Monday, 23 February 2015

Cultural life in Guwahati

When I had come to Guwahati, I had not expected to find so many opportunities for an active cultural life. However, the past 2 months have been wonderful, full of stimulating discoveries. It helps that Guwahati city is relatively small and reaching most places is easy through the public transport.

Cultural events in Guwahati, Assam, India - Images by Sunil Deepak

Here are some notes from my diary about the cultural events in the city in the past weeks. The picture above is from a Purulia Chau dance performance from West Bengal in the "Bharat Lok Parva", a festival of folk dances, music and theatre held in Guwahati that was organized by the East Zone Cultural Centre of Kolkata.

***

The National Youth Festival (NYF) in the beginning of January 2015 was the first big cultural event in Guwahati for me. Youth groups had come to the city from different parts of India to present folk-dances, classical dances, music, poetry and theatre. All the events were simultaneous, held in parallel sessions in different venues around Dighalipukhuri in Uzan Bazar.

Finding information about the programme, venues and times was not so easy but in the end, I had managed to attend the folk-dance performances held in the library auditorium. It was an opportunity to see a huge variety of traditional folk dances from different states of India. I was especially thrilled by the folk-dances of the north-east, since I did not know them very well.

Cultural events in Guwahati, Assam, India - Images by Sunil Deepak

Cultural events in Guwahati, Assam, India - Images by Sunil Deepak

Cultural events in Guwahati, Assam, India - Images by Sunil Deepak

Since I had decided to focus on folk-dances, I had to miss all the other events of classical dances, theatre, debates, etc.

However, one evening during the festival, I had gone to the concert by Assamese singer Papon in the Guwahati stadium. I love his singing and it was a nice coincidence that he had started his concert by my favourite, “Din-dinae” song.

Cultural events in Guwahati, Assam, India - Images by Sunil Deepak

***

One day while visiting the Assam state museum, by chance I had found myself in the middle of the national conference of Indian museologists. There I had met Prof. R. D. Choudhury, the president of India’s Art History Congress as well as, the former director of Assam State Museum and the former director general of National Museum in Delhi.

After the conference, I had gone to meet him one afternoon. Talking to him about his life, his work in different museums and about the art history of India, was a fascinating experience. I love art history and I hardly know anything about the art history in India, so hope to learn more about it. The image below shows Prof. Choudhary in his office.

Cultural events in Guwahati, Assam, India - Images by Sunil Deepak

Prof. Choudhary has told me that he is working on his autobiography and it should be ready for printing in another six months. I am looking forward to reading it.

***

By chance I had heard about a creative festival called “Rain Dance” that brought together environmental protection and art, to be held in Bashistha. I had written to Alak Pathak, the organiser of the festival, who had given me instructions about reaching the festival venue near Bashistha.

However, reaching that place had turned out to be much more difficult than I had imagined. I had walked on a small inner road for a very long time without finding any sign of the festival and instead, found myself in the middle of a Saraswati Puja celebration in a girls’ school.

Cultural events in Guwahati, Assam, India - Images by Sunil Deepak

Then talking to some young boys, I had discovered that I had missed the turning for the Dancing Rain festival venue. Fortunately one of the boys offered to accompany me to that place on his vespa scooter, which was another small adventure!

The images below is from the "Dancing Rain" festival, it shows a beautiful rhino “green” sculpture that Alak Pathak had created with Sal (teak) tree leaves. As you can guess from the sculpture, this festival was held in a field, close to a forest.

Cultural events in Guwahati, Assam, India - Images by Sunil Deepak

***

Coming back from a visit to Bashistha temple, I had also visited the Art College of Guwahati. Arts college is in a run down unassuming low building. However, there are many beautiful sculptures in its courtyard made by its students, many of them covered by dust and cobwebs. These give it a kind of look of an abandoned open air art exhibition.

I found the ambiance of this place magical. If you are ever in Bashistha, don’t forget to take a look at the surroundings of the art college and discover the hidden sculptures.

Cultural events in Guwahati, Assam, India - Images by Sunil Deepak

***

The news about the first North-Eastern GLBTQ (Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transsexual, Queer) Pride Parade was a pleasant surprise - it was a surprise because I had thought that outside the big metro cities in India, people will not have the courage to raise their voices about alternate sexualities.

