Contemporary poetry recitations in urban public spaces in Assam are rare now – many have switched to slam genres or remain limited to select circles. But the nostalgic aspect of a poetry recitation leaving people captivated is very much present in contiguous parts of western Assam and North Bengal. This nostalgia assumes a hyperbolic nature in people’s memories after the pandemic, when public poetry readings and recitations are scarce. When I was in Cooch Behar four years ago, local speakers of the Rajbanshi language told me that community folklore finds itself anew in poetic diction. It is musical and the music itself carries its politics.
In Southasia, for the uninitiated, Rajbanshi is the language spoken by the Koch Rajbanshi community. Yet, it is not such a simple definition. With multiple demographic and linguistic changes, names of languages, communities and how they are formed also undergo changes. Paresh Borah in his paper, Demand for Separate Statehood and The Koch Rajbanshi’s Quest for Revival of Their Past in The Indian State of Assam writes, “Koch Rajbanshis are one of the oldest aboriginal ethnic groups of Southasia… Presently they are found in three Southasian countries viz. India, Bangladesh and Nepal. In India they are predominantly found in four Indian states, ie. West Bengal, particularly in North Bengal, Assam, and some parts of Bihar and Meghalaya.”
But the complexity that arises as a result of shared borders, large expanses of territory is stated by academic Baniprasanna Misra in his 2015 essay “Revisiting the Rajbanshi Identity”. He states, “In West Bengal, at present, the ‘Rajbanshis’ and the ‘Koches’ are recognised by the state as two independent ‘Scheduled Castes’.” I’ve written before that “within India and Southasia currently, the term “Koch” has been (almost) replaced by “Rajbanshi” in North Bengal, Bihar and Nepal. Since 1996, the terms ‘Koch’ and ‘Rajbanshi’ are officially used as one term ‘Koch–Rajbanshi’ in Assam.” These attempts at definitions are also prone to flaws in specific social and cultural contexts. Poetry then can become a vehicle of resisting such territory marking and also vice-versa – as we will see.
Languages and subnationalism in Assam
In 1996, Rajbanshi Kabita Sankalan, an anthology of poems in Rajbanshi language, was released and it was a landmark publication. That was the first major collection of original Rajbanshi poems from such a vast geographic horizon. It was co-edited by Jatin Barma and Binod Bihari Barman, of Tufanganj in Cooch Behar district in present-day North Bengal. It had about fifty poets from Assam, North Bengal, Nepal, Bihar and Bangladesh. The intensity and metaphoric sophistication of the poems was remarkable. Some popular poems by Kamalesh Sarkar, Jatin Barma, Ratikanta Das, Binod Bihari Barman, Gauri Mohan Ray, Dwijendra Nath Bhakat and others found articulation in this anthology.
There were no major follow up editions as the poets were writing/self-publishing as a part of their passion. Neither were these efforts very well-known within the mainstream Assamese circuits of poetry publication and anthology making. The standardisation process of the Assamese language was manifold and in the post-1960s, it helped in the ushering of a new regionalist consciousness. So, for the speakers/poets of other tongues (like the tribes) who were educated in Assamese medium schools, learning and writing in Assamese was already a translation. It is also important to mention here that popular literary and linguistic figure Banikanta Kakati had written before that ancient Assamese language patrons were from Koch Bihar indeed. Debendranath Barma in his essay “Adi Madhya Jugor Axomiya Bhaxa Sahitya Gathanat Koch Rajbanshi Bhaxar Bhumika” (Contribution of the Koch Rajbanshi language in the making of early medieval Assamese literature) highlights that the Assamese language, in which poet Madhav Kandali translated the Ramayana, has major influences (and is derived) from the Koch Rajbanshi language or the language of Kamatapur.
Rajbanshi poetry is essentially a poetic enunciation from the margins.
After twenty-five years, some major poems from the 1996 collection are being translated along with contemporary poems written in the Rajbanshi language. Titled This Land, This People, and translated by Jyotirmoy Prodhani and Pradip Acharya, it brings together Rajbanshi poets of the erstwhile Kamata kingdom of Northeast India. This translation presents the contemporary reader in English with multiple paradoxes. One of the most essential questions remains the movement for cultural, ethnic and political autonomy gaining public attention and the importance of a consolidated linguistic-literary canon to communicate for this cause. At various points in the past, we have often seen assertions of minority rights and demands of separate statehoods relying on colonial ethnography and oral myths and legends in Assam.
“Rajbansha and Rajbanshi
Are not synonymous
Rajbansha means the progeny of kings
The name of the nation Rajbanshi is”
“Amra Rajbongshi”, translated by Jyotirmoy Prodhani, poet Nirmal Ray Bhakat.
Organised written literature in the Rajbanshi language was tough to find until the 1990s. It started with the Scheduled Tribe movement of the Koch Rajbanshis in Assam that was gaining momentum during that time. It is known that Assam and the Northeast had seen very volatile and tumultuous days in the 1980s and 1990s. A lot of Koch Rajbanshi students who were a major part of the Assam movement did lose their lives. Due to the various problems of inclusivity in the movement, many indigenous communities felt alienated. What is also pertinent to recall is that such an agitation couldn’t grasp the pluralistic content of the language, which led to many prejudices, stereotypes and marginalisation thereafter.
