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)