Subasri Krishnan's film Sikhirini Mwsanai traces conflict-ridden Bodo identity through revival of their art

  • The film revolves around the journey of Sifung Harimu Afad, a cultural troupe of young adult Bodos, as they foreground Bodo identity through live music and dance performance in Assam's Chirang district.

  • Krishnan explores this cultural revivalism in a place that has always been identified with cyclic conflicts and violence.

  • Sikhirini Mwsanai premiered on 23 September, 2019, at India International Centre, New Delhi.

Princess of wind and water is dancing
Colourful flowers are in bloom
Butterflies are fluttering around
Bwisagu has come...

The water and the breeze are also dancing
Princess of wind and water is dancing
Bwisagu has come...

In Assam's Bodoland, located in the far-off North East, bwisagu (spring) happens to be the most cherished festival marking the new year celebrations of the indigenous Bodos living in the BTAD (Bodoland Territorial Area Districts) region. The Bodo word bwisagu, meaning 'the beginning of a new year', is composed of the words bwisa (or baisa) meaning 'age' or 'year', and agu meaning 'start' or 'beginning'.

Subasri Krishnan's latest documentary Sikhirini Mwsanai ('Dance of the Butterfly') explores this cultural revivalism in a place that has always been identified with cyclic conflicts and violence. The film revolves around the journey of Sifung Harimu Afad, a cultural troupe of young adult Bodos, who foreground Bodo identity through live music and dance performances in Assam's Chirang district.

 Subasri Krishnans film Sikhirini Mwsanai traces conflict-ridden Bodo identity through revival of their art

Members of Sifung Harimu Afad

"I was interested in this idea of representation of the ordinariness, and in this film, it is through this troupe (that the representation happens). In places like Bodoland, you tend to have certain stuck imagery that is constantly produced. I think I, as a filmmaker, was interested in exploring how you speak of a form of life which is here — this region, these young people, these Bodo women weaving, the market place etc... How do you speak of a form of everyday life in places that have seen conflicts?" Krishnan says.

The north bank of the Brahmaputra river in Assam has witnessed decades of clashes over demands for a separate 'borderland' state. The notion of this isolated nation-state arose from ethnic identity conflicts among the inhabitants of the region ages ago. It stemmed from ideas of indigenousness that the “sons of the soil” hold true ownership of the land and its resources. In addition to that, a mix of socio-economic issues has plagued the region: lack of infrastructure, unemployment, substandard quality of education and health facilities have made BTAD one of the underdeveloped and backward regions in India. As a result, in 2003, Bodoland Territorial Area Districts (BTAD) — comprising four districts namely Kokrajhar, Chirang, Udalguri and Baksa — was created within the state of Assam. Bodos, Adivasis, Rajbongshis, Bengal-origin Muslims and Hindus live in the BTAD, with Bodos comprising a majority of the population.

Krishnan's film delves into the narrative of the aftermath, but it remains hidden within layers of subtext. There are glimpses of monuments from the Bodoland assertion movements, including the Bodoland Martyrs' Cemetery, and remnants of the All Bodo Students Union's (ABSU) power and history in the form of logos painted on surfaces across the district.

Talking about her lens of storytelling for Sikhirini Mwsanai, Krishnan says, "Of course all of that is there, but my film is not about that. Moreover, I don’t make films where information is so easily rolled out. People want to know, please go read!" Krishnan's last outing was also based in Assam and dealt with the prolonged aftermath of the 1983 Nellie Massacre. In fact, her next film Shadow Lines, currently in pre-production, "explores questions of citizenship and nationhood in contemporary Assam".

So what does Krishnan say with Sikhirini Mwsanai? "There are two things," she says, "One is the music which I fell in love for from the get-go, and the other is this troupe, which is a young adult Bodo group trying to revive this dance-and-music form that also in its very heart goes into the idea of cultural revivalism in places that have seen conflict."

***

Krishnan went to BTAD for research in January 2018. The first filming schedule began in April 2018, and the film was completed in December the same year. Her research included reading up on the region, its history and culture as derived from the little material available, and understanding the reasons behind an art form's disappearance. "I wanted to know why people don’t do live music anymore? I found no easy answer to that. Is it the conflict and violence...that it has wholly disappeared? Or is it the nature of modernity itself?" the filmmaker asks. She spoke to the locals and the troupe – who are aged between 16 and 20 — to understand what is it that drives them.

It was during her research that she stumbled upon Chirang-based civil society organisation The ANT (The Action NorthEast Trust), set up in 2010, "to work for the development of the North East region through voluntary action". One of the founders, Jennifer Liang (a trained social worker from the Tata Institute of Social Sciences in Mumbai, who came to the North East in 1996) who features in Krishnan's film, is also an important part of the narrative. In some way, she bridges the gap between the troupe and the viewers.

While The ANT's primary focus was to work on public health, Krishnan says that they "soon realised that public health is not just about that, it’s tied with the idea of livelihood and with the idea of opportunity." She adds that the "wellbeing of a place is tied with the idea of a sense of assertion and dignity – which are also the core objectives of the Bodo movement."

Banners and placards outside The ANT's office.

Banners and placards outside The ANT's office.

The ANT started working with a local group of women, who are shown in the film weaving the dokhona (traditional dress worn by Bodo women), a symbol of Bodo pride, and a "cultural marker". The cultural troupe Sifung Harimu Afad also works with The ANT to revive the region's live music-dance form, using traditional musical instruments like the Kham (a drum-like percussion instrument), Serja (a local violin-like string instrument) and Sifung, (a long bamboo flute having five holes) among others.

