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Why the gamosa wraps the Assamese society together

The current wave of anti-CAA protests in Assam prominently features the gamosa. Why does this humble piece of cloth remain central to the articulation of Assamese identity?

Written by Tora Agarwala | Guwahati |
Updated: December 29, 2019 2:36:12 pm
Activist of All Assam Students’ Union (AASU) along with different organisations at a protest against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) in Guwahati. Express Photo by Dasarath Deka.

Ranjan Barman, an 18-year-old resident of Assam’s Lakhimpur, has 22 ‘gamosa’ shirts. Last winter, Barman took a few gamosas — the traditional hand-woven red and white Assamese cloth — to a tailor in his village and gave him exacting instructions to stitch them into a shirt. For the avid TikTok user, the shirt guarantees double the hearts on his 15-second videos, where he lip-syncs Assamese Bihu numbers. 

“Obviously it would,” says Barman, “A gamusa — even the sight of it — makes an Assamese person sentimental.” He recalls how three months ago, he was in Bengaluru with his family for a medical check-up. “The Assamese doctors went out of the way to help us,” says Barman, convinced that the preferential treatment could be traced to only one thing: the phulam, or floral, gamosa tied to his bag. 

In the ongoing wave of protests against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) in Assam, the gamosa has featured prominently — as men, women and children tied it on their heads, or draped it around their shoulders. It became an intrinsic part of protest gear. 

“It is not easy wearing a Mekhela Chador (the traditional Assamese attire) for every protest, but I can always carry a gamosa,” says 21-year-old Sovangini Talukdar, from Tezpur’s Darrrang College, who attended every CAA protest in December so far.

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The rise and rise of the gamosa

The gamosa has traversed beyond Assam — to Delhi (on account of being Prime Minister Modi’s favourite accessory) to the tracks of Finland (when athlete Hima Das won her historic gold in July 2018) and even to outer space (when NASA astronaut Mike Fincke — married to an Assamese — performed Bihu aboard the International Space Station in 2004). 

What explains the ubiquitous influence of the gamosa in Assamese society?

According to Sunil Pawan Baruah, a retired history professor and writer, the gamosa as a “symbol of the Assamese nation” can be traced back to 1916 and 1917, when the Asom Chatra Sanmillan (first student organisation) and Asom Sahitya Sabha (premier literary organisation) were founded. 

“Both were Assam’s first non-political organisations, and it was from them that the initial strains of Assamese jatiyotabaad (nationalism) grew, and so did the use of the gamosa,” he says.

The Assamese gamosa has become an intrinsic part of protest gear. Express Photo by Dasarath Deka

However, it was only during the anti-foreigner Assam Agitation of the early 1980s, when Assamese nationalism reached its crescendo, that the gamosa assumed a new role.

“It developed alongside the Agitation. We had a jatiyo sangeet (national anthem), we needed a jatiyo pataka (national flag) too. So, that is what the gamosa became,” says Ankur Tamuli Phukan, a Guwahati-based academician who has worked extensively on Bihu and cultural politics of Assam.

“It was then that it entered national consciousness,” says Professor Baruah, “People were writing messages on it in their own blood, or using it as a flag. It became a favourite of the All Assam Students’ Union, which was spearheading the movement, as well as the many nationalist organisations. In the late 1980s, militant groups of Assam (ULFA) adopted it too. You simply couldn’t ignore it.”

According to Professor Baruah, this is one of the reasons that explains the widespread use of gamosa beyond Assam today — whether it’s by activist Yogendra Yadav or PM Narendra Modi. 

“The Miya community (or the descendants of East Bengal-origin migrants to Assam) accepted the gamosa to negotiate with the larger Assamese community,” adds Tamuli Phukan.

“While in a way, it was an expression of Assamese unity, it was also a means to be accepted by the Assamese,” says Professor Baruah.

The gamosa and its expansive identity

When he was a student in Dibrugarh in the 1970s, Gohin Sonowal, now a cultural writer, says travelling outside Assam wasn’t very common. “But those who did, would come back and tell us how they would find gamosas lined on balconies, and even porches,” says Sonowal. “That was a way by which Assamese people told other Assamese people that they were present in the area. It was a way to identify oneself — and would lead many to visit complete strangers’ homes.” 

