Guwahati,

Cover Story

In Love with Tradition

The Singphos, one of the most ancient tribes of this region which boasts of a glorious heritage and tradition, are found scattered across the hills of Arunachal Pradesh and plans of Assam. A hilly tribe of Mongoloid origin which traces their ancestry of the Kachin State of Myanmar, the Singphos have a glorious story to tell about their deep-rooted association with greater Assamese society in all aspects - be it economical, social or cultural.

As noted by eminent writer Dr. Anima Guha in her article, 'An Encounter with Singpho King Bisa Nong Singpho, "The Singphos have originated from the slopes of the southern hilly region of Patkai mountain extending up to Hukong Valley of Myanmar. Presently, they live on both sides of the boundary between Arunachal Pradesh and Assam as well as in the Yunnan province of Southern China. The Singphos are divided into twelve sub-groups."
A community which has no written history of its own, their history more or less depends upon legends. And in today's age of globalisation where orally passed down traditions and cultures are dying a slow death, many facets of Singpho culture and heritage and dying a slow death or at the threshold of being forgotten. It is in this sort of dreary and gloomy background that we tend to appreciate the works and efforts of artists like Debananda Ulup. 
A worthy scion of the Ulup family of Margherita in Tinsukia district, Debananda Ulup has converged the art and culture, lifestyle and folklore of the Singpho tribe on canvas. Ulup's brilliant depiction of the life and art and culture of the Singphos, as well as their folklores and legends, on canvas has met with a lot of critical acclaim throughout the globe. Besides, it also acts as a catalyst for the growth of renewed interest in Singpho art and culture amongst the new generation.
Born in 1964 at Margherita, Debananda Ulup is a widely travelled artist, having participated in many national and international art exhibitions and workshops. The recipient of many prestigious awards like the Indira Gandhi Memorial Trust Award, New Delhi, Award for Painting at the 11th All India Art Exhibition organized by SCZCC in Nagpur, amongst others, his art works are part of many art collections in India and abroad.
The melange team recently met the veteran artist to know more about his journey in the world of art and his tryst with Singpho art and culture. Following are excerpts.
Q. At the very outset, please tell us about your collections like 'My Valley' in which you have strived to depict Singpho life.
Ans: My creations are deeply based on the Singpho way of life and their art and culture, their folklore, myths and legends. My paintings also depict my long and most cherished association with Singpho culture. My art works are like a visual language that talks about lost cultural fragments like myths, folk narratives and textiles, architecture of the community house, livelihood sources and the socio-political scenario. For me, The My Valley series is an aesthetic rapture of Singpho culture and society.
Q. After spending so many years practicing different forms of art, what made you depict Singpho culture in your paintings?
Ans: I have crossed many phases in life and the same can be said about my art - it has crossed many phases. My collection on Singpho culture probably stems from a deep-rooted nostalgia for my home-town. Just like a person staying on foreign shores remembers his native place, I too remember with fondness my growing-up days in Margherita. My childhood follows me wherever I go. It is as if my mind wants to go back to my hometown. The Singpho collection is a reflection of all these thoughts and emotions.
Q. Through your art and with the help of the internet, you have taken Singpho culture to the international arena. Do you feel that your work has led to more interest amongst the new generation to know about the Singphos and their culture?
Ans: Yes, after seeing my pictures, a lot of people do contact me, wishing to know more about Singpho art and culture, and their traditions. They want to know more about our traditions. However, I am afraid of what I am doing because if I want to be really successful in what I am doing, I have to devote more time and effort to it. At present, I am doing just in bits, not as a whole.
Q. What do you feel is the present situation of the Singpho tribe?
Ans: The present situation of the Singpho people is not very good. Being a very small tribe, we do not have even the capacity to elect our own MLA. But I feel that in the days to come, the Singphos will play a major role in shaping Assam's economic progress. I say this because 80 per cent of the Singphos are engaged in organic tea cultivation, which is soon becoming one of the biggest industries of the State.
Q. Please tell us about your childhood and growing up days.
Ans: I was born in Ulup Village, 12 kms away from Margherita, in 1961. My forefathers had established the village where I was born, hence the title 'Ulup'. While I am not aware of my ancestor's migration accounts, according to our historical records, it is noted that the Singphos of Assam migrated from the Hukong Valley in the Kachin State of Myanmar.
Both my parents were farmers and I grew up in my village itself, amidst much poverty. I stayed in the village itself till I was around Class 8 or 9. But by then, our family's economic condition had worsened and the schools were also closed due to the Assam Agitation. Due to both these factors, I came out of my village to find a better calling in life.
Since I did not have any purpose in life, I wandered around meaninglessly in the beginning. In the initial days, I stayed for some time in Malow Ali of Jorhat. After that, by sheer luck, I earned the love of a respectable family. It was the house of renowned economist Dr. Jayanta Madhab Sarma and seeing my plight, they gave me shelter in their own house. I spend a considerable part of my growing up days in their house near Nehru Park.
Q. You are mostly a self-taught artist. When and how did you develop an interest in art?
Ans: I have always been interested in art. But I guess it was sister Bonn (Sakuntola Devi, sister of Jayanta Madhab Sarma) who helped nurture and develop it. One day when she saw my work, she became immensely happy and got me admitted in the fine art school of Jorhat Fine Art Society.
In Jorhat Fine Arts Society, I had my first real encounter with art. There, I met other geniuses like late Madhab Baidhya, Bhrigupati Hazarika and the like. I attended Sunday classes in art for around six months there. At that point of time, I felt a certain kind of restlessness growing inside me for I had failed to understand my purpose in life.
In that later part of 1979, I came to Guwahati and took up a job in a book store. While working in the book store as an apprentice, I used to meet many students and artists who used to come to buy paints. In that way through my meetings with these artists, my interest in the world of art got a new lease of life. One fine day, I went ahead and took admission in the Gauhati Artists Guild. But unfortunately, I could not continue my classes in the guild for long as my pressures in the job increased.
Q. Did you ever think that you will become a professional painter?
Ans: I myself do not know how I became a professional artist. I started painting professionally only from 1996. Before that, I never thought I will become an artist. Maybe it became a profession through my constant practice.
Q. You have won the Indira Gandhi Memorial Trust Award, New Delhi and also the Award for Painting at the 11th All India Art Exhibition organized by SCZCC in Nagpur. How do you feel with these recognitions?
Ans: The prizes that you have mentioned are recognitions of work in my early phase of life. Since the time I got interested in creating through art, I do not have any craze left for prizes and recognitions anymore. Nowadays, I draw only for myself. When I paint, I feel a kind of bliss, a feeling of indescribable happiness. That happiness, and the comments of those who appreciate my paintings, are the biggest award or source of recognition for me.