Mahasveta Barua. Handbook of Twentieth-Century Literatures of India. Editor: Nalini Natarajan, Greenwood Press, 1996.
Assamese literature’s advent into the twentieth century was fittingly called the Jonaki age. The period took its name from the Assamese periodical Jonaki,first published February 9, 1889, by Chandra Kumar Agarwala. The periodical defined Assamese literature’s coming into its own after nearly half a century of linguistic colonialism. Jonaki marked a coming of age, just as another periodical, Orunodoi, first published in 1846, marked the rebirth of Assamese literature. To understand the development of Assamese literature in the modern era, it is essential to realize the importance of these two periodicals. Since the British annexation of Assam in 1826, Assamese literature’s progress has been one of discontinuity and dissonance. Orunodoi, literally, “sunrise,” rose out of a period when Assamese was disallowed as the language of Assam. A brief survey of the events leading up to the publication of Orunodoi shows us that geography has as much to do with the development of this literature as history does.
Assam’s position in the northeast corner of India, joined to the rest of the country by a narrow bottleneck, had always protected it from the foreign rules that had been established in most parts of India, first by the Muslim invaders and then by the British. However, Assam had seen a large influx from the east; and for the 600 years prior to British annexation, Assam was ruled by Ahom rulers, descendants of an exiled prince from Thailand. The Ahoms adopted the language of their subjects, and Assamese culture during the six centuries of their reign developed through assimilation rather than domination. In 1826, the Treaty of Yandaboo between the East India Company and Burmese invaders placed Assam in British hands. Assamese literature before this period largely comprised devotional literature inspired by the neo-Vaishnavite movement of the late fifteenth-early sixteenth centuries, Assamese versions and translations of sacred texts and the epics, and the buranjis,or chronicles kept by the Ahom rulers. Though there was a large body of oral and folk genres, popular published literature was nonexistent. If Assam’s location had protected it from external rule via its western borders, this same location had also been responsible for keeping Assamese literature marginalized and slow to receive newer ideas and perspectives.
In 1826, when the British first came to Assam, they brought with them the administrative infrastructure from their then-capital at Calcutta in West Bengal. It is believed that relying on the words of Bengali clerks, the British government came to the conclusion that Assamese was simply a dialect of Bengali. According to Dimbeswar Neog:
It is a fact that when about this time the East India Company took the administration of Assam, a large number of Bengalees for their living came to this province as clerks and they were totally ignorant of the language of the soil. They happened to catch a word or two of Sanskrit origin from the lips of the people and, failing to make neither head nor tail of the rest of their vocabulary, chose to call it at random a patois of Bengali and advised the rulers, who were then equally innocent of the language, to replace it by [sic] the Bengali language. It was the matter of a minute as it was the question of whims; and the mischief was done. (Neog 1982, 340)
Whether the decision was, in fact, so whimsical can be questioned; administrative expedience had probably more to do with the decision than mere whim. Whatever the cause, the result was that Bengali was declared the language of education and administration in 1838 and remained so till 1873. Ironically, the revival of the language through proof of literature was a process that involved another group of foreigners—American missionaries. Missionaries of the American Baptist Mission Foreign Society in Burma entered Assam to spread their Christian message and turned to Assamese as the language through which to propagate their message. In doing so, they became involved in the promotion of Assamese literature and language. The most notable among the missionaries were Rev. Miles Bronson, who brought out the first Assamese dictionary in 1867; Rev. Nathan Brown, who published an Assamese grammar in 1848; and Rev. Oliver T. Cutter, who edited the first Assamese journal, Orunodoi. Through Orunodoi and through letters, petitions, and scholarly works, the missionaries sought to establish Assamese as the official language of Assam. Though these particular men did not live to see their goal achieved, their efforts were responsible for reviving the language, and, as Maheswar Neog says in his introduction to The Orunodoi,“for culturing the language along modern lines, endowing it with a grammar, a dictionary and a large mass of writings in modern prose” (Neog 1983, 56). Additionally, the Christian influence, rather than threatening Hindu culture, liberalized Assamese culture and helped modernize the language.
In reviewing Assamese literature till the mid-twentieth century, it becomes apparent that writings of a certain period can be categorized by ideology and style. However, unlike most Western literatures, where common ideas and approaches are identified through our review of various individual publications such as treatises, novels, poetic volumes, and plays that generally appeared separately, early Assamese literature, regardless of genre, was generally published through a single forum—the journal. Thus, these journals defined the literary periods, and, for this reason, Assamese literature is usually divided into ages or eras when the works appearing in the premier journals were most influential. Additionally, in reviewing early Assamese literature, we find the contributions of female writers to be almost nonexistent. This is not because women did not write at all; however, in the traditional, patriarchal society of nineteenth-century India, it was considered anomalous for a woman to write and publish, and, when she did so, it was not considered part of mainstream literature. Nevertheless, a number of women wrote and published in various genres. These women are discussed as a group following the discussion of nineteenth-century Assamese literature, because their approaches and publishing practices were not similar to those of the men who were their contemporaries. Twentieth-century women writers, however, are often considered among the best writers of their period and must therefore be considered alongside their male counterparts.
The Orunodoi Era
The Mid-Nineteenth Century
The early issues of Orunodoi carried this descriptive statement: “A monthly Paper, devoted to Religion, Science, and General Intelligence.” The periodical was true to its wide-ranging intent, as the first issue published in January 1846 reveals. It contained a review of events, national and international, of the previous year (a regular feature thereafter); an article entitled “Dharamor Katha,” subtitled “Religious Intelligence,” dealing with numerous converts to Christianity; and articles on the evils of opium and the tombs of the Ahom kings. In later years, it included brief critical essays on literature and Assamese culture, folktales, and short, original poems. Though religion was an important focus of the journal, Orunodoi was never an organ for aggressive Baptist propaganda. Maheswar Neog accurately points out: “That the Orunodoi was devoted to ’Science and General Intelligence’ is especially to be emphasized, as its pages went a long way to extend the intellectual horizons of the readers. The columns brought various news from all corners of the globe … The news of great events in India and in foreign countries were brought to the door of the Assamese even as they took place” (Neog 1983, 66). Neog goes on to say that as much as this news reshaped the Assamese mind, it also glorified colonialism as beneficial (66). Nevertheless, it brought to Assam a greater awareness of the world beyond and provided a forum for early Assamese writers of the nineteenth century. Among these was a trio who defined Assamese literature of the mid-nineteenth century: Anandaram Dhekiyal Phookan, Hemchandra Barua, and Gunabhiram Barua.
Assamese literature during this period and the Jonaki era must be discussed through the contributions of particular writers, rather than the development of genres. Literary genres such as poetry and drama had to be reestablished, and those such as the novel and short story had to be introduced before genre-specific traditions could be generated. Furthermore, lacking a continuous tradition, Assamese literature had to take a big leap to adopt modern trends. One particular trend that this era established was the use of the colloquial in prose, as opposed to the rhythmic speech patterns established by devotional literature. These three nineteenth-century writers established the foundations upon which the Jonaki era writers would thrive.
