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A heritage club with a difference – a focus on literary activity from the start

ASL Club, Kolkata, has just completed 150 years. But it does not belong to the genre of clubs for which Kolkata is famous, says Ranjita Biswas, as she explains its importance in the development of modern Assamese literature and traces its history

The trend of club culture as get-together places started in colonial times when Calcutta (now Kolkata) was the capital of British Indian empire till 1911 when it shifted to Delhi. The clubs, however, with the names retained still, continue to thrive to this today as popular joints to socialise. ASL Club stands for Assam Socio Literary Club. Its importance in the development of modern Assamese literature is undeniable. As the club celebrated the completion of its century and a half in the city recently with a two day seminar and cultural programme, it is perhaps the right moment to look back on its long journey.

Those were the days in the 19th Century when Assam was yet to get a higher education institute. So, bright students who wanted to go for higher studies flocked to Calcutta. They were fortunate to have arrived at a time when Calcutta was the hub of Bengal Renaissance flourishing as a result of cultural interchange with western civilization albeit through colonial rule. Hence, the students from Assam came in touch with intellectuals, writers and poets in the city and often participated in the addas (basically, gossip) with likeminded people.

This also sowed the seed in their minds to look at their own literature back home and the need to herald a fresh wind of change. The students got together and established the Assamese Students Literary Club in 1872 more in the style of an adda over tea (‘tea club’) to discuss how Assamese literature could also benefit from the new wave as did Bengal.

The discourses continued and with their effort came out the Jonaki magazine (1889-1899). As eminent litterateur Lila Gogoi writes: “Modern Assamese literature is unquestionably a product of Western influences, beginning with the Jonaki magazine, a pioneer. Its impact has filtered through all these times and is still discernible.”

The magazine published creative writing in all genes – short stories, plays, articles, poems, humorous essays – which were something absolutely new for the readers in Assam. Its liberal views also opened up areas which were cocooned in conservatism for lack of exposure to the outside world. It can be mentioned here that Assam was perhaps the last region to come under British rule in 1826 through the Yandabu Treaty after they were invited by a weakened Ahom royalty to drive out the Burmese invaders.

The atrocities the Burmese (known as Maan in local language) committed on the local populace during its three waves of attack were such that the horror stories have almost become folk tales in Assam with the difference that they were real. People ran away to jungles in large numbers and blood flowed in the Brahmaputra Valley. Pundits point out that its effect broke the back of the rich cultural life of the Assamese, including literature, and it took a long time to recover. Now, the young generation residing in Calcutta brought a fresh air of hope and introduced new ideas in the land.

The post-Jonaki period saw many new magazines coming up, such as Awahan, Banhi, Ramdhenu, which witnessed the emergence of new writers. Even today, literary magazines in Assam offer a platform for new writers who are later seen blossoming into reputed novelists, children’s fiction writers and poets.

At the forefront of the Jonaki movement, if it can be called so, were writers like Lakshminath Bezbaroa who married into the Tagore family and is regarded as the father of modern Assamese literature, Anadoram Barua, Chandra Kumar Agarwala, Hem Chandra Goswami, Madhabchandra Bordoloi and Jainur Abedin, followed by Gunabhiram Barua, Padmanath Gohain Barua and many others who figure gloriously in the history of Assamese literature.

In the 1960s, the Assamese Students Literary Club morphed into the present day Assam Socio Literary Club to make it more inclusive, drawing in Assamese people living in the city and also those who come to the city for work. After all, with the establishment and growth of higher education institutes in modern-day Assam, students did not have to rush to Calcutta for higher study. The ASL club has retained its various literary activities and, importantly, made efforts to build a bridge with the local Bengali litterateurs and social activists.

The club also organises festivities around Rongali Bihu, the biggest festival of Assam to usher in the   traditional New Year with  oncoming of spring, the harvest festival  Magh Bihu, as well as celebrating Sankardev tithi (date)commemorating  Guru Sankardev, the socio-cultural and religious reformer who revolutionised Assamese society in the Middle Ages, as also modern time cultural icons like poet-dramatist Bishnu Rabha and Jyotiprasad Agarwala, poet, lyricist and the first Assamese filmmaker.

Dadasaheb Phalke Awardee, the ‘Bard of Brahmaputra’ Bhupen Hazarika, lyricist, composer, filmmaker who made Kolkata his home, was closely associated with the ASL Club and its cultural activities. The club has also been publishing a tri-lingual magazine, Sankranti, which showcases creative works in Assamese, English and Bengali.

On completion of its 150 years, ASL Club is planning different literary and cultural activities to keep alive the hopes and aspirations of a group of students way back in the 19th Century who loved Assam and Assamese literature and opened a path for the next generations to follow.

(The writer is a senor journalist based in Kolkata.)