An Interview with Birendranath Datta
An academician by profession, Dr. Birendranath Datta is widely acclaimed as a dedicated research scholar in folklore. Former Professor and Head of the Folklore Research Department in Gauhati University, Dr. Datta also served the newly established Central University at Tezpur for about four years. With brilliant results in Matriculation and I.Sc. (He was among the top 10 in both the examinations under Gauhati University). Datta chose to study B.A. at Viswa Bharati, Santiniketan. He completed his B.A. Honours in Economics from Viswabharati University and got admitted in Gauhati University to clear M.A. in Economics (Group B with specialisation in Political Science). Dr. Datta joined B. Barooah College in Guwahati in 1957 to start his professional career. In 1964 he was invited to serve Pramathesh Barua College at Gauripur in lower Assam as the founder principal. Later he worked as the principal of another two higher educational institutions, namely, Goalpara College and Pandu College. Dr. Datta joined Gauhati University as a Reader in 1979. Meanwhile, he had obtained his Ph.D. in 1974 on folk culture of Goalpara under the guidance of Prafulladatta Goswami. After his retirement from Gauhati University in 1995, and at the request of Tezpur University, Dr. Datta took up the position as Professor in the department of Traditional Culture and Art Forms of that university. Besides building up the department, he also established the North Eastern Archival Centre for Traditional Art and Folklore (NEACTAF) with a grant received from the Ford Foundation.
Recently while this correspondent met Dr. Datta at his residence in Silpukhuri, Guwahati, he clarified many aspects regarding himself and his field of studies. Excerpts:
Q: Why it was important for a student, who stood fifth in Metric and seventh in Intermediate Science (10+2) examination, to study Arts in the next phase?
BD: It was important for me at least. I always had an inclination for subjects in the arts and social science streams.
Q: Then why did you study science stream in 10+2 level?
BD: That was mainly because of my elder brother’s advice. He asked me to study Science at least for two years. I followed his advice but with the condition that after I.Sc, I would be free to choose my stream. And later I took my choice. Of course I must admit that my ntermediate science background has always helped me academically.
Q: And nobody was disappointed?
BD: No. My father was initially not happy with my choice. But I could convince him that I could do well in Arts too. And he was very supportive.
Q: Do you think that, during the last couple of years, the relation between teachers and students have deteriorated to a grate extend?
BD: It is true to some extent. But personally I have had no problem. As a teacher I have always been alive and strict and firm but at the same time sympathetic towards the need of the students.
Q: How do you like to define the term intellectual?
BD: For me the term intellectual means an individual who keeps his mental capacity vigorously active. He could be a journalist, a teacher or an artist. Or he might be none of these. Profession alone should not be the criteria for recognising someone as an intellectual.
Q: Do you think that a gap among the intellectuals is making it’s ground in our society?
BD: Do you think so ? May be, but I am not too sure.
Q: Do you think Assamese literature has ably portrayed the socio-political turmoil in the state?
BD: Not as much as could be expected perhaps. But there have been sufficient contributions also.
Q: You are associated with music since long back and you are recognised as one of the most popular singers of yesteryears. How did you get incline to this form of performing art?
BD: It came naturally . I used to sing since my childhood. But it was studies rather than singing that mattered more with me. Earlier I sang regularly for AIR and also often in public functions. But I stopped giving public performances quite a long time ago. For me music has not been just a means of entertainment or a source of livelihood. But It is entrained with my life in many subtle ways.
Q: Do you have any plans for collection of your songs?
BD: If by collection you mean recording for future preservation, just a little has been done till now. But there are various suggestions that much more should be done including the making of cds.
Q: It is said that Assam had to face a Dark Age in the 17th and 18th century in the field of visual arts. Do you agree?
BD: I don’t feel that way. Painting and wood carving continued to be practised, although not so vigorously. Here I should clarify one point, I don’t like to distinguish the crafts from the fine arts. A craft product can also be an object of fine art. Since the crafts have survived through that period, all was definitely not lost.
Q: The Govt. College of Arts and Crafts in Guwahati is not running well. Now it is advocated that the college should be brought under the administration of Gauhati University or Director of Technical Education from the present arrangement that is under the Directorate of Cultural Affairs, Assam Govt.
BD: That may not be the only answer. If Govt. Agencies have failed there is scope and possibility to open privately run Art Colleges in the state, which can get recognition from Gauhati University.Such institutions might serve the students in better ways.
Q: Like wise, the State Art Gallery under the same Directorate of Cultural Affairs is in a bad shape.
BD: Here also, we should think about private art galleries. Those can serve the artists and the art goers in the state. Look at places like Calcutta and Mumbai, where the successful galleries are not always looked after by Govt. Machineries.
Q: Why cannot Gauhati University start the Master’s course in Fine Arts?
BD: Why should we wait for G.U. ? Why not the Govt. College of Arts and Crafts in Guwahati start the Master’s course. It already has the basic infrastructure and manpower. Likewise the Music College in the city, which is also under Directorate of Cultural Affairs can expand its activities to include a Masters’ course. And I am sure G.U. will come forward to recognise both the courses if the necessary conditions are fulfilled.
Q: Sattriya Dance of Assam is crying for recognition. How do you like to comment here?
BD: The word ‘recognition’ is very puzzling. How and who will recognise the Sattriya dance form? It is the acceptance by experts and connoisseurs that is needed for. And I think Sattriya Dance has so long been tied down to the rituals of the satras (monasteries). But to develop this dance form as a high class performing art with popular acceptance, we have to emphasise more on it’s aesthetic aspect. At the same time the exponents should have freedom and competence to try new compositions. Finally a wide range of publicity with the help of accomplished performer of the dance form will be essential for the goal to be achieved.
Read a profile of Birendranath Datta
Birendranath Datta’s Songs: