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Assam’s Illustrious Son

A Profile of Maheswar Neog
by Pranavsvarup Neog


Eminent Indologist of international repute Dr (Ms) Kapila Vatsayan observed while paying her tribute to late Professor Dr Maheswar Neog "A great son of an indispensable part of India -- the chronological details of his life point out how the person was looking at his own soil, his roots and the world around him. I believe him to be the last generation of the renaissance in this age of specialization. Dr Neog had a holistic vision, whether it was English, Assamese or Sanskrit, he moved up step by step with precision like threading a needle. Anything he does is skilful and exacting." Professor Nilakanta Singh had also observed "Professor Dr Maheswar Neog has lived in Assam, for Assam and has even lived Assam. He has concentrated all his energies, every movement of his life, to the exploration, preservation and propagation of the rich culture heritage of Assam."

Dr Maheswar Neog was a man for whom the entire nation and the State of Assam was as dear as his very soul. The amount of work Dr Neog has accomplished in his lifetime will certainly astonish the most staunch scholar into disbelief that so much can be done by one single man. Dr Neog’s work covers all disciplines of Indian studies, language and history, lexicography and orthography, epigraphy and ethnography, historiography and hagiography, fine arts, paintings, dance and drama, religion and folklore which Dr Neog seeks to call Assam Tattva -- Assamology.

Simplicity, punctuality, discipline and an untiring belief in his own capacity led him on in the journey of life. Dr Neog began his life as a schoolteacher, crossed all hurdles in spite of financial constraints and won laurels for himself as a profound scholar. The multifaceted genius of Dr Neog did not bloom overnight. His father, who had no formal education was his first teacher.

Professor Neog was born in the village Kamarphadiya on the bank of river Dikhow in Sivasagar on September 7, 1915. The air and sunshine -- the water of the river Dikhow, the chirping of various brids fashioned his life. He wrote his first poem when he was in Class III and it showed his flair for literature. As a researcher he wrote an article on the marriage songs of Assam when he was just a graduate and the same was published in a prestigious research journal, The Indian Review (1939). The prizes he won for proficiency at the end of each annual term drew the attention of the Inspector of Schools to the tall, sprightly lad with a crop of curly hair. Professor Neog was guided by his elder brother Dimbeswar Neog, an erudite scholar of the country and under his tutelage and the congenial atmosphere of his homestead he honed his literary skills.

It was Professor Dr Maheswar Neog who brought out Xatriya dance from the cloister and oblivion to the larger area as an excellent dance form on par with Bharat Natyam and Kathak. Dr Neog had given the first exposure of Xatriya dance in 1958 nationally in a seminar organized by Sangeet Natak Akademi at Vigyan Bhavan in New Delhi. As Professor Dr Indira Raisom Goswami had observed "...before his lecture Dr V Raghavan, Dr D G Vyas has stolen the light with their much informative lecture. But when Professor Neog entered the scene he overshadowed the others and impressed everyone with his powerful exposition. Continuous applause from the audience reverberated in the big room." Dr Neog made references to historical records in relation to dance in ancient Kamrupa and then came to the three dances style of Nati, Ojapali and Xatriya. Dr Neog boldly stated "We recognize today four schools of Indian music, but if by the term classical dance we mean style following rules laid down by such authorities as Bharata and Nandikesvara, there would be more than a dozen schools lying obscure, neglected and in a moribund condition all over India." Dr Neog attracted the loving attention of the connoisseur of the art of dancing to the three Assam styles with a classical pattern in each of them. Dr Neog gave full length details of the different chief forms of Ojapali and Xatriya dances. The talk of Dr Neog particularly in portions with references to the grammer and basic pattern of dance was illustrated with demonstration by late Maniram Dutta Muktiyar of Kamalabari Xatra and Mr Lalit Chandra Nath of Mangaldai and their party. The expert audiences like M.S.G. Venkatachalam appreciated the talk as excellent and the demonstration as "revelation." The famous arts critic Dr Charles Fabric commented "The Assamese dances, seen in Delhi once before are to be sure of great interest more as anthropological and museum pieces than dances of beauty, yet these dances had a good variety of steps, though the hand gestures were few. There is a great deal of lively movement in them and their genuineness gives them extra academic interest."

This led to the formation of an expert committee by Sangeet Natak Akademi to go into the question whether apart from the accepted classical system of classical India dances namely Bharat Natyam, Kathakali, Manipuri and Kathak, other forms like Bhagvatmela, Odissi, Xatriya dances, etc. should also be recognized as classical. Dr Neog, being one of the member of the expert committee, could strongly place the views of Xatriya dances. In recognition to Dr Neog’s outstanding contribution the Akademi conferred on him the prestigious award namely Elected Fellow of Sangeet Natak Akademi along with Lord Yehudi Menhuin and ustad Bismillah Khan in 1995.

Gauhati University was the result of Dr Neog’s untiring efforts with late Madhav Chandra Bezbarua, late president Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed and Gopinath Bordoloi. Dr Neog joined the Gauhati University trust board as insisted upon by Bordoloi. As Mr Sudhir Chandra Baruah, eminent tea scientist and Dr Neog’s school friend observed in an article "Maheshwar too suffered a lot by punishing his already impaired health. I am afraid, his present ill health has something to do with those strenuous days, he and Madhav Kakaideo went through, I saw them pushing their bicyles through mud and dust in fund collection drive."

People recall Dr Neog’s easy and lovable nature, his wit and humour, his delectable anecdotes. For his students he was a very cordial person but a hard taskmaster who knew no compromise or shortcut to work.

Professor Dr Maheswar Neog’s main contribution to knowledge as he felt himself is in study of and exposition of the cultural history of north-eastern States its people, language, literature, culture and civilization. During his tenure in Gauhati University (1948-1978) and Punjabi University, Patiala (1978-1983), he had made sustained efforts to bring these obscure aspects of Indian culture to light, some recognition of is work came when Government of India selected him to be the member of Bharatiya Bhasha Samiti, to visit East European countries on a lecture tour, to act as a member of the Indian National Commission for co-operation with UNESCO. Amongst other thing Dr Neog was picked up as a member of Bharatiya Jnanpith Award Selection Board which is a noticeable recognition as a discerning literary critic. But according to Dr Neog the best assessment of his work came in the form of valued remark on some of the publications by Professor Dr Suniti Kumar Chatterjee, Prof. Sushin Kumar De, Professor Dr D C Sirkar, Professor K A Nilakanta Singh, Dr Nihar Ranjan Ray. The magnum opus of Dr Neog perhaps is Sankardeva and his Times: Early History of the Vaisnava Faith and Movement in Assam, which Professor Dr Suniti Kumar Chatterjee proclaimed as "undoubtedly one of the great books which have come from Assam. The work brings kudos to present day Indian scholarship, and I congratulate the interested public in India and outside India for this very fine production of the culture and scholarship of Assam as a part of India. Another important publication of Dr Neog is Prachya Sasanavali a study in epigraphs of eastern India for about 600 years was a very valuable editions to Indian epigraphical literature." Other works of Dr Neog were received with similar approbation in scholarly circles and indicates Dr Neog’s success in the pursuit of knowledge as a whole. Professor Dr Suniti Kumar Chattarjee remembered in 1964, "A scholar of such versatile and at the same time profound erudition is rare. He has also been a successful teacher of the University and the impression left by Dr Neog in the minds of scholars in India as well as abroad is certainly very flattering."

Courtesy: The Assam Tribune (2002)

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