Subasri Krishnan’s 2015 documentary What The Fields Remember revisits the massacre of nearly 2,000 Muslims in Nellie in Assam in 1983 following an agitation over citizenship and residency rights. Four years later, Krishnan is back in Assam with Sikhirini Mwasani (Dance of the Butterfly), and is once again exploring themes of community and belonging.

The 65-minute documentary traces the efforts of Sifung Harimu Afad, a cultural troupe that is reviving Bodo music performance traditions with the help of the Action Northeast Trust in Assam’s Chirang district. Cycles of violence have left their mark on the region, especially over the demand for a separate Bodo state, have deeply wounded the Bodo performance tradition, the film tells us. Reviving Sifung Harimu Afad is, therefore, a peaceful way to keep Bodo identity alive. “This tradition is a mirror of our community,” a troupe member says in the film.

The Public Service Broadcasting Trust production will be screened on September 23 at the Open Frame Festival in Delhi. “A butterfly, metaphorically, could refer to the idea of fragility,” Krishnan said about the title. “It comes and stays for a while, and as long as it is there, there is a certain kind of beauty. This is a kind of beauty in which others take pleasure and there’s a certain generosity to it. I feel this dance form and its music is like that.”

Sikhirini Mwsanai (2019).

Krishnan and her crew filmed the members of the cultural troupe, aged between 16 and 20, as they spent hours learning the basics of the dance and musical form. The butterfly dance is performed during Bwisagu, the spring festival that marks the beginning of the new Bodo year in April.

Sikhirini Mwasani opens with rehearsals being held in December 2018. A group of women wearing Dokhana, the dress-like cloth draped around the body from the chest to the ankles, has gathered at the ANT campus. Their instructor instructs them on how to stand and where to keep their hands and knees. Start the dance in a slanting position, he says. Don’t bend the knees too much. Stretch your arms while holding your dupattas. As musicians begin playing the kham, serja and sifung instruments, the women twirl like butterflies, holding the corners of their dupattas.

Krishnan, who also heads the Media Lab at the Indian Institute of Human Settlements, first saw the Sifung Harimu Afad perform during one of her field visits in Assam. “What drew me was their music and the fact that this was a certain form of life too,” Krishnan said. “I’m not trying to exoticise it. I just felt that if I could even capture one-hundredth of it, it would be nice.”

A key portion of the film is focused on the Bagrumba. This Bodo dance form features graceful movements of the waist and forward and backward swinging of the body. These sequences are filmed with what Krishnan called a “stand, wait and watch” approach. “I try not to intrude or ask too many questions,” she said. “This is a film about performance, and I’m watching just as the audience would watch a performance.”

Sikhirini Mwsanai (2019). Courtesy Public Service Broadcasting Trust.

Alongside several sequences of the dance itself, Krishnan unearths the stories behind the form and the meaning of the lyrics of the songs. There are also discussions on what it means to be a young member of a traditional community in an increasingly fragmented and globalised world.

“For a lot of the dancers, this is about learning a new skill,” Krishnan said. “It means being out of the house, hanging out with each other. It is also about leisure and validation.”

The documentary also captures reminders of the agitation that led to the carving out of the Bodo Territorial Area District within Assam. There are signboards with “Peace Zone - No Arms” at the entrance of the ANT campus.

“This area has seen so much violence, especially around 10-15 years ago when we first moved here,” Jennifer Liang, from ANT, tells Krishnan. “We thought we should send this message clearly, that we stand for non-violence. That inside this gate, we will not tolerate arms.”

Signs of the demand for a Bodo state lie within and beyond the ANT campus – at the Bodo Martrys cemetery, in the “We Want Bodoland” posters in the rehearsal rooms of the dancers.

“Generally, non-fiction films tend to be either in the realm of politics or in the realm of culture,” Krishnan said. “I felt they are both the same. I wanted to see how one can speak of the political in an everyday way, perhaps even with a sense of lightness. I wanted to engage with a bunch of young adults who are doing what they do in a region that is historically marked by violence.”

Sikhirini Mwsanai (2019). Courtesy Public Service Broadcasting Trust.

Krishnan will return to Assam for her upcoming documentary Shadow Lines, which will continue the themes explored in What The Fields Remember. “I am very drawn to questions surrounding the categories of citizen and non-citizen,” Krishnan said. “In the 20th and 21st centuries, these have become vexed categories, much like the idea of a nation state itself. Assam, I feel, is a laboratory for many of these debates, especially for what the fallout of a nation state is.”

Sikhirini Mwasani, she hopes, “breathes joy” and shows the audience a different facet of Assam. “For a non-fiction form, there is a burden of truth and of information that is constantly being thrust upon us,” she said. “At the end of the day, this is cinema, and cinema is experience. I do hope that whoever watches this film, will want to know more about the music, more about the troupe, will want to know more about BTAD and its politics, and about Assam itself. We all need to read about places we don’t know about – beyond what we hear in the news.”

Subasri Krishnan.

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