Birendranath Datta (1935–2023): A cultural icon of Assam

Renowned folklorist, teacher, and singer, Datta leaves a lasting legacy.

Published : Nov 02, 2023 21:55 IST - 5 MINS READ

Birendranath Datta gained more fame as a folk culturist, teacher, and singer than as an economics graduate. Datta died on October 23 following a prolonged illness.

Birendranath Datta gained more fame as a folk culturist, teacher, and singer than as an economics graduate. Datta died on October 23 following a prolonged illness. | Photo Credit: Kushal Datta

An eminent Assamese personality, Birendranath Datta, was an educationist, writer, researcher, and musical artist. His contribution to Assamese culture, encompassing a wide range of artistic endeavours, will remain deeply ingrained in the hearts of every Assamese. Achieving name and fame for his extensive contributions was never preordained for this remarkable individual. However, being a teacher deeply rooted in the grassroots culture of the region was an identity he cherished. As he used to say, “Teaching is my passion, teaching is my life,” words that stand as a testament to his deep attachment to his love for teaching. His sense of discipline, sacrifices, and the importance of an immaculate grasp of every aspect of his interests have always been his guiding principles.

Growing up in Guwahati amidst nature in an ashram, his interest in culture stood in stark contrast to the “filmistic” culture of the day. Even though his artistic culture remained rooted in the authenticity of melody, his modernistic approach touched the hearts of every member of the youthful generation in the 21st century. It is no wonder that his passing, on October 23 following a prolonged illness., garnered widespread media attention, reaching every corner of the State. The social media coverage justified the well-deserved popularity of a serious artist. The modernity in his artistic contributions added depth to the songs of famous personalities like Navakanta Barua, Tafaajjul Ali, Hiren Bhattacharyya, and others. His contributions skillfully combined traditional ethos with modernity, offering a glimpse of the pain and pleasure of life on both sides of the coin.

Also Read | Little things, not so little

As a folk culturist, his songs drew inspiration from classical Borgeets, Rabindranath Tagore, various forms of classical Indian music, and a successful fusion with Western musical styles. Along with Jyoti Prasad Agarwala, Bishnu Prasad Rabha, Parvati Prasad Baruva, his artistic contributions profoundly influenced academic teaching in educational institutions. It is worth mentioning that his first publication, History of Assamese Music, was released in 1977.

Later on, his interests shifted towards research on folk culture. He redefined the culture in his unique way, which owes much to the place of his birth. His lifestyle and childhood education left an indelible impact on the way he articulated Assamese music with a modern artistic perspective. His teachings and contributions were not solely materialistic but also encompassed every section of society.

Datta was born on November 4, 1933. He received his school education at Goalpara Government High School, where he secured the 5th position in the state in HSLC. Later, he pursued his pre-university education at Cotton College, Guwahati, where he once again earned acclaim by attaining the 7th position. His father, Bholanath Datta, insisted on him pursuing engineering, but his interests led him to the renowned Shantiniketan in Calcutta, where he met his friend Sobha Brahma and others.

Although he initially studied economics at Shantiniketan, the cultural atmosphere of the institute nurtured his interest in the cultural field. He graduated with honours in economics from Santiniketan and later, in 1956, obtained a postgraduate degree in economics from Gauhati University.

However, he gained more fame as a folk culturist, teacher, and singer than as an economics graduate. Later, he joined as a Professor in the Department of Folklore at Gauhati University and became a founding professor in the Department of Traditional and Art Forms at Tezpur University. Datta was honoured with the Padma Shri in 2009 for his immense contributions to education and literature.

Starting in the 1980s, Datta became an established folklorist, although he considered himself an amateur explorer, always curious to learn more about folk culture. His interest led him to pursue a PhD in the folk culture of Goalpara district. He aimed to understand the philosophy of Goalpariya culture, which motivated him to publish A Study of the Folk Culture of Goalpara Region of Assam. In this work, he described, compared, and highlighted the differences between the folk culture of Assam and the Northeast, considering the influence of intercultural research on regional variations. His study of regional variations contributing to intercultural development was facilitated by oral traditions and other sources of information.

Datta’s influence on cultural discourse

Datta compared and contrasted the socio-cultural aspects of Indian society through his writings. He drew inspiration from the works of Birinchi Kumar Barua and Prafulla Dutta Goswami, elaborating on them in his own unique way to manifest Indian society in general and Assamese culture in particular. One of his books, Folkloric Foragings in India’s North-East, where he referred to his own work as “foraging”, clearly exemplifies the influence of Datta’s ideas on the cultural discourse. Datta’s works are mentioned in the writings of one of the great scholars, A.K. Ramanujan, who acknowledges the idea of puppetry and classical paintings as central to Datta’s contributions. His book Cultural Contours of Northeast India, published by Oxford University Press, holds high importance for studying the region.

Also Read | ‘Ishanou’ a timely reminder of tolerance and acceptance amid Manipur violence

Datta’s artistic patronage encompassed the skills of a teacher, a singer, a folk culturist, and a research scholar. Curious from a young age, his love for nature and the culture that binds regional variations with intercultural similarities evolved into a significant form of cultural development that made Datta a distinctive personality in the field of cultural studies in Assam.

His ability to blend regional variations and intercultural similarities in his creative mind, fueled by his love for people, nature, and culture, resulted in a unique yet profoundly simple creativity. Endowed with such inimitable simplicity, Datta carved a niche in the cultural history of Assam. His books, A Handbook of Folklore Material of North East India and Folklore and Historiography, delineate his comprehensive view of the region’s rich culture.

The uniqueness of this eminent personality is evident in his works, which inspired later writers and artists to follow his path in articulating the cultural similarities and differences, a craftwork of intermingling cultures to promote a strong cultural affinity within his sphere of influence.

Arindam Borkatak is a critic, essayist, and editor in Assamese literature. He is also an English teacher at Anandaram Dhekial Phukan College in Nagaon

Sign in to Unlock member-only benefits!
  • Bookmark stories to read later.
  • Comment on stories to start conversations.
  • Subscribe to our newsletters.
  • Get notified about discounts and offers to our products.
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide to our community guidelines for posting your comment