by far the most difficult second year study trip that i have been on. a long long journey to the other end of the country- three trains, two buses and a ferry ride across the muddy brahmaputra on the largest river island in the world- a constantly shifting flat landscape of white silt, sand and water bodies. every year the contours of island shift making new boundaries.
here, far away from the blackberry network that so many of the kids craved for, are vaishnavite monasteries established in the 1600s amidst a tribal population that still lives on the margins of these large complexes. the monasteries are called 'sattras' and are as impermanent as the land that they perch upon. constantly being moved and rebuilt their real structure is the administrative and the cultural. because here far away from contemporary civilization is culture. sattriya singing and dancing. beautiful in praise of krishna. the individual families arranged in perfect lines around the namghar at the centre, where all the rituals take place, are self sustaining and self sufficient. they make their own food, stitch their own clothes.
as institutions they exert tremendous influence over the island. the villages and the tribals on the outside have to subscribe in some way or the other. culture from within the sattra overflows into the streets as boys danced the 'dashavatar' for us in the backyard of his house.
while we were in majuli the raas leela preparations were on. on the island temporary theatres sprang up overnight. in the sattras sets and costumes were being prepared, gopis and krishans were rehearsing in the namghar and the rang manch. in between these rituals were performed in cycles to krishna like they do every single day.
the mishing tribe is the main tribe on the island. the boys paint their nails to preen and work the bamboo into mats, hats, roofs, buildings with ease. the clusters of houses perch on the edge of the road raised above the uncertain ground. below the stilts is work- weaving looms, cow sheds. and above is everyday life. a water pump is extended to the platform above. inside the curtain covered rooms the floor i permeable to the ground below and the waste is thrown directly below for the pigs to eat.
we lived in a not yet completed resort and the kids were shell shocked for the first few days. i hope things got better later. with us were students and faculty from the guwahati school of architecture. lovely energetic kids.
auniati . the sattra where george, ginella and me spent the most of our time- the one assigned to us. a newly rebuilt (1957) sattra- and the perfect diagram of one. perfect square inscribed upon the land and lifted off from the surrounding, the whole sattra lies on a bund. four roads lead from the middle of each segment ot the central namgarh and the home of the sattradhikari- the central authority of the sattra. on the first days while we were there the most important ritual of the sattra was on- pal naam. krishna's name constantly sung in different forms throughout the day. throngs of people in the verandahs come from distances to live with the men that they forsook to the sattra. on the main road leading to the sattra from the village and across the wooden bridge was a village fair of artifacts and plastic toys. in the next few days this crowd gradually dispersed but the naamgarh stayed constantly alive with the sound of drums, kirtans, dancing and cymbals. rehearsals were on for the raas. one of the main dancers was prasanna kumar buhyan who invited us over to his house and showed us the invites and the certificated from delhi. he was a terrific dancer and we were very flattered when the next day, while dancing for the australian tourists he seemed to be nodding at us sitting st the corner. when prof dengle arrived we walked over to another family's house who created for us a museum of the everyday objects that they make and use. meanwhile one of them made for us a miniature bamboo ladder and a miniature version of the way that they make vines grow around a tree.
nutan kamlabari. shirish, minal and paul were working on this sattra. unlike auniati this sattra was enmeshed into the surrounding landscape. while at auniati domesticity was relegated to the rear yards of the houses, here it overflowed into the front yards. kids were sleeping, flowering plants bloomed, and clothes lines hung on the main streets. the precise rectangle of auniati was distorted here. public private were not quite so distinct. the naam garh was older that auniati and was built in beautiful timber detailing. even the doors of each of the houses did not have any of the spartan minimalism of auniati, but were instead decorated with a profusion of motifs. vikram said it had something to do with the difference of administrative structure between the two sattras.
dokinpath. the oldest of the three sattras. almost an hour away by bus on a bumpy road, in dokinpath the landscape of majuli entered the space of the sattra. an unfinished edge opened out to the low lying water and the fields of the island. a horizon could be seen from the inside. the first night we were there the sattra was bathed in moonlight with only two lamps lighint the naam garh. on the last day, preparations for the raas were on and the inhabitants were lined up for the darshan of the sattradhikari.
of other spaces. uttar kamlabari was a cleaner, more ordered replica of nutan kamlabari. a mask maker showed us his masks and an old man in the veranda methodically stitched feathers on the swan. the river to the north was narrower by leagues than the brahmaputra. the only concrete bridge on majuli lead us to it. i heard that environmentalists protested connecting the island to the mainland. so now the only connection is a decrepit ferry terminal which shifts every year, and which carries everything from jcbs to paneer from the mainland to the island. and the only performance of the raas that we saw. in kamlabari, in a temporary theatre on a field. krishna's life story as a tv soap.
on the road that leads from jorhat to guwahati we stopped off for two nights at kaziranga. an evening walk in the neighbourhood of our hotel took us towards the hills in to the south where in a soil conservation department complex atrocious replicas of tribal people and their huts were built in concrete. it would be funny, if it wasnt so terrifying. the next day an elephant ride to the western point in the early morning. pink misty morning and rhinocerous and cranes. wild elephants and buffalo. like a dream. especially when the rhino and her baby came charging head on at lucky our elephant. a stick form our mahout stopped them in their tracks. lucky went and picked the stick up for us. after raging wildly at the kids for an irresponsible night binge we left for the eastern point in a jeep. low lying and watery, the light fell beautifully on the birds and boars. prof dengle and shirish read out descri[ptions from a birds of india book. and we spotted cranes, adjutants, egrets, eagles. the next morning was central point with pelicans and the chances of a tiger in the tall grass.
we lived in a hotel ramshackle and dusty naear the railway station. kamakheya temple is on a hill overlooking the city bathed in the blood of lambs and pigeons. the bamboo institute where inventive bamboo techniques are being developed and promoted. bipul sir's workshop where he experiments with form and furniture and his site where everything is built with bamboo.
and that one night in kolkata.
after that wild ride on super crowded streets in yellow ambassador cars and dumping our bags at the yatri niwas at howrah. the beautiful bridge, park street dinner at mocambo and the victoria memorial in moonlight. the horses were grazing on the maidan.