In sync with subaltern traditions

A close, felt observation of the world defines the poetry of Kamal Kumar Tanti, which probes into the culture of the Adivasi ex-tea garden labourers in Assam. He speaks to Ashley Tellis on what motivates him to write…

July 31, 2010 03:08 pm | Updated November 12, 2016 05:07 am IST

Activist at the core: Kamal Kumar TantiPhoto: By Special Arrangement.

Activist at the core: Kamal Kumar TantiPhoto: By Special Arrangement.

Kamal Kumar Tanti is a promising young voice in contemporary Assamese poetry. He belongs to the Adivasi Tea-Garden Labourer community in Assam. His first collection Marangburu Amar Pita (Our Father Marangburu), published in 2007, won him the prestigious Munin Barkotoki Literary Award for 2008. His poems have been included in various anthologies of Assamese poetry and featured in various journals. Tanti's collection of prose, Nimnaborgo Somaaj Oitijya (Subaltern Society's Legacy) comprised articles on post-colonial theory and subaltern historiography, with specific reference to colonial history and culture of Assam and was published in September 2007. He also writes fiction. His forthcoming collection is Uttar-Ouponibeshik Kabita (Postcolonial Poems)

Why do you write in Assamese? Do you speak the language at home?

Writing is an integral part of my activism, I believe and I feel I am more an activist rather than a poet or a writer. My poetry is a kind of diary of different experiences of mine. Writing is primarily a thought process for me. Language is the second most important concern for any writer or poet. If you consider the most practical situation and consider a young boy from Assam, mostly trained to speak Assamese, then inevitably that language becomes the immediate medium to express his voice. The community I officially belong to (Ex-Tea Garden Labourer community) has a colloquial language called Sadri. We speak both Sadri and Assamese at home. I write in Assamese with the objective to reach out to a larger audience. Even if the minority communities speak in the majority's language, they can be heard. My voice is for freedom, for people, against injustice, against colonialism and neo-colonialism.

What do you think about the assimilation of all tribal writing by the Assamese (by bodies like the Asom Sahitya Sabha) into the category ‘Assamese'? Isn't this a form of internal colonialism?

Definitely, there are some representations of tribal legacy and culture assimilated into the mainstream Assamese literary tradition, but I believe that is not the whole picture. What we have observed in the last few decades is that basically all tribal writings are always independent from the mainstream Assamese literary tradition and the mainstream Assamese middle class never showed any serious concern towards tribal writing in Assam. If you take into account the literary traditions from Assam, then you will find very distinct literary productions like Bodo literature, Tiwa literature, Karbi literature etc., as well as mainstream Assamese literature. Asom Sahitya Sabha is now delegitimised by the Bodo Sahitya Sabha, Karbi Sahitya Sabha and other bodies with their distinct identity, language, culture and literature. This has happened gradually after the infamous Assam Movement. The main idea behind this was to come out of the internal colonisation and to establish distinct identities based on the respective literary and cultural traditions of the aboriginal communities.

What would you say are the themes of your writing?

Writing poetry is an integral part of my social activism that started when I joined a Marxist Study Circle in my hometown as a neophyte. Gradually, my activism taught me to become a vocal, close observer of past and contemporary situations. In the process, I became conscious about socio-economic and political situations. I write what I see, what I feel, what I understand, what I see as politically correct.

History is the undercurrent of my poetry. By colonial conspiracy, my predecessors from the aboriginal greater adivasi clans were extirpated from the boondocks of Orissa, Jharkhand, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh and West Bengal and were engaged as tea garden labourers by the British in the fertile land of Assam. There is a definite lack of historiography of the events leading to our being absorbed in mainstream Assamese cultural milieu, how much of our identity remains different and so on. I believe I have not deserted my past, where I come from. Subaltern conventions and culture saturate me and they are in sync with my consciousness, ideologies embedded in my subconscious mind. Subaltern traditions and people are buried deep in my being. Pain and suffering, love and well-being, the indescribable dialectic of conflicts that constitute the flow of life and beyond are my concerns. And my poems are only attempts at the exposition of these.

Do you see the romanticisation of your culture as one of the dangers you have to warn yourself against in your writing?

I believe that any creative writer has to cross the barriers of romanticisation and should look into the dirty reality beyond that. As a poet, I can differentiate between romanticism and realism. Through my writing, I always want to discover the reality behind any instance, any incident. On the other hand, romanticism also helps people to go beyond romanticism itself and visualise a world without hegemony, without repression. I am always worried about the danger you have mentioned. I would like to work among my people and understand and re-discover the reality behind romanticisation. All my poems depict my search for my own identity and are actually based on some real experiences.

What do you think of the treatment of the tea tribes in Assam?

I disagree with the naming of our community as “Tea-tribe”. Is there any community in this world named after a commodity? It is the best example of the colonial domination of British, and later the internal colonialism taken over by power-hungry, middle-class Assamese. It is true that our forefathers migrated or were brought from different parts of Adivasi-dominated areas of India during the British colonial period. What I believe is that we are an integral part of greater Adivasi nationality of India. The mainstream, middle-class Assamese is yet to consider us as a part of greater Assamese nationality, though from time to time, they claim we are. It does not mean that if we speak Assamese we are Assamese. We have never seen the middle-class Assamese consider us as Assamese. Rather they always used to call us “Coolie-Bengali,' just like the minority Muslim community in Assam is called ‘Miya' or ‘Bangladeshi,' even though we studied in Assamese medium schools, and adopted Assamese culture. The main question is the identity, and in that, middle-class Assamese never considered that we have a first identity – Adivasi. After that only, we have a second identity ‘Assamese,' if they consider us so.

The community I belong to is backward, both socially and economically, since the British colonial period and far from getting what they should get from the state or other agencies. I think most of us are treated as people who are not capable of any good work other than physical labour. I feel we are not considered by most Assamese people as their own people. We are treated by most Assamese people as upper caste people treat lower caste people, with a sense of superiority.

What do you think of the translations of your work and of the need for translation?

Yes, I am always worried about “translation” but not only of my own poetry. There is always a scarcity of good English translators of Assamese poetry. Among the younger generation, there are only a few good translators. Manjeet Baruah was the first translator of my poems into English and I am grateful to him for it.

Translating poetry is always necessary as through any poem, we can explore a poet as well as his/her socio-economic and cultural background.

More importantly, we can explore different communities, races, people, landscapes, nation, and politics and histories. Poetry always captures and carries the essence of any lived experience, at any point of time, space and history.

Top News Today

Sign in to unlock member-only benefits!
  • Access 10 free stories every month
  • Save stories to read later
  • Access to comment on every story
  • Sign-up/manage your newsletter subscriptions with a single click
  • Get notified by email for early access to discounts & offers on our products
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide by our community guidelines for posting your comments.

We have migrated to a new commenting platform. If you are already a registered user of The Hindu and logged in, you may continue to engage with our articles. If you do not have an account please register and login to post comments. Users can access their older comments by logging into their accounts on Vuukle.