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)

November 18, 2012

Keeping Dr Bhupen Hazarika’s Legacy Alive

By Utpal Borpujari

A year has gone by since Dr Bhupen Hazarika passed away. It seems only yesterday that lakhs and lakhs of people queued up patiently to have a last glimpse of his body at Judge’s Field in Guwahati. It was a scene never seen in Assam before, and it is doubtful if anyone else’s death would elicit such unprecedented level of public mourning.

But as the state commemorates the first anniversary of the great singer-composer-lyricist-filmmaker-writer’s death, instead of playing into the hands of sentimentalism-driven empty rhetoric, we as a society would do well to analyse whether we are in the right track to preserve his legacy.

This is important more so in the light of the fact that the Assamese society – here I am referring to all inhabitants of Assam, rather than the only Assamese-speaking people – is inherently infamous about its ability to forget its great sons and their deeds. And let’s put it bluntly – the people, the society, the government, the media and various institutions – all are to be blamed for this trait of ours. Come to think of it – how many of us can recall the birth and death anniversaries of great leaders like Gopinath Bordoloi, Tarun Ram Phukan or Nabin Chandra Bordoloi, or know the work of intellectuals like Krishna Kanta Handique, Anundoram Barooah and Banikanta Kakati, or have adequate knowledge of the creations of cultural stalwarts like Jyotiprasad Agarwalla, Bishnu Prasad Rabha or Phani Sarma? (I remember reading long time ago in the Prantik magazine how when someone went to look for Bishnu Prasad Rabha’s house in Tezpur and asked a youngster for directions, he got the shocking counter-question: “In which department does he work?”)

Given the fact that the Bhupen Hazarika’s songs, if not other creations, are too deeply ingrained in the collective psyche of the Assamese society to be so easily forgotten for at least the next 100 years, especially in this digital age when the virtual technology has made preserving and accessing artistic creations much easier (for example, the cultural website http://www.enajori.com has archived links to many old Assamese songs which in the pre-Internet and pre-digital age were impossible to access). But Bhupen Hazarika’s legacy is much bigger than his songs – his ideology, his creativity and his connect with the masses are the aspects that need to be preserved as a whole. Hence, just constructing a memorial at the site where his body was cremated, or having a museum at the Srimanta Sankardeva Kalakshetra and instituting an award in his memory, while being essential steps, would not be enough to do that.

So, what should we do? The list can be long, but achievable. And it can include probably many more interesting ideas apart from those sought to be discussed below. But the fact is, if plans are not formulated and gradually implemented in a time bound manner, we will still be lamenting after 50 years that we have failed to preserve his legacy, like we do in case of many other luminaries in their birth and death anniversaries. Hence, my effort below to prioritise some of the things that we need to take up as a society – all of which can be initiated by the government with the involvement of appropriate experts from the various required fields:

1. The Memorial: The Bhupen Hazarika Memorial, which is planned to be constructed at his cremation point in Jalukbari, will be a “world standard” one, according to the state government’s announcement. While the details of the project are still not in public domain, it can be hoped that the government means what it is saying. But one thing is sure – it must not be just a well-designed concrete structure with flower beds and pathways around it like most of the memorials in India end up as! The memorial must enable any visitor to experience the whole life and creativity of Bhupen Hazarika. To do that, we must have a museum dedicated to him at the site (if need be, the museum at the Srimanta Sankardeva Kalakshetra should be shifted to this location), an audio-visual presentation (comprising video, still photographs, audio of his songs and speeches), and a light-and-sound show (something which is being planned at the Kalakshetra should ideally happen at the memorial) at the site giving the visitors an opportunity to experience the life and times of the bard, and a memorabilia shop selling his music, his books, replica of his paintings, his photographs, CDs of his films, T-shirts, mugs, note pads, pens, bags, caps and anything else that can represent his creativity and can attract all sections of people. This sort of tactics are used by museums and memorials all over the world to not only make a great person’s legacy relevant all the time but also to generate revenue to run the place efficiently. Of course, the place would need ample parking space and other amenities like a cafeteria and rest rooms. But would the present available space allow such a huge infrastructure – that is the question one will have to consider.

2. House as tourist destination: World over, the houses of great personalities act as superb tourist destinations. Be it William Shakespeare or Jules Verne or even the fictional house of Sherlock Holmes, tourists throng such places in hundreds and even thousands. Bhupen Hazarika’s house – at least a wing of it since other family members continue to live there – should be put on the tourist destination map of Assam. The idea of a memorabilia shop and an audio-visual tour can be replicated here also.

