People of Clay

A personal exploration of Goalpariya culture

01 June 2018
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ONE IS NEVER FAR FROM THE BRAHMAPUTRA when in western Assam. On a subcontinent where rivers are personified as female progeny of the gods, the “son of Brahma” is an exception. The river floods seasonally, unforgiving and capricious in its course. The people closest to him live in perpetual fear of his trajectory, and he occupies a central place in the region’s songs and mythology.

In one legend, a woman named Behula accompanies the corpse of her husband, Lakshmindara, on a raft down the Brahmaputra—popular belief in eastern India holds that a person killed by snakebite should be set afloat on the river. The raft passes several hamlets while the corpse swells and putrefies. Onlookers assume that Behula is mad, but she cannot be dissuaded. “Either I shall die with him or he will come to life and I shall be beside him when he does,” she declares. Behula prays to Manasa—the goddess of snakes—who, the story goes, ensures that the raft survives whirlpools and crocodile attacks. Behula’s perseverance is rewarded when Manasa brings Lakshmindara back to life.

In February 2017, a lanky, sharp-eyed M Malakar, who had heard I was poking around the area with a camera, found his way to my hotel room in Dhubri, a small town in Assam near where the Brahmaputra flows into Bangladesh. He announced his desire to make a Goalpariya-language film on Behula, and asked me to shoot it. I told him that I was a still photographer and suggested finding a local cinematographer. A month later, I was photographing on the film’s set, with Malakar as the director. With us was a cinematographer a wedding videographer and a village playwright turned scriptwriter. Malakar’s family members and friends took on the roles of various characters. When I asked Malakar why he chose this story, he explained that he comes from a family of craftsmen. “I paint on patachitra, where the story of Behula is prominent,” he said. “It is only natural that I would want to tell that story through my cinema.”

I, too, felt in some ways that I was adrift on the Brahmaputra. Culturally rootless, having had a cosmopolitan upbringing in Mumbai as part of a Punjabi family that suffered from cultural amnesia induced by Partition, I was neither conversant in my mother tongue nor immersed in a vernacular folk tradition. My wife Mrigayanka, on the other hand, was rooted in Goalpara, with both sides of her family based in the region, between Dhubri and the town of Gauripur. It took me years to notice that when she thought no one was listening, Mrigayanka would hum haunting, melancholic songs in a dialect similar to both Bengali and Assamese—a reflection of the blend that informs Goalpara culture.

Akshay Mahajan is a Goa-based photographer. His practice is structured around problems of identity in the postcolonial world.

Keywords: Bengal Assam Brahmaputra Goalpariya