in: Imaginations, Narratives and Mediated Performances of Solidarity and Community. Ed. by Nadja-Christina Schneider and Maitrayee Chaudhuri (2021)
On 9th and 10th February 2019, the “North East India Festival” (NEF) was held in Bangkok, which marked the first time this venue was held outside of India. The Festival was mainly organized by the Indian non-profit socio-cultural trust Trend MMS under its Assamese organizer-in-chief Shyamkanu Mahanta. The trust is the sociocultural organizational organ of MMS Advisory Pvt Ltd, a Project Development & Management company, focusing on policy advicing and infrastructure projects in Northeast India. The company is directed by Shyamkanu Mahanta as well and by his wife Anita Deka Mahanta. The former is an activist and entrepreneur as well as the public face of the trust, disseminating viewpoints in Festivals, Assamese TV-shows or newspapers. The Festival took place six times in Delhi before moving to Bangkok. 2019’s two-day North East India Festival temporarily brought about 500 actors and staff via chartered flights from Northeast India to Bangkok. The event was conducted on the grounds of Thailand’s largest mall Central World and could expect attendance from among the general Thai public, the approximately 200,000 Indians in Thailand and from the couple of hundred Northeast Indians; however, a maximum of 1000 people was assumed to take part at a time. To arrange this function, Trend MMS cooperated mainly with the Ministry of Development of North Eastern Region (MDoner) and the Indian Embassy in Bangkok to draw on funding and contacts. The programme consisted of contemporary music-performances by bands from the eight Northeast Indian states, dance performances like Naga warrior dances, modelling shows with adapted tribal and Assamese attires, exhibition of crafts and cuisine; all in the attempt to “showcase and create awareness about India’s North East, its people and resources […] [and] to create a platform for North Eastern talents” ("About Us: About North East Festival and Organizers"). The Festival was accompanied by opportunities to discuss future academic, economic and touristic entanglements to increase people-to-people-connections between Northeast India and Thailand. In this vein, this event posed a potentially emancipatory opportunity to perform and represent a contemporary Northeast Indian identity. In his Returns: Becoming Indigenous in the Twenty-First Century, James Clifford highlights the role performances and heritage projects play in providing confidence for indigenous and marginalized people as their marginalized culture becomes visible: “[F]or indigenous people, long marginalized or made to disappear, physically and ideologically, to say ‘We exist’ in performances and publications is a powerful political act.” (Clifford 2013, 224, esp. 46f.)1 Performance is here both a tool as well as analytical vocabulary.
The following essay will inquire the ways the North East India Festival provided opportunities to strategically perform a contemporary understanding of ‘being Northeast Indian’. Drawing on visual footage (as I was not myself present during the event) and impressions from interviews, I will argue that this performance instilled a two-fold sense of solidarity among Northeast Indians through representation of their home states and building upon Northeast Indian heritages. The idea of solidarity can in a first sense - as Ananya Bordoloi describes it in her article as well - be understood as a political relation in the form of a strategic means to an end between actors unrelated to one another before (Bordoloi 2021). Such a political relation is the alliance between the Trend MMS and governmental institutions who collaborate for the realization of a shared goal, here, the improvement of India’s relations with Southeast Asia for the purpose of creating new markets and political entanglements (cf. Featherstone 2012). This form of relation also brings Trend MMS and the Northeastern community in Bangkok together although no relation existed between them before (Featherstone 2012, 29). In a second sense I treat solidarity as an affective motivational force that, over the long run, brings actors like the Northeast Indian community in Thailand and Trend MMS together to strive for improvements in their visibility and self-representation. After all, their shared experiences of marginalization and discrmination create a fellow feeling between two actors previously unknown and unalike towards one another (cf. Ahmed 2014, 72).
I am throughout the article not suggesting that the Festival showcases the Northeastern culture, that what is showcased would be ‘authentic’ or that it is representative of the Northeastern states. Instead, the performed is a construct of various local expressions that are made to stand representative for the region. This construct fixes a certain image of the region and its people in the aspiration that they are more earnestly included into what is called the national culture of India. Thus, I perceive the mediatized performances as vessels through which Trend MMS attempts to disseminate a distinct version of both Northeastern culture and of being Northeast Indian. The act of performance vests it with meaning and therefore carries respect and importance.
