Review: The River Tale in ‘Voice of Siang’

Does a river have its own tale and voice? Joor Baruah’s debut 57 minute feature documentary, Voice of Siang, purports to provide the river Siang with its own voice, but ends up telling the tale of not just the river but also of the landscape where the river runs and the indigenous communities that call the river their own. One of the major trans-boundary rivers in Asia, the Siang flows through Tibet, India and finally discharges into the Bay of Bengal in Bangladesh. In this everlasting and continuous journey, the river takes on different names as it flows into the sea – TsangPo in Tibet, Siang in Arunachal Pradesh, Brahmaputra in Assam and merges with the Padma (Ganges) river in Bangladesh. And along with these different names come different histories, narratives, and geo-politics.

The documentary starts with a lingering shot of a lone fisherman on his boat surrounded by a vast expanse of water. The boat is in the middle of the frame, and the water body seems so large that it appears to be a sea to the discerning viewer. The water body is revealed as the mighty Brahmaputra river, the lifeline of the many communities in Assam, a state in India’s Northeast region. The filmmaker maps the Brahmaputra up north and takes us on a journey through the muddy and broken roads to the other Northeastern state, Arunachal Pradesh, also the eastern most state in India. In Arunachal, the male river Brahmaputra becomes the female Siang river, the banks of which many riparian indigenous communities call home. In many cultures and societies, rivers are often gendered. In India, the Brahmaputra – the literal translation of which is ‘Son of Lord Brahma’ – is the only male river among the hundreds of rivers in the country. Baruah creates a delicate and stylized visual anthropological treat, foregrounding the controversy of dam construction with issues of frontierisation and borderlands.

At the outset, the documentary informs us that this is a film on an issue that threatens the very existence of the states of Arunachal Pradesh and Assam. This threat comes from the construction of big dams, including the proposed Dibang Multipurpose project in the Lower Dibang Valley District of Arunachal. If completed, this dam would be India’s largest and the world’s tallest concrete dam. Baruah interviews the noted environmentalist and big dam crusader of the region Pradip Bhuyan, for his documentary and Bhuyan minces no words when he says just some minutes into the film, ‘Our Assamese culture which is anchored on the Luit (Brahmaputra) river will be destroyed. All the valleys and rivers connected to the Brahmaputra will be destroyed’ with the construction of this and other dams. The documentary, however, is an intent exploration of not just the concerns and anxieties over these proposed dams, but of the frontier itself.

Flanking the banks of the Brahmaputra and the Siang are many indigenous communities following a riparian lifestyle. Main among them are the Mising tribe of Assam and the Adi tribe of Arunachal. Baruah explores the Adi peoples’ lives and cultures intimately in the Sissen Village of Arunachal. Adi is a larger tribal identity comprising many other sub-tribes such as the Padam, Minyong, Pangin, Melang, Bor, Bokar, Pailebo, Karko, Komkar and Simong. The Adi people were earlier called the Abors under the British colonial administration, which the community regard as condescending. Kaling Borang, an Adi social activist and a write-poet tells us, ‘Abor is derived from abominable. It is demeaning to us’. The community re-claimed their right to their identity only in the 1950s, some years after India’s independence.

We see what an Adi house looks like, the kinship around the kitchen and we learn about the festivals, faith and legends of the Adi peoples. Borang is interviewed at dinner time in his kitchen, and we get a fascinating insight into Adi culinary cultures and familial ties. The kitchen, like the rest of an Adi house, is constructed of bamboo and cane. During dinner, all members of the family gather around a central fireplace over which the food is cooked. We also get an insight into an Adi house when Baruah interviews the Adi elder, Oshung Ering, a former bureaucrat, on the porch of his house. The Adi community lives in elevated bamboo houses, called Saang Ghors (in Assamese). This is a valuable insight for viewers into the riparian lifestyle of the communities along the rivers in Assam and Arunachal. These elevated houses help them stay safe when the river overflows during monsoons. Baruah also shoots the traditional market at Pasighat town, the oldest town established in Arunachal by the British. He engages in conversations with the mostly female vendors, who work extremely hard to sustain their families, on how it is to live in militarised frontiers and on questions of development in the state. Being in charge of not just the direction, but also the cinematography and the music for this documentary, Baruah fills the soundscape with mellifluous yet melancholic Adi traditional music. The melancholy of losing the landscape and culture to globalist demands of developmental politics permeates both visually and aurally. 

But this is not an orientalist gaze into an ‘exotic’ community – far from it. Instead, we get an in-depth look into how both colonial and post-colonial frontierisation policies have marginalised the indigenous people of these territories, and how the policies of development and civilisation have now created a militarised frontier caught between the geo-political contest between China and India. Sissen Village was the site of the Anglo-Abor War of 1911 between the British and the Adi people. Fifty years later, Arunachal Pradesh and the northern parts of Assam were the site of the Sino-Indian War in 1962. The war between China and India was due to border disputes rising in the region as a result of colonial border and frontierisation policies. Baruah does not show us any footage or image of the Indian Army or other paramilitary forces, but takes recourse to black and white archival images of the 1962 war. Most of those images show civilians fleeing from their homes to safer places.

The memory of the war still lingers among the people and the space. It has a haunting presence throughout the lush green valleys and paddy fields. It haunts us through the recollections of the Adi elders who witnessed the war and it haunts us through the cold-war currently between China and India over controlling the rivers. China has already constructed dams in Tibet on the Tsang-Po river. Many in the region believe that such damming may be the cause of the devastating annual floods in Assam which cause massive destruction. Pradip Bhuyan, the environmentalist reflects this sentiment in the documentary as well.  Thousands get displaced, fields are destroyed, cattle and livestock killed and many people too, die. This is what frontierisation also implies apart from the heavy militarisation – a loss over identity and resources. The Adi elders lament over the loss of language and identity that they are facing. Foreign languages to the region such as Hindi and English, have almost replaced the old lingua-franca, Assamese. The Adi language itself has no script. The history of the people, their fables and legends have always been in the oral form, and there is a constant anxiety over the loss of their traditions to the twin forces of globalisation and frontierisation. 

I watched this documentary on the day when the culturally significant and iconic ‘one directions tree’ belonging to the Indigenous Djab Wurrung people, was chopped down in Victoria. The trauma of losing a culturally significant artefact of identity hit home when I realised that my home and people in Assam along with my fellow Arunachali brethren are indeed staring at a dark abyss of permanent loss and erasure that will soon be wreaked on us by such ‘developmental’ measures. As the Arunachali journalist Tongam Rina remarks in the film, ‘We respect our rivers and our mountains; they are sacred to us’; developmental politics of the nation-state or frontier politics between two powerful nations do not understand this basic element of indigenous life. And thus, the resistance to such politics of erasure continues as it should.

Voice of Siang screened as part of the 2020 Indian Film Festival of Melbourne from 23–30 October.


Shaheen Ahmed is currently pursuing a PhD in cultural studies from Monash University, Melbourne. She is a writer, curator and artist. Her research areas include decolonisation, Indigeneity, visual studies, photography, feminism, cinema studies, cultures and borderlands. She is also a MIFF Critics-Campus 2020 alum.

Shaheen Ahmed