Aami Asomiya/ nohou dukhiya/ buli Santana/ lobhile nohobo…
(We are Assamese, we shall never be poor, is no consolation to face the times…)
Forty summers ago, with this song, Bhupen Hazarika tried to nudge the Assamese society out of slumber, to stand up and get counted. Whether they took note of his clarion call is another story but the renowned balladeer will be remembered by posterity for almost always weaving causes into his music, his political songs lamenting what was not right in not just the hills and dales of Assam but a large part of the North East. With lyrics that had the sharpness of an inclusive political thought, he wove into them a sense of duty that he felt should come from every son of the soil. Assam’s social fabric is composed of so many tribes and communities and many of his songs, in their traditional tunes, underlined the need for them to stick together. This he believed was essential for their survival.
Hazarika is gone, his music remains but not the thought. But all is not lost. A handful of young north eastern musicians have recently taken up causes that concern people, matters that have bled the region over the years. There are miles to go before they reach even the halfway mark of where Hazarika was, but it is heartening to note that these young minds, through their compositions or through their activism, are knitting together a niche which straddles from peace songs to angry protest music, to raising a voice against a wrong. Sample this number wafting in from the hills of Manipur:
‘…India, have you heard of a lady called Sharmila…/ India, do you want stone-pelters to become suicide bombers…/ India I see blood in your hands….’
With dozens of insurgent groups battling Indian forces, commoners are the everyday victims, coming under the boots of gun-toting power-wielders on both sides of the divide. The situation is probably the worst in Manipur. So, it’s understandable that young Akhu Ronid Chingambam is disturbed. He brings out the anger and anguish of his people through his songs. Between guitar riffs and drags from the mouth organ — very Dylan-ish, Ronid accuses India of having “blood on its sleeves.”
“I am a product of that society, I write and sing what I see and this is what I see,” says Ronid. The university he went to in Imphal (Manipur University) is unlike any other campus of higher learning, he points out. “Inside is an army camp. As students, one just couldn’t freely move about, like students do in other parts of India. So how free can our thinking be? We are always a society living under siege,” he says. It provoked this young musician to write yet another number: “I want to go to Moscow.”
‘…what kind of university is this,/ I need permission to go around…/ No one says anything…/ The teachers are nice to them because they get free alcohol…/ They will die alcoholic like me too but I buy my alcohol every night./ I want to go to Moscow,/ Standing next to Mayakovsky’s statue I wanna read his poems drinking lotsa vodka.’
Another song of Ronid — now working on his second album and has a e-book of poems under his name — is about a man, Machang Lalung from Assam, who spent 54 years of his life in jail before he was released by the Government in 2005.
‘...he walks back to the city jail/ And talks to the Jailer/ He says ‘Keep me back in the Prison/ Lock me up in the jail/ I got no one to cry when I die...’
“Why has the Government suddenly realised he had overstayed in the jail? Why did nobody think about him for so long?” he asks.
Another singer-activist from Manipur is Ronbir Thouna. Thouna is on a high these days as his latest album Piano From Unknown Valley has just been released in Mumbai by friend and fellow musician Sivamani.
His focus is saving the Loktak Lake, Asia’s largest freshwater lake around which thrive not just one lakh people but the endangered Sangai or Manipur brow-antlered deer. Thouna through his songs relates the importance of the lake, now reeling under utter neglect, to Manipuri life.
“The lake is a source of water not just for our hydropower generation and irrigation but also drinking water supply in land-locked Manipur. Many fishermen depend on it for their livelihood. Over the years, neglect and the increased pressure of human habitation have taken a toll on the lake’s ecosystem,” says Thouna. That led him to organise musical events to raise a voice for it not just in the State but in cities like Bangalore and Delhi.
“The Government is doing precious little, so I am doing what I can as a musician,” says Thouna, who now flits between Mumbai and Imphal. But hosting such shows need money and that stops him doing more shows.
Ronid too has an ‘Ode to Loktak lake’ besides songs on exploitation of Adivasis in Assam and Gujarat riots, etc.
Another young musician with a cause from the region is Zubeen Garg. In his home state Assam, he recently put his popularity to good use by raising his voice against the perennial bandhs. “The common man in Assam is tired of the mindless bandh culture in the state. The lowest strata of society, whose living depends on working on a daily basis, are the worst affected. So we thought of filing a PIL in Guwahati High Court to ban bandhs,” says Zubeen. FIRs were filed against the Tiwa Students Group, Vishwa Hindu Parishad, Bharatiya Janata Party and Bharatiya Yuva Mancha for calling Assam bandhs.
“Before we could file a PIL, they came out to compromise with us and called off the bandhs,” says Zubeen, who is known outside Assam for singing the popular Hindi number ‘Ya Ali’ for Gangster. The bandh culture is not over in Assam yet, but Zubeen says, “At least the message has gone out that these bandhs affect the common people who are not the decision-makers in any case.”
Not as young as the others at 52, Rewben Masangma, who has been reviving the music and instruments of his Thangkul Naga community, is singing a song of peace at the same time. “For anything to move in the region, peace is important. So I can’t stay away from thinking about it and composing lines that pines for peace,” says Rewben.
Rewben’s songs are more about looking at the beauty of his homeland and the urgency to save it.
Singers like Thouna and Zubeen would like to see themselves first as musicians who roll out popular songs. Ronid though has drawn out a picture of himself — a musician whose songs reflect the region, mostly in protest against what is prevailing there. “I don’t want to do the typical thing that people want to see a musician from North East doing… long hair, torn jeans… Rock music. So I don’t perform at the pubs. Small but thinking groups of audience will do.”