Anandaram Dhekiyal Phookan (1829-59) was not only an early contributor to Orunodoi but an active participant with the Baptist missionaries to remove the Bengali language from Assam. He was in a particularly advantageous position, as he was an officer of the provincial administration and rose to the post of junior assistant to the commissioner. His essay “A Few Remarks on the Assamese Language” (1855), published anonymously as “A Native,” contains an account and analysis of 62 religious poetical works and 40 dramatic works. The culling of such a list was particularly significant as evidence of a literary tradition in Assam and validated the claims that Assamese was a language rather than a dialect, as had been supposed. If Dhekiyal Phookan brought Assamese literature to the attention of the world at large, he also brought information about the world to Assamese readers. His unfinished series Asamiya Lorar Mitra (Assamese Boy’s Companion, 1849) was written as handbooks containing information on various subjects such as history, geography, and science. Besides his use of modern prose, he attempted to write translingual Assamese-English dictionaries, which were left unfinished but parts of which appeared in Orunodoi. The simple, clear, efficient prose that modern Assamese literature adopted is best exemplified by Dhekiyal Phookan’s essay “Englandor Vivaran” (Orunodoi 2:4 [April 1847]). In it, he addresses the readers, the Assamese people, directly as he calls to them to emulate the civilization and progress that were England’s. However, the message is a call not to mimic English ways but rather to improve one’s own country. The picture that he paints of the possible future, of an Assam rich in industry and learning and free of communal and racial bigotry, shows him to be rather a visionary.
Where Dhekiyal Phookan could not complete the task of writing a dictionary, Hemchandra Barua’s (1835-96) most important work was his Hemkosh (Golden Treasury), an Anglo-Assamese dictionary published posthumously in 1900. Barua’s contribution was linguistic as well as literary. Barua’s articles in Orunodoi,his dictionaries, and his grammatical texts all sought to replace the simplified Assamese used by the missionaries with a version closer to Sanskrit patterns of speech and to strengthen the use of Assamese by native speakers. Among these were Asamiya Vyakaran (1873), Asamiya Lorar Vyakaran (1892), and Pathsalia Abhidan (1892). His literature, too, reveals a concern for social reform. His novel Bahire Rongsong Bhitore Kowan Bhaturi (1876) refers to the idiom “Empty vessels make most sound” and criticizes social customs and religious hypocrisy through the supposedly respectable characters. In his life, too, he protested against restrictions on widow remarriage. He protested the double standard by refusing to remarry, though widowed at an early age. An article in Orunodoi (9:4 [April 1856]) entitled “Anek Bia Kora Ajugut” (It Is Wrong to Marry Many), attributed to a “Shri Sonar Chanda,” was obviously by him. His drama Kaniyar Kirtan (or The Gospel of an Opiumeater) (1861) highlights the effects of opium. In later years, Hemchandra Barua edited an Anglo-Assamese weekly paper, Assam News, which ensured the influence of his linguistic practices on following generations. In his personality and his place in the literature of his time, Hemchandra Barua is quite often likened to Samuel Johnson. However, it must be pointed out that, though Johnson’s dictionary was a prodigious work by a single individual, it did not reshape his native language, English. Hemchandra Barua’s dictionary did reshape Assamese.
Like Hemchandra Barua, Gunabhiram Barua (1837-94) was an ardent social reformer whose work reveals his reformist zeal. His Ram-Navami (1858), the first modern Assamese play, focuses on widow remarriage through the character of Navami, a young widow in love with a young man, Ramachandra. The discovery of this love leads to religious ostracism; however, the religious leader later recounts a dream that he had advocating remarriage, and the play ends with Navami’s remarriage. Despite this happy ending, the ostracism is not removed. The play thus advocates widow remarriage while criticizing the practice of ostracism. In keeping with his beliefs, Gunabhiram Barua married a widow, Bishnupriya, after his first wife’s death. Gunabhiram Barua was also the first Assamese biographer with his Anandaram Dhekiyal Phookanar Jivan Sarit (1880). His humorous work Kathin Shabdar Rahasya Byakhya (published posthumously in 1912) contains wonderfully comic interpretation of words. Gunabhiram Barua’s other contribution was to the literary essay. Asom Bandhu (Friend of Assam), a journal that he edited from 1885 to 1886, carried numerous essays by him and other early essayists. His prose is extremely modern in that it rejects declamation and opts for naturalness and directness. The simplicity, strength, and clarity of his prose style in such articles as “Saumar Bhraman” and “Alikhit Buranji,” which appeared in Jonaki,were carried over to the next generation of prose writers.
The Jonaki Era
Turn of the Century
The Jonaki era is also known as the age of Romanticism in Assamese literature. Though by 1889 the Romantic age had long faded in English literature, the Romantic ideal appealed, and was most applicable, to writers of an emergent literature. The term “Romantic” itself is used by Assamese writers and critics and implies the same approach to literature as it does in English literature. It would not be correct to say that writers of this era imitated Wordsworth, Shelley, or Keats; rather, they were strongly influenced by the Romantic sensibilities of these English poets. It is fitting that Assamese writers of this period would look to the Romantics rather than their contemporary Victorians. Assam was still untouched by industrialization and urbanization, the natural landscape held much scope for literary exploration, and the literary climate was full of promise and possibilities. The literature of this period utilized the lyric and ballad forms; it focused on man and his relation to beauty, nature, and the arts. In his introduction to Kuri Satikar Asamiya Kabita (Twentieth-Century Assamese Poetry), the poet Nilamoni Phookan aptly sums up romantic poetry as a movement away from theocentrism to anthropocentrism. The central theme changed from devotion to God to devotion to the world, its beauties, man as a reflection of the supernatural, and man’s pursuit of joy and beauty (Phookan 1977, 1). However, this was still a literature of the early twentieth century and could not be totally divorced from modernity. The acceleration of the independence movement and the social and cultural reformation movements in Bengal and other parts of the country influenced it and made it also a literature that examined social and nationalist issues. During this period the Asom Sahitya Sabha (Assam Literary Association) was formed in 1917. The Sahitya Sabha facilitated the exchange of ideas, popularized Assamese literature, art, and culture, and provided a forum for literary debate and discussion through its conventions, journals, and publications. It continues to be the primary literary association for the state even today.
Their predecessors had given them their voice, and writers of this era used it to express a wide range of issues through a variety of forms. Jonakiwas an early and important vehicle for this expression. First published on February 9, 1889, by Chandrakumar Agarwala (1867-1938), it was the journal of the Asamiya Bhashar Unnati Sadhini Sabha (Society for the Development of the Assamese Language), a society that included later Jonakieditors Lakshminath Bezbarua (1868-1938) and Hemchandra Goswami (1872-1928). This trio dominated the literature of this period.