3. International chair in a centre of educational excellence: A chair can be instituted in Bhupen Hazarika’s name at perhaps the Columbia School of Journalism, his alma matter, and a prominent Indian university like the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) in New Delhi, dedicated to the study of impact of culture in society building, given the fact the Bhupen Hazarika’s songs always reflected the society around us. An appropriate grant can be secured by the state government from the Ministry of Culture, Government of India, to institute these two chairs.

4. The award: The state government has already made the highly-welcome announcement about instituting an international award in the field of music in memory of Bhupen Hazarika. But if the award has to be a really international in its scale, the government will have to appoint a body comprising international musical stalwarts to identify suitable awardees from various parts of the world whose musical philosophies reflect that of Bhupen Hazarika. Just giving the award to some ‘famous’ names who won’t have even heard Hazarika’s name would not mean anything. The state’s Culture Ministry has a huge role to play in it, which hopefully it will.

5. Museum: While the aspect of museum has been discussed above, the idea of it must reflect everything about the great artiste. It should have everything related to him – original EP and LP records of his songs, posters of his films, photographs, his clothes, his pens, his note books, samples of his handwriting – and everything else that one can put on public display.

6. Annotation of songs: This is what must be taken up at a war footing. We still don’t have annotations of Jyoti and Rabha Sangeet that can be accessed by international musicians. Only recently, media reports said that for the first time ever English annotations of some of Jyotiprasad’s songs were being prepared. This is a real shame. While it’s the duty of the State Culture Ministry / Department to prepare annotations of the songs of such great artistes, it’s even more important to get on the job as far as Hazarika’s creations are concerned, given the hug e number of songs he wrote, composed and sang. Proper annotation is a must if we want his songs to travel to various parts of the world.

7. English translation of all his songs by a panel of experts: This is again a must. While it may not be possible to have quality translations of his lyrics in a way that they can be sung in English, given the fact the high rootedness of them in the cultural and social milieu of Assam, they can be academically translated into English so that researchers and music lovers from the world over can access their meaning in the true sense.

8. Translation of all his writings to English and other languages: The same applies to his other writings, that are already available in collection forms.

9. Recognition of Bhupendra Sangeet as a legitimate school of modern music like Rabindra Sangeet: Again, the state government and non-governmental organisations will have to play a leading role in making the Centre take this forward. Bhupen Hazarika’s music has its own unique style and idiom, and that will be scientifically preserved only if gets nationally recognised as a school of music.

10. Proper collection, archiving and public accessibility of all his films (both fiction and documentaries), plus films that he scored music for (Assamese, Bengali, Hindi): Like many old Indian (including Assamese) films, most of Bhupen Hazarika’s work in cinema (as director) are inaccessible to the masses. In contrast, his work as a composer in cinema as relatively better accessible. However, a concerted effort is needed, perhaps under the aegis of an organisation like the Assam Film (Finance & Development) Corporation, to collect all his cinematic work (as director and as composer), whether in fiction or non-fiction, and across languages, and properly archive them and make them available for public consumption. While some of his films are in the National Film Archives of India and the State Film Archive, quite a few of them might be already lost. Urgent action is needed to preserve whatever is remaining.

But all this and perhaps more will be possible when the government, people and the Bhupen Hazarika Cultural Trust will work in tandem. Given the present circumstances, where the legal heir of Bhupen Hazarika’s intellectual property is still to be decided, it seems that will still take some time. And that means some precious time will be lost. One can only hope that the legacy of Bhupen Hazarika will not get lost in some silly fight over ownership of his creations. Because ultimately, what he created is the common heritage of Assam, India and the whole world.

PS: The last paragraph comes from the author’s own small (and sad) experience. Senior journalist Samudra Gupta Kashyap and the author had conceptualised a documentary film relating to Bhupen Hazarika’s songs, and Kashyap wrote one email formally to the Bhupen Hazarika Cultural Trust and also spoke to Trust member Sunil Nath more than once on the mails which had sought certain information regarding the use of Bhupen Hazarika’s songs in the film. That was nearly a year ago. We are still awaiting a reply!!! If something seeking to take Bhupen Hazarika’s philosophy to the world elicits no response from the quarters that supposedly holds the rights to his creations, how can one expect these quarters to keep the legacy alive?

(Published in Assam Information, November 2012 issue; as well as Seven Sisters Post, http://www.sevensisterspost.com, on 16-11-2012 & 17-11-2012)

http://sevensisterspost.com/keeping-bhupendas-legacy-alive/

http://sevensisterspost.com/keeping-bhupendas-legacy-alive-ii/

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