Born on March 1, 1945, Skendrowell Syiemlieh was the first son of Plentimai Syiemlieh and Romuel Ryntathiang. He grew up in his native village called Umthied Bynther in West Khasi Hills, Meghalaya.
At the age of eight, he started to mesmerise the village with the melodious sound of his four-stringed duitara and his soulful singing. In 1967-’68, he was given an opportunity to sing on an All India Radio programme. After that, Syiemlieh became a regular artiste on All India Radio Shillong and his songs were loved by many.
Living old memories
Syiemlieh would begin many of his songs with the words “Ha sngap ho para ngan iathuh khana” (Listen o my brothers and sisters, I will tell you a story). Indeed, his songs were stories. But they were narrated not only to entertain, but more importantly to teach. Like a storyteller of old, he would sing his stories. The duitara, the guitar and the violin were accompaniments as he would retell tales about his people, the Khasis, and in particular, the rural folk.
The origin myths of the Khasis, ancient sacred tales, histories, tragic tales of fallible Khasi heroes and doomed romances were the subjects of his art. In his songs, he repeated the tale of Tirot Sing in prison (Iing Byndi), the awe-inspiring account of the ancestral father of his clan, U Lohryndi, the tragic tale of U Manik Raitong, and the story of Ka Suna.
For Syiemlieh, storytelling and singing were the same. The accompanying musical instruments – such as the duitara, guitar and violin – deepened the union between the stories and his music.
Though his musical creations are tales of yore, they present different perspectives. In Iing Byndi, for instance, he does not sing about the heroism of U Tirot Sing Syiemlieh (a native chief who led the Khasis in their fight against the British during the 1929-1933 Anglo- Khasi War). Rather, he chooses to sing about the anguish in Tirot Sing’s family after his arrest.
In U Lohryndi, he tells us about U Lohryndi the Thawlang (or ancestral father) of the Syiem Sutnga and Syiemlieh clan. While many have sung about the Iawbei (root-ancestress of the clan) Ka Lidohkha, Skendrowell shows us another perspective by making Lohryndi his song’s protagonist.
In Ka Mahadei (Syiem’s Wife), he talks about how the Syiem (traditional Khasi chief) had asked his myntri (nobles) to fetch a poor woman for a wife, especially someone who is a khun khatduh, the lastborn daughter in a poor family. The Syiem hopes to marry a humble and self-sacrificing woman who knows how to keep house and serve him and her family too. There is one such woman, but her elder sister is envious of her. She lies and gets married to the Syiem instead, claiming that she is the khun khatduh who takes care of her parents. The younger sister has no idea about this. She marries a baker. But as justice would have it, the Mahadei (Syiem’s wife) gives birth to deformed children who do not live long. The Syiem understands that there is something the Mahadei is hiding from him. She confesses and the Syiem imprisons her. The Syiem then orders his nobles to fetch him another wife. They come back with the Mahadei’s youngest sister whose husband, the baker, dies before fathering any children. They find her to be the best match for him.
Ko jingpihuin ko jingbishni phin lah shan slem oh katno sngi?
La phi leh bein ha sla pyrthei ia rangli ki juki,
Ka jinglanot kan wan ha phi,
Khatduh ym slem kan thad lyngkrang ia phi.
Oh envy, oh jealousy! For how long would you last?
You may have ill-treated the poor,
but suffering will come to you and in the end,
you will be shamed and laid bare.
Uniquely, in many songs, he would begin without singing and without music, instead imparting a moral lesson. Once the music started, so would the singing.
Romanticism in songs
Inspiring his songs were the natural beauty and serenity of rural areas. In one song after another he would sing about the four seasons (like in Saw Aiom Ki Por) and his village.
In Ah Moina – “Ah Moina! Ah Moina! Bu chong cha ri bujngei (Oh Mynah! Oh Mynah! That lives in a faraway land”) – and in U Sohkhia, the image of the mynah reappears. The bird is a recurring motif that symbolically suggests a love that is lost and has flown away. In several songs, plants and flowers – like U Tiewlyngksiar, U Tiewlyngskaw, U Tiewdohmaw (all wild orchids) – are nature’s symbolic suggestions of the manners and qualities of human beings.
In Khublei Khublei, Skendrowell uses the imagery of flowers to describe the difference in the way he is treated in his village and in a town. In his village, he is U Tiewlyngksiar (an orchid symbolising an honourable gentleman), but when in town, he is forced to apologise since to the urban elites, he is just U Tiewlyngskaw (a flower symbolising the rustic). Amidst this drama, he mentions how U Tiewdohmaw (a flower symbolising a wise person) would listen to the songs sung by U Tiewlyngksiar, who is but U Tiewlyngskaw to the urban elite.
The rural landscape inspired his singing. In Ah Moina, Skendrowell sings of a life lived in the soothing embrace of nature, a life filled with the simple joys of catching a bird or a mountain rat, when ploughing the field, when playing the duitara and when eating u sohphlang (a white edible tuberous root that has a sweet crunchy flavour).
Singing in the Mawiang dialect (one of the many Khasi dialects spoken in the West Khasi Hills), he begins with the words:
Chi bu duk bu toi
Set synduk ia ka loi loi
We who are poor,
we lock up the nothing we have in a box.
The empty box symbolises poverty as well as the meaninglessness of material possessions. This box, which is seemingly empty to the urban folk, is in fact a treasure box containing the most precious experiences of rural life. In Skendrowell’s eyes, these rural experiences are valuable. They must be carefully locked in a box, a box that the urban rich sees as having nothing or “loi loi”. This is proof of his unwavering belief in the serenity and freedom of rural life, even if it is sometimes hard or poverty-stricken.
