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Art collectives in Assam give voice to community stories of the river

“No man walks twice in the same river, because it is not the same river and it is not the same man”

Perhaps Heraclitus, the ancient Greek philosopher from the city of Ephesus was referring to the constant change in human life and what better example can be there than a flowing and flowing river like the Brahmaputra River.

Carrying around it various myths, known as Tsangpoo in China, Tamchok Khambab in Tibet, Dihang in Arunachal Pradesh, Brahmaputra in Assam and Yamuna in Bangladesh, the transnational river crosses many communities before merging with the Bay of Bengal. Along its 3,000 km course, the river touches many communities and religions, shaping stories of love, destruction and life. The symbiotic relationship the river shares with communities is yet one of the most overlooked aspects of Brahmaputra when it comes to talking about it more as a natural resource than a part of nature.

While discussions of the Brahmaputra these days revolve around its hydroelectric potentials or the havoc it creates during the monsoon, art collectives in Assam offer multi-disciplinary mediums. The aim is to express the river in the stories of people who live nearby and those who live far away.

Moored in the Brahmaputra River in Guwahati, Periphery is one such art space created by Sonal Jain and Mriganka Madhukaillya, art practitioners and founders of Desire Machine Collective – an art collective established in 2004. Located on a redundant ferry set on the bank of the Brahmaputra in Guwahati, Periphery was created at a time when there was a need and an absence of space for dialogue.

“At a time when insurgency and counter-insurgency were coming to an end in the state, the idea of ​​the periphery was to connect with different streams of people’s thoughts and ideas,” Sonal Jain said.

Periphery serves as a platform for hybrid practices of interdisciplinary art responses such as film, art, and theater performance from the perspective of personal experience with the transient nature of the river. It is a space where not only researchers and artists, but also communities close to the river such as fishermen, boatmen and people who sail on ferries, also participate in artistic performances, making it a community space. alive.

Sonal Jain said: “The river is at the heart of Periphery and there is so much work I have done on the Brahmaputra as the river is always at the heart of my personal and professional life. It is a transnational river which crosses Tibet, India, Bangladesh, the transnational space which it creates is very interesting.

Inner Lines, a project by Desire Machine Collective is a multimedia installation that used moving images and sound work. It focuses on the water issues of the river emphasizing the subject of transnationalism through the course of the river, its breathtaking beauty, the mountains that surround it and the people that skirt it. It touches on questions about the capitalist narrative of development.

“The Inner Lines project looks poetically at the whole Brahmaputra basin and the idea that the government wants to build mega-dams there and its impact on the region.”

According to Jain, the narrative of development that capitalism defines for us and development from a community perspective are very different.

“I like to question the notion of development. It is a term that has shaped the consciousness of modern India. Somewhere he was swept away by Jawaharlal Nehru when he said dams were temples in modern India. Development is seen only as something measurable. In such a space, where is the place of human values? Communities living close to nature still retain these values,” she said.

As a counter-response to a colonial educational curriculum that mainstream art schools in Assam followed, The Anga Art Collective was formed in 2010 by a group of art students. With the objectives of “beginning the process of decolonization by thinking and doing”, the collective worked closely with village, riverine, forest communities, folk artists, social scientists and activists through art. , dialogues, exhibitions and educational events. .

Speaking about one of his projects, ‘kNOw School’, a mobile community knowledge sharing space, Dhrubajit Sarma, one of the founders of Anga Art Collective, said, “We have a constantly flowing river. This makes the community; the land and culture are constantly changing. The notion of curriculum in our educational system is static. In kNOw School we try to navigate different communities through different exercises depending on the ecological and cultural character of the community, its knowledge system and its problems and concerns.

A famous school

A kNOw School is set up for four to five days in community spaces where, through various artistic exercises, the communities’ traditional knowledge of the river, the landscape, their stories and their art are practiced.

“It’s a very nomadic type of process and through that we try to capture the fluidity of these communities, revisiting and engaging with the community. It’s a process of entering, engaging and learning,” said collective member Dharmendra Prashad.

In various exhibitions, the art collective Anga tries to capture the life of the communities living along the river.

‘The Weathering House’, an installation by the collective attempts to show the concept of a home for the communities living along the river.

“The house concept is not permanent for those whose houses are washed away by the river every year. During a river festival, we made this collaborative site-specific installation, very connected to the river and the community. It was a picture of a house drawn on bamboo sticks suspended like a wind chime. The idea came from the very field where local Bodo and Muslim communities in Bengal shared their experience of living in an area amid flooding, erosion and ethnic violence. The very idea of ​​home is not very permanent for them”.

Hidden Fortress, another site-specific project by collection member Sanjib Kalita, depicts the role of the Brahmaputra River in shaping the identity of communities. Kalita’s sand sculpture depicts the plight of ethnic Bengali Muslims in Assam, flood-induced migration and their identity crisis. It also addresses the conflict between the hills and the plains.

hidden fortress
hidden fortress

Created in 2019, Agora – The Space is another artistic collective based in Guwahati. Much of his work revolves around reimagining the Brahmaputra River – through dialogues and performing arts like theatre.

Radhika Goswami, facilitator of Agora, which translates to “Meeting Space,” says, “There are a lot of issues surrounding the river now. A closer look reveals that environmental, political and social issues are linked. We live in a place that is defined by this river. It adjoins us as an identity. Much of our work revolves around identity. We try to understand the river not only how it influences us but also how we influence the river. He has an entity in his own right – he holds life, gives life and can take life away.

Agora has hosted podcasts on “Living with the River” which chronicles the history of the river, the myths and stories it carries, sacred beliefs and highlights the various issues facing the river through conversations with researchers, academics, artists, poets etc…

“The first seasons of this podcast we planted around July 2020 when Assam was experiencing annual floods and due to the Covid-19 pandemic we were all under strict lockdown. This feeling of helplessness was a little difficult to avoid and it made us wonder what we could do in this kind of situation from our own spaces. We created this podcast in that process as a way to learn more about the river. »

Through this effort, AGORA hopes to achieve a better vocabulary to talk about the river, the relationship it shares with people, communities and how they survive with each other by giving and taking from each other. , says his podcast “Living with the river”. .

“A lot of our work is done through theater – it’s a medium that helps you put yourself in another person’s shoes. You don’t just encounter the problem as a third person, but you actually encounter it head-on. Empathy and communication is something we value in our artistic expressions”.

At a time when, in the name of development, we tend to turn every natural element into a natural resource, conveniently ignoring the possible impact on the communities that live closest to it, how strong are artistic responses in terms of policy-making?

Radhika Goswami says: “We are fortunate to belong to a generation where we believe in having an impact on policies through artistic expressions. And it has happened before. If you look at the efforts of Dr Bhupen Hazarika, Jayanta Hazarika, Dr Hiren Gohain or anyone, be it an intellectual or an artist who interacts with the Brahmaputra River, there are many spaces where you will find the intersection between political and artistic expressions.

For Sonal Jain of Desire Machine Collective, the artistic expression of a concern can be linked to Morphic Resonance, a concept by English author and researcher Rupert Sheldrake.

Morphic resonance is “the idea of ​​mysterious telepathy-like interconnections between organisms and collective memories within species”

“I have always worked between the categories of art and activism. I have worked closely with activists who have been anti-blockade protesters, among others. Inner Lines aimed to connect people who actually work in the field. Sheldrake’s idea was that the first time something was done it might seem like you had no impact, but suppose you did it well and no one else did, it creates itself a morphic resonance in the environment. It impacts on a subtle level and in a more direct way, you connect with people, you connect people to the work of activists through your work, there are a lot of shared images that are created that have a lot of value,” she said.