Postcards from the edge

Sanskrita Bharadwaj | Updated on August 10, 2018

Challenging erasure: The panel discussions focused on the diverse literary and cultural traditions in Arunachal   -  Sanskrita Bharadwaj

The maiden Arunachal Literature and Art Festival celebrates the unsung homegrown talent of the North-East

After studying sociology at Miranda House, artist Bhanu Tatak got into Delhi School of Economics but soon changed her mind. She decided to start an independent artists’ research residency in her hometown Roing, which is considered the last township in the North-East. She wanted to generate material for fine arts and film studies, curate it, and develop the residency into a space for knowledge-sharing about the many tribes of Arunachal, especially her own, the Adis. So, when organisers of the Arunachal Literature and Art Festival (ALAF) called on her to exhibit her work, the 23-year-old artist was thrilled. “I have so many artworks lying around. I had no idea if anyone would be interested in them. This is really a good platform for someone like me,” she said.

Held on August 4-5 at the lush Indira Gandhi Park in Itanagar, the festival received financial support from the state tourism department, and was organised by a collective of independent artists and film-makers. It brought together young and middle-aged Arunachalis and people from other northeastern states. The afternoons focused on panel discussions, art exhibitions, poetry sessions, and more, while the evenings were given over to fusion acts such as Neeraj Arya’s Kabir Café from Mumbai, and Omak Komut Collective from Arunachal Pradesh. What really set it apart from other literature festivals was the attempt to give a space and voice to raw, less-known homegrown talents, instead of fixing the spotlight on celebrity authors and artists.

Besides the government-aided Sahitya Akademi stall, the book stalls were mostly those of children’s publications, including Chennai’s Tulika Books and Karadi Tales. “These are parts of the country that we never get to come to. One of the local booksellers asked me how they could get our books here. We are also constantly seeking stories from the northeastern region, not just folk tales but also original voices of people who write with this region as their context,” says Shobha Viswanath, publishing director of Karadi Tales, which is known for its audio books. “The North-East is a small market, and it’s easier if you’re from the plains, but look at [musician and filmmaker] Bhupen Hazarika from Assam, he made his art accessible to everyone,” says Assam-born author Ankush Saikia, who feels that writers and journalists have a wealth of stories waiting to be uncovered from this region. Explaining the significance of the literature and art festival for the people of Arunachal Pradesh, Tatak says, “People feel uncomfortable to express themselves. I think we can call ourselves the first generation of Arunachalis who have become the pioneers of a movement like this.”

Dissenting voices

Given that it is the North-East, however, politics is never too far away, as was clear at some of the sessions at the festival. During a discussion on ‘Indigenous traditions: Continuity and convergence’, writer and historian Dharamsing Teron from Assam’s Karbi Anglong talked about how the region’s predominant tribe Karbis are the least researched people in India. Even a Google search unearths little beyond the information put out by missionaries, and research papers by university students, who “often prepare them in a hurry”, he rues. “Whatever history we know of, and whatever stories we grew up listening to, were either from the Ramayana or the Bible, which are aggressively marketed. But how do I claim my identity and dignity? We talk about our democratic rights, our constitutional rights, but nobody is listening to us.”

At another session titled ‘Freedom of Expression — Mirage or Reality’, Tongam Rina, deputy editor of Arunachal Times, pointed out that though Arunachal has as many as eight or nine dailies, journalists were poorly paid. “If they’re paid well, maybe there will be more energy and creativity. Some of them are so good, but there is no support from the media owners. So, many of our good reporters move to bureaucracy.”

Sustaining creativity

Two years ago, Guwahati, the largest city in the northeastern region, started hosting the Brahmaputra Literary Festival (BLF), but has seen low footfall and enthusiasm. What could the ALAF do to fare better? Though the festival has the support of the tourism department, Jarjum Ete, chairperson of the Arunachal Pradesh State Commission on Women, feels that little has been done to foster critical thinking. “Our young people have come of age — they are exploring and doing things that our generation couldn’t. We need patronage from the state and philanthropists for the arts and culture,” says Ete.

In attendance were prominent Arunachali writers such as YD Thongchi, whose mother tongue is a dialect called Sherdukpen but who writes in Assamese as that was the medium of instruction in the North-East Frontier Agency (NEFA) schools and was the lingua franca. “People like Thongchi are invited to these events as chief guests and they are at the helm of things, but for young readers their writings are not available, which is what I feel bad about. Nobody knows why they are not available and I don’t know if people care… it will take time for society to understand their work,” said Zilpha Modi, an assistant professor at the Rajiv Gandhi University in Itanagar.

Others like Millo Ankha, one of the festival’s organisers, however remain optimistic: “The seed has been planted, and we hope this itself will bring in a change of thought in people and shape the state positively. We will continue to make the future editions bigger and brighter.”

Sanskrita Bharadwaj is a Guwahati-based independent journalist

Published on August 10, 2018

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