Music of Assam, India: Down the Brahmaputra

Posted on February 27th, 2014 in Music Travel, Recent posts by .

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Georgie Pope leads Songlines Music Travel trips to Assam and Rajasthan. They are a superb way to see the real India and inside the local culture. Her Assam trip goes to a little-known corner of the country. Full details and prices are available hereHere she writes about one of her research trips – off the beaten track. Words by Georgie Pope; Photography by Marisol Limon Martinez.

“Shall we go home?” my husband suggested hopefully. It was insufferably humid, there were mosquitoes everywhere, and the air conditioning wasn’t working. How had he let me convince him, once again, that the best sort of holiday wasn’t spent lounging in lovely hotels and visiting interesting monuments, it was searching for musicians, based on an overheard snatch of music and a rumour. We were in Dhubri, the insalubrious port at the edge of lower Assam to which my father-in-law had travelled on business when Som, my husband, was a child, and vowed never to return.

I looked up from my tourist book, slightly disconcerted that there was not one single red blob to signify ‘site of touristic interest’ within 100km of where we were staying, and reassured Som that we were about to strike gold – that here lay the hidden gems of Assamese folk music.

In the murky world of media, one thing I’ve become certain of is that wherever there is a mainstream story, marginalised realities are being ignored, or even deliberately censored. I felt that so far on my travels, I had only heard a partial story of the music of Assam, so here I was; in a part of the world not even Lonely Planet had reached, looking for suppressed voices and ignoring my husband’s.

IMG_0255In the January/February issue of Songlines (#97), I described the gorgeous music of the Bihu festival, and of the satras (monasteries) of Upper Assam. Everyone had told me if I wanted to hear music in Assam, to go during the festival of Bihu, when I’d hear and see everything. As soon as I am told that a particular music form is ‘synonymous with the state of Assam’ or a festival is ‘celebrated by everyone’, I begin to get suspicious. Since when have musical practices corresponded to administrative boundaries? Who says that Bihu music isn’t played beyond the recently drawn borders of Assam? Who says there aren’t people here who dance to a different tune?

If I knew anything about Assam, it was that it was full of different communities not necessarily at odds with one another, but certainly not singing and dancing to the same beat.

I found a clue on Majuli Island in one of the satras. During an afternoon of recitals of Assamese music, the school’s music master sung me a song he described as Goalpuria geet, a song from the historic district of Goalpara in Lower Assam. When I later played Som the recording, he said it recalled the Baul and Batiali boat music of West Bengal, his home state. I wondered why it had taken this long for me to hear about this beautiful music, and why no one had pointed me in the direction of Lower Assam, clearly home to a rich musical tradition of its own.

I only had to look at a historic map of north-east India and read a little around the history, to start making connections. Up until the 1980s Goalpara covered a large area of land (today divided into four districts) that straddled the Brahmaputra River and connected Assam to West Bengal and Bangladesh. Of the millions of Bangladeshi migrants living in Assam, the majority live in the districts of erstwhile Goalpara, so there’s little wonder that the music sounds a little Bengali. Little wonder also perhaps, that those wanting to project a notion of Assamese identity would want to focus on the music of Upper Assam rather than the minority culture of a Muslim majority district. So we packed our bags and headed downstream of the Brahmaputra to see if we could find out any more.

Our guide, a balding, bespectacled gentleman in his mid-50s, was a self-made impresario whose brother worked as a mechanic in nearby Bilasipura. “He makes the money, and I spend it,” Karim Khan told us joyfully. His work was to train and manage a troupe of musicians and dancers, and to know things about the local culture that other people didn’t. We drove to Gauripur, the heartland of Goalpuria geet and home to its late royal proponent Pratima Pandey.

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We approached a beautiful timber-framed building, which was bathed in pale morning sunlight. Pratima’s brother was standing at the top of the gracious wooden steps of his mansion – now divided between the several offspring of the erstwhile royal family. He hastened down to meet us and led us through to a small sitting room. As we drank tea and ate gulab jamons, Pratima’s brother spoke a little about his sister and showed us some fading photographs. Then, to our delight, musicians began to arrive. Our host introduced us to them one by one as they pulled out their instruments: the four-stringed banjo-like dotara, the exquisitely carved violin-like sarinda, a flute and a khol (twin-faced, ceramic drum). All instruments found in the Bengali tradition.

They performed the sweet, mournful songs of the elephant trainers – the Mahouts – and the catchy rhythmic songs of the boatmen, sang in time to the pulling of oars. A female singer began to sing a slow melodious song of loss and longing. This was what I’d been searching for. “Our music has been over-looked”, Pratima’s brother told us, as the musicians took a break, “the tourism industry favours upper Assam; and television never comes here.”

It was Bhupen Hazarika, a great doyen of Assamese music, who discovered Pratima and gave her the moral and publicity boost she needed to make her art sustainable and reach beyond her region. But the forces of mainstream cultural governance proved stronger, and had already eroded her short-lived fame.

As I listened to the heart-wrenching melodies in this glorious house in Gauripur, I wondered what other unsung cultural phenomena have been lost by the wilful homogenisations of culture. In a part of the world as wracked with political division as Assam, I can fully understand a desire for cultural unity. But the cracks can never be smoothed over with smiling displays of cultural homogeneity, and nor should they be, if it means the silencing of voices like these.

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The Songlines Music Travel trip, led by Georgie Pope, goes to North Assam in April. Full details and prices are available here.

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