It was very colourful and joyful. An unexpected pleasure of the GLBTQ parade was the readings of poems and some wonderful music and dance performances. And it was good to see so many young persons.

Cultural events in Guwahati, Assam, India - Images by Sunil Deepak

Cultural events in Guwahati, Assam, India - Images by Sunil Deepak

***

I had walked to Shilpagram. From the way it was described, I was expecting to see a cross between Dilli Haat and the crafts village at the Pragati Maidan in Delhi.

It was almost 11 AM. However, the ticket window was closed. The guards and some persons were sitting near the ticket window.

It is closed”, one of them had said.

But I had read that it opens at 10.30?” I had asked.

When the ticket-babu will come, then it will open”, he had explained.

What time does he come?” I had insisted.

He lives far away, so it takes some time. Sometimes he reaches at 12 noon”.

So no luck Shilpagram. May be the next time, I will go there, I will have better luck. It was one cultural visit that did not happen!

***

I had seen the billboard of the “Bharat Lok Parva” (BLP) at Ravindra Bhawan. It was supposed to be organised at Kalakshetra from 16 to 21 February 2015, but the time was not specified. Since Kalakshetra is not far from where I live, so it was easy to go there to find out more about this folk-dance and theatre festival. Though it will be helpful if such information is shared in a more systematic way.

BLP has been a really beautiful festival. The quality of the folk dances and plays has been very high. It was organised by the East Zone Cultural Centre in Kolkata. They have promised to hold this festival every year.

Cultural events in Guwahati, Assam, India - Images by Sunil Deepak

Cultural events in Guwahati, Assam, India - Images by Sunil Deepak

Cultural events in Guwahati, Assam, India - Images by Sunil Deepak

***

It is not so easy to find the time and venue of most cultural events in Guwahati. Local English newspapers like Assam Tribune do not have a regular space to inform about the different cultural events planned in the city. Often I know about them when they decide to publish a report or pictures, sometimes a week or more after the event.

Perhaps such events are advertised only in Assamese language newspapers? (Unfortunately, I am still learning Assamese alphabet so to read the Assamese newspaper, I will need some more time!)

I think that journalists, media persons, artists and persons interested in culture in Guwahati, need to find a solution so that precise information about cultural programmes (what, where, at what time, how much do the tickets cost ..) need to be available to general public through the press and through some websites.

The above notes from my diary are about the principal cultural events that I could attend. There were many other events like the Kite festival at the river front in Uzan Bazar where I was unable to go.

Ravindra Bhawan and Kalakshetra are the two main cultural venues that I have discovered in Guwahati but probably there are many more.

I had not expected so many cultural activities when I had come to Guwahati. It has been a wonderful surprise. I am slowly trying to learn Assamese, so hopefully in future, the cultural opportunities will be even more!

***

Monday, 9 February 2015

Discovering Guwahati

I arrived in Guwahati almost 6 weeks ago. I am slowly getting to know this city and its kind and gentle people. This post is about my first impressions about the city and finding my way around it.

Introduction to Guwahati, Assam, India - Images by Sunil Deepak

In this short time, I have fallen in love with this city? If you ask me why, I can try to give all kind of rational reasons why this city clicked for me, but they may not be true. Perhaps sometimes, we like a city instinctively, there is some mysterious magic that works? I only know that I liked it almost from the first day I landed here.

My first days in a new city

The Indian mega cities are sprawling spaces full of millions of persons. Sometimes you can live in a city for months, without really knowing it. Or you can travel across the city in a metro train and know all the names of the metro stations and yet, continue to get lost on its roads all the time. That happens to me often in Delhi, a city where I had grown up.

However, my first days in Guwahati were so different from my experiences in the other Indian mega cities. I was staying in a hotel in a quiet part of Uzan Bazar, close to the High Court. The views of the river Brahmaputra, and numerous pukhris (ponds) that are scattered in this part of the city, were magnificent. The vegetable market along both the sides of the street seemed exactly like the vegetable markets of my childhood from the summer holidays in West Bengal. The small hills were covered with lush green foliage. Later, I could discover many other such markets in different parts of the city.

