The breath-taking vistas of Tuensang cannot hide the fact that development has passed it by. Tucked away in remote eastern Nagaland, the district is one of India’s 250 most backward districts, just like neighbouring Mon, the site of the horrific killings of 13 miners by the Indian Army early in December.
In Kiding village, on a rickety machan where the household has yet to wrap the day’s washing, a bunch of Carnatic musicians have parked themselves for an impromptu creative session. They will see where a raga medley starting with Bhairavi can go without amplified voices, with a violin and a couple of buckets and pans for percussion.
The neighbourhood thinks the whole thing is a good joke till the music soars, past the din of daily life and a full-throated rooster. “This is so wonderful,” said Maria, whose courtyard has turned into an adda, as she listens to the alien contours of an unfamiliar music system.
This unusual juxtaposition is part of the Blue Planet project, a filmed experiment locating classical arts at different sites of activism. Over the next few months, it will document 21 artistes of Hindustani and Carnatic stream travelling around the country, performing, interacting with residents and voluntary groups working on livelihood, education and environment.
Woven into the project is a foundational question: what happens when a classical musician gets off the high perch of the concert stage to perform in vulnerable public spaces? Sing in the courtyard of a home in a poor district? Perform at a site where livelihoods are threatened by the degradation of forests and water bodies?
In Angangba village, two hours further east from Kiding, the narrative backdrop for the project is the local Farmers Innovation Centre that is trying to gradually replace the practice of slash-and-burn agriculture with sustainable methods that will improve yield and incomes and shield the fragile ecology of the Patkai mountain ranges.
“We, classical artistes, are never vulnerable because we always stay within comfortable networks and frameworks,” said vocalist TM Krishna, who performed with violinist Vittal Rangan and percussionists Praveen Sparsh and Chandrasekara Sharma at Tuensang.
When Krishna took his place on the machan, he had his doubts: “Will I be accepted in this village? I was uncomfortable on the stage and that challenge actually changes both me and my music. I think it is time classical arts and artistes loosened up, remembered that they are ordinary people.” His music travelogue in Nagaland drops online on December 19.
The series that will unfurl over five months, with five video diaries dropping every month and an extra in March, seeks to examine a polarising debate in India’s classical arts – how aloof can the fraternity be to the concerns of the general community?
“We have been chafing at the sense of...insular bubble that Indian classical music often is,” said Devina Dutt, co-founder of First Edition Arts that conceived and produced the series. “I understand how rigorous and complex it is to pursue this art form and it is understandable to feel that the universe only comprises this music and its linkages. But I still feel that this insularity – and often, a disinterest towards the wider world, other musical forms and even gharanas – is a huge problem.”
Of the artistes featured in the series, Krishna, for one, has been fervently questioning this divide and the notion that classical arts are superior, more refined, that unlike the folk arts, they belong in exclusive private domains. For many others, this is a tentative step into a new world.
At Anjuna beach in north Goa, the music of the Carnatic quartet of Ramakrishnan Murthy, RK Shriramkumar and Guru Prasad and NC Bharadwaj has run into a mercurial weather worsened by climate change while recording. The concert “set” has been washed over by an unexpected tide and the artistes have to leap over creeping waters, elegant veshtis hitched up.
This year has seen it rain every month in Goa, upending usual patterns and worrying environment activists. “Coastal micro habitats are being disturbed by this rain and we hope the interaction with the musicians will work like a call to action,” said wildlife biologist Nandini Velho of Amche Mollem, a citizen’s movement against the deforestation caused by three mega projects in the state. The campaign’s use of art to spread its message was an inspiration for the series.
His troupe’s close encounter with the elements was an eye-opener, says singer Ramakrishnan Murthy. “While dealing with natural challenges ourselves and observing the work done by these conservationists, you realise how small you are in relation to the world at large,” said Murthy. “There are so many different worlds we know nothing about and this experience really expanded my own. But having said that, once the music took over, all else fades.”
Further inland, dhrupad singer Uday Bhawalkar has been filmed deep inside Mollem National Park, which, along with Bhagwan Mahaveer Wildlife Sanctuary, are endangered by impending highway and power projects. For Bhawalkar, this unusual concert setting is an aesthetic inspiration. “Our music doesn’t really connect to the mahaul (real-world context) in that sense,” said Bhawalkar. “For me, it is about the past – the grandeur of old architecture or mythologies.”
The Carnatic Quartet, a young ensemble of violin, nadaswaram, mridangam and thavil artistes, is not unused to the idea of making a political statement through music. In the past, it has performed in protest against racial discrimination, for instance. The group will perform at Ennore Creek and Pulicat Lake Bird Sanctuary in north Chennai, where toxic emissions are destroying habitats and jobs.
“We’ve all had conventional training in classical music but where we take that skill is an independent choice,” said Praveen Sparsh of the quartet. “But we have never really performed outside conventional spaces.”
The series does not play to an invited audience but passers-by are free to drop in and interact. In a ground overlooking the church at Angangba, farm workers, householders carting woodfire, and schoolchildren on their way home and at play pause to hear Brindha Manickavasakan and Aishwarya Vidhya Raghunath sing. “They knew nothing of this music but they came and they stayed,” said Raghunath. “Carnatic music is an experience to be shared by all. It is exciting to perform in a setting where access is open, free and natural.”
Angangba, with around 2,000 people, is primarily the home of the Sangtam tribe. Nearly 90% of the population depends on agriculture, mostly subsistence and till fairly recently slash-and-burn. For the last five years, the community-driven Farmers Innovation Centre has been working on livelihoods, agricultural innovation and biodiversity conservation in the area. Despite the poverty (60% of the district lives below poverty line), no one goes hungry because the community ties are rock-solid.
“We are training farmers to go in for sustainable practices, raising multiple crops and moving to horticulture while protecting the local biodiversity,” said Setrichem Sangtam, founder of the Better Life Foundation that runs the farm centre.
For the farming families of the area, the idea of a classical music system, preserved, treasured and transmitted over centuries, is a fascinatingly alien idea. In the village of Chungtor, a large log drum stands in the square. Its varied rhythms once announced birth, death, hunting scores and local news.
Culture here is inextricably linked to the rhythms and sounds of life, though the rest of the country mostly gets to watch it as a tableau on Republic Day. And a lot of it is fading for want of archiving and nurturing as youngsters move out in search of education and jobs.
Can the distinct cultures of the 16 tribes inhabiting the state be documented, researched taught in schools or, as Manipur did, be incorporated into theatre practices and given a new life? “Rural theatre is an energising source of storytelling and it can be used to salvage songs and their meanings before they are lost,” said Krishna. “Can we start with one village? I think it can certainly be done.”
Malini Nair is a writer and senior editor based in New Delhi. She is a Kalpalata Fellow for Classical Music Writings for 2021.