Is culture really embedded only in language?

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There's nothing new about Zubeen Garg rejecting an anti-Hindi songs diktat, but how real is the perceived threat to traditional Assamese culture?

Culture is often at odds with individual liberty and freedom. Is the onus on artistes or cultural anchor points to ensure that the conflict is minimised?

Assam celebrates Rongali or Bohag Bihu in the month of April with festivities and traditional delicacies. As a practice, a series of cultural events is organised across the State involving popular artistes, and the radical musician is a common face in most such music concerts.

Zubeen Garg, one of the most popular musician-singers from Assam, was one such musician who recently ignited a debate after he stormed off of a stage during his performance at the Bihu festival this year in Noonmati after the organisers of the programme sought to prevent him from singing Hindi songs.

Garg, who shot to fame in Bollywood with the 2006 hit song 'Ya Ali' was interrupted midway into his performance by Noonmati Bihu Sanmilan Committee members, who asked him to stick to Assamese songs. The singer though refused to bow down to the request and retorted: “You cannot dictate to me. Moi ji mon chahe moi hituye gaun (I will sing whatever I feel like.) I love you guys [the audience], but I don’t love them [the organisers].”

The incident triggered discussion on whether Garg should have limited himself to Assamese songs in the spirit of the festival or whether the organisers could have been more open-minded, since, after all, music doesn't have a language.

 

The incident in question could have been avoided simply through better communication between the musician and the organisers of the events. But it also brought to light the State’s prejudices against non-Assamese languages.

It is not the first time that the singer was asked not to sing Hindi songs. The United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA), an active terror outfit, have threatened him earlier not to sing Hindi songs, but Garg paid scant heed and continued to sing his hit songs at various concerts. Garg's argument was to ask what the conformist group would say if he were to demand that an artist not sing any Assamese songs at a concert in Delhi.

That said, Bihu is a cultural celebration — an endeavour to preserve Assamese tradition — where folk songs, traditional clothes and cuisines are a must. So it's not difficult to understand the sentiment of the organisers who demanded only Assamese music. But when you think about it, would performing Assamese songs with western accompaniment — involving guitars, rock drum kits, and synthesisers — really serve the purpose of preserving tradition?

One might argue then that such an imposition comes from insecurity. The State has witnessed massive influx of undocumented immigrants since 1971, which has heightened inhibitions among the Assamese community living in the State. The desire to confine performance during festivals such as Bihu to strictly Assamese language arises from the sense that there is a threat to the indigenous culture.

It is certainly in the hands of artistes that folk culture gets preserved and conserved. But then again, Garg was never a folk artiste in the traditional sense; even in his earlier albums such as Anamika or Maya he used guitar and created fusion music. That is his appeal. Yes he has sung bihu songs, but in this case the organisers seemed to have a problem not with the modality of the songs but rather with the literal language.

 

Artistes, however, have never been bound by religion, border or language. The Mangeshkar sisters, a couple of the most celebrated singers of the country, have sung in many Indian languages including Bengali and Tamil. Garg himself has crooned in many languages. There are musicians who appeal to a larger audience in spite of the language barrier. Take, for instance, A.R. Rahman. The Oscar-winning musician is known for using gibberish words in some of his songs, for god's sake. And even otherwise, it’s the musicality that garnered Rahman his mass appeal rather than the languages he composed in.

It’s a Bengali singer who had rendered one of the today's most popular Malayalam songs. "Maanasa Maine Varu" from Chemmeen (1965), sung by the late Manna Dey, became an anthem and still continues to be loved half a century later. The song was in Kerala's native language, which was completely alien to the legendary singer. Popular Pakistani singer Adnan Sami has rendered a few popular Malayalam songs too. Not to forget many Hindi film playback singers such as the likes of Shreya Ghoshal or Udit Narayan, who have been the vocals in many popular Tamil songs. Music and art has always helped unite people together. Tagore’s “Ekla Cholo Re” in Bengali has been motivating people across the country for ages now. Why, take the National Anthem, for that matter!

The incident in question could have been avoided simply through better communication between the musician and the organisers of the events. But it also brought to light the State’s prejudices against non-Assamese languages.

Conflict over language

The ULFA has time and again expressed their reservation against the Hindi-speaking population living in the State. Since 2000, hundreds of Hindi-speaking people, mostly Biharis, have been attacked and killed by the militant group. And this may be the language conflict's true locus of impact. Because while many popular cultural influencers like Garg might have condemned the mass murders that happened in the State, attacks continue to happen.

That said, even pre-ULFA Assam has witnessed intolerance towards non-Assamese languages. On May 19, 1961, in a language-centric mobilisation, ten men and a woman were shot dead by State police while protesting against the imposition of Assamese as a sole official language in the State. The day is marked as Bhasha Shahid Dibosh (Martyr's Day). The movement started from Katigorah, which contains the village I was born in, and saw participation of people from across religion and caste. My late uncle, Subhash Chakrabarty, was one of the protesters who were put behind bars for several days.

It may be worth mentioning here that, two protesters were killed in a similar incident during the Bengali language movement in East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) on February 21, 1952. The United Nations had declared February 21 as International Mother Tongue Day. However, the Bengalis in Assam have been disheartened for years that the Indian government has not given due recognition to the eleven martyrs.

 

This is not, however, unique to the State of Northeast. In 2008, Maharashtra Navnirman Sena chief Raj Thackeray made critical remarks on North-Indian migrants and there are many such instances where a community has felt threatened about losing its identity and culture to outsiders. Yes, there is a need to practise the customs, sing the folk tales and cook the traditional til pitha to pass the tradition on to the next generation. But even if the new-age musician, popular for incorporating fusion in music, restricts themselves to Assamese words it wouldn't really reflect the spirit of the festival. To avoid such conflict perhaps it would be useful to have a mix of folk singers and popular artistes on the same platform. That way, tradition is revived and yet more people are drawn to the concerts, increasing the festival's visibility and spirit.

(The term 'Bohag Bihu' was misspelled in an earlier version of this article. The error is regretted.)

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