Poems provide a great deal of imaginative resilience to go beyond the familiar terrains of history and social discourses.
After the movement, several senior as well as young Koch Rajbanshi writers emerged in Assam who were writing in the language. Though this was a tentative occurrence, many a time, they’d write as a part of their responsibility rather than as part of a natural linguistic choice for creative expression. This was also partly because the proponents of Rajbanshi identity had to build a distinct corpus of literature so as to strengthen claims for autonomy. It is important to note here that it is not just a geographical-temporal line but also in the reconstitution of its historic narration. In North Bengal, especially in the places like Cooch Behar, Jalpaiguri and neighbouring Siliguri, Rajbanshi writings were already proliferating in a significant way.
An ever-changing poetic enunciation
Rajbanshi poetry is essentially a poetic enunciation from the margins. This is a vibrant oral linguistic tradition; its contemporary written form bears a distinctive cultural, historical, ethnic and imaginative identity which has a very rich folk and oral dimension. Poems included belong to a very vast and wide temporal horizon – from the late 18th century (Ratiram Das ‘Jag Gaan’) to the poems of the 90s (the most important period when Rajbanshi writing significantly proliferated) to the very contemporary poets like Pijush Sarkar, Amitabh Ranjan and others. In the book, with respect to the older poems, archaic and formal diction were used to keep the translations closer to the original tone and expression. For the modern poems, the emphasis is visibly on retaining the flavour of contemporaneity.
The brilliant sky, the full moon
I see them now
I close my eyes
Look, my breast is an empty meadow
My mother says
A patch of green
Someone, do get me
Get me a patch, a patch of green
“A Patch of Green”, translated by Pradip Acharya, poet Salil Panchanan.
Rajbanshi has essentially remained a thriving oral linguistic tradition. Hence, the local variations of the language are what are found in their respective written forms. Therefore, local varieties of the language are considerably high, which, in fact, adds to its unique dynamism. One keeps on discovering fresh lexicons of one’s own native tongue. The language in Assam, North Bengal, Nepal, and Bihar has subtle variations. This dynamic dimension of the language forces the translator to be more active and involved in order to deal with quite a rich range of nouns and adjectives of the language. Besides, there are variations of script as well; in Assam the ancient Kamatapuri script, which is also the Assamese script, is followed. In North Bengal and Rangpur, Bangladesh they now follow the Bengali script, while in Nepal and Bihar they follow the Devanagari script.
In 1996, Rajbanshi Kabita Sankalan, an anthology of poems in Rajbanshi language, was released and it was a landmark publication.
For Koch Rajbanshis, there is a dichotomy of imagination among the community members belonging to Assam and Bengal. In Assam we read about Koch history from our school days till college (however little); in Bengal, on the other hand, the Koch Rajbanshi history, or any indigenous history for that matter, is mostly a forbidden territory, they are absolutely erased chapters. Therefore, in Bengal, native Rajbanshi people would not have an institutional opportunity to know about their own history, hence the association with history for a Rajbanshi in Assam and Bengal is quite different.
Poems do provide a great deal of imaginative resilience to go beyond the familiar terrains of history and social discourses; it gets a legitimate warrant to penetrate the essence of received realities. The Rajbanshi poets have significantly explored the syntaxes of historical as well as the cultural landscapes. Naranarayan, Chilarai, King Bhaskar Barman, Pragjyotishpur, Kamata, Gosanimari, and Jalpesh Shiva Temple are associated with the mytho-historical imagination of the community; they also share common memories of mythologies and folklore.
Poet Sameer Chatopadhay, born in Cooch Behar, writes of the perils of local people who barely have enough to eat and so they sleep in hunger. This poem shows how the socio-political dynamic of Cooch Behar has changed and newer enemies have been born due to the scarcity of basic essentials. The folks are yet to rise up and see the newer miseries, thus, he writes,
“Animals are all awake in the pitch dark night
stalking their prey…
The poet is awake throughout the night, all alone
the folks are all in deep slumber.
Too late to rise”
In the poem “The bogori and aloklata” (literally meaning the jujube and the common dodder vine respectively), poet Premananda Ray explores how decades of oppression crushes a people who have been yearning to be heard. He writes, “The matted hair weeds, come on, let’s tug it off the tree, let the choked bogori breathe, come on, let us set it free.” “Freedom”, another titular poem by Ray encapsulates his vision of independence and dignity as he utters,
to ride on the back of grandma
and roam around in the neighbourhood.
if there is nafa saag,
you don’t need any other curry”
The Rajbanshi cultural consciousness is richly endowed with folklore and mythologies of the maishal (buffalo herder), garials (bullock cart drivers), and mahouts who are the recurring pastoral protagonists. The poets have also referred to the figures with familiar names like Bagaru, Haren Bepari, Manglu as representative of the community landscape. The mahouts, garials and maishals represent a sense of bucolic freedom and abundance. They are also indifferent to their beloveds, for they would be more drawn to the call of wild and the outer landscape than to the confined boundaries of their beloveds. Both maishal and mahouts, in a sense, are absentee heroes, most of the time they are in the forest or in the grazing lands. Their homecoming is seasonal; therefore the longing for their return is intense and pensive for their loved ones.
