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A Mute Witness - Poetry Review by Rupanjali Baruah

Contemporary artists of Assam
The contemporary artists of Assam  have been living in bleak times trying to recover through art into a shell of their own,  most of them have been experiencing them at certain strategic phases in their lives and as a result there is a striking plurality in their approaches, patterns of thoughts and their movements in their artwork. There are creations where we discover a bit of camaraderie with nostalgia implicit in the tragic context of those happenings. The past is no more, their claim that history will strengthen them is gone too and so they see those immeasurable wrongs done to their community in terms of their cultural heritage which are always in danger of perishing into a quiet oblivion. These are mostly these artists’ burden and they have to live with it.

But each of these artists have found a way of expressing these experiences and this is why their art has not given rise to stereotypes. They cannot shed their twentieth century consciousness nor can they return to their native land’s glorified past and so a question of silence hangs in between; there is no stringent sorority in the utterances on their canvas as they come face to face encountering truth of denials and thus they keep their social skin intact.

The artwork of Assam is wired to the circuit of a genre that is exclusive and separate because their experiences are different from artists from the rest of the country and their treatment of themes, motifs and images are entirely shaped and determined by the particular atmosphere of the region they belong to.

The state of Assam  upholds a diversity of racial and religious inheritance which is reflected in the matter and stylistic approaches in creative art.  We are treated to a new series of experiments with artwork with new areas of exploration for the connoisseur of art. To some it may seem like arsenal as they accuse and protest against assault on those factors both socio political and economic that have done immense wrong to their communities, they therefore read like sheets of angry witness to things gone bad. This disjunction helps us to assimilate their class history too. Though the past cannot be resurrected, these artists make us walk back in time and participate in a parade of folk and socio cultural events where the imaginative power of the artists provide a blend of compassion and sadness at having to retire finally into the folds of a different time; there are traces of atmosphere of specific locales, language and dialect which bear relevance to the history inherent in the region. Sometimes personal torment, guilt and real desires are relegated and yet their absences make us aware of a mental fracture. The settings in each of their canvases are therefore different because racial and cultural oppositions and so we can imagine that these artists will lead us to a better understanding of their people and their time, some of their voices are truly lonely and it is clear that their art would transmute pain only.

Time and social changes have deceived these artists, disappointed them and unsettled their lives and so their subsequent experiences often seem to sour and nothing better can be expected from their surroundings caught between the cross fire of extremism and terrorist activities that have truly made them mute witness to the whole charade of preserving their identity but never quite coming to terms with them. These have made them somewhat wiser to be able to shed their wooly thoughts of utopia, because a world without violence, blood and mire is not unknown to them. And this realization gnaws at every fiber in their sensibilities as well as their consciousness mixed with a helpless feeling of surrender and this subsequently leads to an accumulation of agony and an overdose of boredom  and ennui at life’s happenings, there is no silver lining in the quiet firmament above them. ‘Carry me off’ they would shout collectively, a chorus of dissent rises but the crossing over to another world does not happen. And to look for the soul of the artist in the form of an angel is a matter of overstatement because they are not to be foolish dreamers, they have learned to live with the stark realities cloistered and packed together waiting till some winds of change will give them their final deliverance. ‘Tomorrow’s dawn/ is waiting/ do not go back.’

Sobha Brahma experiences a kind of pain that refuses to go away. There are instances of interior monologues in his conversations with his created figures where other faces and other memories surface which take him back in time, to another time of happy moorings, happy contemplations which alone can defy the social turmoil raging in his state. Memories are the only thread that can distract him from the menace of thr time.

His women seem to cry out to the fellow brothers ‘where are you bound brother/ with all those dead birds/ on your shoulder.’ ( Nilim Kumar)

This generation of artists from Assam is weary, their lives lead them with hesitant steps unable to weave dreams. Everything is blighted trapped in the ennui of the time and fear in particular has caused them a bitter internal bloodshed, a fear which in recent years became so excessive that it threatens to throttle the complacence of the common man with the sleight of a hand. Nothing can dissipate this fear and as a result we have canvases dotted with points of doubt. These artists have moved from an area of freedom to that of unfreedom and there is no comfort in the awareness that the matter of fear is the same, may be more, in the other states of the region.

Nilmoni Phukan shares the woes of his brother artists too
‘in my heart/ sprout a seed/left behind by careless men/ who have eaten and forgotten.’

These artists cannot wish for a fairyland; the sensibilities are sharpened only by follies that have shaped the destinies of their race of men. Sadness determines the color of these artists mostly. The identity of the native has been fragmented, splintered into several subjective parts of separate experiences which have given rise to different stylistic possibilities of expressing them.

The inheritances of pleasant feelings of social worth and comfort which are essential to sustain the emotional growth of a group are like a social reed that protects the bark of a tree from hardened ball of assault. But in truth these have been like thin varnish which could not save them when death through terrorism and the banality of values left them trembling inside.

