In early 2017, Piyush Goswami and Akshatha Shetty were travelling through the remote parts of Assam’s Dima Hasao district, when they came across Epa Lallura. An elderly member of the Biate tribe, with an honest, near-circular face, Lallura had a heartfelt lament: the music and language of his people are dying out.
According to Lallura, the younger Biates can speak in the Biate language as well as bits of the pidgin Haflong Hindi, Bengali, Assamese, Dimasa and a few Naga dialects. But the Biate they speak isn’t the old form of the language – that is now only spoken by Lallura’s generation. This deracination means the young generation has also lost touch with traditional Biate songs. While they are well-versed with the latest Korean and English pop songs, Shetty said, “They can’t sing Biate songs because they don’t understand their ancestral language.”
The Biates are among the oldest hill tribes in North East India. It is believed by some that like other members of the Chin-Kuki-Mizo family, they migrated to the region from China. They have been identified as a minority tribe at the district level, but are yet to be given this recognition by the state.
Lallura’s complaint moved Goswami and Shetty, who are the founders of Rest of My Family, a non-profit that tries to address socio-economic challenges faced by rural communities. They wanted “to do something,” said Goswami. So, in early 2018, the two started the Forgotten Songs Collective, a multimedia art initiative that is raising awareness about the dying tribal and folk music of India. It got off the ground with a field recording of Biate songs, performed by Biate singers and electronic musician Vinayak^A. These interactions have been documented in the film Biate: The Forgotten Songs, which released on January 8.
In the future too, this will be the template: urban artists will travel with Shetty and Goswami to remote settlements to record sounds and stories, raise awareness about social challenges, and celebrate the tribal and folk music of India through short film projects, musical releases and audio-visual performances.
Vinayak^A, who lives in Chennai, is the main collaborator with Rest of My Family on the project. “When I called Vinayak^A and told him this is what I wanted to do, he jumped at the opportunity,” said Goswami.
The artist, who loves blending natural elements with modern technology to tell stories through music, believes this collaboration will bridge gaps between communities and create awareness in society.
Vinayak^A found it “both surprising and inspiring” to see the Biates play with instruments they had crafted themselves. “Like every tribe, the Biates too have their own story, and it was very interesting to see them express these stories...using their own instruments, and in their own surroundings,” said Vinayak^A. “The whole experience moved me.”
For Goswami and Shetty, Forgotten Songs Collective is a representation of how their “journey has come full circle”. The two met at the National Institute of Technology Karnataka in Suratkal, where they were studying engineering. After working in the corporate sector for some years, they found their jobs didn’t excite them anymore. So, in 2013, they began travelling to rural areas, experiencing and documenting social issues.
It was soon evident to them that documenting alone was not enough. “We were naïve,” said Shetty. “We thought if we travelled, wrote, photographed and documented people’s lives, they will get some sort of help. But their lives continued to be like that. So, we wanted to give back to them even if it were in a small capacity.” It took them a few years to understand how they could use crowd-funding and build a network of funders. Rest of My Family finally emerged in August 2015 out of their need to do something substantial.
“Now, apart from documenting and working with communities on social issues, we also work on community development projects in villages,” said Shetty. They currently have projects in Chhattisgarh, Odisha, Karnataka, Maharashtra, West Bengal and Assam.
One of the biggest inspirations behind Forgotten Songs Collective was Lallura’s passion and concern for his fading culture. To reach his village, Goswami, Shetty and Vinayak^A, along with filmmakers Fazil NC and Shawn Sebastian, had to travel through jungles and “terrible roads”. Once there, Vinayak^a got to understand the community, collect songs and sounds, and jam with musicians. In the film, Biate: The Forgotten Songs “the main people are Epa Lallura and Epa Roiliana. Once they started singing, a lot of other people from the village joined in, which has been captured in the film,” said Shetty.
The other collaborators on the film include Premik Jolly and experimental and electronic acts The Objektz and No Latency. “I think it’s a chance to get some great sound design done with a lot of organic elements while preserving and documenting the Biate’s folk music,” said the Bengaluru-based music producer Jolly. “Many people have never heard the music that exists in these regions, and if left undocumented, it would be lost with no record.”
The second phase of the journey will likely feature Vinayak^a and the other collaborators jamming with Lallura and Roiliana across cities in India. “We are going to do a four-city tour, [and can] hopefully convince the two of them to come,” Shetty said. “When we tell them about it, it’s all quite surreal in their heads though.”
There are also plans to put up a multimedia performance in Lallura’s village, which will feature 3D mapping projections, video artists and live music. “We are working towards it – we have been talking to a lot of people who could help us with funding the second phase,” said Shetty. Their next project will be a collaboration with the Bonda tribe in Odisha, followed by one with the Gond tribe in Bastar.
All photos courtesy Rest of My Family.