Bobby Sarma Baruah’s biopic on Padma Shri Pratima Pande Barua, Sonar Baran Pakhi (The Golden Wing) struck a personal chord with me. As a child, I grew up hearing my mother sing the Goalparia lokageet (folk songs) of Barua. At high school, I was friends with Barua’s grandson, who had a gifted voice like his grandmother. During the period-breaks, we would often prod him into singing her songs. And he would very cheerfully hum ‘Hastir Kanya (The Elephant Princess)’, one of Barua’s most popular tracks.

Pratima Pande Barua was born to the royal family of Gauripur in Western Assam’s now Dhubri district, adjoining West Bengal and Bangladesh, in 1934. However, she truly found herself at home amid the common people of Gauripur and by the serenity of the Gadadhar riverside. She shunned the comforts of a royal life, and took to understanding and celebrating the lives of people in undivided Goalpara through her songs.

This is also the subject of Sonar Baran Pakhi, the biopic on the legendary singer that has won several accolades, including the Grand Jury Prize for Best Feature at the Indian Film Festival of Los Angeles (IFFLA). The film is currently showing in the theatres in Assam. Directed by Bobby Sarma Baruah and thorough in its background research, it meticulously pieces together snippets from the life and times of Pratima Pande Barua. Pranami Borah’s performance as the young Pratima is really something to watch out for as she essays the singer’s life in its painful beauty and exuberance.

From the poster for Sonar Baran Pakhi

From the poster for Sonar Baran Pakhi

The film is a visual treat with stunning cinematography by Avijit Nandy. It brings to life Goalparia lokageet, and uses the very subject of Barua’s songs as the backdrop to telling her story. The mahouts and their elephants, the tranquil riverside, the green fields and the majestic forest cover of the region are beautifully picturised. The film also uses some of Barua’s original songs, collected from All India Radio.

Bobby Sarma Baruah is careful in the way she weaves together reality and fiction in the biopic. Sonar Baran Pakhi opens with little Pratima being told the folklore of Hastir Kanya, the elephant princess who used to be the neglected first wife of an abusive priest. Her tears turned the river water salty and attracted elephants. The elephant king on learning the painful story of the priest’s first wife, took her to his kingdom, and there, she was anointed and transformed into a beautiful elephant princess.

Pratima Pande Barua’s life is a powerful story of rebellion. She transgresses the norms of early marriage and family to dwell with the commoners and sings their songs. Unusual for girls of her time, young Pratima goes out on elephant-trapping expeditions with her father. This is the reason that while the subjects of her songs vary from one to another, the images of the mahout, moishaal (buffalo keeper) and the gaariyal (bullock-cart puller) remain recurrent in many of her songs.

A keen observer, she learns and sings the songs of the housemaids, the elephant keepers, the boatmen, and the Muslim peasants. Her music ranges across a wide spectrum of themes concerning the female body, desire, sexuality, and spiritual angst to the mundane, everyday lives of people, their traditions, and folklores in undivided Goalpara. There is a beautiful syncretism to her music – inspired by the Vaishnavite and Baul traditions. ‘Shyam’’ (Lord Krishna) and ‘Allah rosul’ (the messenger of Allah) both figure in her songs.

Sonar Baran Pakhi does a wonderful job in how it examines the ‘in-betweenness’ that Barua embodies in her life in terms of linguistic identity, gender roles, sexuality and a choice of career. Even the narrative style, therefore, remains non-linear, operating in leaps and swerves, switching between the different moments in Barua’s childhood, adulthood and old age. There is this stunning scene in the film where young Pratima is seen lying on the riverside — covered in mud, touching herself, and heaving a sigh of relief. It speaks to the celebration of sexual agency both in her life and work, and her desire to be one with the earth.

In one of her songs, ‘Tomra Gaile ki Aashiben (Will You Return?)’, a young woman is seen asking her departing lover, a mahout, if he would return on his expedition the next year. The pain of the lovelorn mahout is likened to a snake bite and the remedy is suggested to be the soothing touch of the young woman’s thick, long hair.

The film also establishes the geo-political tension of Rajbangshi identity. In her initial years, Barua faced rejection at the All India Radio stations in Guwahati and Kolkata as someone who sang songs that were neither Assamese nor Bengali. Bobby Sarma Baruah, in an effort to do justice to Pratima Pande Barua’s life and music, uses Rajbangshi as the primary language of her film. Even today, Rajbangshi or deshi bhasha continues to be neglected by mainstream Assamese society.

For Barua to shun her royal privileges and to accompany a group of male musicians from one place to another was indeed a radical thing to do for her times. But as Sonar Baran Pakhi showcases, she found meaning in the appreciation of common people and dedicated her life to singing for them. One of my favourite songs by Barua is ‘Mori Hey Shyam (My Lord Krishna)’. Sung in a soft, soothing tone, different from her usual husky voice, this song expresses her deep spiritual love for Lord Krishna and her call for peace in a world, deeply troubled by conflicts.

Aano re guwa-paan, kaatore khaai
Haashi mone, shyam, choliya jaai

(Let us take a bite of the betel nut,
and say our goodbyes with a smile)

Sonar Baran Pakhi is a rare gem. It’s deeply invested in the life and politics of someone who truly was the golden feather of Assam. It is important that people watch the film in the theatres and accord it the visibility that it truly deserves.

Rafiul Alom Rahman is a freelance writer based out of Delhi. He can be reached at rafiulalomrahman@gmail.com


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