The Lathibari Dal of Sontoli, a village in Assam’s Kamrup district, got together for rehearsals on 22nd February this year. They had been invited to perform at Rhythms of the North-East, the annual cultural festival of the Centre for North-East Studies and Policy Research, Jamia Millia Islamia (New Delhi) and the train tickets were booked for the 24th. The last time the seven members had met for a full performance was in June 2010 when I was shooting a short informative video with them. Even then, there was a fear that the team would not last for long. Ahedul Haque, the youngest member was about twenty four and the rest were pushing middle age. Iman Ali, a former lathiyal (lathi-weilder) and the sardar of the team was unwell, and had retired from sports and other recreational activities to dwell upon religion. The only time he assumed sardari was when dignitaries visited Sontoli and wanted to watch a performance.
The Art of Lathibari
Lathibari or Sardarbari is a martial art form prevalent in the char-chaporis of Assam which combines stick (lathi) fighting with acrobatics, music and small skits. A full performance takes anywhere between two to four hours and the size of the team could vary from just four lathiyals to twenty or even forty. Usually performed during auspicious occasions like weddings, births and circumcisions, and the annual Pushura festival, the size of the lathibari arena is very flexible. If the performance is held in a courtyard, the arena could be just a couple of metres in diameter. If held in the fields after a harvest, the arena could be six to seven metres wide. In 2010 when I first worked with the lathiyals of Sontoli, the group had dwindled to seven including the ailing sardar. Iman Ali was the only one who had inherited the tradition. His father (also his guru), uncles and grandfather had all been lathiyals but the younger members were first-generation shagirds. All of them were married, some with grown children and had almost given up on lathibari to concentrate on farming and small businesses. A full performance requires the lathiyals to be in the prime of health. The performance is usually accompanied by the beating of drums and the loud chants of the sardar which puts the players in a state of ecstasy. A weak stomach one night before the event or even a bruised finger can lead to serious injury.
The lathibari sticks are of two standard sizes. The longer lathi used to simulate combat is about five feet long and the smaller one used for twirling is about a metre and a half long. According to Iman Ali, the first shoot in a bamboo grove is the most suitable for lathi fighting. It is allowed to grow for three or four years before being cut and hardened over a fire. With proper maintenance, a lathi can be passed down from father to son. The one Iman Ali uses was first used by his grandfather. Repeated use has turned the surface black and shiny like ebony. In most of the stunts, the lathi is used both to attack and to defend oneself. For the riskier stunts, the lathiyals use a bamboo-and-cane shield.
Artistes, Farmers, Dreamers
February is rice-sowing season in Assam. Even as we left for Guwahati early in the morning on the 24th, Tarek Hussain and Enser Ali were looking for farmhands to tend to the fields in their absence. Shah Jamal Ali who runs a small grocery store was concerned that the potatoes and onions would rot if left unsold. These fears were coupled with the uncertainties of travelling so far from home. None of the team members had been outside Assam except Noushad Ali, Iman’s first shagird who had left Sontoli to work at a mosque in Guwahati twenty years ago.
On 28th February, the Sontoli Lathibari Dal performed at the Safdar Hashmi Ampitheatre, Jamia Millia Islamia. This was the team’s first performance on a concrete stage under lights. A full performance usually begins with a procession followed by salutations. The sardar then calls the daak which is taken up by the players. Once the mood has been created, the players enter the arena with whirling sticks. For the next two hours or more they take turns singing daaks and performing stunts.
The next day we visited the Red Fort. Sitting on the lawn in front of the Diwan-e-aam, Naushad said, ‘You must agree, brother, that there are powers beyond our comprehension. An edifice such as this could not have been built by human hands.’ Lying on his back Iman Ali, who had survived the train ride to Delhi on the Brahmaputra Mail and was apprehensive of the long journey back home said, ‘Yes, there are spirits. Who could have thought that we would ever see Delhi? Let us hope that the spirits are always benevolent.’
This article first appeared in April 2017 issue of Eclectic Northeast