Utpal Borpujari

December 23, 2015

The healing touch of Naga music

By Utpal Borpujari

It was one clear, sunny day in April, 2013 when I landed in Khonoma, a drive of an hour or so from Nagaland’s capital Kohima via a winding hilly, road. Khonoma is a village of the Angamis, one of the most-prominent tribes of Nagaland. Nestled amidst tall mountains on all sides, Khonoma is, however, not just any other village. It’s the birth place of Angami Zapu Phizo, the legendary Naga leader who led the Naga National Council (NNC) through the most-turbulent years of Naga insurgency. He was the signatory of the Shillong Accord of 1975, which had led to the split of NNC and the subsequent formation of the Nationalist Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN) by the breakaway group lead by Thuingaleng Muivah and Isak Chishi Swu.

The first thing that would strike a visitor to Khonoma is its gigantic terrace fields – and a NNC memorial to those who had died while fighting for “Naga sovereignty”. As we walked into the village, we heard the sound of mass singing. We headed towards the sound, and found ourselves in the Thevoma “Khel” (each Naga village is demarcated into specific areas for different “Khels”, or clans). And the members of the clan, we were informed, were practising folk songs and dances for a cultural exchange programme with another village of the Chakhesang tribe. It was godsend for me, and immediately me and my crew got busy shooting the singing and dancing. Eventually, this formed the opening sequence of my film, Songs of the Blue Hills.

As the Central government announced what it called was a “historic” agreement with the NSNC (IM) leadership with the goal of ending the nearly-seven-decades-long insurgency, my immediate thoughts went to Khonoma, where both songs and guns did boom with equal felicity at one point in time. In fact, that can be true for any Naga-inhabited area, though I would like to believe that one is likely to hear more song notes than gun shots in Naga villages these days.

At least, that was my experience as I travelled around Nagaland shooting for my film on contemporary practices in Naga folk music. It was almost as if music flowed in the veins of the Nagas. And the Nagas know it. As ethnomusicologists like Dr Abraham Lotha and folk music legends like Sademmeren Longkumer said in interviews for my film, music is an integral part of the Naga social life as all Naga tribes depend on oral storytelling to keep alive (and pass on to the next generations) their social customs, folk tales, history et al. In fact, Nagas don’t have the written word historically and everything is traditionally preserved orally. And music forms the base of these oral traditions, perhaps to ensure that it not only sounds nice but also becomes easier to remember.

Since the late 1940s, Naga society has witnessed continuing violence, by both state and non-state actors. Insurgents have been killed by the security forces, security personnel have been ambushed by the insurgents, those belonging to various insurgent factions have killed one another, and as the saying goes, innocent villagers – in huge numbers over the years – have been “collateral damage”. Amidst all this, if something has kept the normal Naga’s spirit alive, it is music. As Khyochano Tck Ngully, an accomplished young musician in Kohima whose band Ru’a has an astonishing variety of folk fusion songs in various Naga dialects, told me, it has been music and music alone that has given the “healing touch” to the Naga psyche amidst all the violence. Be it the hymns in the Church or the traditional folk song, music, according to her, has helped the violence-ridden society maintain a semblance of normalcy. Hojevi Cappo, a Sumi Naga who has formed a band called Nagagenous that excels in playing folk tunes in a completely bamboo instrument ensemble, put one more perspective to this. He says that music has also helped bridge the traditional gap between the various Naga tribes, many of which used to fight against one another in the days of yore. In fact, as I found out while shooting for my film, musicians like Lamstala Sangtam and Mhathung Oduyo of the band Purple Fusion, and Lipokmar Tzudir of Nagaland Singing Ambassadors, have taken this aspect to a different level by picking up folk tunes from one tribe and singing lyrics from another Naga tribe.

This would have been unthinkable in the not-too-distant-past when tribal identities were rigidly followed. But those were the refrains – “healing through music” and “Inter-tribe bond through music” – that reverberated through the interviews I conducted with many musicians, music entrepreneurs and social historians. Tribal societies the world over have their own strong musical traditions, but for the Nagas, it has been much more than a mere tool of expression. It has helped them ease their pain, and hope for a better future.

(Published in Economic Times, 30/08/2015: http://economictimes.indiatimes.com/magazines/panache/why-one-is-likely-to-hear-more-song-notes-than-gunshots-in-naga-villages-these-days/articleshow/48726582.cms)

January 23, 2015

Gulzar Retro in IFFI gets a high with Libaas premiere 26 years it was made

By Utpal Borpujari
Panaji: Of all the films that are having their premieres at the ongoing 45th International Film Festival of India (IFFI), one has been a 26-year-old, but it hogged the maximum attention when it got screened.

Yes, you heard it right: a film getting premiered after 26 years of having been made. But it was not surprising that it attracted great attention, because the film in question is Gulzar’s “Libaas”, made in 1988 but never released in India.

So, when it was screened at IFFI as part of a special retrospective on Gulzar, not only the regular festival delegate, but Gulzar himself was excited and emotional. Starring Naseeruddin Shah, Shabana Azmi and Raj Babbar, the film was never released its producers considered it too bold for its time and apparently developed cold feet.

“I was worried that the film would look dated. But I guess the intricacies of the human relation are eternal and universal,” Gulzar told the audience immediately after the screening that was attended by, among others, director Vishal Bhardwaj and his singer wife Rekha Bhardwaj.

“The film remained unreleased because of some issues with the producers. Many approached them for rights to release the film on DVD and even on television, but they continue to refuse,” Gulzar said, adding in his inimitable style that “after watching the film after such a long period, even I feel I am a good writer”. Though the film was unreleased, its songs, composed by R D Burman, including “Silli hawa chhoo gai”, “Phir kisi shakh ne” and “Khamosh sa afsana” have remained ever popular.

“Human relations are so incredibly complex, there are several layers which you can keep uncovering. It will never go out of fashion. What excites me is the study of human nature. It is something I draw from real life. It never fails me,” said Gulzar explaining the philosophy behind the film.

Just before the screening began, however, Gulzar was as excited and nervous as a youngster appearing for an exam would be. “I feel like a school kid appearing for an exam. The dubbing quality could be bad. Maybe we might not get to hear some of the dialogue,” he had said. After the screening of the print was reasonably of good quality, he heaved a sigh of relief. “What a relief!” he said.

The film’s story revolves around a theatre couple, played by Azmi and Shah, and how their relationship undergoes an upheaval when Babbar’s character, a friend of Shah’s character, enters the scene.

The Gulzar retrospective comprises, apart from “Libaas”, seven other films by the Dadasaheb Phalke Award-winning filmmaker-poet-lyricist. They are “Aandhi”, “Angoor”, “Ijaazat”, “Koshish”, “Lekin”, “Maachis” and “Mere Apne”, thus encompassing his journey as a filmmaker.

“I just couldn’t stop crying after watching the film. For the past 23 years I’ve been wanting to watch the film and here at IFFI 2014, my dream came true. I’m so glad that I didn’t miss the film’s screening. Libaas has touched my soul, I feel so satisfied now,” said Rekha Bhardwaj after the screening.

(Published in Eastern Chronicle, http://www.easternchronicle.net; 08-12-2014)

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