As dwellers of the eastern-most frontier region of the country, we all are fully aware of the fact that the early history of Assam is shrouded in confusion with no proper records available as such. One of the earliest and most comprehensive chroniclers of our history, Sir Edward Gait, who wrote the path-breaking work, A History of Assam, had lamented “…there is probably no part of India regarding whose past, less is generally known. In the histories of India, as a whole, Assam is barely mentioned.” While hundreds of years have passed since then and mankind has embraced the latest in technical know-how, Sir Gait’s observations on the invisibility of Assam in standard historiography remains true as ever. Assam and the entire north-eastern region has somehow been excluded by mainstream intellectuals, and even the supposedly wide media, in their historical writings and reportages.
The results of the historical omission are not surprising. Several stereo-types and misconceptions have arisen which present a pretty negative, false and under-developed image of Assam and the Northeast. In a bid to change this dominant narrative, a young dynamic researcher from the State has taken it upon himself to change the prevalent stereotypes by reconstructing the modern history of Assam and revealing little-known facets of the region that have so far escaped the attention of mainstream historians. Yes, we are talking about award winning researcher Avinibesh Sharma who has opened a window into the vast historical resources of Assam through the web portal www.vintageassam.org.
An accomplished researcher for various projects under IIT-Guwahati and lately, the National University of Singapore, Sharma is one of the very few activists and researchers to engage with non-traditional historical sources like photographs, oral chronicles and antiques to depict the rich history of the land. As he says, “In our website, we have tried to represent Assam’s history as a collection of images, oral testimonies, antiques and letters. In a way, we attempt to carry forward the legacy of antiquarian Benudhar Sharma (1894-1981) who is widely regarded as a pioneer of subaltern history in India’s Northeast.
And if you thought that photographs were all that is to the website, you better think once again. The unique portal is highly informative as it includes a rich database of write-ups from irrefutable sources and interviews with leading collectors, historians, information from websites, family archives and several textual sources. In Sharma’s words, the project aims to generate historical consciousness and seeks to promote the unique cultural heritage of Northeast India.
In recognition of his valuable contributions to the world of Assam history, Avinibesh Sharma has also been honoured with the Hem Baruah Trust Award, which was awarded by the Hem Baruah Trust in recognition of his exceptional works in history of Assam. The melange team recently entered into a conversation with the dynamic researcher to know more about his work and website. Following are excerpts.
Q. How did you get interested in heritage items and the history of Assam?
Ans: My brush with the history of Assam began at my maternal house in Guwahati. I was very young when my grandfather passed away; but I vaguely remember watching him spending time at his library, leafing through the pages of old magazines and newspapers. He read a wide selection of books and among his collections were old photographs and history books collected by his father, the noted antiquarian and peripatetic chronicler, late Benudhar Sharma. I remember seeing copies of Arunudoi, Asom Bondhu, Asom Bilashini and publications of Kamrup Anusandhan Samiti. The old photographs always intrigued me and I wanted to dig out more information about them.This library was a treasure trove and it was later donated to Handique Girl’s College, where my grandfather taught for more than three decades.
Q. Can you please tell us a bit about your research projects? How did the idea of starting the website come to your mind? Please tell us a bit about it.
Ans: I was planning to arrange in a systematic way, all the photographs and letters that I had collected over the years. My other motive was to contribute in own way to the democratisation of historical knowledge by working in the public domain and making people aware about our history. It led to the publication of the website www.vintagessam.org, which is a retelling of the modern history of Assam through non-traditional historical sources like – photographs, letters, audio recordings and artefacts. The web portal and social media has very useful in this regard. Old photographs, letters and audio recordings, when kept tucked in old almirahs and trunks, get damaged. The world has become dependent on technology and a web portal is a good way to archive the digital collection and make it reach to a global audience.
Subsequently, I designed a website on the life and works of the noted Parliamentarian and author, late Hem Barua. While this has been my passion, my actual job is as that of a long distance Researcher for National University of Singapore and I am working on the geo-politics of the Brahmaputra.
Q. You recently received the Hem Barua trust award for your invaluable contribution to the history of Assam. Please tell us about the award and the work for which you were bestowed with the same?
