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Karabi Borsaikia
Date of Publish: 2017-06-20

Bishnu Prasad Rabha- trailblazer of tribal studies in Northeast


Bishnu Prasada Rabha, a revolutionary figure and a culture icon of Assam was a poet, litterateur, playwright, musician, painter and actor, all rolled into one. Born in Dhaka on January 31 in 1909. He made colossal contributions to the cultural and socio-political fields of Assam. A multitalented personality, Rabha won accolades for his extraordinary dance recital “Tandava” at Varanasi. The then Vice Chancellor of Banaras Hindu University and former President of India Dr Sarvepalli Radhakrishan had conferred on him the title “Kalaguru” and honoured him as the “India’s Best Artist” and also presented a Gold Medal. He took active part in India’s freedom struggle. He was an active member of the Revolutionary Communist Party of India and was imprisoned several times for taking part in revolutionary activities.

A rare photograph kept preserved at Kalaguru Bishnu Prasad Rabha's residence in Tezpur in which Rabha ( extreme right) is seen along with Rupkonwar Jyotiprasad Agarwalla ( at the centre) and music legend Bhupen Hazarika as a child artiste

( Photo - Kuwoli Hazarika)


Bishnu Prasad Rabha was one of the pioneers of tribal studies and strived for uplift of tribal people in every sphere. Any study on the history of Assam and tribal people will be incomplete without the study of the tribal people of Northeast. He, however, had definite objective in mind - uniting the workers and the peasants, spreading socialist ideology, mobilising people to fight against the colonial British. Huge repository on tribal studies left behind by Rabha speak volume of the extensive field works he had done during this visits he had undertaken to nook and corners to mobilise people.

A photograph of Kalaguru Bishnu Prasad Rabha's kept presered at his residence in Tezpur ( Photo - Kuwoli Hazarika)

The passionate researcher and the creative genius in Rabha as a litterateur and cultural activist came to limelight when he started publishing a column in Assamese “Otiti Itihasor Pat Meli ( Opening the Pages of Past History)” from the inaugural issue of a magazine titled Nayak in 1940. Unfortunately, not a single issue from the first to the eighth issues of the magazine that contained his work could be traced till date. He tried to throw light on the past histories of Assam and Assamese cultural elements that were on the verge of extinction. However, he could not finish his work as planned. Through his work Rabha presented the tribal cultures in different forms. Sometimes, he became the Sutradhar or the narrator. He explained the meaning of the songs of different tribal communities while documenting such songs.

Rabha’s documentation of various tribes of northeast including the Bodos, the Akas, the Nyishis, the Apatanis, the Galos reflects his academic excellence and dedication. The engaging and interesting prose of the introduction of his essays stimulates the readers to explore more about a tribal society.

Paintings and sketches done by Bishnu Prasad Rabha framed on the wall of his residence in Tezpur ( Photo - Kuwoli Hazarika)

Bishnu Prasad Rabha never dreamt to become a leader. Rather, he wanted to remain an ordinary person among the masses. He was more passionate about collecting rich cultural, linguistic elements kept preserved and practiced by ordinary masses. His versatility as an artist, actor, musician, linguist, playwright, helped him to enrich such elements and to make them more colourful and share with all sections of the people. The historical accounts and social evolution of different tribes and communities were at his fingertips. He was equally passionate about learning about the food habits of different communities and his quick adoption of the way of life of different tribes and communities helped him undertake in-depth research work among them. He was loved and respected by all for his ability to do hard work, make sacrifice and make friends with anyone. Perhaps, because of absence of such traits very few undertake work of tribal studies as in-depth, prolific and versatile as the ones done by Bishnu Prasad Rabha.

Mementos and photographs of Kalaguru kept preserved at his residence in Tezpur ( Photo - Kuwoli Hazarika)

Rabha’s ideals teach that one should have a deep knowledge about other’s religion, culture and society apart from his own. To ensure harmony between two communities, both the communities must have knowledge about each other’s way of life. He strived for fostering harmonious relations among various communities and dedicated his life for the uplift of the downtrodden. This famous culture icon passed away on June 20, 1969. His death anniversary is observed as Rabha Divas to commemorate the ideals of this versatile genius.

Solutions to some of the fundamental problems grappling the tribal communities of northeast are still elusive. In this context the observance of Rabha Divas has deeper significance.

Karabi Borsaikia

( Karabi Borsaikia is a student of M. A. ( final semester) at the Centre for Studies in Journalism and Mass Communication, Dibrugarh University. She can be reached at karabi.borsaikia25@gmail.com )

( All photographs were taken at Kalaguru's residence in Tezpur on November 26, 2016, by Kuwoli Hazarika, a student of Mass Communication and Journalism at Tezpur University. )



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