The maishal keeps on searching for his herd
Amidst the alien crowd
No longer the wind blows in
The maishal’s lore
No longer does it soothe his tempered soul
“Maishal Kandere”, translated by Jyotirmoy Prodhani, poet Kasema Khatun.
Places as symbolic ties
The symbolic bond between places and the poets and how the loss of these places becomes palpable also finds a passage in this collection. For example, in Kamalesh Sarkar’s poem on Nidanpur – an actual small village of Goalpara, the poet has used the name more as a metaphor than as a reference to the real place. The name can be roughly translated as the ‘city of destiny’ or also as the ‘city of fate’. Kamlesh Sarkar used to publish poetry in pamphlets as a poetry vendor in his life.
“Now where should we go, Taramohan?
How far is it to the city of Nidanpur…
Amidst the tweeting birds
Ring the songs of the bygone nights
And the setting sun.
Oh, dear, the betel nut and leaf are very much there
Inside the pocket of my heart
As the mother that I shared my umbilical cord with
Keeps looking at the road I am to come by.”
“Nidanpurer Jatri”, translated by Jyotirmoy Prodhani, poet Kamalesh Sarkar.
But, certain places are also historically present and not a figment of the poet’s imagination. For example, Madhupur is the place near Cooch Behar where Vaishnavite saint Sankardev had established the biggest Satra of Cooch Behar, where he had his last play Ram Vijay Naat performed at the request of King Naranarayan. It is Madhupur where Sankardev had breathed his last. In literature, the name Madhupur is immortalised by the 1994 Sahitya Academi award winning author Sheelabhadra (Rebati Mohan Dutta Choudhury) as a metaphor to tell the nostalgic stories of his native place, Gauripur. It is quite sad that the site is in need of urgent attention.
Commentary on ethnic faultlines
Nostalgic quests for a lost nation or a lost place can expose severe cracks and faultlines, yet the Koch Rajbanshi question has certain peculiarities. Firstly, they are a major part of an established history; they have visible extant historical remnants and monuments to refer to. But in the official texts of history they are erased. This has led to a significant identity crisis. They had to fight for reclaiming their historical legitimacy both in Assam as well as, in a very big way, in Bengal.
For Koch Rajbanshis, there is a dichotomy of imagination among the community members belonging to Assam and Bengal.
As per the community members, ethnic chauvinism is a possible fallout. In Bengal, Bengali dominance vis-à-vis the indigenous communities has reached a pernicious height. To neutralise this and to apply equal force in terms of counter discourse is a strategic imperative. In the case of the Rajbanshis, there is also an awareness that ethnic chauvinism would not be able to take the movement much further. We have seen many such examples of belligerence in the region which has exposed the negative side of ethnic assertions. In the current light of the nation playing a severely polarised sense of politics, Piyush Sarkar’s poem “Doars” makes for accurate commentary:
What will the country eat,
Beef or pork? But the bigger question is
With what will they eat?
“Dooars”, translated by Jyotirmoy Prodhani, poet Piyush Sarkar
Will you still be able to smile and speak to me
If, out of the blue,
I whack a tight slap on your face,
And ask, “So how was it?”
“Iron Football”, translated by Jyotirmoy Prodhani, poet Santosh Sinha.
New vistas in translation
Translation reaches out to new terrains and the book achieves this purpose. Within Northeast India itself, we know much about literature in local languages via translation. Be it in Meitei, or the Kokborok literature of Tripura written in Kokborok, or other states about Assamese vernacular literature for that matter. Writing from the Northeast in English is one of the most significant literary movements in the country now. Similarly, we know the vernacular writers only through their translations. Chandrakanta Murasingh of Tripura, Thangjam Ibopishak of Manipur, Paul Lyngdoh of Meghalaya are very significant authors but we could know about them and their writings only when they were translated into English. Among modern Assamese writings, powerful poets like Navakanta Barua, Hiren Bhattacharyya, Sameer Tanti, Anupama Basumatary, novelists like Indira Goswami, Birendranath Bhattacharya and Syed Abdul Malik and others gained visibility outside the state only through their translations.
But translations from frontier zones often work like a double-edged sword. Plenty gets lost and also runs the risk of misinterpretation leading to misreading – and sometimes there are also deliberate choices. In the specificity of the Koch Rajbanshi context, a lot remains yet to be enunciated, heard and also perceived from newer worldviews. As an anthology, This Land, this People is a literary and ideological step forward in this direction.
Note: This article has been revised on 12 September 2022 to correct a typographic error.
The author is a Phd candidate of Anthropology at Johns Hopkins University. She hails from Assam in the northeastern region of India. She tweets @barman_rini.