In April last year, a rather unusual raft set sail across the river Brahmaputra. Named Amphibian, the raft has been constructed by tying bamboo stems to form the base but had elaborate spirals made from bamboo splits making it look like a floating device from a post-apocalyptic movie. The 35 occupants of the raft were an odd bunch comprising photographers, journalists, musicians, performing artistes, local artisans and a boatman, who was also a poet. The group left the shore of Uzan Bazar ghat near Guwahati behind for a 12-hour journey towards the Sualkuchi ghat with no fixed agenda. But as the wind carried Amphibian peacefully downstream, an unexpected collaboration began with the artistes lending and borrowing each other’s art form.
Conceptualised by artiste Indrani Baruah, the experiment was part of the second phase of her project, “Cultural Reimaginations”, funded by the Foundation for Indian Contemporary Art (Delhi) and the Indian Foundation for the Arts (Bangalore). The idea was to engage artistes from different fields by participating in what she calls a “performance-journey”. “Through such experiments I want to challenge the boundaries between art and architecture, artists and artisans, art and craft,” she says. To discuss the work she has been doing in Assam for the last three years, Baruah, who shuttles between Guwahati, Delhi and the US, will be in the city to deliver talks on May 9 at Somaiya Centre for Lifelong Learning, Fort and on May 10 at The Hive in Bandra.
Baruah has not had a linear approach to her career too. An architect by profession, she dabbled with visual arts before burying herself into cultural research around the Northeast, studying patterns of communities in the area. “In 2011, my work came together when I started a project with the local bamboo artisans in Guwahati,” she says. In a small village, two hours north of the city, she sat with artisans who made furniture from local bamboo for generations, but had forgotten what it was to be creative with their craft. This was the first phase of her project. “So when I asked them to innovate with the way they make traditional objects such as baskets and fish traps, they were quite excited,” she says. “The idea grew as artistes joined in. For instance, we magnified the same baskets to a scale that they became installations big enough to walk through,” she says.
Meanwhile, Baruah also turned her attention to Assam’s waterways for the second phase. “Rivers were the main mode of transport here, before fuel got so expensive that the ferries could not function. So while a few ferries are still functional, others are rusting away,” she says. The Department of Inland Water Transport provided Baruah with an old defunct ferry in which she installed the artworks made by the bamboo artisans with the artists. “Periferry as we call it now became an arena for the public to engage in community activities such as music and dance,” says Baruah, whose grant lasts till this December, “It also invited people to spend time around the rivers again.”
For Amphibian too, she roped in local architects and artisans for its construction. Exactly one year after it sailed the Brahmaputra, Baruah took it for another ride on April 27 down the same route but, with a different set of artistes with planned collaborations; local folk musicians experimented with bamboo instruments and storytellers and writers collaborated with them. Through the journey, they played an audio recording of all the sounds they had heard last year — the sounds of the river and the life around it.
“I wish to launch many such initiatives that break boundaries while bringing the river and everything it brings with it back into focus,” she says. Amphibian is still anchored near Uzan Bazar ghat, “for anyone who wants to use it”.