Parikshit Sarmah is currently pursuing his PhD in the area of Gender and Assam History under the supervision of Prof. Debarshi Prasad Nath in the Department of Cultural Studies, Tezpur University. His areas of interest are Gender, Assam History, Popular Culture.
This paper tries to focus on the construction of the image of a “masculine Assamese man” and how that concept of Assamese masculinity carries unique features from already established masculinity research. The paper tries to study how Assamese masculinity is understood not only in oppositional cognations of men vis-à-vis women but as men vis-à-vis other men, men’s role for society and his respectful position. The respected social status of a man in Assamese society derives from different qualities including class, caste and economic status; such factors play an important part in shaping ideas about the male gender in the society. Assamese masculinity (the image of masculinity among the Assamese speaking community) is based on the images of the Ideal Assamese Man created by the cultural institutions of media, folklore, and literature which are shaped by patriarchy. This is perhaps the reason why we require a term which is more indigenous, more rooted in folk and traditional Assamese life to discuss Assamese masculinity. This study, therefore, tries to emphasize how the term dangoriya is more apt in terms of discussing Assamese masculine identity. Accordingly, the objective of this study is to establish both how the already established term bhadralok does not properly justify Assamese masculinity and to show how the word dangoriya more aptly conveys the sense of the same.
Keywords: Assamese, Masculine Identity, Modernity, Dangoriya, Lakshminath Bezbaroa
Masculinity is a set of attributes, behaviours and roles; it is not based on a single norm and that is why it we prefer to talk about masculinities instead of masculinity. Masculine considerations do not marginalize or ignore the physical aspects of sex and gender altogether, but the focus of masculine theory and research is the cultural, social and political aspects of gender - the construction, reception, performance, attitudes and thoughts surrounding the male gender. For Connell, “hegemonic masculinity is defined as the current configuration of practice that legitimizes men's dominant position in society and justifies the subordination of women, and other marginalized ways of being a man” (Connell 186).
This paper tries to focus on the construction of the image of a “masculine Assamese man” and how that concept of Assamese masculinity carries unique features from already established masculinity research of India. The paper tries to study how Assamese masculinity is understood not only in oppositional cognations of men vis-à-vis women but as men vis-à-vis other men, men’s role in the quest for the Assamese nation which is not dependent on other and also the importance of an Assamese identity based on its fight against a real and imaginary enemy. The respected social status of a man in Assamese society derives from different qualities including class, caste and economic status; such factors play an important part in shaping ideas about the male gender in the society, these qualities invites our attention to a particular term Dangoriya to find a suitable term for masculinity studies in Assam. The researcher is aware of the raging ongoing debate about who is an Assamese; there are still serious differences about whether Assamese identity should be linguistically or geographically defined. The researcher is also aware of the multiple ethnicities that constitute the state. However, in this study, I propose to use the term ‘Assamese’ in its geographical sense (all the people living inside the geographical boundary of Assam) and all-inclusive sense to refer to the dominant cultural codes regarding masculinity. The researcher is also aware of the linguistic diversity of the state and different shape of Assamese nationalism and sub-nationalism but based on the available literature on the formation of a ‘modern Assamese nation’, throughout the paper, the researcher uses the term ‘Assamese’ to define those people who live within the geographical boundary of Assam and speak or understand the Assamese language.
This paper focuses on basically two aspects; firstly it encompasses why masculinity research of Assam demands a term that reflects the unique traits of Assamese man. Secondly, this paper focuses on how the particular word dangoriya reflects some of the larger questions like acceptance of influx of Western modernity by Assamese people during the pre-independence 19th century Assam and the question of Assamese nationalism. Another word bhadralok has already gained wide currency amongst masculinity scholars with reference to Bengali identity, the word bhadralok also figures in the Assamese vocabulary; so, it is also noteworthy to look at how the use of the word bhadralok as the reference of Assamese masculinity is susceptible to misinterpretation. In Assamese vocabulary, bhadralok is considered as a third-person term, but dangoriya may be used for both third person and second person.