Amid a difficult village life, his songs talk about 1. Ka Tip Kur Tip Kha; 2. Ka Tip Briew Tip Blei; and 3. Ka Kamai ia ka Hok (1. To know one’s maternal and paternal relations – the sacred principle that defines family relations; 2. To know man and know God – the sacrosanct value that defines human relations and our relationship with God; 3. To earn righteousness – the ideal and belief that one must work one’s righteousness out).
These are the Khasi ideals, ethics that were ingrained in him since childhood while he would sit around the hearth with his family and other villagers. His love for the rural and the natural, however, is unlike Wordsworth’s pantheistic ideology, unlike Keats’ worship of beauty and it indicates nothing of Shelley’s escapist desire. Like a true son of his village, he sang his songs – a villager singing his songs.
His songs are a magical description of the intoxicating, inspirational and soul-soothing rural life, of which he was a part. He did not wait for a Wordsworth to describe his life. Indeed, Skendrowell’s songs are not poems about a Yarrow Unvisited (a poem of Wordsworth’s) but he was part of his own Yarrow, meaning the Khasi rural landscape.
His love for his village is mirrored in Shnong ba nga ieij (The Village I Love). If WB Yeats could not help but go to Innisfree, where he hoped to find peace, Skendrowell gave in to the call of his village hut – a call made by Mother Nature (Ban khot noh ia nga, Ba phah ka Mei Mariang). Like a true Khasi, he saw nature as a Mother (Mei meaning mother – Mei Mariang or Mother Nature).
His songs, however, are not descriptions of a utopian Khasi world. He was not blind to the loss of values among Khasis and with an honest eye, he saw the moral decadence in his society. In Akor Khasi, he mourns the loss of Khasi manners and values. “Akor Khasi pat la ha niamra (Good Khasi manners and values are now in dark caves).
While entertaining, his songs were also meant to teach and reflect on human nature.
His search for meaning in life starts with questions that dig deep into the deepest pits and chaotic labyrinths of human nature. There are questions aplenty in his songs. Balei (why)?, he would ask. In Balei jinglong briew? (Why is human nature such?), Skendrowell sings,
Balei jinglong briew kum ka sla halor um kaba shu per?
Why is human nature like a leaf that floats on the water surface?
This suggests his understanding that humans are simply drifters – wavering like leaves on the water surface.
In the same song, he continues:
Balei jinglong briew ka shu lum Dorbar khlem nongbishar?
Why do humans gather a Dorbar when there’s no proper judge or righteousness?
This suggests corrupt practices in the traditional Khasi Dorbar.
Balei jinglong briew ba shu kwah ban her sha ka ri ki khlem kam tang shyntur suda?
Why do humans want to escape to a land where people don’t work but only talk?
This suggests tall talk but no action.
Balei jinglong briew ba shu kwah ban her shaba sting u ba met ba khia u stait?
Why do humans want to escape to where the edible part of the rice grain is light and the husk is heavy?
The part of the rice grain that is edible should have been described as being heavy since we toil and labour for our food. But Skendrowell turns this upside down. The edible portion is light but the husk, which is unnecessary, is heavy. This suggests a chaotic and absurd world, where there is a total inversion of values as opposed to the world of his village, where the simple joys of life amidst nature are soul-soothing and where everything is in order.
However, like Pablo Neruda in The Book of Questions, Skendrowell does not provide solutions to the human predicament. He sees his people as being caught in a dilemma (Ka Dum Dngiem) and he firmly believes that it is the greed of man and the loss of the old Khasi value of “Ka Kamai ia ka Hok” that the Khasi world is now absurdly chaotic and seemingly irredeemable.
True to roots
His inability to sing in English meant he was never fully embraced by the urban elite. Even the Padma Shri bestowed posthumously in 2009 did not help raise his image among them. They continue to regard his art as a subaltern art belonging to a subaltern rural narrative. They fail to notice his brilliance.
However, he remains “the singing storyteller” for many in the villages and small Khasi towns considered Nongkyndong (a pejorative term used by the Khasi urban elite to paint village folks as village idiots). His courage to sing about himself as a son of the village brought him success when, without inhibition, he sang Ah Moina in the Mawiang dialect.
The Mawiang dialect is associated with the rustic life. Nobody imagined that a song sung in a dialect of West Khasi Hills would be appreciated. But it was. Till date, Ah Moina remains one of the most popular Khasi songs, bringing fame to him but also to West Khasi Hills.
Skendrowell is not purely a folk singer. Though much of his music is fusion music, yet it enhances folktales and it helps our generation – who are more attuned to the sounds of a Western drum or guitar – relate to them. In Skendrowell, the duitara found a companion who could take it to a new generation. With Skendrowell, the oral storytelling tradition became a singing tradition, making our generation connect with our roots. Ancient folktales were given a new life and they are now sung to our generation.
The old has given way to the new, but folktales are part of our cultural memory and Skendrowell’s songs have contributed much to their retelling. By immortalising memories, he has immortalised himself. Thanks to Skendrowell Syiemlieh, many Khasi folktales have become flesh and blood. Let us all tell our own stories in songs and maybe we too will live forever.
The author is the bassist-songwriter of Snow White Shillong, a hard rock fusion band, and teaches English literature in Seng Khasi College, Shillong.
This is a lightly edited version of an article that first appeared on Raiot.