AIIS Junior Fellow Becomes a Pop Music Star

Rehanna Kheshgi twoRehanna Kheshgi traveled to the northeastern Indian state of Assam on an AIIS fellowship to conduct research on Bihu music and dance, a formerly stigmatized rural genre, which has now gained widespread appeal as the official state New Year’s festival. She spent the 2014 Bihu season in a village in Dhemaji District in northeastern Assam performing with rural Bihu troupes. During her AIIS fellowship in April 2015 she joined Angaraag “Papon” Mahanta and his band East India Company on their annual Assam Bihu tour, performing 20 shows over the span of two months. The contrasting experiences of performing Bihu in ritual contexts with rural troupes in Dhemaji and performing as a celebrity alongside one of Assam’s most famous artists has shaped Ms Kheshgi’s dissertation research, which is titled Sounding Rural Modernities: Gender, Performance and the Body in Assam, India.

By singing and dancing as part of both rural and urban-based groups, Ms Kheshgi experienced firsthand the stresses and joys of celebrity stardom, the flexibility and continued salience of ritual performance, as well as the overwhelming hospitality of living with families in their homes. Through these experiences she learned about how folk performance is incorporated into the broader entertainment industry. She discovered that Bihu music and dance, while grounded in intimate local experiences, provide young people with opportunities to experiment with socially determined boundaries of gender and sexuality, to learn how to navigate risks, and to bridge seemingly incommensurable media worlds.

During the 2015 Bihu tour with Papon and band, she also learned about the stakes of performing traditional music in new styles. Papon’s father, the late Khagen Mahanta, widely recognized as the “King of Bihu,” and mother Archana Mahanta, were two of the first artists to record Bihu with the Gramophone Company in the 1960s. Papon has taken Bihu to another level, performing his iconic “Pak Pak” Bihu medley on MTV India’s Coke Studio. Ms Kheshgi observed how Papon and the East India Company band work together to arrange Bihu songs for mass consumption, infusing folk with eclectic melodies and beats in order to reach a new generation of Assamese youth and making Bihu appealing for an international audience.

A critical part of Ms Kheshgi’s research was conducted in Guwahati with Probin and Roshmirekha Saikia, folklore researcher-performers who direct a folk music and dance school called Panchasur (“Five Notes” or “Pentatonic”). Ms Kheshgi learned alongside Panchasur students and performed in a concert at Rabindra Bhavan in Guwahati which was sponsored by the Guwahati Regional Office of Indian Council for Cultural Relations (ICCR), Ministry of External Affairs, Government of India. She also performed Bihu songs, Hindu devotional songs and other Assamese folk songs with the Saikias on local Assamese television news talk shows. Not only have the Saikias provided crucial insights into historical and contemporary Bihu performance practice – they have also opened their home countless times and treated Ms Kheshgi like a member of their family.

Another component of Ms Kheshgi’s research focuses on the recent proliferation of Bihu reality television competition shows based out of Guwahati. These shows incorporate elements from the outdoor stage competitions that pop up every spring across Assam, as well as reality television style candid interview scenes and on-site visits to the village homes of finalists. At the culmination of each competition, one young woman is crowned Bihu queen and presented with a brand new car or similar reward. These competitions often serve to launch celebrity careers for young performers who go on to host future seasons of the shows, act in Assamese serials and music videos, and become brand ambassadors for Assamese culture. In 2015, Ms Kheshgi got a close look at how these shows operate behind the scenes when she served as a guest judge on the show Bihu Rani produced by the news channel DY365 and the show Bor Bihuwoti produced by NewsLive. She was also interviewed by the local Assamese newspaper Asomiya Pratidin about her research; people responded by contacting her with information that helped further her research.

During Ms Kheshgi’s AIIS fellowship period, she also began following research leads on a newly codified music and dance tradition associated with the Bodo tribal community of Assam. She originally intended to incorporate this research into her dissertation, since some Bodo performance genres are referred to by non-Bodos as “Bodo Bihu.” But as she began working with choreographer Dilip Narzary in Kokrajhar and villages in Udalguri in the western region of Assam, she realized this subject deserves separate treatment. She performed the Bodo ritual dance “Kherai” at a large Bodo gathering celebrating the 25th anniversary of a Bodo Thansali (a temple associated with the indigenous religion Bathou). She intends to pursue research on Bodo music and dance as a second book project.

As a result of the massive publicity Ms. Kheshgi received during her stint as a celebrity in Assam, she caught the attention of the Assam Association of North America and accepted their invitation to sing Bihu songs alongside Assamese pop stars Simanta Shekar and Priyanka Bharali at the annual AANA convention in Las Vegas in July 2015. This aspect of Ms. Kheshgi’s research with Assamese diaspora communities has grown since her first experiences in the UK in 2007, when she wrote a Master’s thesis at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, on discourses of authenticity surrounding Bihu among UK-based Assamese families and young professionals.

Attaining proficiency in the Assamese language was critical to her preparation for conducting her research project. AIIS created an Assamese program for Ms Kheshgi while she was based in Kolkata; she has expressed her indebtedness to Navamalati Neog Chakravarty for her patient and creative instruction. Ms Kheshgi noted that projects like hers, that rely on ethnographic fieldwork as a central research methodology, require extended periods of time living and traveling in India, and that the support provided by AIIS was critical to her success. She further noted that, in addition to financial support, AIIS facilitated important relationships with local institutions like Dibrugarh University, Ms Kheshgi’s host institution in Assam. She is very grateful to the Assamese Department at Dibrugarh University for their hospitality and assistance. Interactions with faculty and students during her final research presentation in Dibrugarh inspired her to write a paper entitled “Conflict in the Field: Navigating Collaboration across Disciplinary and Other Boundaries,” which she presented at the Seventh International Doctoral Workshop in Ethnomusicology sponsored by the Center for World Music at the University of Hildesheim and the Hanover University of Music, Drama and Media, in Hildesheim Germany in June 2015.

Rehanna Kheshgi is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Music at the University of Chicago. She carried out her AIIS junior fellowship in India in 2014-2015

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