A Multitude Of Song-Forms & Instruments

Dhwani (manifest sound) is regarded as the starting point of all creation an d both a s speech and music, this sound is conditioned by the 'desa' or region of its location. Ascribed to the 9th century AD by some scholars and to an earlier date by others, Matanga's Brihaddesi reflects and theorises on dhwani, not as an isolated something, but a s the vital art ingredient of a region, rooted in its soil. Citizens of India living in the States of the NorthEast, who are geographically isolated, have long felt cut-off and distanced from the mainstream culture of the country— and justifiably so. The central Sangeet Natak Akademi's Brhaddesi Festival conducted in Guwahati and focussed on the local musics of the region, sought to address this feeling. So did the accompanying seminar.   

Inaugurating the seminar, Komal Kothari, whose research on the folklore and the regional musical tradition s of Rajasthan forms a most vital chapter in cultural musicology, explained how musical instruments could provide crucial insights into the entire lifestyle of a people, including their food habits. He disclosed how even kitchenware— like thali-s and ghada-s— have been harnessed to create musical sound and rhythm. Dr. Mukund Lath , a historian teaching in the Departmen t of History and Culture, University of Rajasthan, Jaipur, and author of acclaimed works like A Study of Dattilam (1978), spoke on the Desi/Margi concepts as propounded in Brihaddesi. He said these concepts were far more relevant to the India n context than the folk/classical categorisation borrowed from the West; and added that the unstructured spontaneity of desi or local art, which he described as a manifestation of 'empowered' and 'autonomous' regionalism, has ranjan a or pleasure as its driving force. Margi, he explained, denotes a self-conscious and self-critical analysis which yields a system of concepts and grammar. He observed that this disciplined approach helps to elaborate and broaden the horizon of a desi art-form, and thus pave s the way for the wider acceptance of the art-form by, and as well greater accessibility to it, even for persons outside the desa or region. Citing what he believed were parallels from the domain of language s to drive his point home , Lath spoke of Prakrit and Apabhrams a as dialects and of Sanskrit as the language. While musicologists privately differed on the validity of the linguisti c parallel, all were in total agreement about Lath's main point abou t Desi an d Margi, namely, that they were not opposed categories but the beginning and end points in a continuum and tha t the flexibility in accommodating changes has been part of Indian art traditions where change is not 'dooshan' (a blot) but 'bhooshan' (an ornament). With ethnic strains and cultural stimuli from Thailand, Myanmar (Burma), China , Tibet, Bhutan and of course the rest of India, the NorthEast is a cultural melting pot in which a host of religious persuasion s like Animism, Buddhism, Hinduism an d Christianity have, at different points, influenced lifestyles and art traditions. Professor Birendranat h Dutta , a scholar an d academician of repute , spoke about this meeting of and interaction between culture s in his keynote address. He illustrated his observations by citing the query Chinese traveller Hieun Tsang addresse d to Bhaskar Verma (7th century)—when the former visited Pragjotisha—whether it was true that the song heralding the Chines e emperor's victory over a rival king ha d become very popular in the land of Harshavardhana ! He also disclosed that a Manipur chronicle of 707 AD mentioned that the Chines e king defeated Ning Thou Thang , the ruler of Manipur, and that the latter then sen ta delegation, accompanied by musicians, to the Chinese court. Dr. Dutt a also said that, between the 8th and the 11th centuries, raga-s like Patamanjari, Kamod and Bhairavi were being rendered in parts of the North-East. The tribes of the seven States of the North-East, as well as of Sikkim, each has it own specific cultural identity in terms of languages and dialects spoken and musical forms and instruments used. This was reflected in the bewildering variety of musical fare which was spoken about or demonstrated at the seminar sessions and offered on the stage in the evenings.


Even the small and hilly State of Tripura, inhabited by several ethnic groups, offers a unique picture of this variety. Tribes named Tripuri, Reang, Jamatia, Noatia, Kaloi, Rupini, Uchoi, Murasing and the like, speak the Kakbarak language along with the Chakma, the Mogh, the Mizo, the Douling, the Halam and other peoples inhabiting this region. The limitless range of music, including a specific type offering songs in a mixture of Bengali and local tribal culture, was fascinating, as was the gamut of instruments which visitors from outside the region had likely never seen or heard before. Interestingly, some of these instruments could produce two or more melodies simultaneously, yielding a polyphonic effect. Among the instruments used in this area are the hengarang (an instrument of the Chakma tribe) and petla. Other instruments heard at the seminar or the festival included: kham, dhak, garo, gong, khajan, simui (a flute), sainda (sarinda), chongpreng (a special bamboo guitar), owathop (a bamboo clapping instrument), dhuduk (an idiophonic instrument of the Chakma played by rubbing the playing surface), rosem (small brass reeds placed on seven bamboo pipes attached to a hollow gourd).


