Nodir Kul Nai: A short film on Assam's Char Chaporis documents their songs on identity, statelessness

Since long now, the Bengal-origin Muslims of Assam, or Char Chaporis (a section of peasants settled along the banks of the Brahmaputra), have been treated as outcasts in the state. Multiple instances of targeted violence have been carried out against them by the indigenous Assamese-Hindus, with the 1983 Nellie massacre being one such horrific instance. Recently, with the National Register of Citizens (NRC)-Citizenship Bill fallout, the intolerance and hatred towards the 'other' has assumed even more prominence in the politically distraught state.

Delving deeper into the lives and artistic culture of Char Chaporis is Nodir Kul Nai, a short film directed by Parasher Baruah. It was part of this year's edition of the ArtEast festival, which is a "fringe art festival presenting emerging and leading local and international artists in all genres of the performing and visual arts." With the current year's theme, festival organisers have chosen to take a closer look at the source, history, exploration and imagination of the Brahmaputra, according to senior journalist and author Kishalay Bhattacharjee, who is also the curator of the festival ever since it began in 2017.

Baruah's film stands almost in opposition to the incident of the Assam Police registering a case against ten people for reportedly composing a poem criticising the NRC, alleging that their "social media posts might create enmity in society", on 11 July.

Read: Miyah poetry backlash exemplifies the powerful forces unleashed when a group identity is under threat

 Nodir Kul Nai: A short film on Assams Char Chaporis documents their songs on identity, statelessness

Director and cinematographer Parasher Baruah at the 12th International Documentary and Short Film Festival of Kerala.

"It is an initiative to raise pertinent questions through intersections in art, livelihood, social justice, climate change, communication, history – past and present, issues that have a far-reaching impact on our everyday lives," Bhattacharjee says. Baruah has been associated with the festival for the past three years as well, and has been collaborating with the former on various projects. For ArtEast 2019, Baruah pitched the concept for a video installation, featuring songs of the people living on the sandbanks of the Brahmaputra, and a supporting photo exhibition of portraits of people there — that's how the film Nodir Kul Nai came into being.

"I have been working in Majuli for the past few years and there was my personal interest in looking at the life of the people of the Char Chapori. I wanted to look at this large riverine community who have over the ages made this region their home. Unfortunately, we only examine them through the prism of 1971 cut-off date, the Illegal Migrants (Determination by Tribunal) IMDT act of 1983, demographic changes, Islamic terror threat and language. In doing so, we overlook the human stories of this group of people who have migrated here for various reasons. I realised I didn’t know much about them given my limited interactions and conditioning," Baruah says.

When the prospect of making a film about the Brahmaputra presented itself to Baruah, he realised how in the current climate it is necessary to address this community. He was deeply interested in exploring the way immigrants carry traces of their past in their songs and poetry. Further, he strongly feels that unlike the songs of other riverine communities like the Mishings of Assam and Arunachal Pradesh, those of the Char Chaporis have never been acknowledged or well documented in the past. That made his research increasingly cumbersome, once he ventured into conceptualising the film in November 2018. He started by reading up all he could on the Char Chaporis, their music, and then reached out to people who were practising the art in Assam. To his dismay, apart from a few academic papers and articles, he couldn’t find anything substantive on the subject.

Also read: Miyah poetry — How Assam’s Bengali-Muslims used words to capture a lifetime of oppression and abuse

Still from the film.

Still from the film.

It was then that he met Miyah poet and president of the Char Chapori Sahitya Sabha, Hafiz Ahmed. Ahmed had penned the poem, I am a Miyah in 2016, later connecting Baruah to research scholars and other Miyah poets, including Shalim Hussain. On being exposed to Miyah poetry and developing an intrigue in this "new voice", the central idea of Nodir Kul Nai was born.

"My research included the emergence of Miyah poetry and I found the form of expression to be very raw and powerful. Their words touched a nerve in me and I was excited to see this renewed and energised expression," reveals Baruah.

But, given the paucity of time, with a now overwhelming insight into the subject, Baruah decided to begin his film with the older traditional songs of the region, and gradually "prepare the context for further exploration of the newer voices in Miyah poetry, which were now being shared on social media, emerging out of the current political climate in Assam."

"I wanted to explore the emergence of protest poems leading to protest songs — songs that question the majority narratives and hold up a mirror to unpleasant realities."

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The prevailing political climate in India is largely centred around the notion of one's identity and credibility as a citizen — a true nationalist vs the 'other', the 'enemy'. The north-eastern part of India, Assam in particular, has been grappling with this situation in a more severe form for some time now.

