It was moving to say the least. In 1991, during a fresher’s programme at Barpeta’s MC College, Nirmal Das, a first-year student, was reciting a poem. Mid way, however, his eyes welled up, he choked a little — and finally rushed down the stage leaving the recitation half-done.
Thus started decades of obsession which has culminated today in a development that many claim is a first for Assam. Das, a resident of Barpeta, is set to make the first Assamese film based entirely on a poem — in fact, the very same that made him choke up on stage those many years ago.
It isn’t just Das. The poem, Mamata’r Sithi, written by one of Assam’s most well-known authors and politicians, Hem Barua, has been making men, women and children tear up for years now. Recited across generations, read by students across schools, the poem’s cult-like status is evident from one google search: scores of recitations, songs, translations, dance performances and plays, all based on it, abound on the internet.
“That day after I got off the stage, it made me wonder. Why did I start crying? What was so special about the poem that it moved me so much? Did I need to do something about it?” says Das.
Thirteen years later, in 2004, Das directed a play based on the poem. “It ran for two Bhramyaman (mobile theatre group) seasons!” says Das.
THE POEM THAT SURPASSED THE POET
Mamata’r Sithi (or Mamata’s Letter) is a poem written in the format of a letter by a widow (Mamata) to her husband. “It is a deeply tragic and sentimental poem about a widow remembering her husband, seeking him out, calling out to him,” says Das.
In his student days, though he was studying Science, Das was so intrigued by the poem that he went to the college’s Assamese professor, Brijan Lal Choudhry, to understand the poem — every word, every line. “The poem was written very simply but captured the reality of human relationships beautifully,” says Das.
It is perhaps this universal appeal of the poem that resonated deeply with people, cutting across age and gender. “It is different from my father’s other poems. He wrote it with the sensitivity of a woman,” says Anjan Barua, the son of Hem Barua.
In his lifetime, Barua donned many hats: a parliamentarian, a professor and a poet. Despite this, he is best remembered as a poet — in fact, one of the pioneers of modern Assamese poetry. “While modern Assamese poetry started with Lakshminath Bezbaruah and Chandra Kumar Agarwala, Hem Barua consolidated what these stalwarts had stood for: that while taking inspiration from Western poets, one has to look inwards, localise it to the Assamese context — the language, the thought processes, the spirit,” says Dr Dilip Borah, of the Gauhati University’s Assamese department.
While Hem Barua wrote in English (The Red River and the Blue Hill, Idle Hours) and in Assamese (Mur Prem, Jaaro Dinar Xopun), it is Mamata’r Sithi that remains the most popular. It has in his own son’s words, “surpassed the poet.”
“If you ask someone walking down the road who Hem Barua is, they might not be able to tell you. But say Mamata’r Sithi, and they will know,” says Anjan.
FROM POEM TO PLAY TO FILM
Though Hem Barua had written the poem before his son was born, it was only after his father’s death that he read the poem for the first time in the 1970s. “My father never forced us to read his work or follow the career path that he had chosen,” says Anjan, who retired as a Manager of the State Bank of India about seven years ago. “I first heard the poem on a radio programmed which was being aired in his honour but now whenever I try to read it, I end up in tears,” he says.
“Apart from the universal human appeal, another reason the poem is so popular is because many parts have an element of drama in it — leading it to be a favourite pick for recitation competitions,” explains Professor Borah. The poem also has an element of mystery because it is only later that you realise that Mamata is a widow.
Nirmal Das attempts to follow a similar trajectory in his film, which is set in a lower middle class home in an Assam village. “That was not the era of Facebook and Whatsapp, so my story also harks back to simpler times. How a romance blossoms between two youngsters, Mamata and Morom, who are united by their love for music and poetry,” he says. Later, it takes a melancholy turn when Morom, Mamata’s husband, dies.
“It basically portrays the predicament of a widow. When you become a widow, you wear white and the colour becomes your identity. It takes over all colours of your life,” says Das, “But if one bothers to dig deeper, you find that there are more colours, more layers and more feelings.”
Through the film, the poem will be narrated during significant scenes. “It is, after all, the poem which drives the movie,” says Das.