The following article explores a topic in conjunction with my Master-thesis, which is still in writing. The thesis is largely based on interviews with members of the Northeast Indian community in Thailand and specifically in Bangkok conducted from spring 2020 till spring 2021. These interviews focus on paths that led them to Bangkok, changing feelings of homeliness and belonging and community-building. We got in touch with one another during the first lockdown in Thailand from March 2020 onwards. Through a snowball system—conversation partners referring me for other interviews to other friends—I got to talk and learn from a sizeable number of persons from the Northeastern states living in Thailand, largely in Bangkok. As festivities and their meaning for the Northeastern community became a topic I was interested in, the Festival also became a marginal topic during interviews. For some remarks in this article, I draw on impressions from these interviews. On a reflexive note, I would like to add that interviews with the Festival’s organizers could not be facilitated, thus a dialogue on their motivations was not possible. My role in regard to 2019’s Festival is here that of an external observer relying mainly on visual footage on YouTube. Thus, my observations are to be treated with caution as they lack own experiences from participation in the Festival.
Initially, when I read of the Festival in January 2020, my reaction was that the promotion of Northeast India in form of a cultural festival comes as a double-edged sword: While many ‘traditional’ cultural practices are on the one hand vested with pride for Northeast Indians, they are on the other also the basis for stereotyping some communities in Northeast India because these are discursively associated with ‘backwardness’ in form of nudity, rurality, or tribalism (Echtner and Prasad 2003, 660-82).2 Thus, I initially thought the Festival’s choice of performances relied on self-essentialism to create awareness: One needs to cater to expectations of spectators by presenting stereotyped ‘traditional’ cultural practices (cf. Comaroff and Comaroff 2009).3 Emotionally, I felt at first an anxiety over the display of such a large-scale cultural Festival; a reaction that later also motivated me to write this article in order to propose a preliminary and fragmentary contextual embedment. Through talks and observations I learned to situate the Festival within a different context. While Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak had originally meant to ask whether the subalterns are heard (Spivak 1988, 271-318), I would propose to reframe the question as which means are required so that, here, the aspirations (e.g. visibility, self-representation, an increasing economy) of some Northeasteners and Trend MMS can be heard by potential investors, governments and individuals seeking representation. I suggest that the Festival entails different outcomes to different actors with differing aspirations: The Assamese entrepreneurs allow the Indian state to increase its presence in Thailand through cultural means and in turn gain facilities and means to represent the Northeast on their own as well as to path potential business opportunities. During Trend MMS’ Festival, cherished cultural practices from each Northeastern state are displayed while similarities between their region and Thailand are highlighted. This event thereby casts Northeast India as a region possessing agency for self-representation and being transregionally linked with Southeast Asia in cultural hybridity. Heritage then serves as a bridge to open up new avenues for economical and social exchange. For the observing Northeast Indians, the showcasing of Northeast Indian cultural practices in their country of residence instilled a sense of pride.
I would like to sketch that the people and culture in the Northeastern states had for the longest time been perceived as an ethno-linguistic ‘other’ within India (McDuie-Ra 2015, 5-9). A lack of teaching on the Northeast Indian state in the education system and a perceived difference in cultural practices caused that they were looked at with a sense of strangeness, lack of knowledge or racism by their fellow Indians; an experience often encountered when Northeast Indians moved to metropolitan cities of so-called ‘mainland India’ for work or studies. This lack of acceptance made many think whether they were only second-class citizens (cf. Kikon and Karlsson 2019, 4f.). In addition, the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (AFSPA), 1958, originally installed to subdue paramilitary forces fighting for separation of individual Northeastern states, created an environment where many Northeast Indians feared violent or arbitrary measures by the Indian military. The AFSPA is currently active in four of the states and its repeated prolonging has caused the concern that the military’s extrajudicial capactities might never end in their region. This has instilled a certain antagonism or distrust towards the national government in many Northeast Indians even though by now gladly many see themselves as Indian. Regarding the representation of Northeast Indians, cultural practice from Northeast India is already present in large-scale events. For example, tableaux represent each Northeast Indian state among other states at the annual Indian Republic Day Parades, in a formal sense arguably the grandest venue to be visibly part of. This can be read as an attempt to include the young Northeastern states into what is presented as India’s national, yet diverse culture. However, what is now desired by the organizers at Trend MMS is the representation in a venue largely organized by them as a Northeastern organization where only culture from Northeast India is displayed.
