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)

May 16, 2012

NEthing, NEwhere: To be a Northeasterner

By Utpal Borpujari

Northeast India has been the flavour of the season in the metropolitan media in the last couple of weeks, both print and electronic. The reason is obvious — the unfortunate deaths of two youngsters from the region, Dana M Sangma of Meghalaya in Gurgaon/Manesar abutting Delhi and Richard Loitam of Manipur in Bangalore. The former committed suicide and the latter died after a ‘fight’ with hostel mates. The background of both the cases is too well known to be recounted here again. And the media have found an issue to debate on, the Parliament has got shaken up and there have been candlelight marches in various parts of the country demanding punishment for the abettors and perpetrators of the two deaths. Thanks mainly to the power of social media, the traditional media have been forced to take up this debate about the sense of alienation of people from the Northeast. Union home minister P Chidambaram, speaking in Parliament after a host of MPs led by BJP’s Arun Jaitley in Rajya Sabha raised the issue of discrimination against people of the Northeast in the rest of India, even spoke about an advisory to all the states asking them to be vigilant against any such incidents. With Dana Sangma being the niece of Meghalaya chief minister Mukul Sangma, the issue got a bigger profile as Sangma himself took the lead in raising a strong political pitch in Delhi. This has been followed by allegations from C P Singh, an additional director with Delhi’s Forensic Science Laboratory, of racial discrimination by his colleagues.
But the fact of the matter is, after a few days, things will be forgotten, as it has always been in such cases, and life will return to normal —except for the families of those who died —till the next such incident of death, molestation, rape, happens. And the whole debate will then take place again, and the cycle will be repeated. Everyone forgetting amidst all the cacophony that if one has to put an end to what is described by many as almost ‘racial’ targeting of communities on the basis of their looks, eating habits and lifestyle, then the need of the hour is to find ways for long-term solution to this, instead of crying hoarse everytime such things happen.
So, what are the areas that need to be looked into for removing all the perceived or real prejudices against people from Northeast India by the people of so-called ‘mainland’ India? There are many ways to deal with, and it does require a multipronged approach, to remove the various misconceptions about our region. Some of the possibilities that need to be urgently looked into by the Centre and the states of the region, as well as community organisations, intellectuals and other leading citizens from the region, especially those who have lived outside the Northeast, are the following:


Soon after the deaths of Richard and Dana, an online petition calling for inclusion of information about the Northeast in the school curricula across the country, especially in the NCERT books, was activated. When I put that on my Facebook status, one noted educationist from Assam commented that it was not the answer (to end the misunderstandings). I beg to differ —and differ strongly. Almost 100% of the incidents of discrimination against the people of the region in the rest of India happen because people have virtually no inkling about us. They don’t know our history — just to cite one example, the strong role played by people in the Northeast in India’s freedom struggle — our culture, our ethnic diversity, and our contemporary societies. For them, the Northeast is one remote geographical entity where all the people look the same, are busy being insurgents and eat dog meat. Even so-called intelligent people carry that image in their minds. For example, a couple of years ago, in an article by one animal rights activist, Ambika Shukla (who is also Maneka Gandhi’s sister) had written disparagingly about the ‘dog eating habits of Northeasterners’ in Deccan Chronicle and The Asian Age newspapers, in a column following the alleged killing of a dog by a Naga student in Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University. Yes, some communities in the Northeast eat dog meat, and it is part of their culinary tradition that one has to respect. But that does not mean the whole of the region eats dog meat. How many people outside the region know that there can be excellent spreads of purely vegetarian meals in Manipur or Assam? One must look at long-term ways to tackle such misinformation. And the sure way is to include chapters on various facets of the Northeast in school curricula all over India. Young minds are always prejudice-free and once they start knowing about — and thus understanding — the region, perceptions will change for sure. Perceptions do not get created or changed overnight. Education is one way to bring about a change.


This is one area where the Centre and the region have failed miserably. The region as a whole, for so-called administrative reasons, is conveniently called the “Northeast”. That may be alright as far as only formulating and implementing government policies are concerned for a backward region. But this has irreparably harmed the region as far as projecting the individual states and their peoples outside is concerned. For most outsiders — and this fact has been brought home by a recent survey among professionals in the media, corporate communications, HR and PR professionals (professionals who because of the nature of their jobs need to have a wide information base) carried out by Delhi-based Northeast India Image Managers (NEiIM), a group of young professionals from the region working in the media and communications industry —a Mizo and an Arunachali and a Manipuri and a Khasi are the same. And I am not even talking about various tribal communities in each state! The central government, and its wings like the ministry of home affairs and the ministry for development of north east region (Doner), have huge funds to spend on advocacy, which means to create awareness about Northeast in the rest of India using various advocacy tools, such as conferences, audio-visual media, cultural events and so on. A large chunk of the allotted money, if not all, gets spent in such endeavours, but the results are for everyone to see. This needs to change. Whatever advocacy is done must bring in results in the long term. The culture of organising “seminars” for the sake of it, where people talk, eat and go back home, does not serve any purpose unless the discourse is taken to the next level of publishing the edited version of the speeches and taking action on the recommendations. Instead of just painting the whole region as ‘Northeast’ at every platform, individual states need to be highlighted for each of their uniqueness. In this context, I remember how Bhabendra Nath Saikia, Jahnu Barua and Aribam Syam Sharma had boycotted a joint press conference at one of the International Film Festival of India (IFFI) editions in the late 1990s in New Delhi because they had not been given individual slots to speak but were clubbed under a ‘Northeast directors’ category. Their argument was, “We as individual filmmakers have our own individual points to make.” This is the philosophy that the states of the Northeast should adopt to their advantage. As the four southern states are called South India, the eight Northeastern states should be known as Northeast India just for their geographic location and maybe for certain strategic matters, but not for everything and anything.


While a discriminatory attitude bordering on racism towards people from the Northeast in many parts of India is a fact of life, it is also a fact that there is an attitude of ghettoisation among many from the Northeast. This might sound sensational in the present context, but it is a fact. An obvious pointer to this is the community-based student organisations in Delhi University. Like in the Northeast, here too, instead of forming state-wise student bodies, there are student bodies reflecting ethnic identities, and each group of student mostly stick within themselves instead of mingling with others, barring during one of the ‘Northeast’ events. You would see hardly any from other Northeastern states if there is a Bihu celebration of the Assamese community, and likewise for any other festivity involving different communities. We keep complaining that the rest of India does not understand us, but how much effort do we make to create awareness among them about us? And it seems it suits the governments also to keep people from the region as a special, exotic category. Or else, why are there special, separate hostels for students and working women from the Northeast in Delhi? Yes, to a great extent women from the Northeast require a great amount of protection against prying male eyes in North India. But that is the case practically for any women from anywhere in North India. The government, particularly the relevant ministries such as Doner, women and child development and home claim great credit for these initiatives, but if they want to actually help develop a sense of understanding about the Northeast, they should build hostels where probably a 60:40 or even 50:50 ratio of students or women from the Northeast and rest of India are housed. To tell a bitter truth, even if there are exclusive hostels for students and working women from the region, there will be groups according to ethnicities, leaving aside personal level friendships. In such a hostel, will a Kuki and a Naga stick together just because they are from the Northeast? And anyways, when one goes out to study and work, one has to share space with people from all over, so why not the same where one is staying?

(To be continued…)

(published in the Seven Sisters Post, http://www.sevensisterspost.com, 16-05-2012)


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