U-ra-mi-li: song of the people

Everything about their travel and the ongoing Uramili project crystallised for young Anushka Meenakshi (Asian College of Journalism graduate in 2003 and documentary/independent filmmaker) and Iswar Srikumar (an actor who has performed lead roles and worked in all aspects of production for many of Chennai’s major theatre groups) in the remote, barren landscape of Spiti Valley in Himachal Pradesh.

The two intrepid young travellers spent a few weeks in Spiti in summer 2011, when they had their first encounter with “work music”, a term they were later to learn from researchers at the Archives and Research Centre of Ethnomusicology (ARCE) in Gurgaon. ARCE houses one of the largest collections of recordings of Indian music and oral traditions.

Anushka and Iswar had the full benefit of a live performance in this first meeting. “We climbed up a hill overlooking a monastery. When we looked down, we made out people working in a field, moving to a rhythm. Every time the breeze turned, we would hear something.” So Iswar and Anushka scrambled back down to the valley to get a closer look.

A group of mostly women workers were ploughing a barley field using shovels. All the while, as they moved along the field with complete coordination, the workers were singing songs in the local dialect of Boti. Two men were drawing a yak, while the women were helping break down large mounds of upturned earth into smaller clumps.

“While we were on the field, we worked independently of each other”, says Anushka, who had her camera with her, but decided not to use it. “Usually if it’s Hindi, he (Iswar) talks and I film, but since they were women, we switched roles. I tried to participate in whatever they were doing.”

Anushka, who has no experience dancing or performing, recalls: “What from the outside looks like such a simple movement requires so much intricacy, so much grace. It’s not just the physical labour. It’s not just that I’m not strong enough, or didn’t have the muscles or haven’t done this kind of work all my life.” The body movements and the singing of the Spiti valley workers, she realised, were not merely functional. They involved a particular kind of aesthetic, performative elements intimately wedded to the work, so that both movement and music were “more than what’s needed just to plough the field, more than what sounds in song.”

On the periphery, Iswar was registering his own impressions with the camera. “It was like watching a choreographed piece on stage, with a lot of improvisation happening.” In Iswar’s mind’s eye, the field became a stage. “This is the length. This is the breadth. Here are these bodies moving across the space with these kinds of coordinated movements. There’d be a burst of song. Then, they’d be digging and singing. Suddenly, they would stop, sit and chat, crack jokes, the laughter would echo everywhere. Then, one group would split off and go somewhere else. Suddenly, fifteen people would come together, then, split up into seven groups of two.”

In the midst of all this human action, “the yak would come and go once or twice. A guy would be singing to it. He said, instead of whacking it, you can sing to it, it listens better. So he would sing, occasionally tapping the yak gently on the rear. I just kept running from one point to another, taking in all these frames, recording how they would seamlessly form patterns in the course of their work.”

What Iswar and Anushka found out, to their surprise, as they talked to the workers, who were in the fields from sunrise to sunset, is that they owned the land. “Spiti is covered in snow for six months,” Anushka explains. “The other six months is when you can actually work on the land. Hardly anything grows there; it’s barren, cold desert. So the people there have to make the best of the time they have. They really enjoy working… they get to be on the land, see each other… It’s not a cooperative in the strict sense, perhaps, but if you’re old, or sick, people will come and work on your land. The only arrangement is, the person who owns it will feed everyone puri-s for that day.”

But things are slowly changing in Spiti. Three labourers from Bihar were working that evening side-by-side with the locals. “They were new to the job,” Anushka says. “No one was telling them what to do. But in this long formation of ten-twelve women and two-three men, they could not work without falling into the rhythm.” Iswar noticed this pattern as well from his vantage point behind the lens. “I’d watch the newcomers. They’d walk over where something was happening, wait, wait, wait, and fall into place.” Anushka interjects: “It’s raw. It’s not taught. That was what was so nice about the three guys just joining in. You want to join. I don’t feel like that, no matter how beautiful a stage performance is, though I may be in awe, [I don’t feel] that I want to be part of this right now. The encounter with work music forms did that for me. They made me realise that this is how I want to live.”

