In conversation with ethnomusicologist Prashanna Gogoi on his experiments with the Bihu.
Guwahati (Assam): As I waited for the door to be answered, my gaze fell upon the several identical-sized coconut shells left to dry in the courtyard of Prashanna Gogoi’s house in Guwahati’s Maligaon railway colony. “It is to make the resonator for the been,” he told me.
An advisor to Sangeet Natak Akademi, New Delhi on tribal and folk arts, 45-year-old Gogoi is known across Assam not only for modernising the been (Assam’s traditional string instrument that is also considered as one of the oldest traditional kinds in the region), but also for achieving something that many veteran exponents of Bihu dance and music felt just couldn’t be done for a folk form – codifying the bhangima or vocabulary of its dance and setting the musical instruments used in it to various scales.
Besides being a well-known ethnomusicologist and a top exponent of Bihu dance and music, Gogoi is also a maker of traditional musical instruments. A cramped studio at the back of his house, packed with folk instruments like the juria pepa, the gogona, dhol, been, toka – some ready for use, some half made – is testimony to his impressive skills.
In an interview to The Wire, Gogoi discusses his work and talks about what pushed him to do what he did, including developing new instruments, such as the cane drum and the Hansha been.
Let me begin by asking how did a trained veterinary doctor end up as an exponent and expert on Bihu music and dance?
I was interested in Bihu music since childhood. I grew up in the Ziro town of Arunachal Pradesh where my father was posted in a government job in the mid 1970s. Since he was interested in music, our house became the centre of cultural activities. People would assemble and sing songs including Bihu songs, play the Bihu instruments, like the pepa and the dhol, etc. Though for Bihu, we would visit our paternal home in Lakhimpur town of Assam. In the run-up to the festival, as kids, me, my brother and sister used to learn Bihu songs and go down to the camps of the security forces placed in the town to perform Husori (a traditional group dance and singing of Bihu songs during the annual Rongali Bihu). I got my first pepa when I was barely 13. That’s when I began learning how to use the fingers on the wind instrument to play with the air and produce different sounds.
My childhood interest in Bihu music continued alongside studies. I wanted to join a medical college in Assam after my 12th standard. Having grown up in Arunachal, a state full of army men, I was attracted towards the disciplined life they led; I wanted to become a doctor in the army. However, the Assam government at that time came up with a rule that students would have to complete the last two years of their studies in the state itself to be able to join a government medical college. I couldn’t qualify because I studied in Arunachal. The Arunachal government, however, placed me in the Veterinary College in Khanapara, Guwahati, through its state quota. That’s how I ended up as a veterinary doctor.
During my time at the college, I took part in its festivals and cultural weeks and also in Bihu competitions across Guwahati. I began winning prizes. The judges took an interest in me because I stuck to the original, traditional tunes. Sometime in 1993, two such judges, Mukut Bora and Dilip Phukan from the popular Rangpuria Xilpi Samaj Bihu Dal, Guwahati, asked me if I would be interested in joining the group. I did, and began practicing with them to take part in competitions and festivals. Those days I was also in the horse riding team of the National Cadet Corps. So it was pretty hectic – go for riding sessions early in the morning, attend college and then go for Bihu rehearsals till late in the night. Slowly, I began to be called as a judge to the same competitions that I won because many organisers felt I would take away all the prizes. As a part of Rangpuria Xilpi Samaj Bihu Dal, I began to travel, not just within Assam and India but outside of it too. Till now, I have done performances in more than 25 countries.
When and why did you look at the possibility of codifying the musical instruments used in Bihu?
As I said, I have been singing Bihu songs since childhood, like so many others. I have also been playing various instruments used in the genre besides the pepa. Over the years, this involvement with Bihu songs led me to think that I should get a bit deeper in it and research on the subject, particularly on the possibility of codifying its musical instruments to be able to record the music in studios in a much more professional method, and to be able to create a far more refined melody on the stage that springs out of the right mix of the scales used in the instruments. Till then, if a pepa was being played in say, B flat, the dhol will be in C scale, the gogona and the bin invariably in some other scales. There was no uniformity, unlike in other musical performances. Though a dhol or a pepa player will be able to give you the notations orally, they can’t write it in matra. Though there is an order in the tune, say, in 16 beat taal, the dha falls on the 17th beat, same is with 32 beat taal, the dha falls on the 33rd.
Around 1995-96, I thought of taking up the challenge, even though many veterans by then had said that since Bihu is a folk form, its dance and musical instruments can’t, therefore, be given a formulaic treatment as is done in a classical form. But I wanted to give it a try. I felt that otherwise, it will remain just as a means of entertainment where the professional and the amateur are in the same bracket. Bihu songs will just be a way of our life and that’s it. I strongly felt the need for a systematic way of playing the musical instruments in a Bihu song.
You began by setting the juria pepa to different scales?
