biopics

An Assamese biopic reminds us of folk singer Pratima Pandey Barua’s remarkable legacy

Bobby Sarma Baruah’s ‘Sonar Baran Pakhi’ traces the life and times of the artist whose achievements were overshadowed by controversy.

Two scenes from Sonar Baran Pakhi, Bobby Sarma Baruah’s biopic of Pratima Pandey Barua, renowned exponent of Goalporia lokageet or folk songs, linger in the memory long after the end credits have rolled. In one, we see Barua lying on her back in the mud, breathing silently and seemingly at peace. In the other, she has her back to the camera as she stands and smokes at a window in her house. There is a celebratory air about both these images. Barua’s remarkable life deserved no less.

Both these scenes sum up Barua’s often contentious public persona. Her championing of Goalporia folk music was looked down upon by purists and Assamese linguistic chauvinists (the Goalporia group of dialects is often regarded as crude or inferior). Similarly, the contested details of Barua’s married life were often used to downplay her artistic achievements.

Sonar Baran Pakhi (The Golden Wing) will be screened at the Indian Film Festival of Los Angeles (April 5-9). The 86-minute Rajbangshi language biopic not only recreates Barua’s life but also covers a fair section of the indigenous community’s history in Assam. Although this is more of Sarma Baruah’s creative reimagining, the film is aided by archival details, field research and a recollection of Goalporia folk songs. Pranami Bora and Susmita Ray play the character at different stages.

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Sonar Baran Pakhi.

Pratima Pandey Barua (1935-2002) was known fondly as “Hastir Kanya” (Elephant’s daughter). She was the niece of legendary filmmaker Pramathesh Chandra Barua and was born into the royal family of Gauripur in the western Assam district of Dhubri. From an early age, Barua’s love for music took her to commoners like buffalo herders and mahouts. Sacrificing the privileges of royalty, she gave a distinct voice to the Rajbangshi community through her songs. The soulful nature and the humanitarian content of the lyrics touched a chord in the state.

In his essay Life as Lore: The Art and Times of Pratima Baruah Pandey, Jyotirmoy Pradhani writes:

“Her life reflects the various phases of the evolving Assamese identity, and how the folk acted as a syncretic energy in the understanding of the Assamese. Her songs, popularly called the Goalporia lokageet, are a part of a cultural community, largely the Rajbanshis, who have been historically dispersed around a vast territory including Assam, Bengal, Bihar, Southern Nepal and even Bangladesh. When Pratima Barua picked up the songs, they were seemingly in their last phase of life in public memory, for the history of the land took a sharp turn forcing the communities living in the periphery to abandon their cultural moorings and acquire new identities to conform to the altered geo-political legacy of the colonial times”.

The biopic attempts to chronicle the linguistic tussle in the region in the 1950s. Goalpara has always been a politically volatile area, especially since independence. As a result, the folksongs of Goalpara have been all but nudged out of mainstream Assamese music.

We are shown how Pratima’s family members shun the people’s music (“These are songs of the commoners, my child. We in the royal palace are forbidden to sing those”). Fighting through personal struggles, Barua continues to dedicate her life to collecting and tuning folk songs.

“These songs are performed with traditional instruments like dotara, sarinda, dhol and so on,” Bobby Sarma Baruah told Scroll.in. “The lyrics are about the human experience that each of us can relate to, so that’s why I believe these Goalporia folk songs are very special for us. And my intention is to preserve them through this movie.”

When Bhupen Hazarika met Barua on his return to Gauripur in 1956, he decided to incorporate her songs in his Assamese film Era Bator Xur (Songs of the Abandoned Road). It was the first step towards appreciating the fluidity of Goalpara’s folk heritage.

Both artists stole hearts as they sang to Lead Belly’s “We are in the same boat, brother” tuned with folk instruments. Unfortunately, we only get a brief glimpse of the duo in Sarma’s movie.

Sonar Baran Pakhi.
Sonar Baran Pakhi.

An artist’s inner turmoil surfaces in Sonar Baran Pakhi as Barua comes to terms with her identity. The coming-of-age section is substantiated by historical data. For example, the scene in which Barua shares her experience of auditioning at Guwahati Radio Centre speaks volumes about the kind of marginalisation she faced. The language of her songs – neither dominant Assamese nor the upper caste Bengali but a mixture of several dialects (Sylheti and tribal influences too) – came under suspicion as they did not qualify to be “Assamese” enough for public recordings.

There has been documentation on this topic. In Dhiren Das’s book O’ Mur Hai Hostir Kanyare, one gets a perspective on the treatment of these songs by All India Radio’s Guwahati station. Barua was asked to translate her music into Assamese first, and second, to focus on the religious nature of the songs. The politicising of folk music made the recording of Bhawaiyya and Chatka (fast-paced songs of an erotic/celebratory nature) music very difficult indeed.

“Hostir noran hostir choran hostir paye beri
Shottya koriya kon re mahut ghore e koye jon naari re
Tumra geile ki aashiben,
mur mahout bondhu re?”
(“You move the elephant, you graze the elephant,
you chain the elephant’s feet;
But tell me the truth, O mahout,
How many women do you have back home?
If you go away my mahout friend, shall you ever back?”)