Chandrakumar Agarwala’s poems, published first in Jonaki and collected later in Pratima (Image, 1913) and Bin Boragi (The Wandering Bard, 1923), best exemplify the Romantic ideal of the poetry of this age. His poem “Niyor” (The Dewdrop) looks at a single drop of dew and, in describing it, evokes an intense longing to discover its origins and the meaning of its beauty. The small drop of dew speaks volumes to the poet, who imagines it to be a pearl dropped from the ornaments of a girl dancing amid the flowers at night or perhaps her tear shed at the sight of sunrise. Poems like this display a Keatsian gaze at an object of beauty. Agarwala’s poems like “Manav Bandana” (Worship of Humanity) and “Bin Boragi” glorify man as a reflection of the Supreme Being and are reminiscent of the search for the sublime in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century English literature. This search for the sublime and the beautiful is found in a long line of poets following Chandrakumar Agarwala. In his contemporary Hemchandra Goswami’s sonnet “Priyatamar Sithi” (My Beloved’s Letter), the first Assamese sonnet, an examination of poetry and nature is woven into the description of the letter itself. Lakshminath Bezbarua brought a simplicity to the Romantic tradition through poems such as “Basanta” (Spring) and his “Bin Boragi.” But beyond that, Bezbarua revived Assam’s existing folk-song tradition through his ballads and pastorals. In his poems, too, we find a patriotic idealism and optimism about Assam past and present and its potential. His “O Mor Aponar Desh” (My Dearest Country) displays an intense pride in his place of birth and has become the state’s anthem.
Whereas these poets used the simple rhyme schemes and meter typical of the lyric, other Romantic poets used blank verse, too. Padmanath Gohain Barua’s (1871-1946) poems in his Juroni (1900) utilize the blank verse form of the much earlier classical kavyas (or verses). Notable among the early twentieth-century poets who first published in Jonaki were Raghunath Choudhari (1879- 1968), who was also known as bihogi-kabi,or bird-poet, for his numerous poems with birds as the central character in nature and whose first collection of poems, Sadori,was published in 1910; Bholanath Das (1858-1929), whose poetic contribution preceded Jonaki; and Anandachandra Agarwala (1874-1939), who translated numerous English and American poems and whose collection of original poems, Jilikoni (Glittering), was published in 1920.
The influence of the Jonaki era’s Romanticism was far-reaching and is still felt today. In poetry especially, even as the conditions of the modern world forced poets to turn to realism and naturalism and adopt a cynical attitude toward man and society, the romantic vision continued to manifest itself in the works of numerous poets who had grown up in the first two decades of the twentieth century. Though Romantic poetry was written well into the 1950s and 1960s, this poetry was also contemporaneous in that it included the concerns of a newly independent country. Among the poets of this continuing stream of Romanticism were Ambikagiri Raichoudhuri (1885-1967), whose first collected poems were Tumi (You, 1915) and who brought a revolutionary ideal to all his works; Jatindranath Duara (1892-1968), whose translation of Omar Khayyam’s Rubaiyat was a brilliant example of this genre; Parvati Prasad Baruva (1904-64), who, from his first poetic drama Lakhimi (1931) and through his poems and songs, expressed the eternal search for the sublime through contemplation of simple things in nature; and Jyotiprasad Agarwala (1903-51), whose poetry was but part of a prolific body of works that enriched Assamese literature immeasurably.
Where Chandrakumar Agarwala was a pioneer in poetry, Lakshminath Bezbarua was the high priest of Assamese prose and is still considered to be so. Bezbarua’s prose works are remarkable for their modern style and vision, qualities found in his novels, short stories, and essays. His first novel, Padum Konwori (The Lotus Queen, 1905), appearing originally in installments in Jonaki,was structured around a historical event. But his Kripabor Baruar Kakotor Topola (Kripabor Barua’s Bundle of Papers, 1904; originally serialized in Jonaki) established his reputation. This and the later Kripabor Baruar Obhotoni (1909) are farcical and satirical collections that touch on Assamese politics and society. Bezbarua had the Dickensian ability to combine serious social commentary within humorous depictions. His Nomal, Pasani,and Sikarpati Nikarpatiare all in a similar farcical vein. However, his prose contributions extended beyond this. His Junuka (Anklets, 1910), Burhi Air Sadhu (Grandmother’s Tales, 1911), and Kokadeuta Aru Natilora (Grandfather and Grandson, 1912) are collections of traditional Assamese folktales that revived and popularized this age-old oral genre for adults as well as children. Among Bezbarua’s original short story collections are Surabhi (1909), Sadhu Kathar Kuki (1912), and Jonbiri (1913). Baheen (Flute), the journal Bezbarua edited from 1909 to 1929, became a vehicle for his essays on literature and language. Though the sheer volume and skill of Bezbarua’s prose tend to overshadow the works of other prose writers, other writers did produce a body of novels, histories, and critical studies during this period.
Benudhar Rajkhowa’s (1872-1956) Lakhimi Tirota (The Auspicious Wife) is notable in that it is a dialogue depicting a good or ideal wife. His other prose writings include essays such as Bihu on the practice of this Assamese festival, English essays such as Short Accounts of Assam (1915), and Historical Sketches of Assam (1917), among others. Surya Kumar Bhuyan (1894-1964), known primarily as a historian, established the art of the biography with his Anandaram Barua (1920). Rajanikanta Bordoloi (1867-1939) produced an impressive four-volume saga of the final days of the Ahom dynasty and of the Burmese invasion and misrule in Manomati (1900), Rangili (1925), Nirmal Bhakat (1928), and Rohdoi Ligiri (1930). These novels are all the more significant since the horror of the Burmese invasion was still fresh in the collective minds and imaginations of the Assamese. Though Bordoloi wrote other historical novels and is often likened to Sir Walter Scott, his romantic novel Miri Jiyori (1895) remains one of the most enduring romances in Assamese literature.
The dramatic works of this period had more literary, than theatrical, value. Much of the drama of this period was read rather than performed, and the following generation would put this drama on stage or at least borrow from their themes to do so. The first dramatic work of this period was Lakshminath Bezbarua’s Litikai (The Pages, or Lackeys), a farce serialized in 12 parts from the first issue of Jonaki. His other dramas were historical ones such as Chakradhwaj Singhaand Joymati Kunwari,both taking up Ahom royalty as their primary characters. It was Benudhar Rajkhowa who was a more prolific playwright and whose plays contain strong satirical and often farcical characteristics. His plays, such as Kali Yuga (written in collaboration with another noteworthy litterateur, Durga Prasad Majindar Barua), Tini Ghaini (Three Wives), Asikshit Ghaini (The Uneducated Wife), and Sorar Sristi (The Thief’s Invention), depict various aspects of Assamese society of his day. With these plays, too, performance was not the primary concern. It is remarkable that, though early-modern Assamese literature, with a few exceptions, does not yield great dramas, Assamese society has always been a theater going one. Drama developed in Assam contemporaneously with English drama in the fifteenth century. As with the English church performances, mysteries, and morality plays, the neo-Vaishnavite movement established religious drama and, with it, a classical dance form, the satriya (of the satrasor monasteries). But Assamese drama did not develop in the manner of English drama, and the classical, devotional, and historical strains were still strong into the twentieth century. Modern Assamese drama was established in the 1940s by Jyotiprasad Agarwala and continues to flourish. But even today, perhaps fittingly, successful dramatists are defined by performances at large, rather than by publications. Masses of people flock to the touring theater companies that move through the Assamese countryside and towns performing popular plays that are not to be found in published form. The establishment of All India Radio in 1948 saw the rise of another form of nonliterary drama.
