Tourism in Majuli treats the island with its open spaces and riverine tracts like a pastoral exit from the din of urban life. But for those who live in Majuli, the island is more than an idyllic bucolic holiday spot. Through three years of anthropological work, I’ve come to know Majuli as a space within modern India, where families imagine their futures in relation to growing organic
And handicraft industries and dream of giving their children an education that will allow them to survive in a fast changing world. But existing schools in Majuli fail to provide regular classes and competent education, forcing several children to face uncertain futures. It is such a concern that prompted Haren Narah, who runs a resort (Mé:po Okum) in Chitadhar Chuk, Majuli to partner with the Guwahati-based Maati Community and begin working on projects that provide children with opportunities to think creatively about their futures. Through collaborative efforts, a children’s library was set up in Mé:po Okum in March last year; while Haren and his wife Momi contributed the space, the Maati Community, spearheaded by Rishi Sarmah and Neelim Mahanta, sourced books through Pratham, a non-profit publisher. Around 45 children work on their language and narrative skills every week with local librarian Amiyo Chirang. Last year, during Raas, the growing collaboration between Maati and Mé:po Okum led to the Living Art Festival in Chitadhar Chuk. To its organisers, Living Art was a conceptual space within which children can learn to see the relations between the land they live in and the arts and crafts they work on. With music, art and dance contests, sessions on storytelling, talks on environment conservation and plastic use in Majuli, Living Art attracted over 17 schools (and over 150 students) from the Goramur-Jengraimukh belt of Majuli. Additionally, Mising school students put up a play, Butu O:need Se:kone (Who is a witch?) in the Mising language. The festival wrapped up with a short staging of the Mibu Dagnam – a performance of Mising priestly songs. From an anthropological perspective, a festival like Living Art opens up the space for asking questions about potential decolonising approaches to education in Majuli. Modern education often works by providing new modes of engaging with the world at the expense of older forms of education. Several arts and crafts die because they aren’t
taught any longer, and are seen as non-viable forms of education. A space like Living Art then becomes a space where children can learn to circumvent this binary and learn to tailor for themselves a future that incorporates local arts and crafts into an emerging modern world. While that is what Living Art intended to be, a few red flags made me pause during the festival. Firstly, the festival caught the attention of tourists interested in artwork. It was disappointing to see tourists’ artwork displayed around the festival grounds, sidelining children’s artwork. Secondly, the talks addressing children were nominal and patronising. For example, one talk reduced plastic to a dangerous western invention that Indian children must avoid using. As if to complement this, the Maati Community used plastic bottles found at Auniati’s Palnaam to create a plastic asura who needed to be killed. Ironically, there was little thought put into how this installation would be dismantled and disposed after the festival. So, in spite of having turned plastic into a harmful villain that needed to be “vanquished”, the festival did little to teach children to question plastic disposal and advocate for recycling in Majuli. Thirdly, children in Majuli are not lacking in knowledge about the environment and Nature. From a young age, they learn to become competitive at navigating the river, fishing, farming, weaving and cooking. In sections of the festival engaging with Nature and the environment, it would have been interesting to hear children share their knowledge and their concerns about their future in Majuli, instead of being talked at by adults at every turn. In spite of raising these red flags, I do not mean to criticise the desire of local communities to expand their horizons by working with organisations that have better regional and global connections than they do. What I mean to do is raise this question: how does one make sure that attempts to engage with Majuli’s villages turn the island into a space where local knowledge is recognised and enhanced through the introduction of modern technologies and skills? Haren Narah believes that listening and learning should be at the heart of any decolonial approach – a lesson that holds good for all of us engaging in any capacity on the island. Should Living Art live on, I hope to see the festival break away from clichéd ideas of “rural India” as a space which is lacking in modern knowledge, and create, instead, an alternative space which truly allows children living in rural India to share what they already know, while also learning to explore forms of knowledge that are not indigenous to where they live.