It was a rainy afternoon in Silapathar. A group of about 25-30 Mising young boys and girls had gathered in the Kristi Kendra, (Cultural Centre) in Silapathar. While it rained outside, they continued to dance and practice. An eminent singer and dancer of the Mising community carefully watched over their every move, guiding them wherever she thought, they faltered. While my kakv (uncle), who was also one of the instructors, got himself busy documenting the moves, I placed myself at the corner of the stage and watched them dance.
On our way back, Kakv explained to me that it was an attempt by the Mising cultural Ke’bang to synchronize the varied dance forms among the Misings. ‘The Ultimate attempt would be get more than 10,000 mising dancers to Kalakshetra, Guwahati to showcase the Mising dance to the world, and also try to create a record’ opined Kakv. Similar workshops would be held in various other mising villages and towns. The idea immediately caught my attention and I asked him how they had planned to keep such a huge endeavor running. He responded that the entire initiative was voluntary and the Mising people of every village/town, where the workshop would be held, would take care of all costs involved. .
The Mising dance has undergone various phases of transformation over the years. Every region today has a different version of it. While diversity is important and should be respected, a community like Mising cannot afford to have too many differences. The various forms, that I talk about does not mean, non-existence of different formats of dance. The Misings, in fact, have different dance formats s like Gumrag Soman, Lotta Soman etc. The difference that this cultural troupe and I seek to address is the different versions to a particular format. For instance, there are various versions of Gumrag Soman, based on the region and people, creating confusion among the people on what exactly forms the ‘correct style’. Thus, the above mentioned event being an attempt towards re-discovering the ‘exact style’ of the various dance forms, uniformalising it and then passing it on to the future generations. On similar lines, attempts are also being made to develop a common format of script for the Tani group. Various workshops, seminars and meetings have already been conducted in this regard.
The Mising society is on crossroads. Due to a rapid process of acculturation and ‘modernization’, the Mising culture is on a fast road to decline. Soon after migrating from the hills to the plains of Assam, the Mising people adopted various practices of the plains to ‘blend well’ with the folks of the plains and get accepted. What they perhaps did not realize was that the process of acculturation, which started with them adopting simple practices, would soon engulf them so much that they would have to struggle to maintain their socio-cultural and linguistic identity.
Out of all the reasons for the Misings slowly ‘losing’ their culture, the most important and perhaps the most dreadful is the ‘constant neglect’ it suffers from its own people. The Mising community is today divided into two classes, first being a small minority of middle class and lower middle class people, who are flourishing with every passing day. Most of them are employed in government services and hold ‘important positions’ in the community, thereby exerting considerable political and social power. The second half is the majority of Mising population, who are getting pushed towards the deeper margins of poverty. The latter, today, holds on the remaining facets of Mising culture. It is this group, who still speaks the language, observes all the rituals and celebrates the Mising festivals.
Assimilation versus Isolation: – Striking the ‘Perfect Balance’
The Mising people today find themselves in a ‘perplexing’ situation. Questions of ‘how much do we exactly assimilate? Or do we continue to isolate ourselves from the fruits of modernity and continue holding on to age-old beliefs and faiths? Or does economic growth necessarily contradict culture or is it just a cover up explanation developed by the Misings?
When discussing the rapidly eroding Mising culture, two schools of thought come into play. The modernist approach justifies the entry of globalization and does not see it as a threat to the indigenous culture. They accept that, mutations are a fact of life and maintaining a completely exclusive way of identity in the modern global age, are purely impossible. Thus, for them the re-shaping of the Mising culture is nothing but natural and one cannot necessarily keep holding on to those age-old beliefs which might not necessarily have any scientific value in the modern day. On the other hand, the conservationist approach is wary of too much proximity to the globalized world. According to them, this proximity has led the young Misings to blatantly discard the age-old beliefs as ‘unscientific’ and convert into various religions, putting the future of the indigenous culture in danger. In fact, many of the huge number of conversions of Misings to Christianity in the river island of Majuli have not gone down well among the conservationists.
