Grant Period: over one year and six months
Shalim Muktadir Hussain is a PhD scholar at the Department of English, Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi. He is a Guest Lecturer in the same department and is an Assistant Professor (Ad hoc) at the B R Ambedkar College and Vivekananda College, University of Delhi. Besides this, Shalim is a filmmaker and translator whose recent work is focused on the syncretic culture of Assam. He has presented papers at various national and international conferences and seminars and attended many workshops on translation studies. He has published various essays on the Char-Chaporis Muslims from lower Assam, and their cultural practices. This grant supports Shalim to make four short films on four of their performative practices - Lathibari, Naukhela, Gasshi Rati and Kobi Bayati.
Char-Chaporis are the almond-shaped riverine islands inhabited by Muslims across 23 districts in the wastelands around the Brahmaputra river in lower Assam. These Muslims migrated to Assam after the partition of Bengal and are called ‘Char-Chapori Muslims’. Due to their cultural and linguistic differences from the rest of the autochthonous communities of Assam, they have faced pressures to justify their inclusion among the larger Assamese populace. More recently, with the rise of the Hindu right in the state, this situation has worsened. On the other hand, with the advent of conservative Islam in Assam, the Char-Chaporis, who converted from Hinduism in the past, are facing threats to the practices of their Hindu ancestors that still remain within their culture.
The four performative forms that Shalim will explore are very unique to the practices of the Char-Chaporis - Lathibari is a performative form of fighting with sticks that is organised at marriages and circumcision ceremonies; Gasshi Rati, celebrated during Kati Bihu - the annual autumn festival of Assam - is a ritual of worshipping trees, which due to its animistic overtones, faces the wrath of the new conservatives; Kobi Bayati, a form where folk singers or Kobis perform love ballads or Bayats, are also precious records of historical events like the Chinese attacks on Assam in 1962, the coming of Gandhi, and the earthquakes of 1890 and 1950; and Naukhela or boat-racing roughly coincides with the season for gathering harvest and therefore, becomes a celebration of it.
Exploring the notion of the politics of identity, Shalim will examine how the community at Char-Chaporis, specifically the performers, see themselves and their culture vis-à-vis the greater Assamese identity. He will critically question whether these cultural practices should be seen as integral to Assamese identity or as imports which cannot be assimilated into the greater Assamese cultural sphere. Tracing the evolution of these forms alongside the influences that the cross-cultural transactions have had on them, Shalim will focus on the variations of these practices across different districts and attempts made by the Char-Chaporis towards indigenising them.
Shalim will conduct in-depth interviews with performers and local scholars to explore their agency and understand the problems of the geographic spaces within which they live. He will further look at the evolution of the culture of the Char-Chaporis over the years and the impact their cultural isolation has had on the progress of these art forms. Alongside issues of sustainability (since the performers of these practices are not full-time professionals), he will also enquire into the ways in which the performers are passing on their expertise to the young and educated generation of the community.
This project is coterminous with another IFA-supported research project granted this year to Shaheen Salma Ahmed and Shakya Shamik Kar Khound that attempts to study the cultural and social history of the performance tradition of Jikir in Assam. Both are looking at the syncretic art practices of the region that are threatened by the Hindu right and conservative Islam leading to the social and cultural ostracisation of the Muslims in Assam. Together, these projects would provide deep insights into the construction of identity-politics in the times marked by religious fanaticism and cultural assertion in the region.
Samik Bandyopadhyay, who was one of the panelists for evaluation of the Arts Research programme this year, strongly recommended this project for a grant by pointing out the current political atmosphere in Assam which has led to the surge in the anti-immigrant/anti-Muslim sentiment among the natives. The decision to make this grant is also embedded in IFA’s mandate to support work from marginalised or relatively unexplored areas. The outcome and the deliverables of this grant would be a set of four short films.