The artists from Assam are angry too at being denied that complacence that they were born with. They wish to do away with constrictions that keep on gathering with numerous funerals of young men who take up arms inadvertently. In the smell of gunpowder they have forgotten the smell of blue orchids. These artists have inherited the innocence of myths, the solidarity of their ancient hills and sometimes the comfort of a river, the Brahmaputra that could have led them to explore only pleasant dreams on their canvas but the unflinching manner of death, brutality and general scenes of damage through carnage brought in nightmares with all its tangible realities. So the blood runs on their canvas instead of tears and they hear only ‘wailing voices/ run over by time’s wheel/ has become hoarse’ wrote Saratchand Thiyam, The artists are aware of commotion in every home, of that still incoherent cry of babies, there is no relief in the lullabies, only the sound of gunshots and bleeding bodies keep them awake every other night.

‘Every road is reverberating/ with the deafening utterances of boots.’

Their old order crumbled though the artists wish to preserve whatever is left of it. This abuse of their land raises an angst in their art so their flowers have only the color of blood and the scars made by bullets are indelible moles on a beautiful face, there is just a body without head. And it is not a folktale. Such declarations can balk our sanity unable to accept the truth of a half and half kind of existence. To these artists even the hills are indignant though the river never retorted but the sky speaks with hurt abuse. Disgust and displeasure emerge from images and colors of these artists who paint and then tear up, paint and then tear up that cannot hide this malice and social distress when sons do not return from lost wars.

‘who has the right to sicken a child to hurl a stone at my neighbor’s cat.’

Nothing seems to grow young again each day is a filth day. They seem to cry out - ‘ Why did I not die in those happy days when I was so loved’. This loss baffles them with too many questions with no answers; why birds no longer sing, why rivers no longer have fish and where the rainbow has gone. Their world too is the world of Octavio Paz with its blood splattered calendar who did not inherit pleasant dreams and still hopes that someone someday will send them good dreams. Such assumptions can only add to their loneliness and significantly they see ‘the grass the green and within reach/ A bomb. This is the ennui of this time where men are going bald with too much thought and their bodies sticking out like bones.

The artists share a fellowship bonded by a common feeling to search for ways to get away from the woes of their time and yet the personal remains personal which are felt on the fringes of their lines, images and color. A sublime longing for something to carry them on in spite of life’s trials and happenings strengthen their art that would have proved endemic. They are not passive voices; there is a clear interpolation between dream and reality where nightmares often overtake fancies. These artists would not yield to pressure from decadent values, they have raised before the world an elliptical universe of both myth and truth. A two way process is always at work; a race for life and the other is the one unto death and the artists aware of being in it but cannot move with it. It is to some a drifting where what had happened soon replaces what is happening and then uncertain light and too much darkness begin to battle. Their thoughts are like fishes caught in a net; they may be cast away back into the turbulent waters or find themselves in the whirlpool of deathtraps; a world of lost pleasures and of searing pain waits on the crest of their hills. So their hills resonate with sound and silence, they are tragic hills that bear the burden of wounds of feet clamped in the jaws of deathtraps, as it were, a death warrant has been signed by the keepers of the soil for their own race of men. Some observations are therefore astute, matter of fact and rather cold to the core because they are part of that universe where ‘ no one knows here/ when he may die and whom he may kill.’(Ananya S Guha).

In Debananda Ulup wind, rain, shimmering cold and liquid heat all lock them into a world of smocked earth. He may either tiptoe in softly or walk back into the cradle of the past to get away from the present guilt of living with misgivings where shabby Saturdays, vulgar make up, yellowing oranges and streets with cheap perfumery seem to accumulate the quantity of agony and its anguish and yet a hope sustains his art. The old  legends of his grandmother are remembered and they reassure him of  his rich individual inheritance which he should not allow to fall into abuse. Dilip Tamuly has the hope of finding his homeland still visible and resolute, perhaps a tree or even a piece of stone will help him look for roots because in that belonging alone true reverence begins. Munin Bhattachrya’s world is ‘cold as matrimonial column’ where ‘the heart that slithers out of its hole…must risk being stoned, his multiple eyes too carry the great hurt in his soul but he is willing to wait for the night to grow to move out of those difficult days. He searches for his missing links with a river’s song , the outline of hills are difficult to define so he has to return to those voices in the murmur in his sleep.

At some point of time, Neel Pawan Baruah’s world on his canvas tries to nestle in the comfortable hammock of folk idioms, symbols and images that provide momentary relief to bring alive the old world of rituals and practice. Sometimes the artist tries to hide his dissent with a mask that is meant to work as a shield, a symbol – covered surface and a hieroglyph. A mask often expresses and yet it suffocates, they are inseparable from the fiction that artists create for themselves and so they are beyond sequential time held ‘in illo tempere’ in Mercia Eliade’s words, which teach us to look for the fire within the fire.

As such their artwork conveys the essential angst burning beautiful, we can gather from the art of these artists a different culture telling the miseries of contemporary dilemmas of Assam.  
Rupanjali Baruah, Assam

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