Assam’s cultural nerve-centre, this institution located in Guwahati is a treasure trove of the art and heritage of the state and has been named after the Vaishnava saint, Srimanta Sankardeva.
Every day, Bongjangpi interacts with visitors to the gallery and patiently answers any queries they might have on the portraits that adorn its walls. But her heart lies elsewhere. As soon as she hears the beating of the drums, her feet start tapping and she longs to join in. And this Karbi girl does get the chance to share the graceful and pulsating nuances of her tribal folk dance with the urban audience, but only when there is a cultural event at the Kalakshetra.
Bongjangpi plays a dual role at the Kalakshetra: Not only does she work part-time at the portrait gallery but, when the time comes, easily transforms herself into the cultural ambassador of her tribe, one of the major ethnic groups in Northeast India and especially in the hill areas of Assam.
A trendsetter within her community, Bongjangpi is one of the many tribal folk artistes at the Kalakshetra who have been allotted part-time employment even as they help to propagate their folk forms. The artistes have been carefully selected in order to be the true representatives of their respective tribes — a novel way devised to bring folk recitals to the public sphere as well as make it viable for the artistes to earn a livelihood while propagating their culture.
Bongjangpi originally hails from Thakurkuchim, a backward village in Assam’s Kamrup district. Not even in her wildest dreams had she ever imagined that one day she would become an envoy of her tribe and get a chance to take her cultural traditions to different parts of India. In fact, this successful youngster has also travelled to Thailand and Bhutan and is enthused by the delighted response she gets everywhere.
For Bongjangpi, picking up nuances of the local dance form was not difficult. She had grown up watching her elders dance and sing during festivals and at social gatherings. Over the years, she honed her skills whenever she got a chance to do some ‘proxy’ dancing, mostly when some dancer was absent. In fact, she was soon called to fill in for the absentees — especially during the peak period of Bihu, the harvest festival. By the time the young dancer was in class seven, she was being regularly invited to participate in local programmes and get-togethers. She particularly enjoyed the seven-day festival of Domahi, when the dancing began at Bangthai, or the headman’s house, and the troupe went around the whole village, visiting each Karbi household.
Her first brush with fame came when officials from Kalakshetra contacted her village since they were looking for a few dancers to perform at a cultural programme. Now that she had emerged as one of the best dancers of her village, Bongjangpi was chosen. Later, she was invited once again to take part at a folk dance workshop where she got an orientation into the folk dances of other tribes of Assam like the Mishing, Deuri, Bodo and Tiwa.
But it is not as if it was always smooth going. Initially, people in the village were curious and sceptical about these attempts to take the local dance to outsiders. Although her parents were steadfast in their support, relatives were often hostile. But Bongjangpi persisted. She maintained her ties with Kalakshetra and chipped in whenever she was called upon to do so.
One day, in 2002, Kalakshetra officials informed her that they were looking for someone in the puppetry wing and suggested that she could apply for the post. Imagining that this was just another workshop in which she would learn something new, she enthusiastically put in her application.
The job in the puppetry division came just after she had finished her class 10 examinations. Although very young and extremely nervous, Bongjangpi instinctively realised that the Kalakshetra could be the base from which to pursue her passion for dancing. Her hunch proved to be right.
Today she is as enthusiastic as ever in being able to showcase the Karbi folk dance. She has also picked up the various nuances of public performance. For instance, she can explain the difference between performing on a stage and otherwise: On the stage, dancers have to calculate the rhythm and follow rules, with rhythms adapted to the needs of the stage and audience. Stage performances also mean regular rehearsals conducted before a performance. Given a choice, though, Bongjangpi would prefer dancing in a natural setting — like a village courtyard, for instance. Says she, “Dancing in gay abandon, without rehearsals, gives one a joy that cannot be expressed in words.”
Bongjangpi is now part of a troupe that includes folk artistes from different tribes of the state, who are in some kind of a contractual job at the Kalakshetra. They have learnt from each other and taught each other in the various workshops they have attended together.
But dance apart, Bongjangpi understands the value of a sound education and is currently working towards her graduation. She has also secured a scholarship for folk dance from the ministry of culture from 2007-2009 and hopes to join some government department once she finishes her studies.
What gives Bongjangpi the greatest satisfaction is teaching her dance style to others. She also wants to learn more about it and keeps consulting the elderly women of her village about old oral traditions. The enthusiasm and energy in the young girl makes her colleagues smile. Says Antara G Choudhury, who works in the publicity wing of the Kalakshetra, “Girls like Purnima can be an asset for her tribe. Folk dance is in their blood. It does not have the same effect when performed by an outsider. The swaying to effervescent folk music has a raw element, which can be expressed best by someone from that particular tribe.”
Bongjangpi may be only 18 years old but she now manages to support herself. Like any other teenager, she proudly flashes the brand new mobile phone she has bought with her last salary. “The economic independence makes me feel empowered. But the best part is that I am able to pursue my first love — dance,” she says.
So what’s next? Some day, Bongjangpi wants to open a dance academy in her village that will impart training in different folk dances. “People don’t take folk dance seriously. Classical dance gets more importance. I want to change that,” she says.
And going by her determination, it may not be long before Bongjangpi’s beloved dance and music of the Karbis make it to the national centre stage.