The boys who manage The Bru Page, an Instagram handle with close to 5,000 followers, insist that the story is not about them. In fact, as the two-year-old page continues to gain popularity as the only social media handle dedicated to the “Bru community’s preservation”, very few know of the two teenagers behind it. And that’s how they prefer it to be. “It was never about us, it was always about our community,” they say.
Through 2018, the Bru community found themselves in the national news on more than one occasion — a rarity for the semi-nomadic Sino-Tibetan tribe that inhabits parts of Northeast India. On July 3, 2018, the Centre announced the historic agreement that tried to end the two-decade-long “exile” of the 32,0000 Brus living in camps in Tripura, who were displaced from neighbouring Mizoram after an inter-community clash in 1995. Since its announcement, the repatriation process has hit many roadblocks, and thousands still remain in these transit camps.
For those outside Tripura — where the Brus primarily reside, apart from Mizoram, and a few pockets in Assam, Manipur and Arunachal Pradesh— the perception of the Bru identity rarely goes beyond this conflict.
“It is sad people outside just know us as ‘displaced’ people, or ‘refugees’,” says the 19-year-old founder of The Bru Page, who prefers to remain anonymous. “But that is just one part of the story. The Brus are Tripura’s second-largest tribe and we have a beautiful culture too — one that is at risk of getting lost.”
The Rangbauh Project
It was in a bid to promote this culture that the teenager started the page two years back on a summer evening in Agartala, after returning home from school. The very first picture he uploaded was a “random” one: a girl doing the Bru “Hodaigiri” dance.
The initial smattering of followers were his classmates. The page bio described itself as the the “Rangbauh Project”, a reference to the heavy necklace of silver coins that Bru women often wear.
In the months that followed— as he began to crowdsource his feed by asking people to send in pictures — the page was soon populated with “everything Bru” including food, attire, jewellery, dance, festival, homes, and bits of trivia.
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In 2019, more than two years after it was created, the page has a unique hashtag (#the_bru_page), an offshoot “fashion” handle called the Bru_Baga_Style and the trust of more than 5,000 followers. “Many from our community write in asking us to promote their music or any event they might be holding,” says the founder.
For him, the rules are simple: “If it’s Bru, it’s on the page.”
Battling the ‘threat to culture’
Recognised by the Constitution of India as a Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Group (PVTG) owing to their traditional life patterns (shifting cultivation, use of primitive tools, habitation in inaccessible areas), the Brus of Tripura — referred to as Reangs — have piqued anthropological interest over the years.
“Yet this has not necessarily translated into proper knowledge or awareness about the tribe,” says Lincoln Reang, General Secretary of the Bru Socio-Cultural Organisation, which aims at preserving the tribe’s culture, “The Tripura Reangs have a distinct culture.” Since 1993 the forum has been organising an annual festival to promote Bru culture and since 2007 it has produced the Bru ni Gregchungma, an annual music album featuring songs that focus on cultural history of the Reangs of Tripura.
Tripura, which has Bangladesh along three borders, has a number of tribes: Tipras, Brus, Jamatias, Noatias, Lushais, Uchois etc among others.
While a few Bru tribals live in urban areas, a majority of the population (pegged at 2,34,000 according to a survey by the Bru Socio-Cultural Organisation in 2015) live in “deep forests and mountains” in rural areas.
“Many Brus feel that their culture — be it in terms of their language or dance forms — is being ‘taken over’ by the other tribal groups,” explains Reang. The Hodaigiri dance — now famous world over — is a Bru dance that involves the artiste precariously balancing earthen pots and other props while she moves.
“Off late, other tribes perform this dance too — however, some are of the opinion that they do it without giving due to credit to the Brus. As a result, the community feels that their culture might be overpowered,” says Reang.
To that end, even the Bru Sahitya Akademi, formed in 2014, is trying to preserve Bru culture through literature.
“We have published five-six books on Bru folklore, legends, goddesses and one on the discovery of Kaubru too,” says Pancham Reang, president, Bru Sahitya Akademi. The organisation has signed a memorandum demanding the recognition of Kaubru — the Bru tongue — as an independent language from Kokborok (the language of the other Tripuri tribes).
It is this “threat to culture” that the Bru Instagram page is also trying to battle silently. “The problem with our generation is that they want to be fed ready-made things. No one has the time to open history books and learn,” says the page’s founder.
His friend, who is helping him manage the page adds, “That is why there are so many misconceptions about our culture. Our own Bru friends know how to speak Kokborok, but not Kaubru. They think it is the same language when they are actually two different ones. It’s little things like this — our page attempts to increase awareness, without hurting people’s sentiments.”
‘Anonymity is an advantage’
The Bru Page now describes itself in three neat bullet points, all of which are indicators of their tribal identity: “rightful owner of the Hodaigiri dance, second largest community in Tripura and speakers of Kaubru.”
“Over time our page has evolved too — along with beautiful pictures, we also feature important news about our tribal brothers from Mizoram living in transit camps, and the conditions there,” says the founder. He adds that their page is also a way to support other Bru in distress, especially in rural areas. “I really did not have a plan when I started this page — but as the page grows, it’s taking its own shape,” he says.
The anonymity is an advantage. The boys — one is studying for his medical entrances while the other is pursuing a degree in Physics — are aware that culture and identity are sensitive issues, especially where they live. “My parents don’t even know I am doing this,” says the founder, with a laugh, “But whenever we get feedback, and if it’s constructive, we readily incorporate it.”
Recently, they branched out to launch a Facebook page and a Youtube channel, in a bid to reach a wider audience. “For that we realised that we must start at the root,” says the founder. On December 2018, they uploaded their first video, in English. Fittingly, it was titled: “Who are the Brus?”