This paper projects dangoriya as a subjective analytical category that faces mainly two obstacles. Firstly, it is rooted in the understanding of a social group and disagreement may arise among different individuals who may use it for different social experiences, so, the paper focuses on the early writings of modern Assamese literature. Furthermore, the exact figure of dangoriya cannot be evoked as it does not represent any particular category like education or profession (which is very much significant in terms of bhadralok). (J.H. Broomfield has calculated the bhadralok population as between 3 to 4 percent in 1900) (Bromfield 13).
The term dangoriya has been there in Assamese society from Ahom kingdom as a term assigned to level officers of the state, as an honorable term assigned to the three ministers of Ahom regime- Burhagohain, Borgohain, Borpatra Gohain. What I find interesting in the term dangoriya is its dynamic nature in different contexts. Such dynamic term more aptly conveys the multiple natures of masculinities. From ghost lore in a rural platform to English educated Assamese people; from a modern-day political and social formal gathering to the language of public speech of political leaders in Bodoland Territorial Council Election 2020, dangoriya conveys multiple meanings in Assamese society.
The term is derived from the word dangor, which carries connotations such as manyobyokti (a nobleman; a respectable man), Manyolok, bixistobyokti, shrestha lok (Honoured gentleman), borlok (a respectable man, a nobleman, a grandee) (Barua 441). A dangoriya, according to the Assamese dictionary Hemkosh, is expected to be shrestha (best), manyo (respectable) (Chaliha), bixisto (honoured), jestha (elder) (Barua 441). This term cannot be regarded as a direct translation to English Gentlemen like bhadralok in Bengali masculinity.
Assamese identity politics has been trapped in the world of appearances, migration, language and cultural thread of being exploited by the outsider from its neighboring states and countries including Bengal. Different political events like the Assam Movement, the rise and fall in popularity of the ULFA, implementation of AFSPA, Secret Killings, the rise of regional parties like the Asom Gana Parishad and the perceived threat of Bangladeshi immigrants have shaped and transformed the image of ‘Assamese masculine man’ to figures like war hero Lachit and Chilarai. In such circumstances, it is important to find out a contextualised and already established term to denote desired masculine attributes of Assam and masculinity studies of the state. In this regard, reminding the vast bhadralok literature of masculinity studies in India, it is important to cross-check how the term bhadralok does not properly justify Assamese masculinity and dangoriya more aptly conveys the sense of the same.
As a term dangoriya is highly rooted in Assamese traditional life as a respected category which appeals to the noteworthiness of it in projecting the respected Assamese man. As in contemporary Bengal society, only the bhadralok mythology remains which work for status for the educated Bengali Middle Class (Ghosh 4). This is tricky in the case of Assam; the second half of the twentieth century in Assam’s history is full of chaos and political demands. Such history has changed the concept of a real respected man from the “English educated, social reformer, intellectual” to “the real son of the motherland”, dangoriya remained respected side by side in both cases. The social, religious and cultural renaissance of Bengal and Assam that established the status group bhadralok remained severely limited within the English-educated community (Ghosh 3) is not a question for the present Assam where the quest for identity and “son of the soil” discourse controls the lion’s share of social order. The symbol of masculinity for Assam interpolated by cultural, historical and geographical location-related factors reflects Assamese masculinity as more folklore rooted and in the rural context. Besides, being an “ideal man” in the political unrest Assam from the 1980’s demands a sacrifice of man for the “Mother Assam”; A manliness of sacrifice and protector which is based on the concept of “us versus the other”.
Assamese nationalistic elites take the lion’s share of the respectful status of Assamese man in post-independence Assam.
