Young ones at Majuli

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

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

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.

Young ones at Majuli Young ones at Majuli Reviewed by feedvalley on January 25, 2019 Rating: 5

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