There is a poignant mix of nature, desire, longing and the futility of worldly vices in Goalparia music. In the film, Barua’s engagement with nature is beautifully shot to convey this mix. As she emerges with clay wrapped sensuously around her body, the fulfillment of being one with nature comes to the fore. It stands as a recurring image of life imitating art. The human body in its corporeal form is bound to perish. Therefore, it is compared to a clay pitcher in the song Ek Baar Hori Bolo Mon Rosona:

“Ek baar hori bolo mon rosona,
arey manob dehai goirob koiro na,
manob deha maatiro bhando,
bhangile hoibe khondo re khondo.”
(“Say the name of God just once
My friend, take no pride in the mortal body
The human body is a pitcher of clay
When it breaks it shall shatter into thousands of pieces.”)

Sarma Baruah said, “This is an imaginative and illusory journey which I have recreated through the film. The beauty of her inner sense, her relationship with nature, all blend together to give a unique portrait.”

Today, the statue of Padma Shri Pratima Pandey Barua stands at Swahid Udyan in Chandmari, witnessing massive changes to its cultural milieu and the threat of the appropriation of folk music. It leaves me, as does the film, with a mixed whiff of hope and hopelessness.

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London then and now – As experienced by Indians

While much has changed, the timeless quality of the city endures.

“I found the spirit of the city matching the Bombay spirit. Like Bombay, the city never sleeps and there was no particular time when you couldn’t wander about the town freely and enjoy the local atmosphere”, says CV Manian, a PhD student in Manchester in the ‘80s, who made a trip to London often. London as a city has a timeless quality. The seamless blend of period architecture and steel skyscrapers acts as the metaphor for a city where much has changed, but a lot hasn’t.

The famed Brit ‘stiff upper lip, for example, finds ample validation from those who visited London decades ago. “The people were minding their business, but never showed indifference to a foreigner. They were private in their own way and kept to themselves.” Manian recollects. Aditya Dash remembers an enduring anecdote from his grandmother’s visit to London. “There is the famous family story where she was held up at Heathrow airport. She was carrying zarda (or something like that) for my grandfather and customs wanted to figure out if it was contraband or not.”

However, the city always housed contrasting cultures. During the ‘Swinging ‘60s’ - seen as a precursor to the hippie movement - Shyla Puri’s family had just migrated to London. Her grandfather still remembers the simmering anti-war, pro-peace sentiment. He himself got involved with the hippie movement in small ways. “He would often talk with the youth about what it means to be happy and how you could achieve peace. He wouldn’t go all out, but he would join in on peace parades and attend public talks. Everything was ‘groovy’ he says,” Shyla shares.

‘Groovy’ quite accurately describes the decade that boosted music, art and fashion in a city which was till then known for its post-World-War austerities. S Mohan, a young trainee in London in the ‘60s, reminisces, “The rage was The Beatles of course, and those were also the days of Harry Belafonte and Ella Fitzgerald.” The likes of The Rolling Stones and Pink Floyd were inspiring a cultural revolution in the city. Shyla’s grandfather even remembers London turning punk in the ‘80s, “People walking around with leather jackets, bright-colored hair, mohawks…It was something he would marvel at but did not join in,” Shyla says.

But Shyla, a second-generation Londoner, did join in in the revival of the punk culture in the 21st century. Her Instagram picture of a poster at the AfroPunk Fest 2016 best represents her London, she emphatically insists. The AfroPunk movement is trying to make the Punk culture more racially inclusive and diverse. “My London is multicultural, with an abundance of accents. It’s open, it’s alive,” Shyla says. The tolerance and openness of London is best showcased in the famous Christmas lights at Carnaby Street, a street that has always been popular among members of London’s alternate cultures.

Christmas lights at Carnaby Street (Source: Roger Green on Wikimedia Commons)
Christmas lights at Carnaby Street (Source: Roger Green on Wikimedia Commons)

“London is always buzzing with activity. There are always free talks, poetry slams and festivals. A lot of museums are free. London culture, London art, London creativity are kept alive this way. And of course, with the smartphones navigating is easy,” Shyla adds. And she’s onto something. Manian similarly describes his ‘80s rendezvous with London’s culture, “The art museums and places of interest were very illustrative and helpful. I could tour around the place with a road map and the Tube was very convenient.” Mohan, with his wife, too made the most of London’s cultural offerings. “We went to see ‘Swan Lake’ at the Royal Opera House and ‘The Mousetrap’ by Agatha Christie. As an overseas graduate apprentice, I also had the pleasure to visit the House of Lords and take tea on the terrace.”

For the casual stroller along London’s streets today, the city would indeed look quite different from what it would’ve to their grandparents. Soho - once a poor suburb known for its crime and sex industry - is today a fashionable district of upmarket eateries and fashion stores. Most of the big British high street brands have been replaced by large international stores and the London skyline too has changed, with The Shard being the latest and the most impressive addition. In fact, Shyla is quite positive that her grandfather would not recognise most of the city anymore.

Shyla, though, isn’t complaining. She assures that alternate cultures are very much alive in the city. “I’ve seen some underground LGBT clubs, drag clubs, comedy clubs, after midnight dance-offs and empty-warehouse-converted parties. There’s a space for everybody.” London’s cosmopolitan nature remains a huge point of attraction for Indian visitors even today. Aditya is especially impressed by the culinary diversity of London and swears that, “some of the best chicken tikka rolls I have had in my life were in London.” “An array of accents flood the streets. These are the people who make London...LONDON,” says Shyla.

It’s clear that London has changed a lot, but not really all that much. Another aspect of Indians’ London experience that has remained consistent over the past decades is the connectivity of British Airways. With a presence in India for over 90 years, British Airways has been helping generations of Indians discover ‘their London’, just like in this video.

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