Yes, I am often identified with the juria pepa for this reason. Made of the horn of a buffalo, a pepa has four parts – hing or thula, reed pipe or the gofnola or nolisa, supohi or the reed and the mukhoni or the mouthpiece. In Assamese traditional music, there are three kinds of pepa. One is gutia pepa made of all four parts. Then there is jur pepa, where the player uses two separate pepas of four parts each to produce a single sound. Then comes the juria pepa, which is two separate pepas with three parts each and tied together with a single fourth part, the mukhoni. I use different pepas for different scales. It took me a while to set them to scales.
Also, since it is increasingly becoming difficult to procure buffalo horns in large numbers to meet the demand for pepa, I experimented with a local wood to make the juria pepa. The pepa made of Gamari wood produces equally good sound and scale.
So what changed in Bihu music after you set the scales of the instruments?
Well, till then, if you go to an instrument maker, say to buy a pepa or a dhol or a gogona, it could be of any length or thickness or size. It would produce sound but everything was approximate, not accurate. There was no set way of tuning it to produce a certain melody. So a player had no idea what exact sound will the instrument produce, to what height or depth he can take the sound. I began to make my own instruments following the science of acoustics.
Sound is physics. Take the pepa. Its sound and the scale depend on the distance between each part. Shorter the pepa, thinner the scale. Again, the thickness and tightness of the bamboo, the distance between the knots in the bamboo used in making a gogona, matter a lot for the instrument to be able to produce the correct vibration of sound. I began to choose the variety of bamboos carefully, to make gogona and toka, began thinking which bamboo will produce which scale better. There are about 50 varieties of bamboo across the Northeast.
Also, during my travels to different countries since the 1990s, I began buying strings, tuners, etc. to check how to restrict a certain instrument to a certain scale, like one does in guitar, sitar, tanpura, etc. I remember even buying coconuts of a particular size from Mauritius once to be able to experiment with the base for the Assamese been. Of course, now you can download from the internet a lot of information on how to tune an instrument. Those days such information was not easily available.
You gave a new look to the traditional been besides adding the option of different scales to the instrument.
Yes, though the raw material used to make a been – coconut shell and wood – is the same, I explored the possibility of modernising the instrument as the recipient of a junior fellowship from Union Ministry of Culture in 2005. I researched on scientific and acoustic improvisation of the traditional been which is the main instrument for our tokari geet, deh bisar geet, borgeet, also used in Goalparia geet and the Sattriya dance music.
Traditionally, the string of the been was made of muga silk, which failed to produce the same sound during the rainy season as there would be a lot of moisture in the string. In a state which receives a lot of rainfall, it is an impediment. So I changed it to stainless steel to maintain the continuity of sound. Our been is a mono-chord instrument played with a bow string; I added an additional string as a standby, though only one string is used at any given time to produce the harmonies. Like the violin, the tension produced by the bow on the string is used to produce different scales.
I also brought some structural changes to the been by adding the motif of a goose at the head of the instrument besides adding some ornamentation to make it stand out. Over the years, various string instruments, like the sitar, the tanpura, have also undergone changes to look and sound how it does now. The saat tari sitar was different from the present tarabdari sitar.
You also created a basic format for learners of the Bihu dance. What pushed you to do that?
I worked on the bhongima of the Bihu dance, its basic grammar, as a senior fellow of Union Ministry of Culture in 2014. It was a research project on the semantics and the semiotics of the Bihu dance with reference to its music and musical notations. I felt the need to research on the subject because till then there was no set dance vocabulary for learners. If a student goes back to a Bihu dance teacher, say, after a gap of a year, the teacher can’t recall exactly how he/she taught the student. But I can, because I follow a particular vocabulary for it, the basic steps for the beginners. So I felt there is a gap that needs to be filled. I worked out eight major bhongima and eight minor bhongima covering all the basic traditional steps of the dance.
After a student learns the basic moves, he/she can improvise depending on the ability and talent. But there has to be a base, a uniform vocabulary, a method, to begin with, which was largely missing in Bihu dance teaching. The SNA documented what I developed through the project.
In 2003, the SNA recognised you as a guru for Bihu dance for your contribution to the gene.
In 2003, I became the youngest guru to be named by the Union Ministry of Culture for Bihu dance. In 2005, my wife too was conferred the honour (Moushumi Saikia Gogoi is a popular Bihu and Manipuri dance exponent). There was a controversy then in the state because some people questioned how at the age of 31 I could be termed a ‘guru’ by SNA. But I didn’t file a tender for it; the national cultural body must have seen something worthwhile in my work.
SNA has archived my work. I say, let Bihu be a folk form but it should be somewhat systematic within its folk character so that anyone willing to learn it, be the dance or the instruments, can do so methodically, and that’s how its scope can be extended from a mere source of entertainment to a form of art that is presented on stage.
So what next?
I have long been associated in crafting instruments which has also led me to think of developing new instruments. Some time ago, I created a cane drum for a Naga music band which was played at the Hornbill festival and much appreciated by the crowd because it produced some amazing sounds.
I have also developed a new string instrument after working on it for about two years. It is called Hansha been, has 25 strings. I have played it in musical events in different countries. Recently, I have applied for a patent for it. If I am granted, then it will be the first patented instrument from Assam to be added to the rich folk culture of the state. Personally, I will feel extremely proud to be able to give our folk music something which has given me so much.