As with any performance, one needs to be mindful of the diverse audiences addressed by them; in this case, a Northeast Indian community in Thailand, the general Indian community in Thailand, as well as the Thai public. I will touch upon different ways all these audiences were addressed because to each the performances would carry different meanings. An inclusion of the individual state cultures is also not the scope of this Festival. It instead attempts to mediate between the inclusion of ‘traditional’ and ‘modern’ cultural output from each individual state. This seems due as cultural practices within the Northeastern region have been transformed by an influx of influences from within India as well as outside of the country. The need to engage these changes and position themselves in light of transformation in order to stay active actors within transformational processes is theoretically described by James Clifford:
Non-western cultural and artistic works are implicated by an interconnected world cultural system without necessarily being swamped by it. Local structures produce histories rather than simply yielding to History. (Clifford 1987, 126)
I do not share the simple binary opposition of non-Western and Western that Clifford employed in this early work as it does not seem appropriate, neither in this context nor generally, and carries developmentalist tones. Nonetheless, the second half of his argument concerning agents in history retains appeal if set in the context of Northeast India as a marginalized region on the periphery of the centre’s viewpoint, that is, Delhi. Similarly, to stay active agents in the history of changing identifications, the organizers of the Festival attempt to provide a grand stage for cultural practices from Northeast India in order to introduce the idea of a larger Northeastern culture that exists in togetherness and where members from each state collaborate. Thereby, a contribution to the ongoing desire of generating awareness for narratives and histories from the Northeast is made; here, not histories specific to each state, but to advance the idea of a Northeast presenting itself as a region (cf. McDuie-Ra 2015, 92-5). Trend MMS does so with their programme by constructing and presenting a composite made of distinctive cultural practices from each state. To fulfill that aim the organizers seek collaborations between all eight states in order to collectively achieve the greater aim of increased visibility for Northeast Indians. This is likely deemed more effective as if each small state would fend for visibility on its own. This on the hand is a strategical act to create awareness of the region and increase knowledge of the region, which might benefit all Northeast Indians if it reduces marginalization and initiates new jobs in their region. On the other hand, this means that entrepreneurs with market-interests and a likely bias towards Assam hegemonically determine what is and what is not included in this composite Northeast culture. Here, the fact that, for example, no performances from Assam’s large Bangladeshi community or Tripura’s Bengali community, both frequently Muslim, were shown despite their decades-long residence in the region is quite telling. This seems to indicate that only such cultural practices are deemed appropriate for presentation that are imagined to ‘truly belong’ to Northeast India and that are imagined to be inherited by the region throughout the ages. Seemingly, whatever cultural practices imagined as foreign—be it because linked to migration or to a faith other than Hinduism or Christianity—was not included into the idea of an encompassing Northeastern culture.
Analyses of the Northeastern states have often assessed that the Northeast Indian states are distant from the nation’s capital (Bhaumik 2009; NorthEast Festival d).4 By looking from a perspective of the nation’s centre, the periphery was discursively seen as a place of trouble where governance was potentially difficult to introduce. Its location was not perceived as full of chances, but of uncertainties. The NEF attempts to turn that idea around and emphasize strategic potential deriving from Northeast’s proximity to Southeast Asia. “Connecting India’s North East with South East Asia” was the Festival’s official slogan. Thereby, the region was branded as a site of prosperous options instead of dead ends (cf. Salazar and Graburn 2016, 1-28). Building connectivities—an actively shaped process through which new connections are brought into existence—became the aim for the events. As the creation of ties with Southeast Asia is the long-term aim, Thailand was deemed a suitable first country for hosting this event abroad. As far as I was able to inquire, this was due to the overall comparatively low costs, the geographic proximity between Bangkok and Northeast, as well as a supportive response from the Indian Embassy in Thailand. But certainly, another factor is the fact that the Festival would underline what is infrastructurally already present. The trinational highway, passing India-Myanmar-Thailand, infrastructurally already stands for India’s aim for greater presence in Southeast Asia. The latter had offered the festival’s organizers to cover costs for the inaugural dinner and to invite and take care of dignitaries. Suitably, the advertisement posters visually complimented the theme of connectivities by highlighting various connections already in existence between the NER and Thailand (Fig. 1). The spectator finds an icon symbolizing the trinational highway between India’s Moreh and Thailand’s Mae Sot, depictions of demons and Gods like Ravan, Brahma, Shiva suggesting a shared world of belief and literatures between the two places. These images supposedly visualize to the reader and potential investor how similar Thailand and the Northeastern region already are, thus reducing the risk of investments due to foreignness. Highlighting these present and historical connections, people from the Northeast Indian states are invited to understand themselves not as remote, but as actors situated on a strategic node for the Indian state. Critically, this is an invitation to Northeast Indians to feel greater confidence for the importance of their region but within the framework of the nation state.