In establishing eras for literature, we realize that such categorizations are ultimately artificial ones. The Jonaki age is considered to have lasted till the 1930s, and the decade of the 1940s is considered separately and specifically as the decade that gave birth to modern Assamese literature. Nevertheless, the careers of numerous writers spanned the 1930s, 1940s, and beyond. More important, certain writers transcend categorization and cannot be made to fit into either category. They defined the transitional phase from Romanticism to Modernity. Banikanta Kakati (1894-1952) was one such writer whose scholarship and leadership shaped modern Assamese literature. Kakati used his education in English literature and language and his wide knowledge of Assamese literature and history to establish in Assam a body of reliable research tools. His Assamese: Its Formation and Development (1941) is still considered the definitive work on the language. His Purani Asamiya Sahitya (1940) and Life and Teachings of Shankardeva, Vishnuite Myths and Legends (1952), among others, provide a core of scholarly research for the study of Assamese culture. Though earlier writers had written on some of these subjects, their works were generally incomplete in scope. Kakati, whose career was as an educator in Assam’s major college and university, saw the lack of available, reliable information for the study of Assamese and made it his goal to correct the situation. That Assamese literature today has a body of scholarly apparatus is entirely due to Kakati’s early efforts. Another such figure was Jyotiprasad Agarwala. His educational background included a term of study in England and Germany. The exposure to broader Indian and Western ideas led him to the genre that has become so significant in modern culture—cinema. Agarwala wrote, produced, directed, and provided music for the first Assamese movie, Joymati,in 1935, followed by Indramalati in 1936. Joymati took its subject from Lakshminath Bezbarua’s Joymati Konwari. It was a historical tale of Joymati’s refusal to reveal the whereabouts of her husband, Gadadhar Singha, to those who wished to usurp the throne by eliminating legitimate heirs. Joymati remained stoic in the face of cruel punishment and torture; though she ultimately dies, she embodied resistance to injustice. Though the tale was historic, it was particularly relevant in an India entering the last phase of its resistance to British rule. Agarwala’s films, like his plays, which will be discussed later, were socially significant dramas. Agarwala’s poetic vision, too, was popularized through his body of songs, now termed Jyoti-Sangeet, and their accessibility was ensured for generations of readers and nonreaders alike. Jyotiprasad Agarwala defined an important aspect of Assamese literature—its function in popular culture. Intellectual that he was, he realized that literature and culture could not exist through intellectuals alone. Revolutionary that he was, he realized that ideas must also be felt and heard to be accepted. Another personality who left an indelible impression on Assamese literature and culture was Bishnu Rabha. Rabha represented indigenous Assam; his was a robust voice and vision that sprang from his tribal culture, a culture that existed and flourished in Assam much before the spread of a predominantly Hindu culture. Like Jyotiprasad Agarwala, Rabha wrote prose, poetry, and drama. His legacy remains in a large body of songs popular even today. Unfortunately, many of his works perished before they could be collected and published and thereby preserved.
Early Women Writers
So far this discussion of Assamese literature has shown it to be a literature of men; and indeed, male hegemony of education and letters was present here as it was in literature the world over. However, despite adverse circumstances, lack of opportunity, and even lack of proper education, Assamese women have made considerable and consistent contributions to literature down the ages. Some of the early women who contributed to Assamese literature had the advantage of being born into literary, progressive families that allowed them to receive educations superior to those of other women. One member of Anandaram Dhekiyal Phookan’s family who made a mark on her own was his daughter Padmavati Devi Phookanani (1853-1927). Her Sudharmar Upakhyan (Sudharma’s Tale, 1884) can be considered the second novel by an Assamese writer, male or female. The novel relates the travels and trials of Sudharma, her husband, and their friends amid settings reminiscent of early classical tales. She was a poet and critic and even wrote a children’s book, Hitosadhika. She wrote a number of articles that display her feminism in journals of her time, such as Baheenand Jonaki. Most notable were her ideas on the conditions of women. She was widowed at 32, and her article in Baheen,“Bidhoba,” speaks of the harsh life of the widow in Indian society. She comments on the general condition of women in an article she sent to the Sahitya Sabha (the Assamese Literary Association) called “Samajot Tirutar Sthan” (Women’s Place in Society). Gunabhiram Baruah’s daughter Swarnalata Baruah (1871-1932), too, contributed articles to Assam Bandhu Bijuli,and she wrote Aahi Tirutawhile quite young. Unfortunately, her family life proved too difficult and tragic for her to be able to continue writing. In the early twentieth century, three women who became known on their own strength were Dharmeswari Devi Baruani, Jamuneswari Khatoniyar, and Nalinibala Devi. Kabya Bharati Dharmeswari Devi Baruani (1892-1960) rose above immense physical and mental difficulties to become known as a poet. Soon after her marriage to Durganath Barua, Dharmeswari Devi was struck by a debilitating illness that left her an invalid. Poetry and the love and support of her husband, which she expressed in her poetry, sustained her, but she was soon widowed. From a life such as this and a body that was gradually losing its abilities, she made her poetic voice heard in her works: Phulor Sorai (1929), Pranor Parash (1952), and Ashrudhan Aru Jivantari (1963), all of which were influenced by Romanticism. Though she takes her imagery from nature, her poetry reveals a strong devotion to the Creator. In 1956, she received the title “Kabyabharati” from the Assam Sahitya Sabha. Whereas Dharmeswari Devi lived a long life of much suffering, Jamuneswari Khatoniyar (1899-1924) accomplished what she did in a life that ended at age 25. Educated privately, since a public school education was not allowed young girls of the time, Jamuneswari passed her middle school examination with her private education, soon after which she sought to remedy the inequality in education by opening, and teaching in, a primary school for girls. The school, Mudoigaon Girls’ School, still remains as a testimony to her reformatory zeal. In 1920, she married the poet Bhairab Chandra Khatoniyar and died four short years later. But in those four years she created a forum for the expression and exchange of ideas by establishing Juroni Sabha, a religious and literary gathering at her house each evening. She left one volume of collected poems, Arun (1919), and published poems in Baheen.
Nalinibala Devi (1898-1977) is probably the best-known female poet of her era. She wrote her first poem, “Pita,” when she was 10 years old. Though widowed at a very early age in an era that considered widowhood the end of a constructive life, Nalinibala rose above this misfortune and began her life as a prolific poet and writer. Her poetic works include Sandhiyar Sur (1928), Saponar Sur (1943), Parashmoni (1954), Alakananda (1967), and Jagriti (1962), among others. She was awarded the Sahitya Akademi in 1968 for Alakananda. Her prose works include her father Nabin Chandra Bordoloi’s life, Smritir Tirtha (1948), her autobiography, Eri Aha Dinbur,and her collected articles, Shanti Path. Numerous other works are still to be found unpublished, in manuscript form. Nalinibala Devi was one of the major poets of the Jonaki era who brought her feminine, Romantic vision well into the mid-twentieth century. Her position in the Assamese poetic canon was acknowledged even in her lifetime, as evidenced by her presidency of the Assam Sahitya Sabha in 1954. Nalinibala Devi’s works cover the range of any major writer, and she placed Assamese women firmly in the history of Assamese literature and language. Thereafter, the products of women writers, though underrated and understudied, have come to be considered within mainstream literature.