Different political movements of Assam distinctively shaped Assamese masculinity with the help of nationalism, with the nation fighting real and imaginary enemies; attributes of masculinity can be seen in the respective discourses that have emanated from each of these movements. This group of people has been glorified with different terms like luitopriya deka (brave boys from the bank of Luit), notun purux (new age man), lachitar senani (Soldiers of Lachit) and many more. But, as dangoriya shares the same position in every circumstance of Assamese social life, it will be more suitable to consider it among all other terms. The projection of Lachit Borphukan as the new symbol of Assamese masculinity during the second phase of the twentieth-century appeals to our heed to the importance of Assamese nationalism in projecting respected Assamese man. By the 1970s and 1980s, this new class had raised the demand of cultural identity which had no link with the bhadralok or babu identity but re-created new-age dangoriya group commonly mentioned as notun purux (new age man) or deka Shakti (power of young).
Considering all these qualities and attributes of dangoriya, it is important to study the differences with the Bengali bhadralok. Primal Ghosh hints at how the category of the bhadra and non-bhadra or choto do not operate in other parts of India and is very much a Bengali phenomenon (Ghosh 22); but, some of the Assamese literature reflects the availability of bhadralok – etor or chotolok in Assam during 19th century even though dangoriya was used to denote a respectable man. We can find such examples in “Miri Jiyori” by Rajanikanta Bordoloi, the first Assamese novel published in 1894, (Bordoloi 9-13). But, such mentions are not adequate to establish the proper establishment of bhadralok in Assamese society. As J.H. Broomfield in his pioneering research on the social class of bhadralok divulged, “the starting point of the ‘educated middle class” (Broomfield 8) which came to take the most respected position in Bengal history was started when the British recruited an increasingly large number of Indian associates mostly from the upper classes like Brahmin, Bidya and Kaystha, most of them previously service for Mughal province or local Hindu Kingdoms” (Broomfield 10); but, in the state of Assam, the government officials hired by the British mainly from the Ahom oligarchy are mentioned as dangoriya (not bhadralok) in different official documents and newspaper articles.
Such understanding of an Assamese society reminds us about the writings of Lakshminath Bezbaroa and his kripabari style, it is to cite here that the writings of this Assamese stalwart not only linked Assam and Assamese people to different aspects of life but also exists at the core of modern Assamese nationalism and Assamese modernity. So, the researcher here eager to study how some of his writings mainly published in Jonaki and Banhi magazine projects the importance of dangoriya for Assamese masculinity. Among all his literary works, the researcher searched for Jonaki and Banhi magazine due to several reasons. Arguably, the rich writings of Jonaki and Banhi can be seen as one of the pioneer texts of Assamese linguistic nationalism (Sharma 144), on the other hand, these two magazines contributed to the perfection of the modern era of Assamese literature. The Jonaki and Banhi magazine played an important role in the steady spelling of the Assamese language, contributed to its richness in religion, philosophy, society, culture, language, history; Moreover, analysis of old literature, book criticism and kripabari works, in reality, gave perfection to the modern era of Assamese literature. With these two important texts, this paper also refers to the autobiographical writings of Lakshminath Bezbaroa.
Bezbaroa’s account of Assamese society contains a deep understanding of perception about English educated Middle class who came back from Bengal after higher education to Assam and get themselves use to in European lifestyle, wearing western clothes like shirts and coats, speaking in English during later half of the 19th century and first decades of 20th century during colonial rule. Such example can be found in his article ‘Lukua Nam’, where Bezbaroa mentions one of his childhood friend Satish who after getting an education from Bengal with Bezbaroa became “sahib”, wears English dress like the coat, speaks English and incorrect in Assamese, making a joke of Assamese language. Through a comparison between the writer Bezbaroa himself and Satish, the article indicates how a bunch of English educated Assamese man internalized colonial modernity and the other half started focusing on upholding the Assamese language and tradition like read-write and speaks in Assamese. Such men were greeted by outsiders as dangoriya. When Bezbaroa meets, Nirmala who is a Bengali educated girl greets him as
Dangoriya moi apunar kakotor ejon niyomiya pathika. (Tamuly 7)
(Dangoriya, I am a regular follower of your magazine. Translation mine.)