Through the state's history, a sporadic-yet-substantial influx of refugees from nearby areas (mainly Bangladesh or erstwhile East Bengal) has happened consistently. Consequently, the unwelcome Bengali-Muslims have been shunned to the fringes of society, treated as intruders, and have been collectively branded as Charuwas, Pamuwas, Mymensinghiyas, Na-Axomiyas and 'miyahs' (an Urdu word, originally meaning 'gentleman', but has been bastardised to a derogatory term carrying barbaric connotations).

Still from the film.

Still from the film.

"Who really is an Assamese, with as many as 30 different ethnic groups in our state? How do we decide who is an Assamese? I have seen signs of strong fission between the many communities we have in the state and our recent history is shaped by many of them leading a struggle against the imposition of mainstream Assamese language and culture. This process of exclusion and inclusion as an Assamese is problematic," opines Baruah, who looks at his film Nodir Kul Nai through a rather personal lens as well.

When the first draft of NRC was released, Baruah didn’t find his name on it. "For a brief period, I was technically stateless," he says, continuing: "A process that renders 41 lakh people as stateless is a concern. Loopholes have been exploited in the system to spread a sense of fear and uncertainty. There is an extreme outrage amongst those who have been subjected to this scrutiny, especially young people who have been deprived of their right to be called an Indian citizen. It is finding expression in their poetry and literature."

"This is the time we, who call ourselves 'Assamese', must acknowledge their presence and start interacting with them as equals," Baruah adds.

In an earlier interview with Firstpost, Miyah poet and research scholar at Delhi’s Jamia Millia Islamia University, Shalim Hussain, had talked about how there are apprehensions, within and outside the community, about their literature. "Many think this is an identity movement and that we may eventually play our own identity politics, seek our own language or build our own diction etc," Hussain had said, stressing on the fact that in reality, Miyah poetry and its poets are barely concerned with the language or the politics behind it. "It is a protest against the word ‘miyah’ being used."

Both Hussain and Hafiz Ahmed are listed in the aforementioned FIR, where ten Miyah poets have been charged with criminal offences, including IPC Section 153 (A) for inciting hatred between communities, as reported by the Press Trust of India. That there could be a situation of a run-in with the law for writing poetry that highlights the persecution of his own community was unimaginable for Hussain (who is currently unavailable for comments) when he spoke to Firstpost a month ago. "The administration has bigger things to worry about, we haven’t had any problems with them. What the administration has done to our personal lives is a different story, but there has been no threat from them with regard to Miyah poetry."

***

Still from the film.

Still from the film.

Propelled by his own experiences, and further fuelled by curiosity about the Char Chaporis' lives, Baruah wished to engage with the community by capturing their cultural expressions through songs and literature. "Songs carry stories of a shared past, of ancient migrations from distant lands, forgotten ancestors and of ordinary tales of sorrow and happiness," Baruah says, and adds that it has the "power to communicate strong messages of socio-political assertions and self-determination".

Nodir Kul Nai was shot in February 2019 over a period of two days. Since the film was on songs of the river, Baruah decided to go with three songs that spoke of the different ways in which the Char Chaporis perceive the Brahmaputra. They filmed and recorded close to 15 songs of various genres, like Bhaatiyali, Qawalli, Bhajans, Baul and Sufi. The musicians gathered there were from Arikati, Kacharipam and Puran Gaon villages of Mahtoli, near Boko, in Assam's Kamrup district. The entire film took almost three weeks to edit, and Baruah and his team just barely managed to meet their deadline for ArtEast.

Still from the film

Still from the film.

Both Baruah and Bhattacharjee are hoping to work on a longer film that furthers the dialogue that Nodir Kul Nai has initiated. Baruah recounts how, at the 12th International Documentary and Short Film Festival of Kerala, members of the audience came up to him to discuss the film, or to ask him why topical issues like the NRC and Citizenship Bill were not spelt out or included in it, once its screening was over. "There is a lot to be said. There are very subtle moments in the film that I feel alludes to current issues concerning the community. People have subjective interpretations and take-backs from this film, and that is enough for me."

As for whether the film could face any opposition or flak, much like the booked Miyah poets, Baruah assures, "I really do not see anyone having any issue with this film or any in the future. I am only recording what is already there — the songs, the poetry and the stories of struggle." He concludes by saying how it's "time we accepted newer voices and acknowledge their contribution to the cultural landscape of Assam."

Watch the trailer of Nodir Kul Nai here:

All images courtesy of Parasher Baruah.

Updated Date: Jul 26, 2019 09:27:50 IST