Play that folksy music!!!

Mercy and Kuku of Nagaland’s Tetseo Sisters had big burly men behaving like little girls.

Mercy and Kuku of Nagaland’s Tetseo Sisters had big burly men behaving like little girls.

An assorted group of young and old lie scattered leisurely on the meadow, some holding bamboo mugs filled with the locally made rice wine called apong, waiting for the music to begin. When siblings Mütsevelü aka Mercy and Kuvelü aka Kuku of the Tetseo Sisters take to the stage, the audience swells in numbers and sounds of cheers fill the venue declaring the arrival of Northeast India’s folk music.

Merely three years old, the Ziro Festival of Music or ZFM has become a favourite amongst musicians and non-musicians alike. Coupled with an eclectic mix of musicians and lush green paddy fields that dot Ziro valley in Arunachal Pradesh, it is easy to see why. And while this year’s edition of the festival (held from September 25 to 28) saw the largest line up of artists and was even extended by a day, it also witnessed the rise of Northeast folk music.

Home to various communities and tribes, the Northeast has always had a reputation for being musically rich. However, for artists from the region, the inclination and preference for performing has always been towards western style music. If anyone needed proof that that trend is now changing, one needed to be at the ZFM this year.

This year, the organisers of the festival were supported by the Itanagar-based trust Living Dreams which works to preserve tribal culture and released a folk-fusion album featuring music of six tribes of Arunachal Pradesh at Mumbai recently. One of the festival founders Anup Kutty, of the rock band Menwhopause, says they took a conscious decision to include more folk artists from the region this year; a decision that definitely yielded the right results.

And although it is easy to categorise, the truth is that the term ‘folk’ fails to truly capture the vast of array of sounds of the various musicians who had travelled many miles on dilapidated roads to perform for a mere 45 minutes.

The Omak Kamut Collective perform blues renditions of tribal Adi songs

The Omak Kamut Collective perform blues renditions of tribal Adi songs

The home grown Omak Komut Collective for example perform in the language of the Adi tribe. Some of their songs cannot even be termed as songs in the traditional sense of the word but ancient tribal hymns and prayers. However, with the heavy use of blues guitar, their songs have a fun feel to it that makes it impossible for people to not jive to. This is in contrast to the Karbi artist Warklung’s hypnotic tunes.

Using at least five different instruments (one of which includes a fresh hollow bamboo), Warklung from the state of Assam managed to send some sections of the audiences already intoxicated by the aforementioned apong to an almost transcendental state of mind.

Another artist who has a similar ability to entrance is Rida Marbaniang of the Meghalaya’s Shillong-based Rida and the Musical Folks. While their performance may have left a little to be desired, singing to the sounds of the guitars and traditional Khasi instruments, it was clear that the vocalist has the ability to both uplift and mellow crowds at the same time; a quality that again reasons against the generic term ‘folk music’.

While the four-day event’s highly-charged evening performances were on much demand, it was the daytime’s soothing performances that audiences nursing hangovers needed. No one did that as well as the Tetseo Sisters.

Dressed in tweaked modern versions of their Chakesang tribe’s traditional dresses, Mercy explains to the audience why sisters Azine and Alüne were unable to make it to the fest even though they really wanted to. For those who had made a mad rush to watch the sisters from Nagaland perform, it didn’t matter.

Armed with the traditional string instrument tati made with mithun horns, an Apple Macbook and omnipresent smiles, the sisters take to the stage with their brother Mhaseve who occasionally accompanies them on the guitar. Their opening song Thokwrli about women working the agricultural fields and caring for the semi-domesticated mithuns help connect the audience to the roots of their Li- a style of singing characterised by powerful multiple vocals.

From performing an electro-infused version of the popular O’ Rhosi to debuting their latest single Ohe, their songs dealt with issues of love and loneliness (or the lack of it). As Mercy would explain the meanings of each song, the existential-esque tone of their Li would become clear. Expanding on Ohe, she says that the song is about the fleeting moments of life and the importance of spending time with loved ones.

Given their present popularity, especially on social media platforms, it is hard to imagine that the Tetseo Sisters faced criticism when they were starting out in the late nineties.