This rhetorical stress on the ‘connectivities’ mirrors positions expressed by high-ranking Indian politicians and bureaucrats. Within these, the Northeast was from a location of problems rendered into the key-factor in advancing India’s geostrategic capabilities. India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi (BJP) has since 2014 described Northeast India as the “gateway to Southeast Asia” ("North East Has Potential to Initiate Second Green Revolution") ("Northeast India Will Be a Gateway to Southeast Asia") and urged a focus on Northeast India for the advancement of the Act East Policy (cf. Singh 2019).5 Consequently, Suchitra Durai, Ambassador of India to Thailand framed the importance of Thailand for India’s foreign affairs policy in her introductory speech to the Festival as follows:
Thailand is a valued partner for India. Our two countries enjoy excellent relations in all areas, be it political, defence, security, business and commerce as well as people-to-people-contacts. […] This relationship is indeed civilizational and based on very strong cultural and religious links. […] India places Thailand at the core of its Act East Policy. Commerce, culture and connectivity are the three priority areas of cooperation between India and Thailand. (NorthEast Festival c) (for political joining of hands see Fig. 2)
Even though there were two Festivals of India held in Bangkok in 1996 and 2017 (see below), no larger event organized by actors from the Northeast themselves had previously taken place in Thailand. Following an invitation by the Thai Embassy in India, the NEF took upon it to provide a venue for ‘enacting’ the Act East Policy. In order to gain governmental support for the venue, the Festival would need to cater to these Indian long-term political aims and provide spaces where these could be advanced. They ‘played themselves’ (Clifford 2013, 47f.), delivered a programme likely suiting expectations of financiaries as it focused on expressing similarities between ‘the Northeastern’ and ‘Thai’ culture. The Festival organizers thus fleshed a strategic partnership with governmental institutions and drew upon its resources in order to advance the cause of the Northeast, even though the government had been responsible for the lack of development within the region. Were Northeast Indians and their cultures formally on the margins of the Indian state, they are now represented as key actors in facilitating and maintaining connectivities. Srirupa Roy has argued that the Indian nation historically was needy of engaged citizens and required active assistance of its new citizens to grow in strength, stability and influence (Roy 2007, 110f.). Advancing this thought, organizers of the Festival frame Northeast Indians as actors through whose physical presence in Thailand parts of their nation’s policy are actually first implemented (e.g. in people-to-people contacts) and advancement enabled. Northeasteners in Thailand thereby are framed as a sort of “cultural ambassador”, establishing contacts and allowing familiarization. Trend MMS therefore call upon each individual to provide this assistance as citizens by contributing to their state’s and country’s progress. Thus, an aspect the performance of contemporary Northeast Indian identity insinuates is the importance of contributions to the growth of Indian economy and prosperity. Ideally—or so Shyamkanu Mahanta claims—Northeast Indians performing abroad and the ones living abroad could contribute to a stronger economy in their home states and thus become value-generating citizens to their country (NorthEast Festival a). Such appeals carry a double-edged connotation. On the one hand, they might be read in an empowering way as some people I talked to felt themselves addressed as active agents who could themselves ‘promote’ their region. However, on the other, it calls upon citizens to equal out the lack of development and funding that the Northeastern states have received from the Central Government previously. Thereby, responsibility for improvement within their region of origin is placed on their shoulders. A view carrying neoliberal undertones as individual action is framed as a substitute for state investment. By placing the burden of improvement elsewhere, the director Mahanta also evades mentioning or critizing the Indian Government for any shortcomings in public spending into the region. Despite this criticism, this appeal towards increasing proactive initiatives carries a lot of weight. Being called up to form own initiatives or projects makes people aware how they could promote Northeastern cultural heritage and how thereby they could contribute to upleveling the status of Northeast Indians in Thailand—both among a Thai public and within the larger Indian community as the Indian ‘diaspora’ would appreciate their contributions. Since the Festival, Northeast Indians had performed at PM Modi’s visit to Bangkok in November 2019, in the Republic Day celebrations during 2020 and would have received a larger organizational part for the Festival in 2020 (had it taken place). All these contributions required artistic efforts and training by some people in Thailand’s Northeastern community and were based on their initiative to both showcase heritage and to create awareness for them.