And on my first morning in Guwahati, I saw a gaggle of about 20 geese waddling out of a pond and walking leisurely in the middle of road, uncaring about the autos, motorcycles and bicycles that went around them, occasionally stopping to look curiously inside the houses and at people. At that moment, I knew that I loved this city.

Introduction to Guwahati, Assam, India - Images by Sunil Deepak
Introduction to Guwahati, Assam, India - Images by Sunil Deepak

Guwahati has less than 1 million persons. That may be enough to compare it with the second level of large European cities. However, compared to the Indian mega cities like Delhi, Mumbai or Bangalore, it is tiny, almost a provincial backyard. If you consider that Guwahati is the biggest city in all the 8 North-Eastern states of India, you can understand that we are talking of human-size cities here and not those never-ending crazy mega cities which dwarf you and make you feel like an anonymous nobody.

The city layout

To understand the basic layout of the city, you need to remember just two main roads that meet at the Guwahati railway station in Paltan Bazar, and make an “L” – A.T. road and G.S. Road.

On the north, across Brahmaputra, A.T. road comes to Guwahati from the west (Bongaigaon and West Bengal). It enters the city along the south bank of river Brahmaputra, passes in front of the railway colony and the Kamakhya temple on the top of a hill. At Muchokhowa it leaves the river and goes inside, passing through 4 important city markets - Fancy Bazar, Pan Bazar, Uzan Bazar and Paltan Bazar. At Paltan Bazar, it changes name and becomes G. S. Road.

The G. S. road (Guwahati-Shillong road) starts in front of Guwahati railway station when A.T. road takes a sharp 90 degrees turn to the south. It connects the railway station to Khanapara, where hills start and Guwahati ends. After the exit for Shillong, G.S. road again becomes A.T. road and continues towards eastern (or as locals call it "upper Assam") cities of Nagaon, Jorhat and Tejpur.

Inside Guwahati, G.S. road is the most important road of the city. It has 4 flyovers – Ulubari flyover, Bhangagarh flyover, Ganeshguri flyover and Six Miles flyover. To understand Guwahati you just need to remember these flyovers and the roads leading from there. To identify most areas of Guwahati, you can get instructions in terms of some market or flyover on the A.T. road or on the G.S. road.

Introduction to Guwahati, Assam, India - Images by Sunil Deepak

Travelling in Guwahati is easy, buses cover the whole G.S. road-A.T. road stretch. For almost everywhere else, you can find connecting buses along these 2 roads. Along the main roads, the fares vary between 5 to 15 rupees. Most bus operators are private who try to get as many passengers as they can, so they often stop for long time at each important bus stop, calling to people to come and sit in their buses.

This means that it is easy to get into the buses, though they may take long time to reach anywhere. A journey that could have been completed in 30 minutes, sometimes takes 60-80 minutes. Often passengers, irritated by long waits, thump with their hands on the sides of the buses, but most drivers are really cool about it, they stay relaxed.

Introduction to Guwahati, Assam, India - Images by Sunil Deepak

In addition to the driver, all buses have 2 guys – one for collecting fares and the other for calling passengers at the bus stops. They also thump continuously on the side of the buses with their hands – one thump means “don’t move, a potential passenger is coming”; two thumps mean “go”.

Inside the buses, the left side seats are reserved for women. If there are no women standing and seats are available, men can sit there but they must get up immediately as soon as a woman enters the bus. The ticket checkers take only cash and do not give any tickets, but they seem to remember who has paid and who has not paid.

As a white-haired person, often persons get up and give their seat to me. People are generally very helpful and gentle - I have yet to meet a really rude person in a bus.

Compared to the buses, the autos (3 wheeler auto-rickshaws) are completely unpredictable. In areas that do not have buses, you can find “shared auto” where 6-7 persons travel in an auto, like a bus, each pays 10-15 Rs and people can get and get out along the way. Longer journeys by “reserved autos” (an auto reserved only for you and your companions), cost quite a lot according to the whim of the auto-drivers. For the same journey, at different times of the weekday or weekend, I have paid amounts varying from 150 to 250 Rs.

