Rongili Biswas

Archival and Museum Fellowships
2015-2016

Grant Period: over one year

Rongili Biswas is an economist by profession, and a musician and writer. She is also the daughter of the political activist, creative artist and writer Hemango Biswas (1912-1987), who was one of the founding members of the IPTA (Indian People’s Theatre Association) movement. Rongili’s work under this fellowship will consist of working with the archive of her father, especially focusing on the collaboration between Bhupen Hazarika and Hemango Biswas in the 1950s and 1960s, the period of the linguistic riots in Assam.

The IPTA existed as an influential cultural movement for less than a decade after World War II, but its impact on the development of the modern indigenous theatre movement in India is enormous. The IPTA originally began as a progressive leftist theatre group that was opposed to imperialism, fascism and nazism and served to educate the masses. Hence, they relied on indigenous institutions, religious and mythological plays, folk dances and folk music, and used these in a simple direct approach to “propagate anti-fascist ideology and espouse the cause of world democracy”. In an attempt to break through the general political apathy of the people, touring became an integral part of the IPTA’s activities, and it was in IPTA’s Assam chapter that Hemango Biswas became widely known.

Hemango Biswas, a young freedom fighter in the 1930s, was initiated into the communist movement as a prisoner in the British jail. In the 1940s he became actively involved in organising political and cultural campaigns which led to him starting the IPTA wing in Assam. He was a legendary folk singer and his writings on the folk music of Bengal and Assam came to be recognised as major theoretical contributions. It was during his time in Assam that Biswas became close to Bhupen Hazarika’s family. Bhupen Hazarika was a celebrated composer, singer, actor, poet and filmmaker from Assam whose compositions had made him a legend in Indian music. After Hazarika’s return from the USA, where he was associated with the likes of Paul Robeson, he joined Biswas and his group. Assam IPTA’s first convention was organised in 1953 in Bombay and in 1955 in Guwahati, but it was in 1960, during the time of the linguistic riots in Assam that the collaboration of Biswas and Hazarika made a significant contribution. It was the first time that a cultural troupe, through their songs, was able to put an end to unrest and violence in Assam.

The protests of 1960 against the declaration of the Assamese Official Language Act (ALA) recognising Assamese as the sole official language of the State, marked a new beginning in the post-independence history of Assam. The ALA was an attempt to construct a unilingual cultural identity for Assam. However, given Assam’s historically multi-lingual character, this added to the violent unrest between the Assamese and non-Assamese speaking population. With the help of the then chief minister of Assam, Bimlaprasad Chaliha, Biswas formed a cultural troupe involving dramatists, singers, writers and artists of Assam that included Hazarika and others. Biswas and Hazarika jointly composed and performed a song called Haradhan Rongmon Katha a story of two peasants, one Bengali and the other Assamese, both of whom lose their homes in the riots. The tune they used for the song borrowed elements from both the bhatiali and bihu folk forms of Bengal and Assam. They travelled with the troupe and sang this song in the riot-torn areas in Assam. There is perhaps no other instance when a cultural troupe was able to put an end to violent riots like this in the country.

Biswas died in 1987 and his home ‘Jironi’ contains his archive which consists of his published and unpublished writings, papers, diaries, books, notes, records, cassettes, important old photographs, folk instruments and his other everyday objects of use. Using the material from Biswas’ books and diaries, Rongili will attempt to retrace and reconstruct the journey that Biswas undertook in 1960 with Hazarika. Her research will involve undertaking the same physical journey herself, meeting and interviewing the few people who are still alive from the troupe and family members who have memories of the time; collecting information and clips of songs sung by Biswas and Hazarika from the same period; translating a chapter from Biswas’ book that has a detailed account of the time; and performing three landmark songs that Biswas and Hazarika have collaborated on together Haradhon Rongmon Katha, Jhak Jhak Rel Chole and Pothe Namo Aloker Sena Shilpi Dol. The outcomes of her research will be a monograph which describes their journey (this will also have excerpts from Biswas’ own writings); a CD which has the three songs performed by Rongili Biswas together with other protest songs from the IPTA; and a DVD that has film clips of her own journey interspersed with interviews with people she has met.

Rongili sees this research into the archives of Hemango Biswas both as an important documentation project, as well as a process that will preserve and bring alive a long forgotten musical moment. She sees an urgency in casting the spotlight on a cultural endeavour, that through their songs, was able to contain violence. She believes that if she leaves it for much longer, the people involved in the troupe will all be gone, and the others who remember it, will no longer be there to tell her their stories. Looking at this research against the backdrop of the current political and cultural scenario, perhaps this is indeed the moment for Rongili to undertake this research: a time when on the one hand, theatre is becoming an important tool for political protest in the Northeast, and on the other hand, when the space for cultural freedom is steadily shrinking.

This grant was made possible with support from the Tata Trusts.