North East Festival is represented as an event one must witness. The venue’s official promotional film appellatively calls on spectators to “come and be a part of this extravaganza” (NorthEast Festival e), a statement later echoed by the Ambassador. This turns the presentation of heritage as part of a cultural festival into a consumable commodity. The consumption of such a cultural festival brings with it various connotations. Firstly, the display of cultural practice is bound to clearly demarcated spaces during specific times of festivals. Secondly, it requires potential spectators to make time for attendance and participation as well as be willing to spend money for travel. Such a consumption might then only be affordable or feasible for those whose social status and obligations leave ample enough time for the attendance in cultural festivities. It remains yet unclear over the long run who can attend such festivities and thereby be involved in newly evolving cultural developments, and who, potentially lower-classes, will be excluded. And thirdly, it situates the display of a Northeastern culture within a distinctive logic: Certain parts of a larger cultural construct—here, the national culture of India—are granted room for expression, but then their form of performance must follow previously established norms and follow distinctive purposes. This is what I would like to describe as a discursive tradition within the form of performances.
India has its own chequered history of constructing a ‘national’ culture based upon cultural practice prevalent within its different states. Under the broad label “Unity in Diversity” varying efforts were over the course of time undertaken to showcase some of these. One measure, tied to India’s Foreign Policy, are the “Festivals of India Abroad”, first established on initiative by Indira Gandhi in 1982. After an intercession from 2001 to 2013, they were continued in 2013 and enforced from 2014 onwards as suggested by then Minister of Culture Shripad Naik (BJP). The first such festival representing all of India to Southeast Asia was held in Bangkok as well in 1996 (Soikham 2017, 193). The aims of these Festivals rested in making lasting impacts on the people and governments in the host countries as well as on Indian communities abroad (Isar 2017, 711-13; Shukla 1997, 296-315). More explicitly, their purpose has been to “to connect and enhance the perception of India in the minds of the locals.” ("Interactive Session") To achieve that aim the Ministry of Culture granted empanelment to a growing number of artists who are experts in e.g. regional or ‘classical’ dances and music deemed as Indian patrimony. Artisanal and artistic skill had a special place here because they were regarded as skills inherited from the past requiring conservation so that future generations could take delight in their preservations as well as learn about their past (cf. Guha 1999, 264-6, 284-7). Exported abroad, these performances should then showcase a constructed and generalized version of India for consumption abroad. Hereby people should get interested in India, a version of India served to members of the Indian diaspora as well as an attempt to control the image prevalent in each country concerning India. Therefore, the Festivals of India Abroad fall under what Tim Winter recently described as “geocultural power” (Winter 2020, 18), that is, ways in which countries use their influence abroad to assemble narratives preferable to them. The Northeastern states were included in these festivals but artistic presentations from there accredited only a marginal role ("List of Artists/Groups Empanelled").6 This added another fragment of diversity to the festivals whereby the idea that India’s unity derives from its diversity was sustained. However, space for display was at these governmental venues granted and financed because it serves to sustain India’s (inter-)national branding in unity despite or because of its diversity. The NEF was organized by a non-governmental non-profit organization, therefore it would be inaccurate to treat it as directly linked to the Festivals of India Abroad. Yet, in the case of Thailand and Southeast Asia, the NEF’s focus on the Northeastern region meant explicitly highlighting similarities with Southeast Asia; a move that was likely welcomed by the governmental institutions funding the event. Such an integration comes along with exclusions because only few cultural practices from the Northeastern region were included into that definition of culture worth presenting abroad.
