It was unthinkable, something unheard of. Frowned at, despised and heavily criticised. It was an act that would forever change the course of history in Assam.
It’s been 40 years since that spark of quiet rebellion first shone in a small room in Nagaon. All they had was a guitar, a mandolin, a pair of bongos, and hearts that could move mountains. It wasn’t their intention to cause an eruption; all they ever wanted to do was live their passions, to be allowed their rights to make music.
The five teenage girls, Anjali Mahanta, Nazma Ahmed, Sewali Lekharu, Kabita Nath and Arati Mahanta – all aged 16 and under – had their first practice session in 1979. It only took them a few months to land their first performance; a puja pandal with a lively crowd in front. The reaction that followed upon discovery of their gender could not deter them. It wasn’t the debut they had hoped for, but that first stint was enough to register their brand as fearless, determined and driven – an organised all-girl band – the first in Assam history.
That was the birth of Sur Samalaya (a medley of melodies). Today, that feat is being celebrated through a 30-minute documentary, Paridhi Bhangi – Breaking the Silence. One that celebrates, but also invokes a sense of reawakening.
Award-winning documentary filmmaker, Parthajit Baruah had only visited the town’s local auditorium one fateful evening in 2019, when he saw a group of 5 women on stage. He described the scene as a group of energetic and thrilled mekhela sador-clad women, each with an instrument. He was intrigued and decided there and then that he would do a movie about them.
It is 40 years later and the calmly rebellious teenage girls are no longer girls. All in their mid-50s, none of them could have predicted that their voices would once again be heard, and that their story be told. But it wasn’t all smooth sailing for them. For more than a decade they played together. They lent their voice and were favoured within the Assam agitation. Their role in the anti-“foreigner” movement, which disrupted the affairs of Assam for six years, cannot be forgotten when the history of Assam is told.
Anjali Mahanta, the one who brought the other girls today remembers the period like it was just yesterday. “We were young, rebellious and we wanted to do something different.” Unfortunately, the members had to go their separate ways in the early 1990s, bringing to an end a decade of activism through music.
The Show Must Go On
The pressures of marriage and personal responsibilities had forced Sur Samalaya to break up, each going their separate way. It would take almost two decades for the members to play music together again. Mahanta had heard of the Hurricane Gals, a female Assamese rock band, and that “made me think of our own band,” she says.
Mahanta called her former band members and they agreed to regroup again. “We were so happy to be reunited. I don’t remember the exact date, but it was in 2009 or 2010, when we finally got back to doing what we love,” she chuckles.
Breaking the Silence
The 30-minute documentary Paridhi Bhangi – Breaking the Silence by Parthajit Baruah, is a tribute to these five heroes – whose work and lives formed the theme of the film. The five women, Anjali Mahanta, Nazma Ahmed, Sewali Lekharu, Kabita Nath and Arati Mahanta, based in central Assam showed rare boldness and courage by forming the first all-women band ‘Sur Samalaya’ in 1972, and in the 80s, began to perform publicly – at a time when it was unacceptable for women to do so.
Baruah documented the struggles and challenges of these five women as a way of showcasing the general trials of women in society. These women were passionate about their music, yet faced endless challenges and ridicule in the society. There were also threats from religious leaders.
Ahmed, who plays the bongo, explains how she faced numerous opposition from the Muslim community that held the belief that a Muslim girl will most likely not get a place in heaven after her death if she dances or sings because it is an “anti-religious” activity. Hence, the need for her to be kept within and reserved for marriage.
On the other hand, Anjali Mahanta picked up the mandolin because, despite the belief held concerning the instrument, she was of the view that if a man could play it, she could too. And when another member, Kabita Nath of the group couldn’t find a man who would marry her and let her play the guitar she has so much passion for, she decided to remain single unto this day. Arati Mahanta, who plays the tabla, was so determined and unrelenting even after a tabla teacher told her to learn some other form of music instead, since tabla wasn’t for women. So she began to watch people play, and from afar, learnt the techniques and rhythm of the tabla.
In a world where the dominance of men is a blinding reality with various sectors, including the music industry controlled by them, these women from different religious and socio-economic backgrounds played instruments that were then considered the exclusive preserve of men. They stood up for the women folk, lent their voices and proved they can attain heights and do things that seemed eccentric and impossible for women to do.
The documentary’s theme song Paridhi Bhangi, written by lyricist, composer and national award winning sound engineer Ibson Lal Baruah, has been sung and composed by internationally acclaimed musician, Joi Barua. It is filled with strength and a myriad of emotions as it addresses feminism in a way it has never been done before, reaffirming the need for equal rights and uplifting the spirit and hope of women.
Producer and director Parthajit Baruah only needed one moment with these women. That was all it took and finding out that they were the first organised all-female band in Assam informed his decision to immortalise their legacy and efforts. Breaking the Silence highlights the struggle for gender equality, and an attempt by these brave women to raise questions bordering stereotypes that have been a worry for so many women around the globe.
As Baruah says, “I wanted to break the grammar of conventional documentary filmmaking, so I included a song. It was last year in Nagaon when I watched a live performance by this band. And it was then I knew I would make a film about them.”
“We say we are progressive, but we are not. We still follow some shallow traditions and beliefs that humiliate a woman’s dignity. I’m inspired, proud and happy that these women broke the barriers in the 80s to follow their passion for music. These women inspired me to write the lyrics,” says Ibson Lal.
Of the team involved, Joi says, “Ibson’s thought is so powerful and intense, I was moved and motivated. I really feel Ibson, Parthajit and I have created something beautiful. The music came from a very sincere space for a tribute to that spirit, that resonance of these women.”
Soaring Higher, Challenging Stereotypes
These days, there are exceptional women who are breaking barriers and stereotypes, filling great positions, multi-tasking, building an influence, changing and taking charge of their lives and through this, have inspired a lot more women and young girls around the world. However, our society still has a long way to go in achieving equal rights for women.
As part of the lyrics of the song states: “How long will you suppress our volcanic creativity? We are indomitable flocks of birds fluttering out winged songs. We will soar higher, breaking the barriers of desire…” It is no longer a debate that women have the capacity to do so much more if only they fly as high as they want to and let their lights shine even brighter, unraveling the potentials hidden within.