The group of people who stands in the spectrum of upholding Assamese tradition has a huge threat to European lifestyle and modernity. In the politics of the term dangoriya, it is interesting to see how; babu or bhadralok has been denied by Assamese people as a word of respected man.
In one of his article, ‘Babu aru srijut’, Bezbaroa mentions
ami asomiya manuh, xake khare egal khai thaku, ami Babu tabu nohoi deuhe, tumi amak babu pati bahua xaji nogurnagoti nakariba deuhe, babu buli kole ami bor asambhantra kora jenhe pau, ear dwarai babu xobdotuk axambhanto mat bulisu tene navabiba.(Bora & Hujuri 562)
(We are Assamese people, we live a simple life, we have no intention to be babu-tabu, please do not make a joke of us, we feel insulted when someone calls us babu, but it doesn’t mean that we are making insult of the word babu. Translation mine)
He further extended the line as
kunu ata bostu lukor pora lua jai ketia? Jetia sei bostur hochahochikoiye amar avab hoi; aru avab noholeu jetia hei bostu amar sei shrenir thoka bostut koi uttam shrenir; aru tak graham korile ami bixex labhoban hou. Engraji xikoni aru engraji sabhyata adi ami ghaikoi ei duta karon nimittehe graham korisuhok. Ei duta karonor kuntur mukholoi sai aji ami bidexi “babu upadhi” loboloi hat melimhok? Amar ei upadhi sambodhanar avabot pora nai. (Bora & Hujuri 562)
(When do we need to borrow something from others? That is when we feel lack of it, and sometimes when that is better in quality. This is the only reason why we choose to have English education and English culture. But which one reason among these two compels us to have outsider ‘babu title’? We are rich in this regard and there is no reason to have this. Translation mine.)
In the same article, Bezbaroa refers to a newspaper named Asam, “The truth is, the titles such as Borborooah, Borooah, Phukan granted by the Assam Rajas were considered sufficiently honorary as not to require any further addition to them. For instance Dhjekialphookan, Anandaram or Borbhandarborooah Moniram is better designations than Babu Anandaram Dhekialphukan, Babu Moniram Borbhandar borooah, or Anandaram Dhekialphukan Esquire, or Moniram Borbhandar borooah Esquire” (Bora & Hujuri 562). The article also mentions:
bangaliba an kunubidexik babu bular thait asomiyak ki bulibo lage, ei kotha tumi jadi najana tente tumi xiki loboloi jatna kora. (Bora & Hujuri 563)
(If you do not know how to greet an Assamese gentleman instead of how we greet a Bengali or outsider ‘babu’, you should learn it. Translation mine.)
agor axamiai babu mane marowari mahajan aru bangali manuhok e bujisil, ageye kunu axamiya dangoriya k babu buli dithakat nalage xamajikot u sambhodhan koribo nuarisil. (Bora & Hujuri 564)
(Earlier Assamese people refers only to a Marowari businessman or Bengali gentleman as babu, it is beyond someone’s imagination to call an Assamese man babu. Translation mine.)
Such words indicate how a term like babu and borbabu were considered as bohiragoto or outsiders and rejected by Assamese people; such writings signify how Assamese people were very selective in accepting the influx of modern life and ideas through Bengal. The dress has been an important identity marker of a status symbol in defining the respectful position of man in different societies. The clothing of men can also be an important metaphorical element as used by Assamese dangoriya. The most important element of Assamese men’s clothing was dhoti or suriya before the arrival of modern dress code like shirt, coat and pant; this was worn by every Assamese man. Birinchi Kumar Baruah mentioned that dhoti or suriya is the main clothing of Assamese men. Different styles of wearing a dhoti symbolized the class difference; a dangoriya (an elderly person in this context) in the pre-1980s was often seen wearing a dhoti that extended up to his feet (Baruah 149).