Mercy says that when they began performing, they faced opposition from Church leaders who felt the Li went against Christian beliefs. But they persevered to preserve what she says is part of people’s lives. That perhaps is one of the biggest challenges that tribal musicians from the region today face- preserving part of people’s lives through the songs of yore. Something that Manipur musician Rewben Mashangva agrees with.

A proponent of the Tangkhul-Naga Hao form of music, Rewben, or Guru as he is affectionately referred to, feels tribal people are losing their identity and that music is way to reclaim it. A veteran musician who has performed across the country for three decades, the 53-year old knows how to cater to his audience and changes to a more bluesy style of music to get the crowd going. He begins his set with ‘Princess of the mountain’, confessing how much he loves women, his wife included. Not one to shy away from building a rapport with the audience, Rewben takes out time to crack risqué jokes. But his carefully selected songs also make people think.

The King

The King

Moving effortlessly between his Tangkhul language originals to such classics like Hank Snow’s Nobody’s Child, Rewben’s powerful coarse voice encompasses the green meadow with good intent. “I get my energy from the crowd”, he later says.

“I want to preserve our old songs, many of which we have already lost’, Rewben says and confesses that he is himself unsure about the meaning of the chorus to one of his biggest hits Hope Pee.

He explains that the meaning behind the phrase “has been lost through the ages” before quickly speculating that it was probably used to invoke spirits because the song tends to make people get up and dance. “I think the song was used to make a call for people to get groovy”, the charming ‘king of the Naga folk blues’ says with a smile.

First published in The Thumb Print on October 2014. Link: http://www.thethumbprintmag.com/ziro-festival-the-new-fusion-destination-arunachal-northeast-music/

Another night

Oh Cobain you burnt out half a generation too soon.

If you were alive, you would kill yourself all over again.

The pains of our singular personalities, are the burdens of the masses today.

The weight on our collective shoulders grows heavier each day.

What cruel world we have inherited,

where

Our human coil lasts forever

and a moist Cigarette burns out in a flash

with

a Single Drop.

The stench of our filth grows stronger.

The rain cleanses, not our bodies but bares the soul naked.

This is the world the meek have inherited today.

The lighting still flashes from behind the sea of dark.

The thunder rages and the rain falls steadily, cautiously,

on the ground below.

It serves no purpose but to degrade and deride us further.

Oh there is no prayer that can SOS us tonight.

There is no emotion but fear.

Scene on a rainy night

Like flashes from a DSLR, the dark sky flickers with light.

The darkness is forgotten for a moment, as the rain thunders on.

“Boom, boom”, the clouds cry out; below a stream grows wild.

The oft-repeated “tipper-tapper” romanticised picture of the rain is forgotten;

What becomes clear now is the fury of nature.

“Lights out”, Thor seems to command; few seem to listen.

’tis no forest here and the woods are clear. And even in the darkness, the view appears dear.

The light shines on on a few houses there

and a few houses ‘ere.

But our own temples seem so bare.

Suddenly, on the horizon a false moon rises, trying to break free from the clouds.

At the time when the night and day meet, and the rising skyline shines bright, as the hills recede.

“What have we done? What have we done?”

in my head

in my head in my head i have often strayed.
Thought of all the things i could have had.
After having gulped many a beers,
i’ve often pondered over so many wasted years.
In my head in my head is the pain of knowledge.
The wisdom of self existence and the angst of carnal storage.
Thankful i’m not of the good that’s come my way,
instead i seem to think of things gone away.
In my head in my head i hear the sound of pain.
The pain of self inflicted misery and of disdain.
In my head in my head oh have i so often strayed.

Of whisky and promises or (For the love of whisky)

The fan creaks slow and the calendar waves as if to say hello,

Whilst gladiators on TV fight it out.

The ice melts and turns brown becoming one,

like passionate lovers in a final embrace.

With hearts filled with lust and loins burning with carnal desires,

They juxtapose in holy union.

“We meet once more old friend”, they must say.

But they are not alone, for a ménage à trois awaits them.

A third wheel, he is not.

For joining them is their old Romeo.

A Romeo living on the balcony with his two Juliets.

