This Article was my first #write for Morung Express #Nagaland
Published on April 17 2016
Our lives have mirrors that contain stories of our past, our everyday lives. It’s how we perceive and get inspired by them that transform us. There is a growing need today in the way we effectively communicate our stories, especially when our rich oral art forms have such complex nature and depth. The two days event at the prestigious NCPA Centre (National Centre for Performing Arts) titled “NCPA Living Traditions- Festival of Nagaland) recently held on 19th & 20th March 2016 was noteworthy. This year it was a collaborative effort between Archives and Research Centre for Ethnomusicology – American Institute of Indian Studies (AIIS) and u-ra-mi-li Project, which focused on the Chokri Li of Chakhesang. The first day had twenty people from the village of Phek led by Vepusa Venuh, consisting of the young and old, men and women, while the second day featured the Tetseo Sisters. Both two groups spellbound the audience with their voices, poetry and conversations as splendid visuals and subtitles (Documented by the u-ra-mi-li Project in Nagaland) were interspersed adding value to the narrative at the sold-out NCPA ‘Experimental Theatre’. The U-ra-mi-li project (uramili.in), which means “Songs of our people” in Chokri, consists of Storytellers Anushka Meenakshi and Iswar Srikumar from Chennai, who out of chance landed in Phek in their quest for ‘everyday music’ five years ago. Since then there has been no looking back.
Interview with uramili
Firstly, Congratulations on the show at NCPA and thank you for curating such lovely work about Nagaland. Could you tell us something about uramili and how the show came about with the artists and AIIS?
“Well, the NCPA does a show every year called the Living Traditions. The scope of this show is to present a little more in-depth introduction to a form of music to their audience. This programme is not like a regular concert. Here the work is curated and presented with more research material from one particular area. Shubha Chaudhri from the Archives and Research Centre for Ethnomusicology in Gurgaon (Part of AIIS) has been working closely with them for a few years now. She has done a lot of field work in Rajasthan, Kutch, and Goa. They in fact did festivals from all these regions in earlier years. So when they were planning what next, Shubha suggested to the NCPA that they get in touch with us as we had been filming with the Tetseo Sisters and in Phek village since late 2011.”
Tetseo Sisters during the performance in Living Traditions, Festival of Nagaland at Experimental Theatre, NCPA on 19/03/2016. Photography: Narendra Dangiya
It was refreshing to witness the focus on Li of Chakhesang, could you tell us about your understanding of Li, and the scope of folk music of Nagaland, especially when it comes to presenting it to a wider audience?
Li as a form of music is very unusual. It’s a polyphonic form, and as a form itself it is very rare in folk music in India. We fell in love with the music the first time we heard it in 2011. It sounded almost as if everyone was singing their own song but somehow all the voices were coming together to form a larger song. Nagaland is undoubtedly one of the most musically rich spaces in the whole country. The music is everywhere, and the music is not just restricted to performers but belongs to the people. It is u-ra-mi-li. We also feel the variety of music is mind boggling. The various forms, the gospel, the western influence, all of this give musicians from Nagaland quite an edge. These can be performed separately or also can help create a new voice, kind of like what the Tetseo Sisters are doing now by bringing together all their musical influences to create a rather unique sound.
Your video visuals were breathtaking. I have never seen something so seamlessly photographed. How long have you been documenting in Nagaland? If you could shed light on any interesting challenges faced or lessons learnt in the process?
“Thanks for that. We have been filming since late 2011. We usually come back during busy farming seasons as our major interest has been in the songs that people sing outside of a performance space. The music in the paddy fields is truly mesmerising. Challenges wise actually there were none. Nagaland is an extremely friendly place and we have been taken excellent care of everywhere we have gone. Our main irritation has been that we don’t speak even Nagamese, but we are starting to learn a few things at least so we can have a basic conversation with people. For two people who don’t speak the language and are so obviously out of place we have really managed to have developed a number of meaningful relationships and make Phek a very special place for us.”
Lastly, I gather you work with different art forms from different parts of India; do you have any specific plan or project carrying forward with Li, the songs of our people?
“Well our full length feature film on songs of agriculture based out of Phek village is in post production now and we should have a film ready this year. We hope to send the film to various festivals and hopefully that would also help generate more interest in the music. We hope to then use that to try and organise more concerts so that this wonderful music can be shared with a much larger audience.”
As Day Two of Living Traditions come to close, I hear the echo of the people of Phek raising their voices in harmony, the men folk in their traditional red, white and black singing ‘Talle Li’ (Li for roaming). I am overwhelmed. The Tetseo Sisters have just ended the festival with the unforgettable ‘O Rhosi’ and backstage, us friends (Team Hiyohey) assisting them share our sigh of relief. “Do you always have to carry so much heavy jewelry, clothing and accessory when you can always simplify and carry less baggage?” I ask Mercy, the eldest of the Tetseo siblings. It is only in the Green Room when we take the opportunity for a much needed wefie that we realise that we see so many colourful pieces reflected along with the lyrical sheets- necklaces, accessories, textiles, and musical instruments from different tribes of Nagaland and beyond. The song of our people has only just begun.
(The writer is a Multidisciplinary Artist & Designer, who also showcased his acclaimed collection ‘Mangko Akir’ as a Gen Next designer at Lakme Fashion Week on August 2008 at NCPA, Mumbai)