Sonowal says the gamosa (which literally translates to a cloth to wipe one’s body) had very functional beginnings. “It is an item of daily use. In rural life, the gamosa is used by villagers when they work in the fields, often to wipe sweat. These are un-embellished plain gamosas — called uka gamosa — never gifted, but kept at home,” he explains. 

Phulam gamosas, or gamosas which have floral patterns on one side (nowadays on both sides), are the ones that are gifted — most prominently during the Assamese festival of Bihu, and are known as ‘bihuwan’. 

“The gamosa has a very expansive identity. It is present in every sphere of Assamese life — from existential to spiritual to romantic,” says Assamese filmmaker and film academician Maulee Senapati, “Come Bihu, when a young woman weaves a gamosa for her lover, every thread she picks up, every pattern that takes shape carries a lot of romantic aspiration. This is something no other culture has been able to achieve.”

Assam Agricultural University’s Bulbul Baruah, part of the team that is seeking GI registration for the phulam gamosa, says it can be “considered an item of regional clothing.” Baruah says the demand for the gamosa has led to an onslaught of “imitations” manufactured outside Assam, hurting the fortunes of xipinis, or traditional weavers. 

“Gamosa is woven on traditional looms. A lay person won’t be able to tell, but there is a huge difference between the traditional and the machine-made: the size doesn’t match, the thread feels different. A true connoisseur, who knows her gamosa, can always tell,” she says.

This love for the gamosa, according to Professor Baruah, is because the cloth stands for many things: devotion (when you present it in a naamghar or worship hall), love and affection (there is no greater gift than a hand-woven gamosa for a loved one) and respect (when you honour elders). “In the cloth, is a devotional submission to god and to people,” he says.

Women participate in a protest against the CAA in Guwahati. Express photo by Tora Agarwala.

A metaphor for hegemony?

In the Bengali-dominated districts of Barak Valley — culturally and socially distinct from the rest of the state — one rarely sees the red-and-white gamosa. Instead, the ‘uttariya’ (a long scarf popularised by Rabindranath Tagore in Shantiniketan) is used during cultural programs. “There are some sections here which feel that the Assamese gamosa is a ‘cultural invasion.’ While they will graciously accept the gamosa if someone were to present it tot them, they don’t feel it is quite right to use it in cultural functions in Barak Valley districts,” says Professor Joydeep Biswas of Silchar’s Cachar College

Over the years, as the red-and-white phulam gamosa has become the indisputable cultural motif of Assam, there are many such stories that get lost between its folds. 

“Not many people outside know but there is not just one kind of gamosa in Assam, but there are several, and in a plethora of colours and patterns by different tribes: Misings, Tiwas, Rabhas, Koch Rajbongshis etc,” says Dibrugarh’s Sonowal, “It is a way of reiterating their status and distinct cultural identity within the larger Assamese society.” 

Yet, in popular consciousness, it is the phulam gamosa that prevails. Guwahati-based researcher and writer Rini Barman feels that the “halo of the ‘authentic red gamosa’ should be treated with caution.” 

“This might be a way for people outside Assam to recognise the Assamese as ‘one’ or united,” she says, “The red phulam gamosa, in particular, has started to connote a cultural permanence and a fixed sense of identity in the region, but such prejudices do not acknowledge the multitudes of weavers and ethnicities in the Northeast.”

Over the years, the red-and-white phulam gamosa has become the indisputable cultural motif of Assam. Express photo by Tora Agarwala.

Senapati, too, warns of similar apprehensions, because of “changing political situations and the rise of ultra-nationalist aspirations”.

“The gamosa has been a witness to our history and victim of our times and exploitative systems. The poetic subtleties have led to assertive symbolic assumptions. If I don’t put my gamosa on my back or on my car, am I not Assamese?” he asks, “This is unfortunate because the gamosa was never a metaphor for hegemony, it was a metaphor of acceptance.”

Despite this, the expansive identity of the gamosa still holds. “People never go to the naamghar without it, a bridegroom is still welcomed with it, and on Bihu, a cow is bathed and then wiped with it. It was and continues to be a metaphor for acceptance, respect, and reverence,” says Senapati.

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