“Clink, Clink”, they whisper to him as he holds them in his palm.

They go down him like warm sunshine on a cold winter night.

“Aah”, he moans.

He sits back to soak it all in.

Their journeys’ like the opposite ends of a prism;

One so young, the other so old.

One so white, the other so bright.

“You’re so misunderstood, both of ya’ll”, he comforts them.

“Don’t worry, for I will love you till the calendar ends”, he assures them.

“Many false gods came to me”, he confesses,

“and accepted them in my youth, I have”, he continues.

“Wayward I was, have mercy”, he weeps.

“I discard them tonight and forever pledge my allegiance”, he swears.

——

Ironically, written sipping on vodka.

Beef? Yes please!

Javed Khan approaches a table at his restaurant and lists out the various dishes available – curry, chaap (ribs), liver, bheja (brains), intestine and keema (minced). With a polite smile, he recommends the brain. Beef brain, that is.

After recent comments by India’s minister of state for home affairs Kiren Rijiju and minority affairs minister Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi on the issue of banning beef, the possible nationwide ban on the slaughter of cows has once again taken centrestage.

While the jury is still out on the interpretation of Rijiju’s statement, most people in his home state are not impressed by the idea of banning beef.

Khan, who has been running Khan Restaurant and Beef Hotel at Naharlagun here, said, “It would be impossible to enforce such a ban in the Northeast”. His restaurant is often frequented by MLAs and ministers of the state and is one of the several Muslim-run restaurants that are referred to simply as beef hotels. “Business is good,” Khan said.

Another Khan – Jakharudin – came to Arunachal soon after it was granted statehood in February 1987. Originally from Sitamarhi district in Bihar, he did odd jobs and operated a small shop until setting up Taj Hotel in Itanagar in 1998. While not exactly reminiscent of the famous monument in Agra, he has shifted its location twice and upgraded to a cleaner area since then.

Jakharudin claims that he is just about able to break even. “The cost of meat at Rs 180 per kilo is too high,” he said.

A young entrepreneur, Tage Laring, felt that the idea of banning the meat “defies logic”. He added: “It is the only meat that can be boiled in water with nothing but salt and still be delicious”.

There is, however, a division of opinion within Rijiju’s own party. Tame Phassang, the party’s national council member of Arunachal West parliamentary constituency, said he does not eat beef and that he “gave it up a long time ago, even before joining the party”. However, another party member, Komjum Riba, admitted that he eats beef and that his “food habits should not be a matter of concern for the party”.

There are others in the state who are wary of the idea of banning beef. Passang D. Sona, the Congress MLA from Mechukha in West Siang district, said the choice (to eat or not to eat beef) should be left to individuals and a ban questions India’s secular credentials. “Being a secular country, every religion’s practices, lifestyle and philosophy must be respected,” he said.

Referring to the ban on cow slaughter in Maharashtra, filmmaker and professor at Rajiv Gandhi University here, Moji Riba, said, “If there is a larger design to implement a nationwide ban, it needs to be looked at critically.”

He said, “The core idea of India is its diversity and these measures are a cruel irony.” Riba also felt that such a ban “denies” him of his “right to be different”.

A senior government official put it more poignantly: “Beef represents something bigger than just meat”.

This story came in the backdrop of the proposal made by the government to ban slaughter of cows and consumption of beef. Link to original story published in The Telegraph in June 2015: http://www.telegraphindia.com/1150604/jsp/northeast/story_23756.jsp#.VexZ2fmqqko

Chasing dreams- The story of Lobsang Nima and how photography discovered him

The pains of life pass Lobsang Nima by as he picks moments and freezes them through his lens and observant eye, capturing life frame by frame.

Now, the teenager, who works with a borrowed camera, hopes to turn his passion into a profession.

His mother Tenzing Chotten works at the local PWD office and as a result of his father’s ill health, the young photographer often has to do odd jobs before taking to the camera.

Lobsang now has his own camera :)

Lobsang now has his own camera 🙂

However, once the bug bit him a year ago, it took less than a year for the 14-year-old lad to become an accomplished shutterbug, and his captures were recently showcased at an exhibition on the sidelines of the recently concluded Tawang Festival in Arunachal Pradesh in India’s Northeast.

