It was 1979 and Assam was on the verge of a movement that would change the course of its contemporary history. In this season of protest, five teenage girls met in a room in Nagaon, with their mandolin, guitar and a pair of bongos. They locked the doors, locked the windows and pulled the blinds to keep the music they were making a secret from the outside world.
A few months after their first training session, the girls – all ages 15 to 16 – found themselves on stage in front of a loud crowd during a pandal Puja. “The girls are playing,” said an incredulous audience member. In the cacophony that followed, the band members were sure no one heard their music. But it gave them enough confidence to give themselves an identity and a name: On Samalaya, or a medley of melodies.
Four decades later – Anjali Mahanta, the one who brought them together – laughs at the memory. “We were young, rebellious and wanted to do something different, something that no one else was doing,” she says.
And they did. Today, Mahanta, her sister Arati and their three friends, Kabita Nath, Sewali Lekharu and Nazma Ahmed, are the subject of Break the silence, a 30-minute documentary about Assam’s first all-female modern music group.
A musical evening
Like many small town stories, the one in Sur Samalaya would not have been told – without the invitation that Parthajit Baruah, a filmmaker from Nagaon, received in 2019. “It was for a musical evening in the auditorium. local in town, “he said,” I went without knowing what to expect, but what I saw amazed me. “
On stage, a group of five women in their fifties, dressed in Mekhela sadors, each holding a different instrument: a guitar, a mandolin, a tabla and a congo. The sight wasn’t everything, Baruah remembered marveling at the energy. “Each member had a signature move during the introduction – not a bow or namaskar, but a drum roll or guitar strum, with a flourish,” he recalls.
The following week, Baruah approached Mahanta. “I dug a bit and realized that this may be the first organized all-female group in Assam,” he says. “While it is true that women were part of orchestras in the 1940s and 1950s, none was an organized effort. “
Puzzled, he asked for time with the other members of the group. “The more I learned about them, the more I wanted to make a film. I realized it wasn’t just a story about the music, or the fact that they could’ve been the first band, it was the story of five young girls fighting to do something they wanted. He said.
The film, produced by Sunlit Studio, features a series of interviews in Assamese, with the women talking about the challenges of forming a group in the 1980s, as well as a glimpse into their daily domestic life today. You see Ahmed, now 56 years old and living in Guwahati, practicing the drums after a day of work and talking about the issues she faced from Orthodox members of her community when she joined the group. “But I didn’t care,” says Ahmed, who now works at the Assam Secretariat, “I put on my elephant legs, went on stage and sang. Dum maaro dum – the crowd would go mad. This made up for all the negative comments I received. Then there is Nath, who proclaims that she is “married to the guitar” and lives in a house adorned with Beatles posters.
“I made it a point to integrate their domestic life – none of them came out of the social system, they have families, jobs, lives and yet managed to keep their passion”, explains Baruah, graduated from Indian Film and Television Institute, Pune.
In the early 1980s, Sur Samalaya became a frontrunner amid the Assam Agitation, the anti-“foreign” mass movement that crippled the state for six years. “People heard that there was a ‘girl group’ from Nagaon, and they invited us to perform at protest meetings, where we sang the songs of Bhupen Hazarika,” says Ahmed. Mahanta adds: “It was our way of contributing to the movement of our time.
While the group performed regularly for a decade, the early 1990s saw the members go their separate ways. “Some of us got married, some moved, some got jobs,” Mahanta says, “And that was the end of our group.”
But, in 2010, she heard about Hurricane Gals, an all-female rock band from Assam. “It made me think of our own group, and on a sudden burst of inspiration, I found my band mates with whom I had lost contact,” she says. Would they like to regroup again?
“Of course we did,” says Lekharu, the band’s guitarist, who runs a business in Guwahati. “Just because I was married and a mother of two, that wasn’t going to stop me.” Ahmed also remembers almost screaming with joy when she got the call from Mahanta. “I told him – Anjali, what a blessing this phone call is. When can we start practicing?
For the past decade, women have commuted between Nagaon and Guwahati for workouts on weekends and performed locally at events, where only the neighborhood would show up. “This is where Partha da saw us – and now there’s actually a movie about us. Who would have thought? ”Asks Ahmed.