The Assamese language has been rich in vocabulary and words like dangoriya have been there from time immemorial. But, some of the Assamese literature including a bunch of essays written by Bezbaroa also reflects the availability of bhadralok – etor or chotolok in Assam during the 19th century. We can find such examples in ‘Miri Jiyori’ by Rajanikanta Bordoloi, one of the first Assamese novels published on 1894, (Bordoloi 9-13). But different writings on man in the 19th and 20th century reflect dangoriya as a proper replacement of bhadralok in academic writings. A comparison of the writings of Rajnarayan Basu and Lakshminath Bezbaroa is interesting in this point. Reference of a respected man as Dangoriya in Assamese literature can be tracked in different letters written to the editor of Junaki and Banhi; all the letters written to the editors of the magazines addressed as dangoriya, srijut dangoriya or manybor dangoriya. The image of normative masculinity in Bengal since the 19th century has been conveyed by the term bhadralok as mentioned by Rajnarayan and discussed by Chatterjee in Our Modernity (Chatterjee 5). Having said this, we will begin by dwelling a bit longer on Rajnarayan’s concept of bhadralok as discusses by Chatterjee (5) as it has serious implications in our understanding of the concept of dangoriya. Rajnarayan Basu spends the longest time comparing ‘those days’ with ‘these days’ in terms of the body. This can also be seen in Assamese society where the idea of the body was significantly altered by the Assamese society’s tryst with modernity.
Chatterjee discusses that Rajnarayan mentions a very interesting narrative:
Ask anyone and he will say, ‘My father and grandfather were very strong men.’ Compared with men of those days, men no have virtually no strength at all. If people who were alive a hundred years ago were to come back today, they would certainly be surprised to see how short in stature we have become. We used to hear in our childhood of women who chased away bandits. These days, leave alone women, we do not even hear of men with such courage. Men these days cannot even chase away a jackal (Chatterjee 4-5).
On the whole, quoting Rajnarayan, Chatterjee adds here, “Especially bhadralok, respectable people have now become feeble, sickly and short-lived” (Chatterjee 5). In terms of Assamese masculinity, this narrative is quite appropriate; it is very often a part of the everyday discourse of Assamese people to quote narratives about the great physical strength of their forefathers and ancestors. When Lakshminath Bezbaroa refers to his father in his biography, he depicts his father- dangoriya Dinanath Bezbaroa’s- physical attributes as a steady man of few words, having no disease, adept in horse riding, who can control an elephant, boating, cool calm and confident man who could defeat three muscular men in a fight (Saikia 121).
It is interesting to see how dangoriya has been used as an alternative to bhadralok in different platforms since then. The government officials hired by the British mainly from the Ahom oligarchy are mentioned as dangoriya (not bhadralok) in different official documents and newspaper articles. Life account of Dinanath Bezbaroa by his son Lakshminath Bezbaroa in his 1909 published book “Dangoriya Dinanth Bezbaruahr sankhripta Jibon Charit” (Saikia 118) foregrounds how the term dangoriya was used for respected British employed administrative officials during British rule. Publishing news about Dinanath Bezboroa’s departure, Times of India, one of the foremost English daily in India wrote: “It is with extreme pain that we have to record the death of Dangoriya Dinanath Bezbaoroa” (Saikia 118).
The statesman published:
The death of Dangoriya Dinanath Bezbaroa at the age of 84 has deprived Assam of one of its best known inhabitants. (Saikia 118)
Additionally, Bezboroa’s address of well-mannered Bengali gentlemen as ‘Bengali bhadralok” in his article ‘Barbaruar Sithi’ (Saikia 212) indicates symbolism of Bengali elite class with the term bhadralok during this period by the non-Bengalis. This signifies another aspect of the term bhadralok in Assamese vocabulary which can be viewed as an aftermath of importing the working class from Bengal and the emergence of the educated English-speaking Assamese middle class who completed their education from Bengal.