The NEF creatively uses the special place the showcasing of artistic and artisanal practices holds in India’s repetoire of foreign policy to push for their own stage. Nevertheless, the North East India Festival did not set out to display a complete array of artistic and artisanal expressions currently prevalent in the Northeast Indian states. Instead, an act of selection was required by the organizational body in order to decide what should be presented. That is, decide what is either deemed worthy of presentation or deemed to suit the expectations of possible spectators. In preparation of the Festival, Trend MMS who held established relations with artists from the region, selected performers and aspects of the programme. While I do not exactly know based on what criteria this decision was made, one criterion was to include at least one performer or group from each of the eight Northeastern states. Despite the difficulties of organizing a festival together with numerous governmental institutions, I would like to point to the solidary aspect in granting room for visibility of the Northeast. Alain Touraine used the phrase “living together” as a reminder that solidary co-existence of different communities requires support for the expression of multiple values and projects (Touraine 2000, 174-7). Solidarity as a political relation with governmental institutions was forged to gain a stage for self-representation and awareness and in turn the opening of new geocultural and economic ties with Thailand. Thereby, of course, it also remains unclear how much the company behind Trend MMS profits from potential new businesses and how much of it can really be understood as solidarity or altruism. Either way, the local North East Indian Association (NEIA) in Bangkok was informed about plans for the Festival in 2018, but only given a clear task in January 2019 by organizing some accomodation and requesting coverage from media in Thailand ("Incredible Northeast India"; "First-ever ‘North East India Festival’ in Thailand"). Thereby, the first Festival carries the characteristic of being externally organized from India itself without much knowledge on the situation in Thailand.
Promoting Northeast Indian self-representation free of stereotypes of ‘exoticism’ while working within a framework of the government is a difficult task. After all, the way Northeast India had been represented could be reproduced by the NEF, consciously or unconsciously, because the way Northeast India has been gazed at could be internalized. In the case of the NEF, reversion of this gaze is attempted by showcasing specific cultural similarities between Northeastern states and Thailand as well as by proud presentation of ‘traditional’ culture. I would suggest perceiving the Festival as a site of ‘palimpsestic temporalities’ (Juneja 2018, 131-6). Hereby I mean that the Festival is a venue that mediates changes, incorporates and updates cultural practices. Their previous context is not forgotten or overwritten but infused with a new context of performance. One such example is the Sumi Naga folk dance (Aphilo Kuwa) presented there. While the dance was in the past associated with preparations for wars and headhunting, it contemporarily accompanies village festivities as a sign for unity and remembrance of ancestors (Fig. 3). It is transferred to the context in Bangkok to present a fragment of so-presented ‘authentic’ ‘traditional’ culture inherited from the past (NorthEast Festival b).7 Its contemporary presentation is part of a performance of a Northeast Indian identity that is infused by the perseverance of practices inherited from the past. This performance insinuates that Northeast India still cherishes ‘traditional’ culture while having arrived in ‘modern’ times. This performance of cultural hybridity could be interpreted as a way Festival organizers display how the region is engaging and embracing its diversity. Within the spectator, such performance likely either triggers memories from one’s home or in a wider Indian audience triggers delight over the conservation of such ‘heritage’. This dance from Nagaland directly follows a performance of Thai khon8. Khon, recently declared an Intangible Heritage by UNESCO, is regarded as a moral tale on the way good people and rulers ought to behave and finds high popularity in contemporary theatres or TV-shows. The order of performances here suggests a parallelity in importance and acclaim of both. By dis-locating practices from the Northeast and promoting transregional travel, the similarities between the region and Thailand become apparent. Khon and later performances so varied as a harvest dance by the Tiwa, Bagurumba from Bodoland, or Dhol Cholom from Manipur are textually conjoined under the label of folk dances, again suggesting similarity. Here, the “visual grammar” (von Stockhausen 2021, 18) through which the Northeastern culture is usually represented as remote and exotic, is turned on its head because it is turned into a culture of transregional connectivities. Thereby, a unique Northeast Indian identity is carved out that is at the same time based on cultural hybridity from past and present as well as based on transregional similarities and entanglements. As outlined above, this strategic performance of identity does at the same time not criticize the Indian state, but is favorable to its long-term political aims in Southeast Asia.
This throws up a subsequent thought. To be funded, the performance of culture seemingly needs to conform to governmental financiaries’ long-term goals, in this case likely intersecting with those of Trend MMS. Thus, the degree to which heritage is rendered attractive and beneficial for the pursuit of governmental foreign policies will likely assume importance. It then remains to be seen whether in the future only those who are deemed to be helpful to the realization of India’s policies will be supported. This might stimulate a hegemony wherein actors in cultural performance have to position themselves within the framework of ‘national culture’ as imagined by BJP-ministries. As outlined above, influences imagined as ‘external’ to Northeast India were already not put on display. It remains unclear what else might be seen as foreign under a growing BJP-hegemony and thereby potentially excluded from support; this thought encompasses the communities from Northeast India in Thailand but also from other Indian states.