The Jayanti Era
A Decade of Transition
The decade of the 1940s is considered the Jayanti era, taking its name from the quarterly Jayanti, first published on January 2, 1938, with Raghunath Chaudhari as editor during its first year. It became a monthly from its fourth year and in its decade and a half of existence experienced numerous changes in publisher and editor. From its seventh year onward, Jayanti saw the establishment of a new form of literature. If Jonaki took literature from the devotional to the Romantic, Jayanti moved it to the realistic. Starting with Ambikagiri Raichoudhuri and Jyotiprasad Agarwala, literature turned away from nostalgia regarding the past to immediate concerns. The focus was now on patriotism, social causes, and protest of injustice. In Jayanti’s sixth year, Anandeswar Sharma’s article “Aajir Ei Sandhikhyanat” warned against taking refuge in the past while ignoring the injustices of the present. He pointed to the examples of Russia and China and the role of writers there in bringing about social change. Indeed, Assamese writers did try to follow these examples, as much of the writing of, and beyond, this period is politically motivated, too. Though the Romantic influence is still displayed well beyond Jayanti, it would be safe to say that Assamese literature lost its innocence in the 1940s. Many contemporary writers are products of the Jayanti age.
Jayanti was not the only journal to follow Jonakiand Baheen; among other important journals were Abahon, Surabhi, and Ramdhenu. Even in the 1940s, Assamese literature was dependent on journals. There are two reasons for this. First, there has never been a strong print culture or publishing industry in Assam that could issue independent works from manuscript. The publishing concerns that did exist generally took up a writer’s works based on a well-established reputation, and reputations could be established only through journals. In fact, writers often issued their own works through small print shops. Second, World War II reached Assam in 1939 and brought inflation and shortage of goods, including paper. This shortage affected journals, too; certainly, mass publication of single works was not possible. The same conditions of deprivation and instability that the war brought influenced literary ideas. The 1940s brought another change to all of India: independence and the establishment of a democratic state. Such upheavals, both the negative and the positive one, meant that writers could not carry on with earlier perceptions of society and the world. Modern Assamese writers display the angst of modern writers everywhere.
The poetry published in Jayanti reveals a sharp shift away from the optimism of the earlier period. Writers challenged the established norms and complacency of a society based on caste and class distinctions. Their poetry reflects a disillusionment and cynicism that stemmed from the knowledge that a free, modern India did not imply freedom and equality. Progress, technological and industrial, was felt to be dubious if it ignored the concerns of a large part of society. Amulya Barua (1922-46) was the foremost poet of this generation. His “Andharor Hahakar” (The Tumult of Darkness) is a brilliant antiromantic poem. It evokes the traditional Romantic image of an autumnal, moonlit night to have it reveal horror, death, and decay. His “Beisya” (The Prostitute) is a controversial poem that points contemptuously to the upper echelons of society who are united with the prostitute in a single act that they publicly scorn but privately practice. Where the prostitute’s behavior arises out of dire need, the behavior of the men is shown to be self-indulgent and thus more contemptible. In a similar vein, in Keshav Mahanta’s (1926) “Suror Koiphiyot” (The Thief’s Justification), which appeared in the first issue of Jayanti’s important seventh year, the protagonist, a thief, points at social conditions as being responsible for the path he must take. In the second issue of that year, Amulya Barua’s “Biplobi” (Revolutionary) explains the modern revolutionary vision, a vision that was not oppositional but sought ideological reforms through knowledge and tolerance. It was a bitter irony that the ignorance, bigotry, and social divisiveness that Amulya Barua spoke out against were the cause of his death in the communal riots in Calcutta during partition. In the same issue of Jayanti, Hem Barua’s “Guwahati—1944” described the state of the nation as one crowded with wartime difficulties and political and ideological struggles.
The language of this poetry was immediate, accessible, forceful. Its tone was questioning, probing, revealing. Among the notable poets of this period were Prasannalal Choudhuri, Shashikanta Gogoi, Bhaba Prasad Rajkhowa, Said Abdul Malik, Narayan Bezbarua, Mahesh Deb Goswami, Maheswar Neog, and Deva Kanta Barua, some of whom are still writing. It would be inaccurate to call all these poets antiromantic, as many of them still leaned toward the earlier Romantics. But poetry in general showed the influence of English poets such as Yeats, Pound, and Elliot, and this modern poetry was the dominant one.
Prose fiction of this period was weaker than its poetry. We notice the publication of more short stories than novels. Novelists who would emerge in contemporary literature were starting their careers as short story writers. Said Abdul Malik’s (1919) collection of short stories, Parashmoni, was published in 1946. The short story “Parashmoni” was a simple yet relevant story of love, friendship, and misunderstanding; but Malik’s direct language and expressions made this story of human relationships appealing. It established Malik as one of contemporary Assam’s most popular writers. On the other hand, Birendra Kumar Bhattacharya’s (1924) short stories focused on social, rather than interpersonal, subjects. His short story “Jetiya Sihonte Noporhe,” which appeared in the April issue of Abahon, examines, through its characters’ search, Marxist philosophy as a means of social change. His “Agyat Japani Sainik,” which appeared in Jayanti’s seventh year, focuses on the war. His “Sei Ekhon Jogotor Katha,” too, describes the conditions generated by war and, through these descriptions, comments on communal divisiveness.
The Assamese novel of this period was still the traditional, plot-driven novel. But its subjects and plots were no longer those of the traditional romances. Modernity implied a harder look at life, and novelists examined contemporary social and political changes closely. Birinchi Kumar Barua (1908-64), who also wrote under the pseudonym Bina Barua, was a novelist whose works Jivanor Batot (On the Journey of Life, 1944) and Seuji Pator Kahini (A Story of Green Leaves, 1958) depict the gradual disappearance of a rural, natural lifestyle due to the spread of industry and commerce. The heroine of Jivanor Batot, Togor, embodies rural simplicity, while the hero Kamalakanta represents urbane, so-called progressive society. Kamalakanta’s deception and exploitation of Togor’s innocence through a pretended marriage upturn her hitherto safe, protected life. The allusions to the nation’s upheaval are very clear in this tale. As Bina Barua, he also wrote novels that looked at the romantic relations between college students, which, too, were indicative of the changes taking place in Assamese society. Another novelist to write college romances was Roma Das (1909-81). Other notable novelists of this period were Kaliram Medhi (1878-1954) and Bhabananda Datta (1918-59). But the novelist whose work demonstrates modernity in its style and structure as well as subject is Prafulla Dutta Goswami (1919). His novels include Shesh Kot (Where Does It End?, 1948) and Kesa Pator Kapani (The Trembling of New Leaves, 1952) and show the influence of Joseph Conrad, Virginia Woolf, and James Joyce. Though his novels cannot be termed stream-of-consciousness in structure, the emphasis is on internal thought rather than external action. The story of Kesa Pator Kapani unfolds through its hero’s dilemma at having to reject his parents’ way of life in choosing his own. The hero Utpal is not a vehement rebel, simply a modern man having to make modern choices. His uncertainty symbolizes modern insecurity. Dutta Goswami’s novels are part of contemporary literature; but his works were the earliest to have taken this vital step toward modern structure and language in the Assamese novel.
