Shaheen Salma Ahmed

Arts Research
2016-2017

Grant Period: over one year and six months

Shaheen Salma Ahmed and Shakya Shamik Kar Khound are researchers from Assam, currently based in Delhi. Shaheen is a PhD scholar at the School of Arts and Aesthetics, Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi. She is also an arts practitioner who works with video and text-based art and photography. She has authored academic essays and has been involved in engaging with alternative narratives from Assam, especially the narratives of the Khilonjia or Assamese Muslims. Some of her writings have been published in web magazines like Scroll.in and TheWire.in. Shakya is a Post-Graduate student at the School of Human Ecology, Ambedkar University, Delhi. Both researchers have deep interests in the syncretic heritage of Assam.

Jikir or Zikr is a form of devotional acts associated with Sufism in which individuals or groups recite devotional phrases in rhythmic repetition either silently in their minds or aloud. In Assam, the tradition of Jikir is representative of a syncretic culture that traces its roots to the medieval period of Indian history.

This grant will enable Shaheen and Shakya to undertake a close and critical examination of the social and cultural history of Jikir alongside the histories of the Khilonjia Muslim community of Assam. As a small community, Khilonjias have played a significant role in the shaping of Assam’s history since the medieval times. However, the recent rise of religious fanaticism has posed serious threats to practices like the Jikir and to the ethnic and cultural identity of the Muslims in Assam. Shaheen and Shakya will examine the cross-cultural exchanges between Muslim and Hindu communities that have influenced Jikirs as well as ethnic and religious compositions of performers from both the communities. They will also investigate the impacts of migration of Muslims from Bangladesh to Assam and its political underpinnings. 

Along with the impact of its geographical surrounding, Shaheen and Shakya will examine the semantics of the language to explore the Sufi-Bhakti nature of this art form. An investigation of musical instruments and clothes worn by the performers will enable them to discern the cultural contiguities from other such traditions if there are any. They will also look at the representation and presence of Jikir in popular culture, literature, cinema, music albums and others from post-independence up to the contemporary times. The presence of Jikir, if any, in the resistance movements in Assam against the nation-state will also be looked into.

Shaheen and Shakya will conduct in-depth interviews with performers of Jikir across the Brahmaputra Valley to capture the diversity in the performances. They will also interview anthropologists, musicologists, historians and ethnographers to understand the importance of Jikir and its cultural significance in the current socio-political milieu of Assam. The proposed sites for conducting the research are the districts of Sivasagar, Dibrugarh and Darrang. Apart from this, Shaheen and Shakya will procure archival documentation of Jikir in the State Archives of Assam and the National Archives of India.

IFA’s decision for making this grant comes from our interest in supporting research projects that investigate marginalised or relatively unexplored areas in the arts, and offer new readings of artistic practices. The outcome of this grant will be an anthology on Jikir which will include essays by anthropologists, musicologists and researchers in Assamese and English. An audio-video and photo documentation of the performances and interviews and the anthology on Jikir will be submitted as deliverables to IFA by Shaheen and Shakya. The budget is commensurate with the proposal.