Utpal Borpujari

September 20, 2017

Misinformed comments do Priyanka – and the NE – no good

By Utpal Borpujari

 

(Published in http://www.hindustantimes.com on Sept 14, 2017; http://www.hindustantimes.com/bollywood/priyanka-chopra-your-misinformed-comments-about-sikkim-did-a-huge-disservice-to-northeast/story-OdgSqJC3N93AD8FzwTEVJK.html)

Only a couple of days ago, the cleaning lady at one of my fellow Assamese friend’s music studio in Mumbai had asked him where Assam was. The lady is a Tamilian, who has lived in Mumbai for long, and has not gone to school beyond a few classes. My friend jokingly told her, in his Assamese-tinged Hindi, “Jaise aapka Tamil Nadu India ka niche hai, waise hi Assam India ka upar hai”, meaning just as Tamil Nadu is in the south, Assam is in the North – or the Northeast to be more precise.

It’s a fact that a huge number of people still have either no idea about the Northeast region or India, or just have a vague idea about it. And they include not only the unlettered or social-disadvantaged class, but also what we know as educated and socially-aware classes. As a Northeasterner living in Delhi since last 23 years, and having worked in the media all this time, I personally can vouch for the fact that even within the media, the awareness about the Northeast, and its complex issues, is hardly worth anything to write home about.

But it is also a fact that the visibility of and awareness about the region has improved to some extent now, as compared to even, say, ten years ago, thanks to the multitudes of Northeast cultural events, increasing population of people from the region in the NCR and other parts of the country, and also the increasing number of journalists from the region working in the media houses.

From the initial years of anger and outrage that I would feel when someone otherwise “informed” would make a silly observation on the region, now it’s the feeling of more of a pity on such people, as I increasingly feel that the fault lies more in the lack of virtually any information about the region in the primary, secondary and higher education curricula. If we people from the Northeast know about the Chola dynasty or Chhatrapati Shivaji, it’s because we had read about them in our school books, and if people elsewhere do not know about Lachit Barphukan or U Tirot Singh (to give two examples), it’s because they are absent from the school books elsewhere.

But even then, the misinformed comments on Sikkim by UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador, Assam Tourism Brand Ambassador and “Mary Kom” star Priyanka Chopra – in an interview given at the Toronto International Film Festival while talking about her production “Pahuna” – rankles. An unlettered cleaning lady in Mumbai not knowing about Assam is one thing, and a hugely-popular and talented star like Ms Chopra giving wrong information about a region that she is genuinely trying to connect with (if we go by the latest announcement that she is producing an Assamese film with legendary filmmaker Jahnu Barua, coupled with her production of Sikkimese film “Pahuna”) surely is another.

Ms Chopra is a known name now internationally, thanks to her appearances in television series “Quantico” and Hollywood movie “Baywatch”. She is, as we all know, a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador. And above all, she is the brand ambassador of one of the Northeastern states. Along with that, she is a top name of Indian cinema. So, anything she says, goes out to a huge audience, through conventional media as well as social media.

Therefore, when she says that Sikkim is an insurgency-hit state, and that “Pahuna” is the first feature film to come out of the state, it is quite natural that many would believe both the statements. The only problem is – as social media have already stated emphatically and angrily – that both statements are incorrect. Quite clearly, Ms Chopra is misinformed, or – as most people tend to do – paint the entire Northeastern region with one brush. It is a fact that for most Indians, the term “Northeast” is used to describe a region that has a history of insurgencies, is full of exotic tribes, and a region that lies beyond the mental boundaries of “mainland” India (though it is a dichotomy that the same “mainland” term is never in terms of India’s two island territories of Andaman & Nicobar and Lakshadweep). While it’s a popular coinage, it also works in a strangely negative way – by homogenizing the immense geo-political, social and cultural diversity of the region and its eight states.

But even if one considers this aspect, talking of Sikkim specifically as insurgency affected is far beyond being far fetched. In fact, if there is one state in the Northeast that has stayed free from any such trouble, it’s Sikkim. In fact, it’s one of the most-peaceful states all across India, with an absolutely low crime rate, leave aside insurgency or terrorism. Sikkim actually is mostly talked about for its positive aspects – such as having one of India’s highest per capita incomes, being among the leading states in literacy level, being one of India’s cleanest states, being the first Indian states to be declared Open Defecation Free way back in 2008, and being India’s first – and only one till now – fully organic state.

Sikkim is also a tourism-intensive state, and had led the country in introducing home stays and heli-tourism. A large number of domestic and international tourist visit the peaceful state every year, and Ms Chopra’s comments could hugely impact the tourist inflow as for any lay person, it’s easy to believe a Northeastern state to be insurgency impacted going by the image of the region, especially when it comes from a figure whose comments are quoted widely across media. No wonder, the Sikkim government, along with the people of the state and the region – as well as informed people from across India – has reacted with anger at the comment.

Ms Chopra’s other comment about “Pahuna” being the first film to come out of Sikkim, has also been ridiculed, and rightly so. Sikkim does not have a film industry per se, but films have been made in the state quite regularly. In fact, only this year, Sikkimese film “Ralang Road”, by director Karma Takapa, had its world premiere at the Competition Section of the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival, one of the highly-respected film festivals of the world. The film will also be screened at the forthcoming edition of the MAMI Mumbai International Film Festival. “Acharya” and “Katha” by another young filmmaker, Prashant Rasaily, has also earned acclaim earlier. And these are just three examples from among the films that have been made in Sikkim over the years.

It’s laudable the way a top Bollywood actor like Priyanka Chopra has taken to producing cinema in various Indian languages, including those in languages from states that have very small domestic markets such as Sikkim and Assam, but her comments in the context of “Pahuna” have unnecessarily diminished that effort while belittling the works of the local filmmakers who make films with unimaginably-limited resources.

It’s quite befitting that the actor has tendered her apology to the Government of Sikkim for her comments regarding the state being insurgency affected. Perhaps, she could also issue one more to the filmmakers from Sikkim, whose works have got negated by that interview in Toronto.

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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)

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