How a tribal folk event became cheap entertainment.
I often travel by myself for work, for pleasure or explorations of the mind. Having lived all around India, when it comes to choosing destinations I find myself rather confused. Of late, though, my geographical proximity to what is collectively called the North East of the country has left me opting for this region as the first choice if I look for stories to discover.
I visited Basar for the second time this year. With a backbreaking 6-8 hour journey by ferry across the Brahmaputra river to the region, I asked myself why I was making this trip yet again. The reason was quite clear though – the people, their ways, their beliefs and the shaman, by whom I wished to be enchanted once more.
The Galo tribe. Image source: YouTube.com
Basar is a quiet hilly region in the Lower Siang district of Arunachal Pradesh, home to the Galo tribe, a majority of who believe in the principles surrounding the deities of Donyi-Polo (Sun and Moon). Having a unique set of customs and practices, the Galo people are inevitably fascinating for a curious city dweller such as myself.
Basar Confluence is a celebration of art, music and culture
The reason this place first came to my attention was an event by a local NGO (comprised of several political leaders and administrative officers) which brought together the entire community to a celebration of sorts. Going by the name of Basar Confluence (or BasCon), this was a two day celebration at the end of a month-long artist residency held in Basar. The first version of the event saw an artist residency culminate into a celebration of the local festival of harvest, Mopin. A weekend-long immersion in mingling with locals, Galo chants, dances, food, poka or rice beer, and music, with whispers of yapomsor forest spirits, sacred forests and a haunted waterfall all left me aching to go back and find out more. This time, however, the two days of the event were not meant to be a celebration of a local festival rather a showcase of local arts and folk dances.
Local delicacy. Image source: festivalsherpa.com
The drill was the same – a ferry from Dibrugarh in Assam across the river and a journey that wrecked my back despite my yogini powers of having a strong one. In my head, the promised land of tales and mystical forests awaited which would make the journey worth it. Or so I hoped.
The first morning seemed to be going well – I witnessed the local community fishing where elders and youngsters alike got together to make elaborate fish entrapments. After this, I got lost in the forest looking to get to the other venue of the event, which was by the banks of a river. The stalls made of bamboo – an extremely important aspect of the lives of the people here, represented the villages from around the region. As the evening set in, there were a number of performances by regional bands and the audience seemed to be enjoying themselves. In between all of this, I began to feel somewhat purposeless, desperately waiting for what I wanted to be a real, local experience.
Traditional fishing. Image source: Basar Confluence
And then came the second day. I cannot say I was entirely disappointed with my stay there, but as the event was coming to a close, I was indeed disturbed. Whether the misbehaviour by drunk men or an incident of molestation of a fellow journalist, my image of a society respectful of women was entirely shattered. The fellow journalist who had travelled from Mumbai for this event had been standing and chatting with someone, when a man made unwanted moves on her.
What is Ram doing in Arunachal Pradesh?
Later, when I saw a troupe from Uttar Pradesh dancing and hailing Ram at an event that was meant to promote the regional diversity and culture of the North East, I found myself confused. I hadn’t imagined there would be praises of Ram at what is a tribal folk event! Organisers said it was a result of what the Chief Minister of the state, pledging an annual support of Rs 50 lakh had also said – this promoted a feeling of oneness and unity with Bharat.
What was the most disturbing aspect of my stay, however, was what seemed to be the beginnings of the transformation of a local custom into a performance. The event, gathering together locals from in and around the region, seemed successful in bringing together people. But that got lost in all the lights and noise. What was supposed to be a traditional occurrence of a dance turned into a show – make-up, clothes, choreography – turning what was meant to evoke deities into an enthralling source of entertainment.
What a pity I thought, as I made my way back with no plans of returning.
1. Basar is made up of several villages in the West Siang district of Arunachal Pradesh
2. Best option for accommodation is homestays
3. Dibrugarh in Assam is the closest city
4. Take a ferry from Dibrugarh and then a short car ride
5. Best time to travel is during a local festival, such as Mopin in February
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are independent views solely of the author(s) expressed in their private capacity and do not in any way represent or reflect the views of 101India.com.
By Mehk Chakraborty
Cover photo credit: chaloarunachal.com