Along with various cultural performances, the festival had featured several exhibitions, of which one was Lobsang’s.

The New Delhi-based Art for Cause had set up the exhibition stall.

The society had also conducted a photography workshop in Tawang in September last year, where Lobsang discovered his passion for the camera.

Lobsang’s works feature an eclectic mix of portraits and landscapes.

The teenager said he does not have a camera of his own and that he uses his “sir’s camera”.

The sir referred to is Irshal Ishu, a photographer and the founder of Art for Cause, who organised a 10-day photography camp in September last year.

Ishu said he saw great potential in Lobsang, which prompted him to take him under his wing.

Lobsang now trains under Ishu directly and has recently travelled to New Delhi and Ladakh as well.

“It was not easy to pick one student among the 700 who attended the workshop last year,” said Ishu, adding, “Lobsang was eager to learn advanced techniques just two days into the workshop.”

A practising Buddhist, Ishu said it was his “dream to come to Tawang because it’s so close to Tibet”.

He said because of his work in the Indian Himalayan region that primarily deals with the Tibetan cause, he isn’t permitted to visit China.

Ishu’s photographs, which are also on display, show Tibetan Buddhist influences.

At the opening day of the Tawang Festival on May 1, Arunachal Pradesh governor Nirbhay Sharma had said security of the state should be of utmost priority in order to promote tourism.

For young Lobsang, however, these things do not matter.

“I want to become a better photographer,” he said.

I am happy that this story played a small part in inspiring my friend Kobyum Zirdo to raise funds and buy Lobsang his own camera. First published in May 2015. Link: http://www.telegraphindia.com/1150512/jsp/northeast/story_19579.jsp#.VexYNPmqqkp

Defying the odds

Toku Mary wants to practise law when she grows up. But her friend Gangte Yama is unsure.

“I dream about the possibilities, but don’t know if I will be able to achieve them,” Yama said.

Both Mary and Yama are students at Donyi-Polo Mission School for the hearing and visually impaired.

Established on October 15, 1990 by former  chief minister of the Northeast Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh, Gegong Apang, with three deaf students at a rented accommodation here, the school has since grown and relocated to a 5.91-acre plot of land and currently houses 87 students.

In the past two decades, the school has been educating differently-abled children of lower income families of the state for free.

Official estimates said there are 33,315 people in Arunachal with various disabilities. Among them is Bullo Tadi, who works as a lower division clerk at the civil secretariat here. Communicating with a pen and notepad, Tadi, an alumnus of the school, was at his alma mater on Wednesday to observe International Day of Persons with Disabilities. Tadi completed his secondary education in 2004 before transferring to a different school, as Donyi-Polo Mission does not offer higher secondary education.

Now pursuing his graduation, Tadi said he faces “no problems” when it comes to his work and life in general.

Having celebrated his 29th birthday a day earlier, Tadi is looking forward to settling down and getting married to his girlfriend Insim who operates a beauty parlour in Dimapur, Nagaland. Like Tadi, Insim, too, is hearing impaired.

Arunachal Pradesh governor Lt Gen. (retd) Nirbhay Sharma was scheduled to be at the school but a last-minute cancellation meant that the school authority had to postpone the celebrations by a day. While the governor did send across his message, he missed out on cultural programmes performed by the students.

Among them was a Bihu performance by young girls who could not hear music. As they sashayed their hips and intricately turned and twisted their wrists, they never missed a beat. One of the dancers, Class VIII student Kipa Sumpa, appeared most excited. Asked if she enjoyed dancing, she jumped in joy and mouthed the words “very much”.

Deaf students of the school dance to a Bihu song.

Deaf students of the school dance to a Bihu song.

After initially admitting only deaf children, the school began admitting visually impaired children from December 2008. The school’s principal, H. Sharma, who has been with the institute since its inception, said visually impaired children face a greater hurdle than the ones who cannot hear. “They are often unable to get the right amount of exercise because it is difficult for them to move about freely.”

A blind student, Rie Koyu, said he was is “unable to fulfil many of his wishes because of his dependence on others”. That, however, he said, will not stop him from pursuing his dream of becoming either a teacher or a singer.

