Srimangal, Sylhet. 27 December 2004. Tea garden singers
Rajghat tea estate in Srimangal, near Sylhet. Tareque Masud had sent me here with Shah Alom Boyati. They had recorded these tea gardens labourers for a feature film, Ontorjatra. During the shoot, they had heard this music in the middle of the night.
These are songs which tell the story of a journey made long ago, from a distant land to which these people will never return. In fact, the singers, Ranjit and Tamseng, were not even sure where their original home was. Local people call them Uriya, perhaps their forefathers had come as indentured labour from somewhere in Orissa in the middle to late twentieth century. Ironically while these labourers have lost the name of their original homeland, this music has survived in the land of exile as a link to the past. They call their language jongli bhasha or savage tongue–strange name by which to call one’s mother tongue.
Tea Garden Singers
This field trip was too short to explore all these stories of amnesia and remembrance. I hastily recorded a few songs and took a few pictures. Later, when people heard the music, some recognised the melody as being Nagpuri, or coming from the Chhotonagpur belt of eastern India. This particular song is about the girl’s journey from her natal home to her husband’s house. Ranjit and Tamseng sang other songs too on the same theme of exile.
Unlike chutney music or the blues, songs which come out of other (often forced) journeys of people, these songs of the tea gardens workers of Bengal and Assam have not had the chance to grow into a body of music, but has mostly remained confined to the community. Some of these songs have been picked up by trade unionists and cultural activists exploring labourers’ lives and music, such as the singer and song collector Kali Das Gupta did with songs like Chol mini Assam jabo or Relgadi kaisa na sundar.
Written in 2010.
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