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A 'Modern' Assamese Play

Sumanyu Satpathy

Gunabhiram Barua’s Ramnabami-Natak (1870), the first ‘modern’ Assamese play on a secular theme appears now for the first time in complete English translation. Any attempt of the kind is bound to encounter two different kinds of reception: the first has to do with the way the people of Assam, the insiders, would expect to be reintroduced to their own cultural documents, the region’s cultural history and the text with which they are already familiar to a greater or less extent, and about which they have already had some received notions; and the second has to do with those non-Assamese readers who are from outside the region, and therefore, unfamiliar with the context of the text’s moment of production, its history and culture. The need to have one’s eyes on the two sets of readership might result in an unhappy squint in the shape of a self-conscious and obtrusive Introduction and editorial apparatus that is both comprehensive and exhaustive, and therefore, lengthier than the text itself. The real challenge lies in balancing too much with too little of the required information. Further, the author ought to balance the expectations of a scholarly readership with those of the common reader.   In the case of the book under review, however, the blurb declares that the intended readership is that of ‘students and researchers of Assamese and Bengali literature and history, and gender studies’. Fair enough; but the annotations to the text suggest otherwise: the intended readership to be non-Assamese, even non-Hindu-Indian, for a term as common as Ramnabami is glossed as a festival that is ‘celebrated by the Hindus as the birthday of Lord Rama’ (p. 67). Whatever the constituency of readers addressed, and irrespective of the debatable merit of the former, the translation of the play itself into a highly readable, even stageworthy, English version is certainly praiseworthy. Having commended the translation, however, I must express some misgivings about the contradictions between Misra’s theory and practice. But first a few words about the play itself.   Ramnabami-Natak tells the story of Nabami, a young brahmin widow who falls in love with Ramchandra. The latter, we are told, was away to his uncle’s place before Nabami’s agbia (‘a traditional ritual performed like a wedding when a girl attains puberty’ (p. 68)) and has returned home now after a long time’ (p. 26). The meeting is orchestrated through a simple dramatic devise. ...

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