Namami Brahmaputra is a hegemonic Hindutva version of select elements of Assam’s culture that found its political and diplomatic expression in the recently concluded show. The question is, does culture serve the ruling ideology of governance necessarily? If it does not, then one needs to tailor and twist major symbols of culture, religion and spirituality into a politically subservient mythology, which the word “namami” brings in.
Plebeians even thought that it is Nabami, coinciding with the return of Goddess Durga in the form of Basanti and the annihilation of Ravana on the ninth day of the calendar’s last month.
Namami Brahmaputra got tucked into Basanti Puja’s ninth day, thereby raising a ritually deep and politically pregnant toast to Hindutva Assam’s multicultural and multireligious ethos is such that it is a land of earthly spirituality where nature is celebrated in its utilitarian and regenerative forms.
Earthly spirituality assumes the form of the mother goddess and her ritualistic feminine acts such as mother goddess Kamakhya’s menstruation or god Umananda lying at the feet of Goddess Uma right on Brahmaputra. Numerous temples and local pedestals of worship mark a proliferation of Tantric-Buddhist cults of sacrifice, contemplation and penance across Assam.
Namami was a reproduction in a different manner than the usual practice of these rituals, which involve a variety of sacrificial rites and related offerings that propitiate both as a nature-spirit and deity.
Now the Brahmaputra only occupies a marginal place in this ritualistic universe, while its presence in the sacred landscape of Assam provides bedrock for religious faith covering the whole class of people whose lives are related to the river in an earthly manner.
Namami turned this earthly relationship into supra-terrestrial just as it is in Kashi Biswanath, where one offers an araati to the Ganga. The Brahmaputra is not like the Ganga in the ritual imagination of Hindu religion and culture. The specificity and identity of the river Brahmaputra remains beyond any araati. Interestingly enough, Brahmaputra being a male river, cannot be offered an araati and so, Namami looked like an imitation of the Varanasi araati.
Totally un-aboriginal and unknown, the show of araati by 21 Brahmins from Varanasi in a staterun function runs counter to the secular character of any state-run cultural event. In a larger ideological context, this is an irresolvable conflict between ideological Brahminism coming in the guise of mainstream Hinduism and little forms of the multi-religious and multicultural ethos of Assam.
Namami has brought it to the fore. The claim that singing of songs about Brahmaputra by superstars will increase the tourism potential of Assam, which Priyanka Chopra, in another advertisement termed as “naturally wild” only caused a whimper. Superstars and performers, as Bertolt Brecht would have said, are not in a position to invite the audience to critically judge what they perform or say, and hence much of these acts of show-off end up in a whimper due to misrepresentation of some kind.
The theme song sung by 15 stars was supposed to be the main attraction for many, but the local media felt dismayed about repeated invocations of Brahma, Ganga and other canonical references to the Hindu paternal and maternal pantheon. This lay in stark contrast with how people, who live by the Brahmaputra, perceive it as their source of life and livelihood. It even went against Bhupen Hazarika’s notion of Mahabahu Brahmaputra, which is a more apt metaphor of Assam’s sycretic culture, going much beyond any Hindu religion-based notion of the Brahmaputra as “Brahma’s son” that invokes Brahman of Advaita vedanta. Hazarika sang about Azan Fakir and Guru Teg Bahadur as predecessors of Bishnu Rabha and peoples’ culture of assimilation between Padma and Luit, Jyoti Prasad Agarwala and Tagore in his evocative song, Mahabahu.
The question is, if Hazarika could not make the nation aware of Axomiya culture and religion and its central connection with the Brahmaputra, how can one Namami show make it known to the country as a whole? Hazarika made it clear that the Axomiya people are “Indians” because they belong to Axomiya culture and language and not the other way round. Namami’s emphasis on Hindu cultural moorings directly stems from the political authorities.
Contrastingly, Hazarika’s clarion call that Axomiya people need to save themselves from going to the dogs, or the imagery of a trembling heart, establish an umbilical connection between Borluit (another name of the Brahmaputra) and the existential concerns that Namami seem to translate into afterlife terms of salvation of the soul.
So the success of the spectacle, as per Brecht, which is supposed to depend on the actors, could not really establish a significant connection between the spectators, life-worlds and the Brahmaputra except establishing some connections with the ritual world of mainstream Hinduism.
Does Hinduism play a significant role in spreading Hindutva in Assam? This is a political question that gets negotiated in the domain of culture with an ideological implication of accepting the dominance of the superior over the local. The large number of plain and hill tribes of Assam who use the Brahmaputra for fishing and irrigation with its attendant festivals, artifacts, food and costumes, stand in conflict with the concept Namami. Hence, non-vegetarian food stalls were relegated to a corner, as Namami inaugurated a new age culture of vegetarianism in Assam.
The common folk of the tribal populace remained a little confused, as it could not explain why vegetarianism has to be promoted instead of their traditional fermented fish and pork. Many opined that there should have been representations of traditional folk and non-classical tribal dance and music of Assam. To some extent, forms close to classical forms were amply presented giving it a panIndian twist, either in terms of Bollywood or a fusion style. This again sent tremors across cultural practitioners telling them that only Shastric forms are acceptable. Bhaona, based on Sankardeva and Madhavdeva’s lives and works, was also presented without much allowance for a critical engagement. Many a time Sankardeva became Guru, while Guru in Assam’s parlance is more human and earthly than an attribution of supernatural qualities. Guru as a marker of folk spirituality and satra culture of Assam did not exactly find an easy parallel in Namami, as there is no fixed way of worship of the guru except in art forms like Bhaona, Jakir-Jiri and other such mix of music and enactment.
The highbrow pan-Indian aesthetic presentation of Sankar-Madhaba tradition of Assam needed a much more Tantric and lokayata backdrop than that of unreal trances of classical moves on stage. The political question comes back here. Can an earthly Axomiya syncretism provide a hosting ground to a pan-Indian classical tradition? Can Assam’s audience be enthralled by superstars and political rallies from powers that are? No one forgets how the Brahmaputra is being diverted by China at the heights of Tibet.
The presence of the Dalai Lama in Namami only added a diplomatic colour, given the India and China’s tiff over the Buddhist monk’s subsequent visits to Arunachal Pradesh. Can Namami be an indirect platform for settling such continental diplomatic controversies?
The flow of the Brahmaputra and its tributaries across Assam create a natural ecosystem of cultural, musical and theatrical reproduction that the official mode of reproduction certainly scuttled during Namami. It was more a New Delhi-Varanasi type than an Axomiya type but the public definitely enjoyed the shows and gimmicks, marked as they were by colourful gaiety.
The writer is Associate Profesor of Philosophy at the North Eastern Hill University, Shillong.