Premanka Goswami

A still from the film Sonar Baran Pakhi based on the legendary folk singer’s life.

Songs as a cultural art form are primarily associated with performances; and performances are associated with performers. While there is a general tendency to consider songs as a mere performative device of a language, prima facie, this is only partially true. Songs essentially reflect a cultural pattern of a particular nation, region, or sub region. It posits a habit of living and the relationships of a given society. A song represents a performer’s link with aspects of life – both imagined and real, and carries a message about the underlying social structure.

Viewed from this perspective, I offer a perspective on songs sung by Pratima Barua Pandey (1934-2002), a sensitive and gifted folk singer of Assam who sang during the 20th as well as the 21st century. Her songs are popular in different parts of Bengal and Assam.

The position of women, her relationships, the status of bonded labourers, etc., are subjects in Pandey’s songs. ‘Bride Price’, for instance, was a common practice in Goalparia society. Although this was common in some other parts of the Northeast as well, but Goalpara had its own specificity. It was the monetary value that a groom had to pay to the bride’s father in order to acquire her hand in marriage. Viewed simplistically, the practice was antithetical to that of the dowry system (which evolved along with the rise of trade in feudal society) where the bride’s father had to pay a huge sum of money to the groom.

I am slowly perishing
O’ Shyam

In my sleep,
In my dream

I take your name.

Sashipaan of Bora Bari

O’ Shyam

Go and get it for me
Bring a betel nut and leaf

We shall cut it and chew.

With a happy note

My Shyam goes away.

Like a flame

I rush out

But can’t get a glimpse of you.

One day I saw you in my dream

I shall die in disguise

My parents are eager

To marry me off

They sold me afar

For money

Here, everyone is a stranger

In daytime itself

I see darkness.

The song posited the utter dejection of a girl who had been married for a (bride) price in a distant land.

Elephant hunting has traditionally occupied a significant place in Goalpara. In fact, hunting was a part of the tax system imposed by the British. They took little time to realise the importance of forests as an important source of revenue. So, they quickly established exclusive control over the flora and fauna of the province. Hunting elephants for domestication was an old practice in Assam. One Ahom king, Pratap Singha, had the ambition of owning one thousand elephants and assuming a title of pride – ­‘Gajapati’. Though his ambition remained unfulfilled, he established a small township near Jorhat known these days as Gajapur, a town of elephants.

The British administration also realised the importance of elephants as the most useful means of communication for government officials, mauzadars and planters. Therefore, after 1874-75, the government created elephant camps in various districts of Assam, and the right of elephant-hunting in these tracts was sold in auction. There were many hunters who earned fame and money by hunting elephants. Pratima’s father was also a renowned elephant hunter. In her songs, Pratima captured realities of society in a remarkable way.

Once you are off,

Will you ever return my mahout friend?

Ah! Once you go

Will you ever return my mahout friend?

You handle elephants,

You graze them,

Rope on their neck.

Once you are off

Will you return my mahout friend?

Tell me honestly -

In which country you inhabit
Ah! Once you go

Will you ever come back, my mahout?

What are those songs? How did they come to me? Why did they make me melancholic? I don’t have answers for them, but in these renderings, I found a kind of strange love and longing that always fascinated me. My grandmother, who often accompanied legendary folk singer Nirmalendu Choudhury, also sang many of these songs. Whether it was a mahout, his wife, or anyone from the margins, Pratima’s voice gave them space to express their worldview. She posited the voice of the underdog, the downtrodden, and the marginalised. Her songs offered an alternative space to the marginalised section inhabiting the eastern part of India.

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