A similar colourful display came from Nagaland. The Nagas have a rich aural tradition, represented by the songs of the Sangtham and Ao tribes, the music of the Sema and Angami tribes and of groups like Tangkhuls, Mao, Maram, Kabui, Liangmei and Zemi living in the hills of Manipur, as well as of the Kuki Naga tribes like Thadou, Paite, Gangte, Zou and Hmar which also live in the Manipur area. Instruments like the gong, mithun, horn and bamboo bugles are used by the Kukis who also have a modified version of the sarinda. Kuki songs based on two or three notes project a distinctive and low humming tone. The repertoire includes songs for special occasions like courtship and funerals, songs on battles lost and won, songs on heroes, harvesting songs, marriage songs and lullabies— the list seems endless. From the warrior, marriage and love songs rendered by a Naga playing on a long-necked string instrument (with its octave and tonal range adjusted with the fingers of one hand pressing down on the strings at one point), to the performance of a macabre Head Hunter's Dance in which a severed head dripping blood is hoisted on a spear— luckily, this was an imitation—there was a wide spectrum of mood changes. Most unique was the combination of a main voice intoning a continual 'ah' (like a drone) and other voices adjusted to its pitch. The very sophisticated presentation, marked by excellently matched and tasteful costumes and fine group discipline, was a surprise. There were work songs built round weaving, rice pounding, harvesting and other activities. But nothing prepared the audience for the marvelously harmonised singing of three Chakesang women, of whom the lusty-voiced soprano could be a match for the best anywhere even in the West. The immaculate co-ordination of even the intake of breath and the pauses left the listeners speechless in admiration. While it seemed, in this case, that the element of harmony had been inducted by Christian missionaries, one could not forget the earlier Tripura example of simultaneity of music in different octaves, proving that this type of tandem-singing of varied melodies was not entirely unknown. But what was unbelievable was seeing such versatility and professionalism in untutored girls whose only training, in the remote villages of their residence and upbringing, consists of listening to songs sung all around and imitating them. Some of the lamentation songs have a wistful quality, like that of the Thadau Naga from Manipur, wherein a young girl entreats a swallow to fetch her dead mother from heaven to console the little brother whose ceaseless crying she is unable to control.


In Meghalaya, the people speak only English and the church music of Khasi and Jaintia Hills is a blend of Western and tribal culture. On offer were some of the best in choir-singing. Music for the Khasi starts from the hearth (Ka Rympei). The Garos of Meghalaya, who now prefer to call themselves the A'chiks, have a wealth of traditional songs which are now becoming more known. Dikki songs dedicated to the legendary half-human, half-divine being—'the handsomest that ever lived'—are famous. In this genre, new lyrics are improvised on the spot and added to the conventional two-line song. The harvest festival of Wangala has its own songs. Dani is a songtype narrating how the animals and plants of the underworld showed human beings the arts of singing and dancing. Ajea courtship songs and songs rendered during the death ceremony are also part of the musical repertoire of the Garos. The drum called aama is regarded as sacred and kept in the house of the Chief, to be used only on certain occasions. The other drums, less exalted and used for various festivities, are kept in the bachelors' dormitory called Nokpante. Wind instruments of different types, particularly the flute (made of bamboo), trumpet and horn, the gongmina (which is similar to a morsing or Jew's harp) and string instruments like the sarinda and chingring are all commonly used, apart from the gongs which are part of the family heirloom. Lapynshari Syiem, who has an M.A. in history but has simultaneously learned Hindustani classical music and studied Khasi music, read a paper on the rhythmic pattern of the ritualistic music of the Khasi-s. But the translation of two terms—one as 10 units of drums and the other as 27 beats—caused confusion. Nor could she or anyone else find proper parallels in the vocabulary of tala techniques for words like 'skit'.


It is not surprising that gospel music has become a very prominent part of Mizoram's melodic culture, inasmuch Christianity came to this area in 1890. Choir-singing has always been a part of gospel music and to hear the erstwhile headhunters singing Handel's Hallelujah reflects, to say the least, a cultural transformation. What is surprising is that there is now a movement, especially among the young, for reviving old songs which were part of the traditional lifestyle in Myanmar before these people migrated to settle down in Mizorarn. Dar Hla (played and not sung), Hlado or Bawh Hla (songs of heroes), Chai Hla (sung during festivals like Chapchar Kut, Mim Kut, Pawl Kut and Nari Awih Hla (lullabies) and Lengzem Zoi (love songs) are all part of the traditional heritage. After the advent of Christianity, these traditional songs were suppressed by the Church. But in 1906 in Aizawl began the first revival movement of Puma Zai, in which music as found in the Christian faith was used as a means of spreading the message of the traditional religion. Lately, even gospel songs have been written by contemporary composers and set to traditional tunes. Among the instruments special to this area are the bur tingtang (a string instrument), phenglawng (flute), dar (gong), darbui (brass gong), seki (horn) rawchem (like the Chinese snag), tawtawrawt (bamboo trumpet) and lemlawi (an instrument which produces a sound like the morsang).

