guns in their hands, hold entire cultures to ransom.


The human mind is capable of rising to the greatest heights of creativity, beauty, compassion and love. It is also capable of sinking to the lowest depths of cruelty, depravity and ugliness. By celebrating the beauty of human creation, in an atmosphere of amity and understanding, we begin to appreciate its richness. That is why it is important to hold festivals, musical, literary, art, culinary, in fact every kind imaginable, so that the beauties that the human mind is capable of, are foregrounded, obliterating the horrors of which it is also, tragically, equally capable.

Mitra Phukan

Mitra Phukan

Mitra Phukan is a writer, translator, columnist and classical vocalist who lives and works in Guwahati, Assam. Her published literary works include four children's books, a biography, and a novel, "The Collector's Wife". Her most recent work is another novel, "A Monsoon of Music" published by Penguin-Zubaan in September 2011. Besides, her short stories have appeared in numerous anthologies. Her works have been translated into several languages. She is the Northeast correspondent of the Chennai-based journal of the performing arts, "Shruti" and a member of the North East Writers' Forum.