A Class VIII student, Rie has been training in Indian classical music since 2011. While he desperately wishes to become a singer and receives a grant of Rs 1,000 every month from the centre, he says he still has much vocal training to pursue. “Unfortunately, there are financial constraints to consider,” he added.

That the institute faces financial constraints is evident from the cramped dormitories the children have to stay in.

Sharma said the corpus fund of Rs 5 crore just about covers the school’s expenses but leaves no room for improvement of infrastructure.

Students like Dindo Oku, however, do not complain.

Oku, who is partially blind, was among the first six visually impaired students the school admitted. On Thursday, she had led a group dance with nine hearing impaired girls.

Sharma said the institute has asked the state government for an increase in corpus and hopes that more funds will help address some of the infrastructure issues. Pointing to the unguarded gates, he said, “God is our security”.

First published in The Telegraph in December 2014. Link to original story: http://www.telegraphindia.com/1141207/jsp/northeast/story_2432.jsp#.VexWCPmqqkp

Battling HIV and its stigma

Having been at the receiving end of society and his own family ever since he tested positive for HIV, a man from India’s Arunachal Pradesh state in the Northeast has sent a message on World AIDS Day — to live life positively.

Yumrik Nokpa fights the odds stacked against him.

Yumrik Nokpa fights the odds stacked against him.

Around three years ago, 28-year-old Yumrik Nokpa tested positive for HIV after his wife was also found to be HIV positive during a pregnancy test. After being evicted from his house and ostracised by family members, he now works with the Arunachal Network of Positive People (ArNP+) helping spread awareness about the disease and stigma.

The ArNP+, an organisation comprising 14 HIV-positive individuals, was formed in 2012 with the help and encouragement of the National AIDS Control Organisation and AP State AIDS Control Society.

Its primary work focuses on providing counselling and helping HIV-positive individuals live healthy lives with the virus.

Nokpa, who is the general secretary of the ArNP+, says unlike before, people in the state are beginning to understand the disease and slowly letting go of the stigma associated with it.

But that was not the case three years ago.

When Nokpa and his wife made their HIV status public in 2011, the landlord evacuated them from their rented house.

At that time, Nokpa was an auto-rickshaw driver and when news of his condition reached his fellow auto-rickshaw drivers, he was assaulted by two of them. “They were my friends,” he says. Even his own family disowned him. “How can someone live without a livelihood?”

Now, sitting in his cosy office, Nokpa says HIV-positive people face immense challenges to find a livelihood. “If HIV-positive people tell potential employers about their condition, we risk not getting jobs. If we hide the fact, we may lose our jobs if employers find out later,” he says.

However, he says attitudes are changing and people often approach them to enquire about HIV and AIDS. His friends who had assaulted him have since apologised.

Living in a kutcha house, Nokpa says he believes people should abide by the live and let live policy. While both his wife and he are HIV-positive, their two sons are not and that helps him stay optimistic. He continues to maintain a “positive” outlook on life and says, “Let the virus die with me.”

This story was first published in December 2014. Link to original story: http://www.telegraphindia.com/1141202/jsp/northeast/story_19119124.jsp#.VexUmfmqqkp

Route to roads- Can dams bring development in an area neglected for years?

It is late November and the harvest season has arrived in Arunachal Pradesh. Tajir Tali, the headmaster of the government middle school in Parong village of East Siang district, has taken time out from work to tend to his golden-hued paddy field on a hill slope.

As he and the women from his family go about harvesting paddy to last them the year, the Siang flows steadily in the gorge below. While environmentalists and NGOs raise concerns over plans to construct over 40 dams on the Siang, Tali appears unaffected. In fact, he says he is looking forward to it because he has “never seen a dam before”.

Flowing parallel to the eastern Himalayas, the Yarlung Tsangpo enters India through the north-eastern state of Arunachal Pradesh before merging with the Brahmaputra in the plains of Assam below. On its 294-km journey through Arunachal Pradesh, the river is known as the Siang. Along its banks are lush green hills teeming with wildlife, living alongside members of the Adi and Galo tribes.

The Raneghat bridge near Pasighat.