This Festival presents visitors with a conjoinment of performances with long-dating precedence—e.g. Bihu dances or Naga harvest songs—as well as of the recently popular Rock bands or modelling shows (Fig. 4). This can be interpreted as a conjoinment of venerated practices from across different temporalities that intersect in the contemporaneity. By not only showcasing performances linked to tribal Northeast India, the programme here then breaks with the “visual grammar” (von Stockhausen 2021, 18) through which the region is otherwise frequently represented but stresses artistic popular and new development emerging from the region. This indicates to spectators both the perseverance as well as the ability to change and integrate different influences of culture within the Northeastern states. Thus, culture from the Northeastern states is performed not as static but as evolving. People from the Northeast community in Bangkok to whom I talked felt a sense of pride over this display. That is because this mixture of favored aspects from past and present would now make their home states noticeable abroad. To them, this displayed that it is not necessary to compromise on the region’s past in order to be noticed. The Festival here now performs a way of being Northeast Indian where one contributes both to the Indian nation as well as simultaneously does not get rid of one’s cultural practice. This echoes sentiments from within the Northeast Indian community in Bangkok where a promotion of their region is desired while still proudly embracing one’s background from the Northeastern states. Consequently, many voices within the Northeast Indian community in Thailand called for a repetition, which would have been also desired by Trend MMS. The second edition in Bangkok had been planned already for the 21st to 23rd February 2020, but had to be cancelled shortly before due to the spread of Covid-19 in Bangkok.
An aim and effect of the Festival had been to instil a sense of solidarity among spectators. One such way is by reaching out and creating “affective publics”(Papacharissi 2015, 8) among the physically-present crowds and audiences reached via digital media. For many Northeast Indians residing in Thailand, the event was the first time cultural practices from their homes were presented to a general Thai public. Therefore, many were delighted and proud about the awareness generated for Northeast India. They, for example, shared the invitation to the Festival via Facebook, Instagram or various messengers, personally invited Thai and Northeast friends to accompany them to the event. This was of tremendous importance to them as they could firstly finally show them where they are from, what dances, music, or cuisine they grew up with and thereby provide an answer to the general lack of knowledge on the Northeastern region. Joined by pride and delightedness, they encouraged each other to attend and spread word of the event (cf. Fig. 5). At the event then, many attended wearing attires linked to their state or tribe, like Assamese mekhela sador or Naga shawls. Such large events have the capacity to bring together Northeast Indians living in Thailand as a community that did not get to assemble previously frequently. While many of them perceive themselves as Indian, they are also conjoined in the intention of creating greater awareness of their region or, on the flip side, conjoined in criticism of the lack of awareness existing on their region within India. Thinking with the idea of solidarity, festivals such as these can utilize this antagonism and discontent to mobilize greater solidarity within a pan-state Northeast community. Even more, showcasing culture from all the Northeastern states together contributes to the identification with all of the region, not just one community or state, and allows to join hands.
Distinctively, the Festival instilled a sense of confidence among Northeast Indian spectators in numerous ways. In a first sense, Northeast Indians could observe how business-ventures between Thailand and Northeast could potentially contribute to reduce the economic deprivation in their Indian home states as well as how they could contribute to facilitating these from abroad. Fritzi-Marie Titzmann has described activist self-mediation as possessing the capacity to generate and disseminate own narratives to support followers of one’s movement and generate solidarity for the movement (Titzmann, 2021). The YouTube-channel dedicated to the Festival as a brand can be described as such a medium qualified for disseminating narratives and empowering visuals to their following. Here, the Festivals since 2017 and especially the one in Bangkok become archived to be viewed by other people from Northeast India. They could turn into an inspirational ressource for spectators.
More importantly, however, the display of different cultural practices from each state next to each other showcased an idea of a shared and developing Northeast Indian culture. While Northeast India acknowledgedly has a lot of internal diversity, festivities are usually just focused on one state.(Longkumer 2015, 51-64) This state-centrism in the eyes of interlocutors leads to a deprivation of the internal diversity within the Northeast. However, such deprivation can lead to disrespect among communities in the Northeast. The idea behind the Festival then could stand for a new approach in both acknowledging and giving room for various cultural practices in all their diversity within the region. Hereby, festivities are rendered venues wherein all dissimilar cultures within the Northeastern states are respectfully given rooms for their self-expression.