***

"Cultures and traditions are important for a tribe to survive. This tradition is a mirror of our community. Therefore we are trying to promote our traditional dance, music and clothes. To preserve this unique identity of the Bodos, it is important to focus on its culture and traditions, so that people and the future generation can remember us. We want the next generation of Bodos to be aware and proud of their culture," says one of the members of the troupe in the film. With Sikhirini Mwsanai, Krishnan manages to avoid the gaze of an outsider that exoticises the subject and its surroundings. We see young groups of artists singing and dancing to traditional Bodo tunes and forms such as the Bagurumba. At the same time, they can also be seen recording performances on their phones, while listening to new-age Bodo music and other forms of music. "They are just like us, like any other young people, and they have this sense of cultural revivalism which is again a global phenomenon with slight changes in the context," says Krishnan.

"My attempt, through this film, was not to say this is who they are... The character of the troupe is the most important part of the film. They practice, they rehearse, they are also learning the words of the songs through mobile phones. So here, modernity coexists with something beautiful that this part of the world is producing. In a way, they are also ‘global’, and they consume culture as much as they produce, very much as we do," she adds.

Subasri Krishnan's film, besides depicting the paradoxes of the ordinary and the extraordinary in life, breaks a lot of stereotypes of class-caste privilege and ignorance. One such stereotype is that of gender and how rural societies address it. Sikhirini Mwsanai documents relationships and interplays between different genders: men and men, women and women, men and women. The film also documents the troupe going through an extensive process of gender sensitisation.

"I am trying to represent a form of life: it is not just about music, but also about being — being yourself and how you are with each other," remarks Krishnan. This sense of immense comfort among themselves wasn’t something that was "done for the camera", and that it could be "a function of that place". "This is something they do perhaps...After school and college, they come every day and practice and basically have fun." She mentions that capturing all these moments was not a part of her film's research, and happened only when she started shooting. "I went there to make more of a plain 'let’s-see-how-the-revival-is-happening' kind of a film in the place that I am familiar with. But these things happened in the way (they did) and are all in the subtext. Some people may catch it, some people may not. I am okay with that."

Artists getting ready for a live song-dance performance

Artists getting ready for a live song-dance performance

Jump and dance, oh! jump and dance
Dance in vigorous jumps

Had you not been a youth
Of our same clan
I would have caught hold of you
And taken you in my lap

There is a bird in the thatch-field
Oh, you men of our village
Don't you fall behind
In dance and song

Dance to your hearts' content
Dance with abandonment

Jump and dance, oh! jump and dance
Dance in vigorous jumps

From the lines above, it is not only difficult to understand the gender of the person saying them, but also of the one to whom it is addressed. “I would like to believe it is the woman. It is also about reclaiming desire. There’s play, there’s flirtation and mock anger,” the director says, adding that we can’t be unidimensional in the way we imagine sexuality. “When they were telling me I fell in love with the song...because at the heart of it is the idea of desire and that too in an open way, not in an 'activist-y' way or victimhood way,” she adds.

The concepts of sexuality and desire are painted in broad strokes in the film — both in terms of physicality and understanding. However, according to Krishnan, Sikhirini Mwsanai is not about sexuality. “It is there in this fluid, undefined way, and I would want it to keep it like that. That is how I like to frame my film,” she says.

Bwisagu, the springtime festival, stands as much for desire and flirtation, as for its seasonal splendour. “It’s all part of folk tradition,” Krishnan says, recounting how, in fact, one of her upper-caste Bodo friends told her that many of them weren’t allowed to participate in these bwisagu events. “In terms of class, this was usually performed within the poor and the lower-middle classes. Plus, there was all this flirtation involved.”

Everyday practice sessions

Everyday practice sessions

In one of the sequences, we see two men perform to a Demsi song, where one of them plays the part of a woman, and the other is trying to woo her. While there is an evident androgyny in their movements and gestures, there is not a speck of awkwardness reflected in their performance, or that of the other troupe members', or even among the viewers.

Krishnan isn’t sure about the sexual dynamics at play, and suspects her gaze. “I chose not to keep it in the foreground, it’s there like everything else is there. To me, it didn’t feel they were self-conscious, or rather they knew they were. I was also reading it in a particular context where it seems everybody knew it and everybody was comfortable with it. I chose not to get into that.” She prefers fluidity, and hence, avoids ascribing causality to any phenomenon. “In a film like this, it is very important because I was an outsider first and then it could be a certain cultural thing as well. I just want people to experience it, think about it, and listen to the music,” she adds.

With Sikhirni Mwsanai, Krishnan creates a landscape for the troupe’s world. She follows them on their rehearsals for Bwisagu, and their journey from Assam all the way to Tamil Nadu's Kancheepuram, in order to participate in the Hidden Idol contest. “My idea of following this troupe was also to see this inside-outside theory: Who you are from inside? Are you the same from outside?” she asks, talking about a segment of the film featuring the group in a foreign land, grappling with a new culture, new language and new people. “That, for me, goes back into the heart of representational politics,” she says.

In conclusion, Krishnan puts to words what her film signifies in essence: “It is about representing people who are like you and me. They just happened to live there. Obviously our lives differ greatly, but again, this is their life and this is their story — their music, their dance, their weave, and their beauty.”

Watch the trailer of Subasri Krishnan's film Sikhirini Mwsanai here:

— Sikhirini Mwsanai premiered on 23 September, 2019, at India International Centre, New Delhi.

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Updated Date: Sep 28, 2019 10:09:37 IST