Some rebellions are loud and they need people to occupy streets, shout slogans and scream, while other rebellions happen quietly indoors; they happen in bedrooms when a little girl, born to a royal family, refuses to learn the so-called “classical” music, and when her mother tells her too many stories about kings and queens, she asks, “Don’t you know any stories about the buffalo herders?”
Pratima Baruah, the legendary folk singer of Assam, a state in the Indian north-east, was born in 1934 to a royal family but refused to stay within the limits of propriety the society, and its expectations out of women, demanded of her. Bobby Sarma Baruah’s Sonar Baran Pakhi (The Golden Wing) is a portrait of the singer and almost a cradle-to-the-grave account of her life as an artist. She was the most well-known exponent of the goalpariya folk songs, sung in Rajbongshi — a language that is not Assamese or Bengali, but a melange of the two and some other local dialects. It’s a language that is contested, not considered enough of either Assamese or Bengali and hence sidelined. Baruah’s decision to sing in the language, therefore, becomes a rebellion in itself, especially when she was fluent in the other two more “mainstream” languages.
There is an in-betweenness that defines Baruah’s life, which is beautifully evident in the film. She is never “royal” enough to not want to mix with the working class and never “common” enough for it to be alright to sing folk songs. It is this halfway space that she inhabits, and makes a world of her own out of it. She goes deep into jungles, the stables and the villages to learn the songs that the “subjects” of her family sing about — wedding songs where the bride’s friends tease and threaten to hide the jewelry, songs where the mother pines for her young daughter being married away and songs of a young girl in love with an elephant herder.
Baruah’s is a world that is surrounded by music — the cleaning maid in their palace sings a wedding song while wiping the floor and the women around her sing when they pray. When the little Pratima, lovingly called Buchu, goes for a walk, she runs away to join a group of religious mendicants singing praises to their God. Though this music is sung within a public context, the effect is immensely personal and deep. Sarma Baruah masterfully engineers a beautiful scene where the young Pratima is lying on her bed and painting her nails, while an invisible gramophone fills her room with a song about a young girl yearning for love. It is not a grand gesture — just a young woman painting her nails and listening to songs. But in that one scene lies the essence of Baruah’s life, and of the film. It is a sense of a quiet but formidable grace.
The camera lilts over the green expanses of Western Assam’s Gauripur as elephants trudge along softly while Baruah’s voice fills the skies:
“O mor hai hastir kanya re
Khaniko doya nai mahutok lagiyare…”
“O, the daughter of elephants
Do you not feel a thing for the man riding the elephants…”
It is both a song of love and immense yearning; a paean from the land of elephants, a song about the priest’s wife who is made the Queen of elephants after her husband leaves her for another wife.
Sarma Baruah’s decision to use the original recorded voice of Pratima Baruah shines, as the viewer hears the deep throated singing take over the screen and fill every bit of the clear blue skies. It is a homecoming of sorts — the songs of the land return to the land that nurtured them, in the voice of the woman who is the only one who can claim to be the daughter of this world — this world of green canopies, flowing rivers and the soft trudging elephants. These are songs that only Baruah can sing. These are songs that live on in the eternal memories of elephants.
A scene in the film shows Pratima lying on the ground, covered in mud. Her body is almost indistinguishable from the ground as her hands run over the body, with her fingers ploughing through the mud and her palms feeling its wetness. Her face is at peace and breaks into a half-smile. This is the moment where she becomes one with the land she comes from, the land she sings of.
Baruah’s singing is not just a hobby, and the film documents the painstaking research she undertook by going around villages, asking people to sing the songs to her and learning the songs by heart. This is an obsession her mother doesn’t get: “Who will marry you if you keep singing the common folks’ songs?” she asks. “If you don’t want me at home anymore, ask me to leave. I will go live in the jungles, in the stables,” the daughter replies. “Let her be. Everyone sings the songs of the elite. What is wrong if she wants to sing of the commoner?” Baruah’s father says. Only Pratima doesn’t just sing — she sings, she records and she builds an archive of songs no one considered art worthy enough to be documented.
There is a lot the film touches upon without being overtly political; it talks of the language debate in Assam, it talks of the inferior eye people cast on folk music and it talks of a woman artist who smoked, drank and courted men before marriage. It does all this in a style that is best suited to a film about Pratima Baruah, with the subtle obeisance of a veil covering the audacity of dreams. In its thorough research and extensive reconstructing of the artist’s life, Sonar Baran Pakhi (The Golden Wing) is a document of celebration. Of the artist, the daughter, the mother. And the effortless rebel.
This article is the first in a series about films from the India north-east being shown at the Museum of the Moving Image’s India Kaleidoscope Film Festival in New York City.
Bedatri Datta Choudhury (@Bedatri) grew up in India and has studied Literature and Cinema at the University of Delhi, Jawaharlal Nehru University and New York University. She moonlights as a writer and likes writing on films, gender and culture. She lives in New York City and loves eating cake.