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Kishor Kumar Kalita
Date of Publish: 2015-10-29

Beats of identity


Khagen Mahanta played a vital role in the revival of Bihu geet as a symbol of Assamese cultural identity


Kishor Kumar Kalita

Some six decades ago, in the fifties, the satradhikar of the Vaishnava monastery Amtala-Gajala Satra -- in Jajori Bogorigui area of Assam’s Nagaon district -- faced an unusual situation one day. A handful of locals came to him to complain about his seventh son, Khagen Mahanta, for singing Bihu songs professionally.

“He ought not to have done that. Your son, hailing from a Satra,  and singing such vulgar songs…the disciples are not happy about it,” they told him.

Unlike today, singing Bihu songs professionally was not considered a dignified act those days. The Bihu songs, like so many other folk forms in different parts of the country, were also considered in Assamese society a rank below the high arts and therefore not to be pursued by the classes but by the masses. The villagers were naturally surprised at such an act done by the son of their religious head.

The satradhikar preferred not to express his views to the complainants then. They also could not muster enough courage to ostracize the family of their religious head for the “crime”. The conservative society had to bow down to the enlightened personality of the satradhikar and to the musical ambience encouraged in his house.

Over the years, that son of the satradhikar, Khagen Mahanta, turned out to be the singular force behind wider acceptance of Bihu geet as a strong medium of Assamese cultural identity. Today, his name is synonymous with Bihu geet in the State. Till he passed away in, Mahanta relentlessly pursued the folk form and also contributed to it by extensively researching on its various forms and strains.

Mahanta was born just a year before India got independence. His musical talent got manifested in the early 1960s. That way, the popular Assamese artiste emerged during the decades immediately following Independence which saw much economic and political transformation.

Mahanta was influenced by the Indian people’s Theatre Association (IPTA). Since 1944, the IPTA movement spread its influence in the State with the active involvement of Bhupen Hazarika and Nagen Kakati. Motivated by Socialist ideas, many Assamese writers and artistes joined it.

The churning in the creative/intellectual minds of pre-independent India resulting from the clash of ideas between the traditional and the modern continued, significantly, even till the sixties. A major part of them came out with the intention of establishing the base of a progressive Assamese nationalism -- parallel to the formation of Indian nationalism, while another section opted for the form of narrower Assamese nationalism with the Assamese Caste Hindu hegemonic dominance.  When this later brand of Assamese literature and culture got patronage from the Caste Hindu Assamese elite -- the representatives of the residual feudal elements, chauvinism began to show its ugly face in the State. With the socialistic character of the ruling Congress party fading, the power began to concentrate in the hands of the casteist, hegemonic elements that continuously showed disrespect towards the sentiments and culture of indigenous ethnicities. The interest shown by the musicians of Assam since the 1920s towards Indian classical music and the subsequent neglect of folk musical traditions of not just the State but the entire Northeast has to be considered in that context.

In the 1940s, the Left-leaning intellectuals worldwide, especially in Europe, interpreted folk music as a political expression. It was under such international influence the writers and artistes of IPTA gave the resources of folk culture much significance and strived hard for their expansion. In contrast, those artistes who took the opposite position in the politico-cultural ideology considered such resources vulgar and hence object of neglect and disrespect.

The event of Mahanta, who grew up in a Satriya ambience but got introduced to the ideology of IPTA through his brother-in-law late Kehsab Mahanta and doing subsequent experimentations with the resources of Assamese folk music, has to be seen in that context.

Interestingly, Mahanta’s experiments with Bihugeets and other folk musical resources didn’t remain in the realm of just entertainment and it is here that his contribution to Assamese folk culture is noteworthy.“Amidst the progressive thoughts and ideas, Khagen Mahanta began realizing that mere entertainment cannot be the mainstay of culture; the real objective of cultural activities is to make people reflect along with entertainment. That’s why most of the songs sung by him this period were around life and society. Through his songs the issues of life and society found expression” (Source: Kotha Borenyo 100, Katha Publications, Guwahati, page-231)

Along with IPTA, the possible influence of the rejuvenation of folk songs that ripened in America and many parts of Europe, on Mahanta can’t also be ignored. Known as the Great Boom, this movement which started towards late fifties and reached its pinnacle in the sixties, had the United States as its epicentre. The movement thereafter spread to many European countries.

This phenomenon of rejuvenation in the U.S.in fact, started in the 1940s. Some of the major artistes leading it were Josh White, Burle Ives, Woody Guthrie, Lead Belly, John Jacob, Oscar Brand and members of the group Weavers, Ronnie Gilbert, Pete Seegar,  etc. The artistes who brought new vigour to the movement in the decades of the fifties and the sixties were Harry Belafonte, Oddeta, the members of Kingston Trio, Bob Dylan, Peter, Paul and Mary, etc.

Fired by Leftist ideology, these group of artistes wanted to revive traditional music through a strong political ideology and dreamt of getting rid of inequality, apartheid, social and geographic disintegration, etc. though it. Folk Musicologist Alan Jabbour described the movement as, “We in our revival sought out -- and created -- a music to express simultaneously our quest for cultural roots, our admiration of democratic ideals and values and our solidarity with the culturally neglected (Source: Alan Jabbour, Forward in  Transforming Tradition:Folk Music Revivals Examined, Page-xiii)

This Left leaning cultural movement had influence worldwide. The political ideology of a few pioneering artistes motivated most of the contemporary musical artistes of the world to stand against equality and for equity. It can be mentioned that the artistes like Seeger, Earle Robinson, Irene Silber, etc. were active members of the Communist Party. Fearing that Communist thinking would gain ground in the U.S. through it, the American Government tried to suppress those artistes by taking many measures.

These artistes tried to preserve many dying forms of musical traditions. According to Tamara E. Livingstone, a researcher, the revival movement had two aims. First, to act as an alternative cultural counter force that stands against the mainstream culture. Second, to improve the current culture based on historical excellence and appropriateness. In order to be different from the mainstream artistes, the revivalist musical artistes also tried not to use electrical musical instruments.

Mahanta tried, albeit in a small but significant way, to bring in a movement to revive Assamese folk music, particularly the Bihu geet, from the early sixties, by singing songs motivated by socialistic ideals without distorting the folk cultural resources. Though many other Assamese artistes started performing folk music by then, none could bring in the political aspiration or expressions in them to that extent as Mahanta did. By using pure Assamese folk music tunes and by controlled use of folk musical instruments in the songs written by Kehsab Mahanta, hewas successful in his effort. The manner in which he tried to represent the pains and feelings of the deprived sections of the society in some of his songs, and simultaneously maintaining the appropriateness and standard of folk music, was noteworthy. 

(Kishor Kumar Kalita is a columnist and advocate. He has authored Bhramyaman Theatarar Itihas, Pratham Khanada, a historical account of Mobile Theatre in Assam, and also co-authored a number of books)



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