For years, Meghalaya’s capital Shillong has been considered a cradle of rock music. A set of documentaries by Tarun Bhartiya offers a different perspective from places that are outside the so-called rock capital of India. The six-part series Songs to Live By has been produced by the Meghalaya government’s Art and Culture Department. One of the documentaries, Brief Life of Insects, has been shown at the Film Southasia festival and will also be screened at the ongoing Mumbai International Film Festival on January 31.
The common theme running through the six films is the gradual fade-out of community music traditions. The keepers of this folk music are mostly old men and women, although two of the titles, Sounds from the Truck Country and Escaping Museums, do feature young musicians.
“The Department of Art and Culture put out an advertisement for films on documenting local culture,” Bhartiya said. “My pitch was that I wanted to make films about the songs of labour and livelihood.” Bhartiya moved away from the template of government-commissioned films, which “usually try to dress up the reality and achieve a Republic Day parade effect”, he added. K Mark Swer, who has contributed to the research and scripting of some of the films, recently wrote a blistering critique of Shillong’s status as a Western music hub.
Brief Life of Insects is set in the Umpohwin village, which has the practice of voluntary exchange of labour during the threshing season. “The film is about trying to remember a lost song,” Bhartiya said. On the day of the shoot, all the activity is centred on Hos Shadap’s fields. His friend, the sharp-witted farmer Albinus Kharkongor, sings to the beat of the threshing sounds. The songs meander, going from “Hit the paddy, not the table”, to “Even those with the camera have come to gawk”, to “When we get home we don’t get what we deserve.” The lyrics for the chuckle-worthy songs are made up on the spot. When the filmmakers return to meet Kharkongor in February, he can’t remember the songs he sang in December. "They make up songs at the drop of a hat,” Bhartiya said. “They make up the lyrics to keep to the beat of the threshing, " Bhartiya says. "The subtitles cannot express the references they make. If I ask them to sing the song again, they are unable to do so. This must be the last generation that can sing like that."
The next film in the series, Love Songs of Sotjak and Ringjeng, features elderly A.chik couple Sotjak Ch Sangma and Rinjeng T Marak, who live in a makeshift bamboo house in their shifting cultivation field. They have only each other and music for company. They play a variety of local musical instruments and sing songs from when they first met. The music provides a background score to their domesticity.
Escaping Museums is set in Raid Nongtung, a village in Ri Bhoi district on the Assam-Meghalaya border. The Nongtung people continue to practise their ancient dance form of Shad Lakhempong, which doubles up as a mating ritual and is the subject of intense local debate.
Songs and Secrets in Sadolpara examines the life of basket weaver Bhimsingh from Sadolpara village in the Garo Hills, one of the few villages which still follows the old A.chik Songsarek faith. Although he is a recent convert to Christianity, Bhimsingh holds on to his traditional songs and rituals. He sings all the time, while weaving and while meeting his friends, who sing along too.
In Sounds from the Truck Country, the filmmakers go in search of the meaning of an old song and dance form called La Heh. Revealed as a sort of house warming, the ritual is elaborate and includes dance, drink, food and sacrifice and perhaps more.
In the last film in the series, Kings Have Their Resorts, People Have Their Songs, the villagers resurrect a dance form that has been forgotten for at least 60 years. The dance was performed at the time of millet harvesting and disappeared once more profitable betel-nut plantations took over the land. The village women recreate the ritual for the filmmakers. This film, however, feels invasive. The villagers do not appear naturally interested in putting up a performance, but are nudged into it, which raises the issue of what the villagers want to remember of their own culture as opposed to what they are compelled to.
(With inputs from Nandini Ramnath.)