The drama of this period can be divided into three categories: the mythological, the historical, and the social. The structure of drama saw a major change in that it moved away from the rigidity of the classical five-act form. This flexibility allowed the later introduction of the one-act play. A major player in development of drama was radio. The ability to perform and broadcast a play without any visuals or costumes on radio shows freed drama from mere stage effects. The message and dialogue became important and thus more efficient. The influence of Shaw and Ibsen’s message-oriented drama can be seen in the social drama of this period.
Historical dramas took up Assamese figures of recent history as their subjects, especially figures who symbolized resistance to British rule. The Nagaon Natya Samiti’s Piyoli Phookan (1948), Prabin Phookan’s (1912-85) Lachit Borphookan (1946) and Maniram Dewan (1948), and Surendranath Saikia’s Kushal Konwar (1949) dramatized the historical and personal events surrounding these well-known personalities of Assam’s history. Surendranath Saikia also wrote a number of mythological plays, such as Karna (1947) and Lakshman (1949). But such plays were fewer in number. It was the social drama that gained popularity and importance, and Jyotiprasad Agarwala was the dramatist who popularized this drama. In his Lobhita (1942), though the play is set within two political events, World War II and the 1942 independence movement, the social message is most relevant. Its heroine, Lobhita’s, reaction to events around her, her courage and determination amid intense struggles, her ultimate sacrifice characterize a pride and patriotism that allowed this young Assamese woman to face modern problems unafraid. Agarwala’s message was that young Assamese men and women be able to encounter the complexities of the modern world with self-confidence and pride in their heritage and reject earlier tendencies to marginalize themselves. His Karengor Ligiri (The Palace Maid, 1936), too, dramatizes the dehumanizing effects of traditional class structures. Among his other plays are the symbolic dramas Nimati Kanya, Rupalim,and Sonit-Kunwori. They are all notable for experimenting not only with form but with technique, including the incorporation of songs and music in what can be termed poetic dramas. Other social dramas of this period are Satya Prasad Barua’s (1919) Sakoi-Sokuwat (1940), Susibrata Raichoudhuri’s Kon Bate (1948), and Dandiram Kalita’s Porasit (1946). We do find a number of comedies written during this period, but the comic vision was not predominant in the 1940s.
1950s to the Present
Assamese literature today cannot be characterized as having a single, common vision or belonging to a particular school. The ready availability of newly published works from around the world, the advent of technology and mass media, and the easy access to travel and study across the world all influenced writers in various ways. Ideologically, it reflects a post-Freudian, post-Marxist, postmodern world. Furthermore, recent political upheavals in the country and the state, the breakdown of public morals, and economic progress continue to affect present-day writers. Literature today includes a wide range of poetry, novels, short stories, dramas, and subgenres such as folklore, science fiction, children’s literature, biographies, and translations. Thus, a short survey cannot do real justice to, nor encompass, a continuing literature.
Modern poetry reveals personal reflections and focus on the immediate and shifting trends of modern life, often within urban settings. The poetry that evokes natural, Romantic imagery, too, brings to these images a modern perspective. Modern poetry takes many forms; some poets still use traditional lyric forms and rhymes, whereas others use blank and free verse in ordinary, rather than poetic, language. Some of these trends had been displayed in the poetry of the 1940s. Though contemporary poetry displays a cynicism and dismay at modern conditions, it is not as vehement as the poetry of the 1940s, nor does it contain that revolutionary zeal. Modern poetry is both symbolic and realistic.
Navakanta Barua’s poetic works, He Aranya, He Mahanagar (1951), Eti Duti Egharoti Tora (1958), Samrat (1962), Ravan (1963), Monor Khobor (Songs, 1963), and Mor Aru Prithivir (1973), all reveal a symbolic, often surrealistic, often dramatic approach to his depiction of the gradual destruction of modern society. He began his writing in the 1940s, and his poetic vision, expressed through a career that has spanned six decades, has established him as one of the leading poets of Assam. Though his approach is modern, his imagery combines the Romantic as well. His subjects include the natural landscape of Assam, especially its rivers, and he falls back on traditional folk songs and folk dances, as well as the colloquial, for his meter. His recent works, such as Ratnakar aru Ananya Kabi (1986) and Ekhon Swasa Mukhare (1990), reveal that, though the poet is faced with, and must accept, present-day reality, there are a continued lingering of, a longing for, the idealism and simplicity of the past.
One of the poets who define contemporary Assamese poetry is Nilamoni Phookan (1933). From his first collection of poems, Surya Henu Nami Ahe Ei Nadiyedi (1963), Phookan expresses the loneliness and isolation of modern man in a society that seems to have lost its moorings. Though his poems contemplate society, his poetry embraces the Assamese landscape and takes its themes from the natural and historical. His other works are Nirjanatar Shabda (1965), Kabita (1978), and Golapi Jamur Lagna (1985). In these, too, Phookan reflects on a wide range of universal issues such as love, life, and death. His style is at once expressionistic and symbolic; his language combines the sound of folk literature with the meter of European literature. A contemporary of Nilamoni Phookan, Nirmalprabha Bordoloi (1933) is not only a remarkable female poet but one of the best-known Assamese poets writing today. Bordoloi’s poetry is self-expressive and contemplative. Her reflections span man and nature alike. Her imagery is symbolic as well as evocative of the past. In many of her works, she has focused on social issues and redefined mythical heroines such as Draupadi, Gandhari, and Sita. Her works include Bon Phoringor Rong (1967), Dinor Pasot Din (1977) and Antaranga (1978). The extremely lyrical quality of her poetry has made them easy to adapt to song. Another important modern poet who has kept alive the strain of lyricism in poetry is Hiren Bhattacharya (1932). Bhattacharya’s poetry utilizes the power of words to universalize even the most personal experiences; it is at once intimate and revelatory. Bhattacharya is one of the most influential of modern Assamese poets. His works include Sugandhi Pokhila (1981) and Soisor Pothar Manuh (1991). Another notable modern poet is Ajit Barua (1928), who began his career in the 1940s. In early poems, such as “Tikha” and “Haturi,” which appeared in journals, he focuses on social reform and expression of freedom. His later works, such as Kisuman Padya aru Gaan (1982) and Brahmaputra Ityadi Padya (1989), are more expressionistic and symbolic. One young poet who effectively represents the contemporary trend in Assamese poetry is Samir Tanti (1956), whose works include Yudha bumir Kabita (1985) and Shokakol Upatyaka (1990). His poetic vision reflects on Third World conditions as present in Assam/India today, and in these reflections he shares much with poets from Third World countries the world over. Harsh realities often make these poets revolutionary and leftist in their views; but this is a leftism that is not necessarily aligned to any one political ideology. Among other noteworthy Assamese poets writing today are Bhaben Barua (1941), in whose work Sonali Jahaj (1977) we find a contemplation of the seasons and imaginative play on words; Hiren Datta (1939), whose works include Somadhirir Sowarani aru Ananya Kabita (1981); and Harekrishna Deka (1943).