In mocking the new English educated person who used to speak English whenever they got a chance to show off their status, Bezbaroa greeted the person as dangoriya instead of bhadralok or babu in his article ‘Barboroar Phu’ (Saikia 195), reflecting the indigeneity of dangoriya to refer those persons who tasted English education during the nineteenth century. Parimal Ghosh mentioned the knowledge of English as a very important quality of bhadralok (Ghosh 03), but in the case of dangoriya, such qualities are not mandatory. But, the new English educated middle class during the initial parts of the twentieth century which has played a huge role in Assam history reflects bhadaralok and babu culture along with such quality. It is to be critically seen how Bezbaroa has accepted the influx of English education and culture, but denied terms like babu and borbabu.
Dangoriya has been a term with different qualities in a different context, but solely linked the concept of ‘respect’ of a man. In his article ‘Asomiya Jati dangor jati’, Bezbaroa mentions about different qualities of jatiyo dangorota (greatness of the nation) i.e. tez (blood), bol (strength), sahisnuta (calmness), ekota (unity) , sthirota (steadiness), gambhijya (civilized), byahambor (joyful), dharmanistha (religious), sadachar (Politeness), sangeetor prati anurag (music lover) (Bora & Hujuri 28-32). It is noteworthy that Bezbaroa also problematizes the use of dangoriya by referring to some characters which allow the readers to go through a bunch of chauvinist Assamese people during British rule. In his article ‘Bhukendra Baruar Antollela’, Bezbaroa mentions Bhukendra Barua dangoriya who decided to become a patriot after denied a government job, failed in study and life; but, through his public speaking qualities, he gained the support of people and established himself as a popular leader, he used to gather donation for an organization named Moran Sabha. In reality, he spends the entire donation for his trip to Calcutta in the name of giving memorial to British sahib (Tamuly 44-45). Such portrayal of dangoriya has a different connotation with the term used by British officials and Bezbaroa himself for his father. In another article ‘Bhempuriya Mauzadar’, Bezbaruah refers the term to a figure Bhempuriya Mauzadar, a British civil official, he is a rigid Brahmin figure who follows and enjoys a strong caste hierarchy and bow down under British colonial rule (Bora & Hujuri 120-123).
Bezbaroa’s writing has given a great deal of importance to observation and perception about the image of an ideal Assamese man and how a great deal of politics has been linked with it in both 19th and 20th century Assam. The politics of language and vocabulary, dress and different parameters of defining a respectful Assamese man allows us a special canon in the study of Assamese nationalism and modernity. However, the researcher here does not completely deny the existence of a term like bhadralok, babu and sahib in Assamese society, but the point this article tries to establish that, dangoriya carries all the possible demand to be the keyword for Assamese masculinity. This article studies the perception of the Assamese middle class which were thoroughly established during the British government’s employment in different jobs by English educated Assamese class. At best, the discussion can be concluded as considering the differences between Bengal and Assam in different parts of history, dangoriya is more suitable in terms of the respectable Assamese man instead of bhadralok which is also available in Assamese vocabulary and already established as a trademark of Bengal masculinity. But, where bhadralok is a social stratification based on education and intellectual power, dangoriya has class differences with its counterparts in every aspect of Assamese social life.
The Ahom kingdom was a late medieval kingdom in the Brahmaputra Valley in Assam. It is well known for maintaining its sovereignty for nearly 600 years and successfully resisting Mughal expansion in Northeast India.
Lachit Borphukan was a commander and Borphukan in the Ahom kingdom, located in present-day Assam, India, known for his leadership in the 1671 Battle of Saraighat that thwarted a drawn-out attempt by Mughal forces under the command of Ramsingh I to take over Ahom kingdom.
Jonaki was an Assamese language magazine published from Calcutta in 1889. It was also the mouthpiece of the then Assamese literary society Oxomiya Bhaxa Unnati Xadhini Xobha in which the society’s aim and objectives were regularly expressed.
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