Aideo Nilambar Handique: The Quintessential Assamese Woman

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By: Dr Ratan Bhattacharjee

Aideu Handique or Aideo Nilambar Handique will be remembered as the pioneering entrepreneur of the Assamese stage like her Bengali counterpart Nati Binodini of Bengal theatre. She took the leading role in pioneering Assamese films. She was the heroine of the first Assamese film directed by Jyotiprasad Agarwalla who took the story from Lakshminath Bezbaruah’s book. The film was released in 1935 and the rest was history. In 1933, Jyotiprasad Agarwalla was planning the first Assamese talkie, Joymati. Assam had no film studio, or even cinemas; local actors knew nothing about performing on film and, on stage, men took female roles. The journey of the real Joymati began in the village Panidihingia or Panidihing at 16 years of age when a cousin of Adieu showed a picture of her to Jyotiprasad and he asked her to be brought to his tea estate and prepared to play the role of Joymoti. Aideo was naturally frightened and when Jyotiprasad requested her father, she was allowed to go to Jyotiprasad’s camp for the training. But the result after her return to her native village Panidihingia was horrible. Ostracism remained Aideu’s lot and she sank into solitude and obscurity. Her family too had to suffer and could not allow their own daughter to enter the house for fear of the society. Those days women going to school, let alone act on screen, was unacceptable. Yet Agarwalla was looking for a woman to play Joymati, the legendary Assamese heroine and martyr. He vainly advertised in newspapers and toured villages in his quest for a girl prepared to break social shackles and appear before a camera. Aideo Handique responded and as punishment she had to spend the rest of her life in a cowshed.

Joymati premiered in 1935, and became a classic, while Aideo’s name went down in the annals of Assamese cinema. But the star never got to see even any clips of Joymati. She became terribly alone in real life. No one wanted to marry her because she had stayed with men in a camp for a month. She had to live the life of a spinster. One did not accept her for marriage also because she had to call her co-actor ‘Bongohor-deo’ meaning husband in the film.

Only in 1985, fifty years after the release of the film in the Golden Jubilee year celebration of Assamese film, the state government sent her a record of the film and granted Rs.1000 as monthly pension.

“Because of Jaya King Gadadhar could climb the throne,/ Assam-women’s strength flashed as a sign./ To support men all women bowed down to  Jaya’s will,/ In saving the nation, like Gada, the men will win.”  The above lines are taken from a poem titled “Jaymati Utsav” composed by Sri Anandaram Hazarika in the June-July, 1928 which gives an extra emphasis on the agency of Jaymati in Gadapani’s ascension to the throne. It is the element of strength of Assamese women (Asom-narir sakti), being represented by Jaymati’s strength, which works behind the change of fate of a nation. So the role was to play a woman of real life who too could show this strength. And all the rest of her life Aideo had to prove this strength in real life like Joymati of the film. The emergence and portrayal of Jaymati Kunwari reflected a nationalistic zeal that tried to pose a cultural resistance to the threats of Western modernity. A group of thinkers at the juncture of the nineteenth and the twentieth century felt the threats of western modernity in its possible damage to the economic, ‘material’ life of the colonised people. The debates, that dominated the socio-political thoughts of eighteenth and nineteenth century Bengal, well touched the intellectual environment of Assam that was chiefly determined by and reflected in the journals like Jonaki, Assam Bandhu, Banhi, Usha, and Ghar Jeuti. Thinkers like Ratneswar Mahanta, Lambodar Borah adopted the ‘internal/external’, ‘home/world’ (ghar/bahir), ‘spiritual/material’ divisions to designate the internal, spiritual, domestic space to women; the theoretical arrangement was such that women, being the karta of the households, would retain the spiritual, traditional, and cultural past of India in order to equip the society with the strength to fight back the Western ‘material’ dominance. The role playing in Joymati was therefore a revolutionary act on the part of Aiedo Handique as it was for Binodini Dasi in Bengal. However there was a difference. Born to prostitution, Binodini   started her career as a courtesan and at age twelve she played her first serious drama role in Calcutta’s National Theatre in 1874, under the mentorship of its founder, Girish Chandra Ghosh. Her career coincided with the growth of the proscenium – inspired form of European theatre among the Bengali theatre going audience. During a career spanning twelve years she enacted over eighty roles, which included those of Pramila, Sita, Draupadi, Radha, Ayesha, Kaikeyi, Motibibi, and Kapalkundala, among others. She violates every canon of the feminine restrictions. Ramakrishna, the great saint of 19th century Bengal, came to see her play in 1884.

It was not so with Aideo and she did not get this environment in Assam. Once she came back to her village, she was not allowed any more to go out. So her life was more tragic and she could not show her talents to flourish any more as she was dumped in a cowshed to live the rest of her infernal life. Jyotiprasad Agarwalla’s inspiration made her come out of her home. The major waves of change blew from Bengal in the first half of the nineteenth century through thinkers like Haliram Dhekiyal Phukan, who, considered to be one of the earliest exponents of Bengal Renaissance in Assam, was a strong advocate of women’s education. Jyotiprasad Agarwalla had a determination to make a woman to play the role of a woman as he himself was interested in promoting women liberation and education in Assam. The taboos were to be demolished. Women should come out of their home.

Jyotiprasad’s mother, Kironmoyee, belonged to the Tiru Kakati family of Baliaghat in the Sibsagar district of Assam. It was also from his mother that he acquired familiarity with Assamese folk songs and tunes. Kironmoyee was a woman of strong will and substance. She was the first president of the Tezpur Mahila Samiti, established in 1919. She was a major influence on Jyotiprasad’s life, supporting him steadfastly in the face of family opposition when he expressed his desire to study abroad. So Joymati was his message to the Assamese society for women upliftment though unfortunately the woman who played the role of heroine in this film had to succumb to the tortures and humiliation all her life only because she responded to the great call of Jyotiprasad Agarwalla. (The writer is an Associate Professor and Head Post Graduate Dept. of English, Dum Dum Motijheel College, Kolkata. He can be reached at Email: [email protected] & ph: 8961688870)

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