Baburam Saikia - a research scholar's journey from Assam to UT | Tartu Ülikooli aasia keskus

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Baburam Saikia - a research scholar's journey from Assam to UT

Baburam Saikia is a PhD student at the Department of Estonian and Comparative Folklore. He recently began his four-year program having just arrived to Tartu last August (2016).

Baburam is from North-East India, Assam. More precisely, he comes from the world’s largest river island Mājuli located in the Brahmaputra River with the population of around 170 000 people. But how does one get to Estonia from such a seemingly distant place?

Baburam explains: “Well, I met Professor Ülo Valk at a conference in 2011 while I was doing my cultural studies masters in India (Tezpur University). I met him again in another event in Bangladesh and then the third time when he was doing fieldwork in Assam. Professor Valk is well known in the field of folklore in North-East India, especially in Assam. As I was very much focused on his work, I knew I wanted to come to Tartu.”

Baburam is a native researcher focusing on his own local community and neo-Vaishnavism. Neo-Vaishnavism was introduced to Assam in the 15th century by Sankardeva (1449-1568). Its innovative character sought to create an egalitarian civil society based on shared values of fraternity, equity, humanism, and democracy. An institutional module, which came to be known as sattra, was conceptualised by Sankardeva and later got its distinct form in the hands of his disciples. In Baburam’s words: “I am working on an institutionalised religious and socio-cultural community of Assam which is known as sattra. There are over 600 sattras all over Assam. It is a kind of living tradition and they can be categorized into two types - in one people can get married and live with their families, whereas the others are celibate. Majuli is well known for its celibate sattras.“

Devotees in a sattraBefore his PhD studies, Baburam completed an individual research project supported by the Ministry of Culture, Govt. of India under the scheme of “Safeguarding the Intangible Cultural Heritage and Diverse Cultural Tradition of India’’. Baburam has an insider’s perspective to the topic. He himself became part of the religious community at the age of five when his parents gave him to a celibate sattra. Devotees (who we might call monks in the West) go to villages to see if there are people willing to give their young boys to the sattras. “There is a belief in the villages that if a family is able to send a child to the sattra then it is spiritually good for the whole family”, Baburam explains.

There are many aspects of sattras that intrigue Baburam. “I want to look at tradition from both emic and etic perspectives and to understand the deeper meaning of its beliefs and rituals. How do the belief systems work, why they perform rituals in a certain way, what are the challenges they are facing, and how conscious they are about upholding their tradition in the modern world? I am also trying to find out how do authority and hierarchy work. For example, because of discrimination based on caste, in some sattras, the priests are always chosen from Brahmins. Another aspect is sattra’s recent involvement in the state politics, accepting and propagating Hindu-Nationalistic ideology.” Check out Baburam’s academic profile.

Baburam Saikia in "In Search of God" An interesting fact about Baburam is that he has appeared in three documentaries. According to the Internet Movie Database (IMDb),In Search of Godfollows ‘the transformative journey of an American woman who finds deeper meaning in her life after traveling to a mystical island in India where the inhabitants use artistic expression as a means for communing with God.’ Baburam adds: “In the documentary I was acted like a guide to her. I helped her to explore the island and the spirituality there. The performing arts are central to the lifestyle of devotees because dance, drama and music are a part of worshipping god.” The other two documentaries, a French, and a local Assam production, have been about young boys and their initial struggles in sattra. “It is difficult to be away from your parents in such a young age.” Furthermore, in 2013 Baburam was in France for four months where he worked on a theatre project in the Andrey Tarkovsky artistic residencies of the Abbey of Pontigny.

Despite the cold weather Baburam likes Estonia. He hasn’t had the chance to travel much yet, but has fond memories of a winter academy in Viljandi, where he could learn about Estonia and listen to live local music. Baburam also has a good impression of the university. “I would recommend Tartu University to other Indian students as it holds a very rich tradition and the way people work here is fantastic. There are brilliant folkloristic and semiotic scholars in Tartu.” His favourite place in Tartu, however, is Toome Hill.

Baburam intends to take the maximum out of his studies at UT and to use the knowledge back in his home state. “I have realized that I can really improve my critical thinking here. I am here just to learn things and explore myself in terms of thinking. Eventually I would like to go back to Assam and work there.”

He also recommends Assam as a destination to Estonians. “I always believe that it is good to know about different cultures. There are lots of things you learn once you are away from your community.”

Written by Mart Veliste, 03.04.17