Arunachal Pradesh

Arunachal Pradesh is home to the Singphoo, the Lisu and the Tutsa tribes. The Singphoos believe that dance belonged to the 'nat-s' or spirits and that the birds, which asked to participate in this art, developed it to be later emulated by man. The community dance called Manau has its origin in this myth. A lot of the music of Arunachal Pradesh is centred on the festival of Shapawng Yawng Manau Poi, held in memory of their ancestor Shapawng Yawng. The gong called baw, the supseng (a round metallic instrument played during festivities) and the thong (a drum) are very crucial to singing. For the last 300 years, the Singphoos have been Buddhists. They trace their descent from a semimythological figure who had six brothers descended from heaven. The Lisus, who migrated from Thailand, Laos, south China and Upper Burma, are about 3000 people living in eight villages in an area where their only contact with the rest of the world, most of the time, is through the tri-weekly IAF sorties that bring food packets. In get-up and music, the Christian influence is predominant. The flute, a wooden guitar with four strings and no frets, a bamboo mouth organ, bamboo blades and morchang are all used as accompaniment for their simple music. Buddhist Monpa music from the Tawang monastery was slated to be presented at the festival, but it could not be organised, although Yusihay Yobin, Assistant Professor at the North-East Hill University (NEHU) in Shillong, undertook a gruelling five-day trek on icy tracks to the monastery, in order to make contact with the musicians.


Typical of the Indian situation is Manipuri regional music and dance: desi and also classical in its grammar and structure, making the entire folk/classical division irrelevant. Manipuri Nata Sankeertan, which was presented in a specially erected square mandapa on the lawns of Hotel Ashok Brahmaputra, with the Brahmaputra river running alongside the fence, was an experience of a lifetime. The pungand cymbal-playing, led by Lakhpati Singh, provided the richest example of what Vaishnavism and the bhakti movement have produced by way of art. Distinctions between the devotional and the artistic seemed to dissolve in what was a magical two-and-a-half hours of sankeertan with the pung and the cymbals. The crisply-starched topcloth slung over the shoulder elegantly, which remained in place despite the energetic movements of singing, dancing and instrument-playing; the aesthetically-patterned turbans differently designed for the pung and the cymbal players; the phenomenal group discipline; the formality of a ritual observed with devotion and dignity; the improvisatory creativity of the participants woven deftly into the structured format; the ebb and flow of emotion, now soaring, now placid; the geometry of formations of circle and square, in an interweaving of the micro and the macro— it was a whole art universe where even the spectator who wished to show his admiration had to observe the strict route laid down for his entry and exit. Here are artists who perform without any consciousness of the 'audience' and yet create art which keeps audiences spellbound. The pre-Vaishnavite fare presented the following evening was equally evocative.

Manipuri traditional music is largely fashioned by pena, a simple string instrument of the Meitei, which looks ancient with its bridge fashioned of horse-hair set on a coconut shell resonator, with no pegs to alter the tension of the strings. The other part of this tiny instrument is a large and curving bow of wood and metal twice its size, with 108 metal bells strung round the arc. With every jerk of the wrist, these bells provide a unified sound, like the dancer's feet with anklebells, to a beat of a tala and the instrument becomes percussive even while being used for providing melody of the most-charged intensity. The pena is used to maximum effect in the narrative folk traditions of the Meitei-s. Guru Mangi Singh's Moirang Kanglei Ishei brought excerpts of the Khamba Thoibi legend, with four other players also playing the pena acting as the chorus. It was a masterpiece of drama and music, with the pena serving to punctuate the narration. One did not need to understand the language in order to enjoy the entire enactment where it seemed the instrument too was telling the story and sharing its emotional ups and downs. Of similar exquisite artistry was Khongjom Parba Ishei by L. Mani Debi who sang about the heroic exploits of the Manipuri heroes felled in the battle against the British. The dholak, an instrument which is generally played with gusto in situations of merriment, was here handled with a delicate touch, with the expert player coaxing myriad rhythmic patterns and a wide tonal range out of it. The percussion, apart from filling the gaps in the sung and spoken narrative, was used to accentuate the theatrical fire of each moment in the narration. It was a superbly finished presentation.