It is interesting to note that, the Misings are neither totally modernist nor entirely conservationist. They seek to adopt a middle path. The people of Assam know that the Misings are perhaps one of the most peace-loving and accepting communities in Assam. This acceptance had led them adopt many of the practices, originally followed by the non-tribal Assamese communities. Today, they find themselves ‘confused’ with the hybridized form of culture and belief system. While, the conservationist found itself too obsessed in maintaining the purity of the Mising belief system; the modernist found itself lost in the rat race. They felt the need to revive it roots. Thus, emerged the revivalist movement, with the fundamental aim of reviving the age-old traditions with minor modifications and changes so that it can adapt to the changing environment. One very important aspect of these revivalist movements is that they are led by sincere educated people who have understood the religion objectively and tried to modify it to the erstwhile existing circumstances.
But how far do these revivalist movements go, needs to be seen. The new leadership that has emerged needs to be encouraged and new innovations need to be made in the religions and the rituals so that it can be made adaptable and appropriate for the larger benefit of the society.
Cultural Revolution could be the Answer
In 1965, Mao Zedong launched the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, which commonly came to be known as the Cultural Revolution with an objective of enforcing communism in the country by attacking and removing any form of capitalist, traditional and cultural elements from Chinese society, and to impose Maoist orthodoxy within the Party and the country. Mao alleged that bourgeois elements were infiltrating the government and society at large, aiming to restore capitalism. He insisted that these “revisionists” be removed through violent class struggle. China’s youth responded to Mao’s appeal by forming Red Guard groups around the country. Over the next ten years, millions were forced into manual labor, and tens of thousands were executed.
While I don’t recommend such a struggle for the Misings, a comprehensive cultural movement, with interventions in every aspect like rituals, ancient practices, social norms, educational system and the belief system as a whole, would be a desired effort towards preserving and reviving our culture in the present day. It could be the Mising Community’s own ‘cultural revolution’. A promising mass leader, who can command unity from all quarters, irrespective of their religious, ideological and class differences, is the need.
Some of the steps that could be taken can be:-
- One of the key reasons for fast eroding of Mising culture is due to decline of ‘passing down’ of Mising values and faiths through social and family networks. Parents no longer encourage their children to speak the language or participate in family/village/community rituals. Also many of today’s youth mention ‘disinterest’ in their parents as one of the key reasons for their ignorance. Thus, the parents should be encouraged to orient their kids about the richness of Mising culture and the benefits of culture.
- Moreover, there is a need to conduct comprehensive researches on the belief system and divide the secular and religious elements present in it. While fighting conversion itself is not ideal and may bring forth conflict, blatant discarding of the secular beliefs like the not participating in Ali-aye-Ligang and other festivals etc. should be discouraged.
- Mobilizing the youth, by giving rational explanation to all their questions. Books and materials in Mising/Assamese and English should be published, for the students to read and understand the Mising culture. The published materials should be accessible to all sections of the community.
- Including Mising textbooks and curriculum in the Education system. While some schools have included it in the primary, they are yet to yield much interest, due to lack of books, constant changes in the script etc. Efforts to mitigate the problems affecting the implementation of Mising curriculum should be resolved as soon as possible.
- Making necessary adjustments to traditional beliefs to adapt to the current environment. And a entire community wide campaign on reviving culture should be launched.
Science and rationality has gone a long way in explaining the reasons for most of the phenomenon in the world but still religion has great importance in the lives of the individuals. For tribes, the belief system plays the key integrative role. And the Mising belief system is very closely related with the social culture. Thus, constant efforts need to be made to revive it.
Note: The above article is a result of the research conducted by the author. The arguments made in it are the personal opinions of the author. Reproducing the contents of this article in any form without the consent of the author is prohibited. This article is based on a preliminary research done by the author for a paper ‘On questions of Identity and Misings’ to be presented in a national conference in March, 2013