Taxis are not so common – in the last 6 weeks, I took them only twice.

Dispur, the capital of Assam

Some persons believe that Guwahati city is not the capital of Assam but only the Dispur area where the Government has its offices, is the capital. Dispur is a small area of Guwahati between Ganeshguri and Six Miles flyovers on the G. S. road.

Initially I was a little confused when I was told that Dispur was the capital of Assam. I had thought that perhaps Dispur was another new city that has been built as the new capital. Then I found that it is only a small part of the Guwahati city.

Introduction to Guwahati, Assam, India - Images by Sunil Deepak

Guwahati as the capital of Assam has woefully inadequate infrastructures. It is the gateway to whole of the North-East but decent roads or bridges are inadequate. Outside Guwahati, travelling a few hundred kilometres can often take 3-4 hours, most of them stuck in some place or moving at snail pace. For example, the city has only one bridge to cross the river Brahmaputra – a parallel track is being built for the past few years, so that in future traffic will have 2 lanes in both directions. But a city like Guwahati needs at least 3-4 bridges on Brahmaputra.

Railway infrastructure is also limited. There is only one rail track for crossing the river, so trains can move only in one direction at a time, and on the other side, the trains must wait to cross the river. It seems unbelievable if you think that this is a strategic area for India and that the whole region is full of Military outposts and camps.

City of books, art lovers and intellectuals

Guwahati seems to give a lot of importance to Sahitya Sabhas (literary gatherings). There are many schools of art and music. In public spaces, there are many statues remembering authors, artists and others such as freedom fighters, a rare sight in any other part of India that I have seen. On the other hand, I have not seen many statues of the politicians that are so common in other parts of India. I love this aspect of Guwahati!

Introduction to Guwahati, Assam, India - Images by Sunil Deepak

Introduction to Guwahati, Assam, India - Images by Sunil Deepak

Introduction to Guwahati, Assam, India - Images by Sunil Deepak

Malls, Macdonalds, KFCs and Reeboks

A few malls with multiplexes and all kind of important brand names are there in the city with their gleaming showrooms and restaurants. However, they are still few and these new arrivals have not yet edged out the traditional places where you can eat the staple Assamese food starting with rice.

The side roads of Guwahati are calm places full of lovely houses, while the main roads are blocked by markets and traffic. However as multi-story buildings are built at the site of traditional houses and as cars increase in the city, those side-roads are becoming increasingly congested. As the city will be more “developed” in the coming years, I think that more traditional heritage houses will be lost and city will struggle even more with the traffic. This thought makes me feel really sad, as some of the traditional houses are so beautiful with open courtyards and some even have tiny ponds.

Garbage disposal is (especially disposing plastic bags) another growing problem in the city, likely to get worse in the future. Some of the local rivers are full of dark sewage. Even beautiful sites of the city, like the Umananda temple on the peacock island in Brahmaputra river, are full of garbage in some parts. At the back of the Nepali Mandir in Paltan Bazar in the city centre is a big sewage lake.

Introduction to Guwahati, Assam, India - Images by Sunil Deepak

Introduction to Guwahati, Assam, India - Images by Sunil Deepak

Introduction to Guwahati, Assam, India - Images by Sunil Deepak

As has happened in other bigger cities, slowly the traditional crafts and persons – such as those selling baskets and those hand-painting sign boards, will slowly disappear. The life along the river will also change – the poor persons who live in slums near the river, will be shifted to make way for the riverfront luxury homes. However, you can still see these traditional crafts and crafts-persons in many parts of the city.

Introduction to Guwahati, Assam, India - Images by Sunil Deepak

Conclusions

Guwahati still has some old world charm, even if it is striving to become a modern "developed" city. Unfortunately the move to become a modern city, along with the comforts, also brings with it some chaos and difficulties. I wish that the city will try to safeguard its heritage and not destroy all its traditional charm. I also hope that Government will do much more to strengthen the city infrastructures.

This is only a brief introduction to Guwahati, the capital of Assam. The city has many places to visit starting with the famous Kamakhya temple. I am still discovering them. I hope to write about them soon.

***
Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...