A rousing finale to the evening consisted of the presentation of excerpts from a Lai Haroba dance, featuring the Holi Pala Dhol Cholom of Lakhpati Singh and his group and accompanied by the sounds of the pena. But earlier to that was the staging of Nupi Pala with a sensitive portrayal of the vasakasajjika heroine of the classical mould. The singing for it by Gayatri Debi, who was supported by two others, particularly of the ashtapadi Priyey charuseeley, next morning in the seminar session had many of the men in the audience shedding tears, impacted as they were by the emotive throb in 'Dehi pada pallava mudaram'—the line about a humble Krishna entreating Radha to place her lotus feet on his lowered head, as atonement for his flirtatious behaviour which had caused her so much pain. Guru Singhajit Singh's lucid talk on Manipuri traditions complemented the stage presentations. Offering many insights, he said, among other things, that it was meaningless to try to understand Manipuri music and its tala system through the prism of either the Hindustani or the Carnatic classical system. The oral tradition of Manipuri music had strict structuring and systematisation and it had to be understood on its own terms. "Oh that is Mohanam... Behag...," are commonly heard reactions to Manipuri music. What sounds like a typical Shahana in the lower scale becomes something quite different in the upper register. Trying to find parallels where they do not exist could be not only a futile but also a misleading exercise. The yodel, the trill, the tremolo, the deliberate cracking of the voice that one experiences in Manipuri music, give it a distinctive flavour. The one disappointing part of the otherwise very finished Manipuri fare was the Ras Sootradhari presented by Madhavi Debi and Kh Leibaklotpi Debi. Both recipients of Sangeet Natak Akademi awards, they are now long past their prime and too feeble in voice to sing with any consistency.


The Assamese fare revolved round the Bihu, which, as a local festival, is regarded as part of the identity of Assam. Tirtha Phukan, a multi-lingual literatteur and communications specialist, observed in a paper he presented at the seminar, that what could not be found in Bihu would not be part of Assam, so representative of the region, its geography and its culture is this art. The festival showcased many of its manifestations, like Bihu Dhol, Bihu Geet, Bihu Naach, and Missing Bihu. Ojhapali and Gayan Bayan by Bhabananda Hazarika Uttar Kamalabari Satra were delightful. The way the narrative traditions of Assam utilise hand gestures and mudras, as well as movements, along with narration, is very interesting. Assam has a plethora of geet-s. Any talented song writer-cum-singer with a corpus of compositions to his credit is hailed as a trendsetter. Bhupen Hazarika, Chairman of the central Sangeet Natak Akademi is one of the venerated figures. Pratima Barua Pande impressed the listeners with her Goalpuri Lokgeet, with Bimal Mali (dhol and sarinda) and group providing excellent accompaniment for her. Something of a rare character, Pratima Pande, who belongs to an aristocratic family, grew up amidst elephants and she even sings about the pachyderm, which she feels is 'more dependable as a friend' than man! The other Assamese musical tradition, which came through as out of the ordinary, is ZikirandJari presented by Ghulam Sarowar. It is surprising that the catholicity of message in their music about Allah and Ram being but the same has not been used to greater effect to spread religious tolerance, so badly needed in the country today. The really unimpressive part of the Assamese fare was the Ankia Bhaona Rukmini Haran, presented by the artists of Kamalabari Satra. After the Gayan Bayan and Ojhapali one had seen earlier, one expected more than the simplistic and rather unfinished performance on the last evening.


The Sikkimese fare consisted of Buddhist chants, songs of the Lepchas, songs of the Bhutias (of Nepalese origin), Limbu and Rai songs, Madalay Geet, Tamang songs and so on. There was no fire in the music and, despite the variety of instrumental fare, the presentation was listless. Most of what was offered was commonplace, though a classically correct Kalyan in the Madalay Geet provided a pleasant surprise; one would have credited a pratimadhyama raga as the hallmark of a more evolved musical thinking. There were some interesting features in the instruments used— like the special shehnai blown like a trumpet with a continuous melody produced through circular breathing; and the sarangi with a slanting rather than the usual horizontal bridge which, with its shortened string, seemed to make the playing of the higher notes easy—and these were brought to the attention of the delegates by musicologist Bhaskar Chandavarkar. Badung (long telescopic copper horns), bells and cymbals used for Buddhist music; yang-che, a santoor-like instrument with 45 metallic strings; and dampu were the other instruments used. It was disappointing that the audience turnout for the week-long festival that offered such a wealth and variety of NorthEastern musical traditions was relatively meagre, except when the Assamese Bihu was presented. This kind of response, which has been noticed also in some other festivals conducted elsewhere, is something for the Sangeet Natak Akademi to investigate. But it may need a deeper study to validate what seems obvious: better networking and marketing is needed to ensure larger audiences. Summing up the entire exercise, Bhaskar Chandavarkar, a music composer and professor who was active throughout as a resource person, pointed out that while music alone can be transmitted by migrating peoples (who can carry little else but their ideas and memories with them), the loss of any tradition means a strain of creativity lost for ever, never to be restored. The Brhaddesi Festivals organised by the Sangeet Natak Akademi cannot override historical processes. But this series will provide, through its documentation, a permanent storehouse of cultural memory.