It would be remiss to end this section on poetry without mentioning Bhupen Hazarika. Hazarika has achieved national fame as a lyricist rather than a poet; nevertheless, since lyricism has been a definitive quality of Assamese poetry throughout its history, the poetic value of Hazarika’s works cannot be ignored. Bhupen Hazarika’s songs and poetry have covered a wide range of subjects, from the intensely personal to the extremely political. In his works, he has used the traditional hymn, the native folk song, and his original music to interpret national and international concerns, and, by using them, he has popularized old forms. Though he is a popular public figure and a performing artist, his contribution to literature has been acknowledged through his appointment to the presidency of the Assam Sahitya Sabha in 1993. That same year, Hazarika won India’s prestigious Dadasaheb Phalke Award for cinematic contributions, establishing his role in yet another genre—cinema.
Contemporary Assamese literature displays a strong tradition of novel and short story writing. Most writers today have produced works in both genres. Contemporary prose fiction is extremely conscious of its social function and political responsibility and takes as its subjects events surrounding the last stages of the independence struggle and the shifting social and economic conditions of modern India. Two writers who started writing and established reputations quite early are Said Abdul Malik and Birendra Kumar Bhattacharya. As with his earlier short stories, Malik’s novels concentrate on the relationships between men and women, on ordinary events that touch and change the lives of ordinary people, and on the universal relevance such relationships and events have. Some of these novels are Adharsheela (1966), Rajanigandhar Sokulu (1972), and Dr. Arunabhar Asampurna Jivani (1975). Certain of his novels, such as Prasin aru Kankaal (1968) and Sonali Sutare Bondha (1972), look at unnatural manifestations of love and intense passion. However, his novels are not restricted to romance alone. Two novels that examine social conditions are Surujmukhir Sapna (1960) and Oghori Atmar Kahini (1969). Surujmukhir Sapnais primarily about the life of a Muslim village by the river. Through his descriptions of a simple rural people, their joys, sorrows, and hopes, Malik brings the village to life. Oghori Atmar Kahini,on the other hand, is placed in an urban setting and looks at middle-class life and problems associated with it. Malik’s prose writings include two well-known biographies: Jyotiprasad Agarwala’s life, Rupotirtha Jatri (Vol. 1, 1963; Vol. 2, 1965), and the Assamese Vaishnav saint and reformer Sankardev’s life, Dhanya Nara Tonu Bhala (1987). Among Malik’s many works are Rothor Sokori Ghure (1950), Bonjui (1956), Sobighar (1958), Matir Saki (1959), and Anya Akash, Anya Tora (1962). Birendra Kumar Bhattacharya’s novels, too, display the same political concerns that his short stories exhibited. In technique, his novels are more experimental and modern than Malik’s. His first novel, Rajpothe Ringiyai (1955), employs stream-of-consciousness narrative to some extent. The novel moves over the course of one day in the life of the protagonist, an important day for India—August 15, 1947, independence day. We see the limitedness of independence through the hero’s eyes and ultimately the false claims of independence as the day ends with the hero’s being attacked by the police. His second novel, Iyaruingom (1960), is set in the Naga hills of the independence era and narrates the divisions that arise out of ideological differences. One group within Naga society believes in Subhash Chandra Bose’s message of active, armed resistance to the British in India with the help of the Japanese army; the other group has faith in Gandhi’s nonviolent methods. This division echoes that apparent in the rest of India. In the end, though the first group is victorious and attempts to form an independent state in the Naga hills, it is clear that the larger nationalistic forces will ultimately take over. Bhattacharya’s novels consistently question and reveal the false assumptions on which society’s definitions of freedom, nationalism, faith, and religion are based. His Mritunjoy (1970), which again is set in preindependent India during the Quit India movement of 1942, focuses on a Vaisnavite and a Gandhian who must turn to violence. His Pratipod (1970) uses the workers’ strike of 1940 in the Britishowned Assam Oil Company at Digboi as its subject and the unity displayed by the workers and the ultimate political intervention as its theme. Two recent novels that again turn to democracy and nationalism are Munisunir Pohor (1979) and Kalor Humunia (1982). Bhattacharya’s novels, such as Sataghni (1968) and Kobor aru Phool (1972), examine the effects of war on humanity. Other novels, such as Nastachandra (1968), Sinaki Shuti (1971), and Daini (1976), are studies of the human condition.
Another contemporary novelist whose novels examine various forms and whose subjects are often political in the manner of Bhattacharya is Homen Borgohain (1931). His first novel, Suwala (1963), is narrated in the first person and is the account of the life of its heroine, a simple village girl who comes to town in hopes of finding a better life and whom social and economic conditions push toward prostitution. Borgohain’s second novel, Tantrik (1967), is an ideological novel that examines the values of mysticism as opposed to naturalism or existentialism, where plot is secondary. In both novels, we see the influence of Western philosophical schools. Borgohain’s Antaraag (1986), however, is a novel that shows the relevance and applicability of these ideas to modern-day India. Borgohain’s political novels include Kushilav (1970) and Timir Tortha (1975), both of which expose the corruption and decay of Indian politics both local and national. His extremely popular novels such as Halodhiya Soaiye Baudhan Khai (1973), Pitaputra (1975), and Matsyagandha (1987) take on more social concerns and depict the continuing social inequities and injustices. Navakanta Barua’s novels, too, examine social conditions, but more in the manner of Malik than Bhattacharya. His two best-known novels are set in Nagaon district of Assam and have almost a historical quality. Kapili Pariya Sadhu (1926) is set around the river Kapili, and the riverbank takes on a life of its own through Barua’s poetic descriptions. But his second novel, Kokadeutar Had (1954), established the poet as a novelist. The novel is the saga of two well-placed families in late eighteenth-century Nagaon. Their story of bitter rivalry, deceit, and violence is told through a present-day narrator, a grandmother reflecting on her family’s past as she tells the tale to future generations. Through the rivalry of the two families and their manipulation of the lower classes, the novel touches on the continuing exploitation of one class by another. Barua usually takes figments of history and folklore and builds his novels around them. Two other such novels are Garama Kunwori (1979) and Manuh Ataibor Dwip (1981).
