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

Fire in the Blood: A clinically-incisive documentary

By Utpal Borpujari

“If it is true that one death is a tragedy and a million deaths a statistic, then this is the story about statistics. The millions of people in poor countries who died needlessly of AIDS, all giant medicine companies that blocked access to low-cost medicines that could have saved their lives.”

This quote, in the voice of William Hurt, coming with the backdrop of a montage of shots from India and several African nations, sets the mood for Dylan Mohan Gray’s hard-hitting, investigative documentary film Fire in the Blood that chronicles the fight of activists against the refusal of pharma giants like Pfizer and GlaxoSmithKline to free the Anti Retro Viral drugs from the patent regime and thus make unpatented, generic, low-cost drugs available to millions of AIDS patients in the developing and least-developed countries.

Narrated by Hollywood actor Hurt, the film chronicles the events in the late 1990s during which activists in Africa, such as leading AIDS physician Peter Mugyenyi from Uganda, fought a tough battle against the pharma giants to free the ARV medicines from their shackles so that the much cheaper versions developed by, for example, Yusuf Hamied-led Indian pharma company Cipla, could be accessed by millions of AIDS patients who could otherwise have died just like those millions lives lost earlier.
It was in 1996 that a combination of three ARVs was found to be successful in treating HIV, suddenly reducing AIDS-related deaths by almost 80 per cent. But thanks to the patent regime that ensured that the costs remained prohibitively high, this life-saving drug cocktail was not accessible to the suffering millions. And thanks again to the patent regime, the cheaper generic version developed by Cipla was not allowed to be accessible to these millions of patients.

From Uganda to Mozambique to South Africa to Thailand to Cambodia to India, the film travels from one country to another to tell a harrowing tale that leaves one frustrated at and seething over the machinations of the pharma giants whose refusal to let the ARV drugs free of the patent regime led to so many deaths. It recreates the tale of the fight against these pharma companies by activists like Mugyenyi, HIV-positive judge of South Africa’s Constitution Court Edwin Cameron, HIV-positive Zackie Achmat of Treatment Action Campaign, journalist Elvis Basudde Kyeyune from east Africa who announced his HIV-positive status publicly, American Intellectual Property activist James P Love and many others through interviews and archival footage in a clinical manner, putting things in perspective.

Gray structures his narrative in a traditional way, with Hurt’s voice over punctuated by visuals of poor AIDS patients, interviews with an array of activists, doctors and leaders like Nelson Mandela, Desmond Tutu, Bill Clinton, Joseph Stiglitz, and footage from numerous protest rallies against the pharma giants. Gray apparently developed the idea for the documentary after reading an article in The Economist, and his treatment of the subject too is of reportage style.

In fact, most of the time, the film moves in too much of a matter-of-fact style, and thus making one wonder if a more intimate portrayal of the lives of some of the patients and activists could have helped it develop a strong emotional connect with an average viewer. Most of the time, the film touches the lives of the various protagonists, but does not go beyond giving the basic information about him or her struggle to fight the virus. Perhaps, the problem of the film, showcased in Sundance Film Festival and many other festivals after that, lies in the fact that it takes in too many protagonists, thus not letting it focus on any of them.

But that does not dilute the fact that the rich-in-content and deeply-researched Fire in the Blood is an extremely important film of our times. It’s a film that needs to be viewed by everyone, and more so by doctors, health activists, policy makers and the student community. The first Indian feature-length documentary to get a theatrical release in the US and the UK and also one to have a decent theatrical run when it was released in theatres in some cities across India, the DVD of the film, just out in the Indian market, is worth adding to one’s collection.

(Publisehd in http://www.dearcinema.com; 22-05-2014)


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