The Raneghat bridge near Pasighat.

Of late, concerns have been raised that a way of life that has sustained itself for centuries may be lost forever if plans to bring about modern infrastructure development materialise. But in many villages, people voiced support for the dams as well as for the possible losses.

Located 138km north from the East Siang district headquarters of Pasighat, Parong is one of the several villages along the river where residents do not face the immediate threat of displacement from the proposed hydropower plants.

Over the last few years, several anti-large dam organisations have taken shape, but many villagers not living along the banks of the Siang appear unaffected by larger environmental concerns. What villagers like Tali are worried about is the slow pace of development of their area. And they believe that if hydropower plants are set up, development will follow.

As Tali speaks of how he “wants to see dams”, a young villager sporting a cowboy hat makes his way to the paddy field. He introduces himself as Elung Tapak and is angry that the size of the road running through the village has remained narrow since Independence.

“How will the army carry large ammunition if the Chinese attack again?” he asks, referring to the 1962 Chinese aggression, when PLA forces had occupied most parts of the state for nearly a month. Another villager, Tamat Pabia, a friend of Tali’s, says he has “heard that the Chinese have built helipads on the “other side”.

While all three villagers want dams to be set up because they feel hydropower projects will bring development to the area, there were other concerns raised.

Tapak feared that the dams may wash away large swathes of land below on the foothills of the village and Pabia said the water channels from the upper reaches of the surrounding hills have been drying steadily over the last few decades. However, such are the immediate needs of the people that across villages they are willing to lose land, even villagers whose agricultural fields would be submerged by the dams.

Like most places in Arunachal Pradesh, families and neighbours help each other out at the fields.

Like most places in Arunachal Pradesh, families and neighbours help each other out at the fields.

Up north in the village of Peging Bote, sitting inside a Mizo Presbyterian missionary’s home, Opang Tali, a recently converted Christian from the village, says he is not concerned about land submergence that the dams will bring because it’s not his land. What of his fellow tribesmen who will lose their ancestral land? “We can sympathise with them,” he says.

Down south on the way to Pasighat, Talik Taki, a resident of Sissen village, is so desperate for proper road connectivity that he is ready to forego parts of his agricultural land.

Earlier this year, the village of 20 homes made headlines after voters refused to participate in the Lok Sabha and Assembly elections to voice their anger over the absence of a motorable road to the village. Apart from crossing a rickety bamboo hanging bridge over the Siang and walking up a 1.5-km footpath, the only other way to reach Sissen is by walking on a centuries-old link trail cutting across eight villages of the Nugong Banggo area. It is on this village trail that Australian event manager Melina Mellino recently organised a three-day 100-km hike called Run Siang.

The hike gathered professional and amateur athletes from India and abroad running back and forth across six villages for three days from November 26 to 28. Villagers were told beforehand to ensure that the runners were given a warm reception with food and water to replenish themselves. At Sissen, Taki and other villagers welcomed them with roasted sweet potatoes, oranges and grounded flat-rice cakes. While they extended their hospitality, even performing an impromptu welcome song and dance called the ponung, the villagers said they did not understand why these people were running so much.

Melina Mellino and Vince Radford from Australia organised a 100-km run across six villages.

Melina Mellino and Vince Radford from Australia organised a 100-km run across six villages.

Chewing on some of the roasted sweet potatoes on the return hike, Melina said she was taken aback by the beauty of the place when she and her partner Vince Radford first visited the area in December last year. “It’s such a beautiful place so we started thinking of ways to bring people in to see it,” she said.

The event website that was created explains that “the area is spectacular and unique and without attention, awareness and education, it will be lost”.

This sense of what may be lost is felt by Taki as well; he has to walk 6km to reach his paddy fields.

He says the financial compensation for his land can never replace the loss. But in the same breath, he says that perhaps his village will finally get a road once the dams are built “because the government will build it for the power company and then maybe we can use it too”.

In the original story published in December 2014, the distance from Pasighat to Parong was erroneously mentioned as being 38km instead of 138km. Link to the story: http://www.telegraphindia.com/1141206/jsp/frontpage/story_2367.jsp#.VexSa_mqqkp