Ans: As I have earlier stated, I strive to make history more interesting and accessible to the younger generation. It was very kind of the Hem Barua trustees to acknowledge what I have been doing all these years. The Trust has been presenting awards in the name of the illustrious personality since 2015 and this year’s theme was Assam history and literature. It was a humbling experience, sharing the dais with Dr. Hiren Gohain. It also gave me the opportunity to thank the people who stood by me all these years and who let me pursue my dream with words of encouragement. As I said in my speech and reiterate now, I dedicate this award to all the heritage enthusiasts and collectors who have stayed away from publicity but have done outstanding work in the field of preservation. They deserve this recognition more than I do.
Q. Please tell us about your family and growing up days.
Ans: I hail from Jorhat and our small family consists of me, my father, my mother and a younger brother. I did my schooling from Carmel School and gave my 12th board exams from J.B. College. I think every kid who grew up in the 90s will agree that we had a wonderful childhood. The use of technology was limited and playing outdoors was more than just games; it became a social occasion where we got to interact with boys and girls belonging to different social groups. We also made weekly trips to our ancestral village, situated about 18 miles away from Jorhat. Ours is a joint family and everyone used to get together during Bohag Bihu and Durga Puja. Our eldest uncle used to take us to the weekly haats (bazaars) and movie screenings in the nearby Boloma tea estate. My grandmother was an expert storyteller and I still remember how my cousins, five of us, used to huddle together in one bed to listen to her stories. And then, we had Dhodong Kai and Manik Da to regale us with ghost stories and colourful accounts of the days gone by.
I went to Delhi for my graduation and post-graduation. This cosmopolitan city changed my perspective on life. I met people hailing from different parts of India and it was a great learning experience getting to know the commonalities and differences between my fellow countrymen.
Q. As a young Assamese, do you feel that the current generation of youngsters of Assam are well acquainted with the history of their land? What needs to be addressed in this area?
Ans: They might be less acquainted with the history of their land but they are very much interested to learn more about it. And, I say this because I have received emails from a number of youngsters who are eager to learn about our past. They have expressed their willingness to participate in conservation projects and work as interns for heritage conservation societies, museums and e-culture websites. There a number of things that we can do and educating them using various mediums of knowledge transmission should be our priority.
Q. History is a very important subject in school. What are your views on history as a curriculum subject in the State? Do you feel that our history textbooks need any kind of revision?
Ans: Each and every political party meddles with the history syllabus once they come to power and this attests to the importance of the subject. In the words of Professor Sunil Amrith, “Studying history, we come close to all of the messiness of human life — we understand what motivates people, what makes them get along or go to war, what dreams they had for themselves and their futures. It confronts us with the biggest question: What is universal and shared between human beings across time and space, and what is specific to particular societies or cultures or epochs?” It also teaches us how to sift different accounts of an event to come up with a complex picture; how to work with lots of different kinds of evidence, from manuscripts to statistics; how to tell stories in a way that is compelling but true. The NCERT books with their photographs, newspaper clippings and caricatures look interesting and appealing. What is lacking however, is the commitment and out of the box thinking of the teachers. I am sure they will work on this and make the exercise enriching.
Q. You are known to love spending time with elderly people. Can you please elaborate on that interest of yours? What are your views regarding old age home and facilities for elderly people in our State?
Ans: Most of the elderly people I’ve met like to have a conversation; share anecdotes from the past with interested listeners. I love spending time with them and am a patient listener. Giving them company and listening to their words of wisdom is something that I always look forward to. The issue of old age home is a little complex; something that I would not like to comment on. However, there are plenty of such places coming up in the state and they are doing a commendable job; taking of elderly people and providing a social space.
Q. What are you presently working on and what are your future plans?
Ans: At present, I am working on another website – a tribute to the renowned journalist Kirtinath Hazarika. My aim is to let the rest of the country and other countries get a chance to know the history of Assam and other North-eastern states. I am also planning to visit Meghalaya and Nagaland to collect more information. There are plenty of us here in the Northeast who does not know about each other’s history and culture. We hope to bring awareness among them and educate them through our web portal, workshops on heritage conservation, heritage walks and photo exhibitions. There’s also a new section coming up on some of the lesser known heritage buildings of undivided Assam.