The problem of selective exclusion in Assam's #NamamiBrahmaputra

It is a patronising, Hindutva-heavy fantasia, a series of images that add up to mainland India’s fantasy of the river.

 |  5-minute read |   26-03-2017
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The folks in charge of Assam’s tourism seem to have grand plans, but somehow, like every single episode of Pinky and the Brain, these world-domination plans haven't quite come to fruition yet.

First, the cut-and-paste job that uprooted the African two-horned rhinoceros from its home, and into the “Awesome Assam” logo. Then came the Priyanka Chopra ad “Naturally wild - kyuki yeh Assam hain” (naturally wild? I guess Priyanka ko junglee billee abhi bhi pasand hai).

And now, we will have #NamamiBrahmaputra (Namami= “I worship thee” in Sanskrit). This has been billed as Assam's biggest-ever river festival, with a theme song reported to have been made at a budget of Rs 54 lakh. Even though the song itself is tolerable (if you can tolerate the cloyingly melodious, "Mile Sur Mera Tumhaara" brand of songs), the video is a different story altogether.

It is a patronising, Hindutva-heavy fantasia, a series of images that add up to mainland India’s fantasy of the river (rather than reflecting the local, plural, inclusive cultural experience around it). 

Let's take stock of two things first: there's a person in a yoga contortion on the banks of the river. There's also a lady sending out her floating lamps, evidently for a “holy cause”.

I grew up in Guwahati and I can tell you that both of these events are as unlikely as watching Amitabh Bachchan praying on the banks of the Brahmaputra (and that, actually, does happen in the video).

Over the last few days, the contents of the video have received mixed responses from people within Assam and outside. After following the gist of some debates, I re-watched the theme song and its celebrity sponsorship.

It does seem valid that the concept behind it has led to controversy in regional newspapers, social media and among the general public. Also, merely uplifting two-three words from Bhupen Hazarika’s song for a tagline isn’t called cultural appreciation, it is called tokenism.

Whether it was a conscious decision to portray the biggest river in India as #Namami #Brahmaputra or not, will cease to matter once we acknowledge that no work of art is divorced from the political milieu in which it has been created.

The theme song composed by Papon too, when considered alongside, is not completely free of responsibility. One understands that Papon, Zubeen et al are simply doing their job: this is what they do for a living, after all.

My analysis doesn’t seek to undermine their otherwise musical achievements, but attempts to look at the far-reaching effects of their contributions. More precisely, I am interested at how artistes are increasingly becoming pawns in the hands of the state and the ever-demanding market.

The word “Namami” is a forced import, first and foremost. The video fails to capture colloquial nuances starting from this nomenclature. But, this is not the first time Sanskrit has been used to define the cultural matrix of the region.

That Sanskrit be made compulsory in the state led to a huge uproar earlier this month, but few talked about the politics of Sanskritisation that exists in the Assamese language itself. Linguistic exercises are also social exercises in hegemony and power.

Therefore, the “pranamo” and the “namami” invocation is the language of a latent “conservative” ideology which got its boost with the now 10-month-old government.

The prayer abiding hands in the logo evokes a religious sacredness which is very different from the kind of folk forms of worship that exists. It seems like the halo of all things Sanskrit is here to stay - its nostalgia and its supposed “purity” (“swachata”, “pawanata” etc.) will be used again and again to further political interest.

And let’s not forget which group was it that had full autonomy over this language and the power to create narratives justifying the same.

The tribes of Assam have through their folk history preserved their own stories and experiences about the river Brahmaputra. The Bodos call it Burlung-Buthur and they have a common occurring prefix - “Di” or “ti” which means water.  

Edward Gait has mentioned in A History of Assam (1906) that in the early days of Ahom rule, Ti-lao was used for the Brahmaputra but its usage was lost following the dominance of the Aryan languages in the valley.

As a result, the cultures of the “ethnic” communities have been significantly marginalised. We need to recover more of these alternative versions of the river which #NamamiBrahmaputra fails to give. Selective exclusion at work?

In the words of the general secretary, (All Assam Tribal Sangha) Aditya Khaklary: “It has shown utter disregard to cultural harmony and tribal culture and history. The cultural history of Assam-Arunachal Pradesh has not been showcased at all.”

Then, some have also pointed out that every song representing the state need not necessarily portray the tribals. Although I understand that a single song cannot accommodate every sentiment of every community, it can at least refrain from including images that are totally imaginary, for example, the prayer offering scene around the river.

Secondly, a befitting criticism is that of the lavish budget spent on the name of a song when there are major environmental problems at stake in the state. With the approaching monsoons, this is a severe blow.

Every year wildlife, aquatic life and the life of riverine communities are erased due to the floods and soil erosions. One must realise at what cost and at whose expense is #NamamiBrahmaputra being advertised.

But all hope has not perished. Not yet. Some concerned people from Assam have come up with multiple versions of this theme song in order to point out its drawbacks. Using the tools of this very song to make alternate versions could be helpful in order to defeat the mega-text, the mega version as it were.

Perhaps once in a while it would do good to remember the river for its vulnerabilities - how civilisations have been lost under its fury, how lack of financial aid wreaks havoc every monsoon in the region. In an overzealous move to showcase “tourism potential”, there is a tendency to dismiss such problems.

The festival’s agenda and its theme song succeed in providing an illusion of inclusiveness. That very attempt, and its recurrence, I believe, is the most dangerous of all.

Also read: Assam elections and the crisis of language

Writer

Rini Barman Rini Barman @barman_rini

Independent writer and researcher, Guwahati

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