Last night Vic Assam, the society of Assamese settled in Victoria (Australia) celebrated Bohag Bihu.
The Assam society (which was formed only a few years ago) has grown phenomenally. When I first came to Melbourne in December 2000, there were just a few Assamese families, and such festive events were organised in people's own houses, by rotation.
Soon, though, with the ongoing mass-exodus of highly skilled professionals from Assam (and India, more generally), the number of Assamese families in Victoria has grown manifold.
Today there are probably a hundred Assamese families in Victoria, or maybe more.
Once it became unmanageable to organise such events in a family home, a formal society was registered. Members pay a small amount for these events, and have tended to hire a small hall in which the members organise the whole cultural show themselves.
Twice, so far, singers have been invited (and paid) to come from Assam to perform in Melbourne. Even if members contribute only $30 or $40 per person, the amount adds up to meet the airfare of talented singers from Assam who can be invited to Melbourne once a year.
This was, however, the first year when the society sought and obtained a small grant from the Victorian Multicultural Commission: I think about $500. That amount helped the association hire a good hall with a proper sound system and large stage. High quality sound makes all the difference to a cultural event.
But that's not what I'm writing about. I'm going to talk about the concept of multiculturalism and about Mr. Tan.
Is it justified for Victorian taxpayers to pay for an Assamese event?
It is important for Assamese children (including mine) to know about their culture, which links them both to India and to their state in India. But that is perhaps not something Victorian taxpayers should pay for. What do they get out of it? I also have many reservations regarding the concept of multiculturalism (I think that everyone should be treated exactly on par, with no special grants for any "community").
It can be argued that through such funding and support, though, various communities in Victoria will get better assimilated in the local society. On the other hand, I'm not sure this has happened. Indians are very well adjusted to their workplaces in Australia, anyway. And as far as meeting non-Indians is concerned, it simply doesn't occur for most of us, after work. We have by now managed to re-create a very busy social life in Melbourne exclusively with other Indians. There are so many of us now. One is spoilt for choice should one have social inclinations.
But there is a proviso, perhaps. It would be nice if other Victorians could listen to the outstanding singers who come from Assam for such events, or watch the Bihu dance performed by local Melbourne Assamese. That would mean throwing these events open to the public and letting everyone in (on payment). But if that were done, the event could lose much of its spontaneity and informality (and festive nature) becoming a "museum piece" for others. The Assamese community will have to trade off the potential benefits of greater grants from Victorian taxpayers, with the loss of privacy and informality (that is a vital part of such occasions) that such grants might entail.
Mr Chin Tan, Chairperson of Victorian Multicultural Commission
Now a few words on Mr. Tan. Why so? Because I've very rarely in my life met a person more committed to his work than Mr. Tan.
Mr. Tan was invited by the society to open the Bihu festival and to speak a few words. I missed that bit, but sat on the table with him, which allowed me to get an insight into this fine gentleman.
Two things impressed me. First, Mr. Tan got immersed in the cultural performance personally, and enjoyed the music and dance for its own sake. He seemed to enjoy it so much that he sat through the entire cultural event (which started late and finished well after the appointed time of 9:30 pm – I think it finished past 10:30 pm).
He also enjoyed the Assamese pithas that were available during the intermission. For someone in his role, who presumably gets invited to a few hundred events each year, to sit through four hours of cultural performance speaks volume for his dedication to his task.
But second, he is extremely friendly and personable. He asked a lot of questions about the Assamese community, and heartily enjoyed the fun. By displaying such active interest in the event and the community, he made friends all around. A person to be admired.
He office is close to mine so we will probably catch up one of these days. Regardless of the theoretical value of the concept of multiculturalism, I'm comfortable with a small public expenditure by Victorian taxpayers on such events if outstanding people like Mr Tan are the Victorian representative to such events. The dedication of people like him could actually make a difference.
By the way
The singer who came this time from Assam was Mayukh Hazarika (along with his wife Laili Hazarika).
I must have mentioned (I keep repeating it) that I was present at Bhupen Hazarika's performance for senior officials in Meghalaya (I was member of the Sangeet Natak Academy at that time), and I've never heard a better voice than his.
Mayukh comes from the same family. Bhupen was his uncle, and his father Jayanta Hazarika a very renowned singer. Indeed, both Mayukh and Laili are outstanding singers.
Here is a youtube video of Mayukh singing in Washington DC a few years ago.
Here's a picture I took last night of the couple singing a duet. What wonderful harmony.
But how can anyone talk about Assam without talking (even more) about Bhupen Hazarika?
And so this youtube video (Laili sang a version of this song yesterday):
And now for the song that should shake every Indian to action – but sadly doesn't?
This is one of the songs that Bhupen Hazarika sang at the Pine Hotel in Shillong in 2000. It is not just his most amazing voice that attracts me to this song, but the powerful sentiment. It is truly shocking, given its plight, that Mother India doesn't create more rebels.
निर्बल जन को प्रबल संग्रामी, समग्र उग्रामी बनाती नहीं क्यों?!!!!!!!!!!!!
The people remain निर्बल.