I think Northeast India Festival might be a torch-bearer. Not only in India but also in Southeast Asia or even the entire world. Because today what we are dealing with is a systematic degradation of diversity. That’s the main thing here. […] Northeast India Festival has the enormous potential to show the world the strength of diversity. And how the diversity should be preserved, nurtured, and celebrated. Northeast Festival should actually celebrate the diversity. (Interview with NEIA member, 18 May 2021)
Thus in that reading, the way diversity is celebrated within the NEF could even become exemplary for similar festivities within and outside of the Indian context because it treats diversity as something to be celebrated and to be respectfully showcased. As such the NEF invites Northeast Indians to understand their respectful engagement with diversity within their region as something that shapes their identity. Thus, inhabitants of the Northeastern region and the way they have dealt with diversity could become pathmakers and role-models for others in and outside of India to cherish diversity.
I have touched upon ways the NEF was built upon solidary ideas. The utilization of solidarity as an analytical lens might be peculiar here because the event was organized mainly by a socio-cultural trust, not a movement or small group of people. Northeast Indians as indicated earlier were historically at a marginalized position within India and reoccurring armed conflicts limited cooperation. The shared antagonism towards these conditions can become a mobilizing capacity to act against them. Solidarity as Sara Ahmed defines emerges here as a by-product. She argues that when communities or people speak out against something like marginalization or unawareness, they at the same time speak out for a certain vision (Ahmed 2014, 189). What one speaks out for might yet not be present in the world. Similarly, a state-encompassing Northeastern culture with equal participation of all eight states is not yet readily available. However, initiatives like the NEF on a large-scale or community associations like the NEIA on the ground show that communities take up the task to create spaces of self-representation and visibility by themselves based upon the solidary wish for joined improvement. What happens when greater solidarity binds the Northeastern states together? Will such an increase in confidence after utilizing stately resources cause opposition from within the country or create antagonism? I do not want to attempt an answer to these questions because, as outlined above, capacities for self-representation, articulation of new identities or emergence of institutional solidarity have just been emerging over the recent years for Northeast Indians. However, it could well be that increased solidarity on one geographical site does lead to greater cohesion there, but this new-found strength causes antagonism/critique on another site. While solidarity surely is the goal it might not always provide the desired overall cohesion within a country or region.9
It is important to keep a couple of critical aspects in mind. Firstly, there are contrasting voices from within the Northeast that do not agree with the construction of a bundled up Northeast Indian identity but instead desire and call for a focus on identifications with only a state or with a specific ethnicity only. These dissents should be respected. The NEF is after all a private venture with governmental funding wherein various cultural traditions are combined into a legible and recognizable, potentially empowering or potentially simplified new compound. This combination is essentially based on the commodification of culture and shaping the commodity in a way that it attracts business interests within a capitalist infrastructure. Thus, it would be of great importance to prevent co-optation of the empowering aims of the Festival by governmental institutions seeking to tame and integrate these aims within nationalist frameworks. Secondly, one should also question whether large-scale performance of culture by a trust seeking to encourage profit from e.g. tourism is a beneficial idea. After all, this means strategically utilizing cultural practices from the Northeast as vessels in order to gain financial advantages and creating development within the Northeast. Cultural practices are here mobilized as a key resource in a neoliberal India reaching over to its Southeast Asian ‘partners’. As outlined, there exists a desire to create awareness for histories and narratives from the Northeast, and the NEF contributes to filling such promotion. However, when an encompassing Northeast culture consisting of aspects from all states is promoted, who’s local stories are missing? Who’s are promoted? Which silences, blank spaces, biases would be reproduced or would emerge? Are really all communities living in the Northeastern states included into this newly emerging Northeast culture? As touched upon above, some of these questions might have to be negated. Lastly, an important detriment to solidarity among Northeast Indians is the way the Festival on its first run was largely planned from outside Thailand. The local NEIA was in 2019 hardly conceptually involved, hence the organizers lacked input on local contexts, expectations of the Thai public. While financing is surely important, solidarity with communities on the ground is only achieved if ground organizations are given access to cooperate with larger institutions.
About the author
Domenic Teipelke is a graduate student in Modern South and Southeast Asian Studies at Humboldt University Berlin, focussing on Northeast India and Thailand. Thematically, he is interested in (im-)mobility, migration and world-making.