IIAS Lunch Lecture

Migrating Repertoires in the Middle of the Ocean – the Performance of Homeland and the Oral Traditions of Bengali Settlers in the Andaman Islands

After the Partition of India (1947), almost six millions of dispossessed refugees from East Bengal left their homes. Crossing the Indian border, the refugees entered an unprepared, inhospitable and already overpopulated West Bengal. The State found an improbable solution for the rehabilitation of law-caste agriculturist refugees and created a Colonization Scheme to relocate them on the far away Andaman Islands.­­

The story of the thousands of Bengali families that were sent from 1949 until the 1960s in the Indian Ocean is yet to be written. In the Andaman islands, Bengalis are in many senses a minority: they occupy a marginal position in relation to the larger Bengali communities of the mainland; they hold a marginal status in the socio-economic life of the archipelago; their language cannot compete with Hindi and English as the administrative languages of the Union Territory, and education in Bengali medium is a rarity. On the other hand Bengali settlers constitute a majority in numbers, figuring as the biggest community inhabiting the Andamans, where Bengali figures as the most spoken language.

The relocation of Bengali refugees in the Andamans transported in the middle of the ocean a rich baggage of oral literature and performative traditions, which still provide strong links with the past and the “homeland”. What is the role of the transmission and performance of oral literature and traditional repertoires of songs in constructing and reinforcing “Bengaliness”? How is the performance of traditional verbal arts strengthening a displaced community’s sense of belonging? What is the use of congregational music in processes of identity-making, in constructing imaginaries of “homeland” and in negotiating previous notions of cultural roots with the new environment of the “Andamani Bengali”?

My research project reflects upon these questions through an analysis of literary and oral sources collected during a very recent ethnographic fieldwork. This lecture is an opportunity to share the first steps in this new research avenue with the local community of international scholars, hoping to receive plenty of feedback to rethink of my questions and methods.

Carola Erika Lorea (PhD) is an affilate research fellow at the International Institute for Asian Studies. She obtained her PhD from the Italian Institute of Oriental Studies, University of Rome La Sapienza. For her research, Lorea lived in West Bengal for 5 years, where she caried out formal and informal field-work, in order to study the local repertoire of oral literature, folk music and hetherodox religious movements. 


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About IIAS Lunch Lectures

Every month, an IIAS researcher or visiting scholar will present his or her work-in-progress in an informal setting to colleagues and other interested attendees. IIAS organises these lunch lectures to give the research community the opportunity to freely discuss ongoing research and exchange thoughts and ideas.