Into the unknown

When Anushka and Iswar began their adventure into the unknown, they had itchy feet, some vague idea of travelling and filming musicians and performers across India, letting their documentary unfold in some unplanned, organic way, with little to no commentary on the action. Their journey through Himachal Pradesh and Spiti had begun in Mcleodganj, and so through to Tabo, beloved of the Dalai Lama. It was part of a longer “crowd-funded” sojourn, embarked on by two free spirits who decided to start a blog (something we have always wanted to do. and request friends and relatives to donate to their one-of-a-kind travel film project.

After an initial online appeal for funding, Anushka and Iswar set forth from Chennai to Delhi, where a friend loaned them a second video camera. They were advised to start their travels in Rajasthan, where tourists were welcome and accommodation was cheap and relatively easy to find. So, they travelled through Jodhpur, Jaisalmer, and a little village called Khinchan, where they were welcomed by a largely Jain community that took care of what they call ‘khurja’, some 15,000 odd Siberian cranes that migrate to the area during the winter! It was here, in Khinchan, that they began filming barren streets lined with deserted havelis, that they were told are opened up only once a year. The owners of these gorgeous, traditionally built homes have apparently migrated to Sowcarpet, in Madras! “Wherever we went, there was always a Chennai connection,” laughs Iswar.

After Rajasthan and Himachal Pradesh, the adventurers came back to Chennai for a staging of Rajiv Krishnan’s critically acclaimed Miss Meena, in which Iswar was to perform. Then, they were back on the road again, travelling through the northeast: parts of Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Nagaland and Manipur. En route, they had all sorts of filmic encounters with street and train performers, hippies and sadhus, textile weavers at the loom, school teachers and children, the famed archers of Shillong, and crossover-folk musicians in Imphal, to name a few.

But it was not the city streets, nor the religious sites, nor proscenium performances, nor the visits to popular must-sees orchestrated by friends or locals that really spoke to the two. Something else did.

What Anushka and Iswar began to realise that evening in the field in Spiti was that they each had an abiding romance with the everyday, a fascination with performance that “wasn’t supposed to be performance, but looked performative to us.” Project U-ra-mi-li (meaning song of the people in the Chokri dialect) evolved out of such moments spent with farmers, workers, weavers, potters, and street vendors. The sight of the workers singing and moving in sinuous patterns on the Spiti field now forms the nucleus, the vital core, of their endeavour as they continue their way around India in what now appears to be at least a two-three year project, “though we didn’t actually verbalise this at the time.”

But there’s more. Anushka and Iswar are painfully aware of the slow disappearance of the performing traditions they are filming, communal traditions that have existed for
centuries in a performative continuum from the field to the stage, now under threat of extinction or commodification. In Arunachal Pradesh, for instance, only the older generations still know and sing in the local dialects. Oral cultures passing down tonal languages, or languages without scripts, now have to compete with organised education, schools that teach Hindi, English, and Assamese. In Rajasthan, a local puppeteer lamented the disappearance of patronage, of knowledgeable audiences. Now people there only want popular Bollywoodised versions of folk numbers, not nightlong performances of mythological stories and legends for which they were formerly famed.

There are rewards that go beyond the artistic for the filmmaking duo. “Everywhere we’ve been, in urban and rural places, from people on trains, to people in cities and villages where we stayed, were invited into homes,” says Iswar. “We were adopted by local families. People fed us, gave us a place to sleep. If they did not invite us to stay, it was because they thought we would not be comfortable sleeping on the ground. If we offered money, they would say, don’t ruin the mood. Think of it as our contribution to your venture. That’s why our list of producers for the film is so long. People across the country, probably across the world, want to be happy, live in a peaceful state, no matter what’s happening politically. People take care of you.”

Iswar and Anushka are now attempting to raise funds for a second phase of filming through south India via OrangeStreet (, an online fundraising platform for socially engaged art projects. More information about the Uramili project, its founders and the film is available at