Among notable modern novelists we find women writers such as Nirupama Borgohain (b. 1932), Nilima Dutta (1925), and Mamoni Raisom Goswami (b. 1943). Nirupama Borgohain’s first novel, Sei Nadi Niravadhi (1963), is yet another modern novel whose setting is a riverbank. The story of life in the region is told through the life and love of the female protagonist, whose life is inextricably intertwined with the river itself. Another novel centered around a heroine is Dinor Pisot Dinot (1968). Where these novels are female-oriented, Borgohain’s Anya Jivan (1986) and Champavati (1990) can be termed feminist novels. Anya Jivanis probably the first Assamese feminist novel, in that it examines the opposition women face in determining themselves as individuals in a patriarchal society. Though the novel is set in an interior village, its society is but a representation of society at large. As a socially concerned novelist, Nirupama Borgohain does not simply examine feminist issues. Her Iparor Ghor Siparor Ghor (1979) describes the breakdown of rural society due to post-independent economic problems and the further problems that face rural migrants in urban settings. This novel and others, like Dinor Pisot Dinand Bhabishyat Ronga Surya (1980), realistically depict social and economic degeneration in free India. Among Borgohain’s better-known works are Antah Shrota (1969), Hridoy Eta Nirjon Dwip (1970), Samanya Asamanya (1971), and Cactus Phool (1976). Nilima Dutta’s novels generally take up ordinary life and realistic concerns. But her most recent novel, Dhumuhar Pisot (1992), looks at the studentled political agitation in Assam of the 1980s, the formation of a government by former students, and the effects of the movement in general and is a timely examination of a historical movement that continues to affect Assam today. Mamoni Raisom Goswami’s novels, too, concern themselves with recent events and often take a socialistic approach. The subject of her Sinabor Sot (1972) is the exploitation of its laborers by a bridge construction company; through this subject, she exposes the inhuman treatment of one class by another, based on socioeconomic differences, that has become an acceptable aspect of life in India. Ahiron (1976) and Mamore Dhora Tarowal (1980), too, are similar to this first novel in their empathy for the underclass. In Nilakanthi Braj (1976), Goswami contrasts the abstraction of spiritual beauty with the reality of physical squalor. The young widowed heroine encounters overwhelming poverty and dire need, inhumanity and debased behavior in Mathura, one of the holiest shrines of Hinduism and a place that should have embodied the high ideals of the religion itself. Her Dontal Hatir Uiye Khowa Howda (1988), set in an Assamese satra,or monastery, also exposes religious hypocrisy.
We see a variety of novels, traditional and experimental, romantic and realistic, being produced by novelists today. Lakshminandan Borah (b. 1931), notable as a short story writer, focuses on ordinary life, especially rural life, in his novels, which include Ganga Silonir Pakhi (1965), Nishar Purobi (1962), and Matit Meghor Sanh (1970). Borah’s more socially and politically conscious novels are Patal Bhairbi (1965), Uttar Purush (1970), and Dohon Dulori (1971). Jogesh Das (1927) looks back at World War II and the conditions it created in India in his most notable novel, Dawor Aru Nai (1955). Many of Das’s novels show the restrictive nature of our society, especially concerning women. Two of these are Jonakir Jui (1959) and Nirupai, Nirupai (1963). Debendranath Acharya (1937-81), in his novels Kalpurush (1967), Anya Jog Anya Purush (1971), and Jangam (published 1982), was the first to write in the surrealistic mode. His novels take and explore particular events in Assam’s past imaginatively, rather than historically. Assam’s large aboriginal tribal society has always been a presence in its literature and folklore, though somewhat an overlooked one. But Karbi writer Rong Bong Terang’s novel Rongmilir Hanhi (1981) brought Karbi society to mainstream literature. A novelist who experiments with form and subject in novels such as Madhupur (1971), Tarangini (1971), Godhuli (1981), and Anusandhan (1987) is Shilabhadra (Revatimohan Dutta Choudhuri ). Short story writer and playwright Bhabendranath Saikia’s (1932) novel Antarip (1986) is extraordinarily progressive in its feminist statement, as it entertains the idea of feminine subversion in the 1930s. Other contemporary novelists and short story writers include Chandra Prasad Saikia (1927), Medini Choudhuri (1929), Arunachali writer Lummer Dai (1940), Troilokyanath Goswami (1906-88), Sneha Devi, Hiren Gohain, and Govindaprasad Sharma, to name just a few.
Modern Assamese drama, too, displays social analysis and structural experimentation. However, the publication history of drama is still not as strong as that of poetry and prose. Most dramas appear in journals or remain unpublished, though performed. The influence of drama of the Western world is very apparent. The prominent influence regarding drama’s message has been that of Ibsen, Chekov, and Shaw; and regarding drama’s form it has been Beckett, Ionesco, and Brecht, among others. In fact, translations of Western plays are an important aspect of modern Assamese drama. Apart from translations of Shakespearean drama, we find a number of translations of Ibsen’s plays. These include Suresh Goswami’s Runumi (1946, from Ibsen’s The Vikings of Helgeland), Padma Borkakoti’s Putola Ghor (1959, from A Doll’s House), Satyaprasad Barua’s Banahansi (1962, from The Wild Duck), and Mahendra Borah’s Bhoot (1965, from Ghosts).
One important form that has developed in present-day Assamese drama is the one-act play. The formation of the Asom Natya Sanmilan (Assam Dramatic Society) in 1959 and its regular one-act play competition have helped in the development of this form. Some notable one-act plays are Durgeswar Borthakur’s Nirodesh; Satyaprasad Barua’s Anarkali, Kunaal-Kanchan, Ranadil, Saswati, and Bhaswati; Prabin Phookan’s Tritaranga; Bhabendranath Saikia’s Putola-Nas; Tafajjul Ali’s Nepati Kenekoi Thako; and Bhupen Hazarika’s Era Bator Sur. The subjects of this drama range from the historical to the contemporaneous.
The influence of the absurd and the symbolic play is not as widespread in Assam, though we find a few notable examples. Arun Sharma’s Shri Nibaron Bhattacharya (1967) and Ahar and Basanta Saikia’s Manoh and Asur are absurd in the manner of Ionesco and Beckett. But the better-known plays of this generation combine elements of modern drama the world over to propagate socially relevant messages, a characteristic of contemporary Assamese poetry and prose, too. Himendrakumar Borthakur’s Bagh (The Tiger, 1971) dramatizes political manipulation of the naive, trusting rural population and general political corruption. Satyaprasad Barua’s Nayika Natyakar (1976) and Mrinal Mahi (1977) are both plays that show the psychological ramifications of social problems.
A significant number of modern plays also revive traditional folk and classical forms. As with the rest of India, Assam, too, has seen a revival of ancient genres such as bhavna and yatra, a revival that has allowed these forms to be applied to modern subjects. Mitradev Mahanta’s Prassanna Pandav (1956), Jugal Das’s Bayonor Khel (1982), Anandamohan Bhagavati’s Jatugriha,Satish Bhatta-charya’s Maharaja, and Munin Bhuyan’s Hati aru Phandiare some such dramas.
Twentieth-century Assamese literature has come quite a ways from its tentative beginnings. The study of this literature itself has become well established; numerous schools of thought and critical approaches are apparent in the writings of literary scholars today. There can no longer be any question about Assamese being a major language with its own literature; that part of the battle has been won. It is also true that, since the Jayanti era, the works of major Assamese novelists and poets have been regularly translated into Hindi and other languages, thus ensuring a wider readership. However, as a literature of a border region of India, it is still marginalized and often plays second fiddle to Bengali literature. Assamese literature is a product of Assamese society, and Assamese society has specific qualities that separate and distinguish it from its western neighbors. Assam has generally been freer of caste oppression, untouchability, and communalism than other parts of India. Its history, till the sociopolitical movement of the 1980s, has never included religious persecution or divisiveness. Its women have never been debased by a dowry system, and female infanticide is rare. Its literature reflects these liberal aspects and, as such, can take its place among major Indian literatures. The task still remains for turn-of-the-twentieth-century writers to popularize this literature by seeking wider publication and taking the Assamese voice confidently to the rest of the world.