Book cover and author
Book cover of Centrepiece and author Parismita Singh
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Edited by Parismita Singh, ‘Centrepiece’ brings to the readers stories of a region which still remains largely absent in the popular imagination.

The Northeast is home to eight different states and multiple ethnic communities. Despite being an extremely heterogeneous space, recognisable markers of cultural, ethnic and linguistic difference in the people of the region from the rest of the population of the country often create a flawed notion about the Northeast being a homogenous entity. In fact, many are of the opinion that even the term Northeast is a misnomer that downplays the diversity found in the region.

However, this term can also be an indicator of a shared identity and solidarity. Centrepiece, edited by Parismita Singh and published by Zubaan, brings together a diverse range of art and writings from the region. Though all the works included in this book distinctly bear the imprint of the Northeast, they differ greatly in terms of their medium, style and tenor thereby highlighting the striking diversity of the region.

As the publisher’s note itself claims at the very outset, this edited collection of writings and visual art by women from northeastern India and “one or two of its neighbours” was conceived with the intention of addressing the marginalisation that the region faces.

The racial distinctiveness of the inhabitants of the Northeast often make them victims of a kind of “otherisation” in the rest of the nation. Assertion of identity by the “otherised” have taken the shape of violent armed struggle against the Indian state in many cases.

In a globalised world where disseminating and accessing information have become so much easier than before, it is a matter of immense perplexity that majority of the people’s knowledge about the Northeast is still so painfully limited. Representation of the region in the mainstream media remains trapped in stereotypes. It is either portrayed as an area of darkness untouched by civilisation and modernity or as a land of trigger happy insurgents.

It will not be erroneous to claim that Centrepiece problematises this kind of misrepresentation. The picture of the region that emerges through the works included in the compilation is very different from the one that we find in dominant discourses.

The writing and art manage to delineate the complexities and contradictions associated with the Northeastern identity without exoticising the region or its people. Aheli Moitra in her powerful essay “Naga neki” traces her own journey as a journalist with a newspaper based in Dimapur, a district in Nagaland. In Moitra’s narrative, Dimapur is much more than a backdrop. The author paints a unique picture of the place, carefully highlighting the complex negotiations that one has to make in the course of their daily lives while living in the politically troubled district.

Alyen Leeachum Foning’s contribution too is about the journey of self discovery. Using textile art she recounts the story of her journey as a designer from the city back to her hometown and in the process perspicaciously underscores the contesting pulls of tradition and modernity that she experienced during this transition. Her narrative will find resonance with all those who have migrated from the Northeast to other parts of India in search of better opportunities but feel disillusioned away from home.

Prashansa Gurung’s photo project documents the moments in the life of a stylist called Josie Paris who has left her home behind to work in the entertainment industry. Gurung captures several images of Josie at work in Goa. A photograph does not only serve the purpose of documentation but also goes on to shape our notions of what is worthy of being focussed upon.

In ‘The objects of everyday work: A photo essay’, Aungmakhai Chak subverts the established iconography for indigenous women by shifting the focus from the women’s body to that of objects of everyday work.

Something common to most of the works included in this compilation is that they deal with the experiences of being a woman. The short story, Women’s literature, by Sanatombi Ningobam is a powerful critique of the oppressive structures of the patriarchal world that often silences a woman’s voice.

We find similar theme being explored in Nabina Das’ ‘Chitro of the dung buckets’ , Jacqueline Zote’s ‘The other side of the looking glass: Retelling of Mizo folktales’ and Nitoo Das’ ‘How to cut a fish’. Manipur-based artist Kundo Yumnam too deals with this same issue in her evocative self-portrait

that these authors do in their writings.

Mamang Dai’s short fiction, ‘The story of Tanik — the mythmaker’, which is an extract from one of her novels, deals with the implications of living in a society at the crossroads of tradition and modernity. Thingnam Anjulika Samom’s set of amusing poems aptly titled ‘#hashtag poetry’ shows how form and content of art too changes with changing times.

Centrepiece through a wide variety of writings and images brings to the readers, stories of a region which still remains largely absent in the popular imagination. Parismita Singh has made an honest attempt to bridge the gap between the margin and the mainstream.

Nandini Kalita is a Doctoral Fellow and a Teaching Assistant, Department of Humanities & Social Sciences, IIT, Delhi

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