From Ritual to Performance: The Transformation of a Tangsa Festival in Assam, North-east India

Meenaxi Barkataki-Ruscheweyh, University of Göttingen

Tangsa is an umbrella term for a collection of small ethnic groups (related to the Naga) who have migrated to India from Myanmar probably within the last couple of centuries and have settled in the north-east Indian states of Assam and Arunachal Pradesh. In the last few decades, rapid changes have occurred to their lifestyles and to their traditional practices as a result of their migration down from the hills to the plains and their acceptance of the ‘modern’ way of life in the Indian state.

Furthermore, conversion of most of the Tangsa population to Christianity has implied giving up many of their old cultural practices. The newly converted Christian Tangsa had initially believed that religion could suffice as culture, but many have understood now that it cannot help them secure their ethnic identity. On the other hand, the few non-Christian Tangsa still left have also realised that putting religious divide before ethnic unity could lead to their annihilation. Therefore, there have been intense efforts in recent years, on the part of both groups, to come together to jointly celebrate a ‘traditional’ festival, in an attempt to create a common pan-Tangsa identity.

In this paper I wish to take a closer look at the Wihu-kuh festival organised jointly by all the Tangsa living in Assam in 2010 in the light of smaller festivals organised by the non-Christian Tangsa in earlier years, to observe the compromises that have been made from both sides in order to bring the Christian Tangsa back into the fold. The exercise of finding common shared ground has led to identity being ‘performed’. The factors determining the final form of the festival and the impact this representation has on the Tangsa self-image and their projected identity will also be discussed. In doing so, I hope to illustrate that the new Tangsa identity has been consciously fashioned in a form which not only enables internal consolidation but which also bolsters the social and political position of the Tangsa in the wider world around them. Their principal aim is to project a new multi-faceted identity which draws both from their traditional ethnic past and from their modern multi-religious present