Rice may be cultivated in many ways, including by singing along.
The rice terraces of Phek in Nagaland are crawling with cooperative groups called müle, who sing together as they work in the fields. The oral folk music tradition, called Li, has been chronicled by filmmakers Anushka Meenakshi and Iswar Srikumar in an accomplished observational documentary that is being screened at the Mumbai Film Festival in the Indian competition section.
Up Down and Sideways vividly captures the links between community, music, and food production in one of the most alluring corners of India. The title derives from the belief that Li cannot be sung by a single voice, and needs to rendered as a harmonious group that goes “up, down and sideways”.
Many of the songs are about love, flirting and mischief-making, and have been handed down over the decades. Some of the lyrics double up as a reminder that the act of singing is also a way of maintaining the heartbeat of a community-based tradition: “I think of you often; but you don’t hear my thoughts; we may be together now; but how long will this last?”
Through interviews with members of the co-operatives and a shooting style that includes carefully composed long shots and lengthy takes, the filmmakers echo the rhythms of the lives of their subjects. There is immense warmth in the conversations with the rice cultivators and unhurried sequences of the connection between labour and music-making.
But it isn’t only about the music. There are challenges to Li from the adherence to Christianity in the region that has resulted in folk traditions being eclipsed, and a relative lack of interest among younger Phek residents. The fields that produce numerous stunning images in the 83-minute documentary were hiding places for Phek’s people during the struggle for Naga independence between the mid-1950s and the late ’60s. As villages and rice stock were burnt down, a resident recalls, “We went in search of dark places where ghosts and tigers reside. For at that time we were afraid only of human beings.”
The dominant vibe, however, is derived from groups of men and women singing delightfully in the paddy fields and reminding themselves and each other that “I cannot sing the parts alone; without you there can be no song”. Excerpts from an interview with the filmmakers, who are members of the Chennai performance collective Perch and also run the u-ra-mi-li project, which studies musical traditions “with a special interest in the connections between music and labour”, according to a press note.
How did two filmmakers from Chennai make a film set in Nagaland?
The two of us are part of a performance collective in Madras and in 2011, we went on a journey around India trying to meet and film with different performers as well as anything else that we saw along the way that interested us. We found people who found ways to bring performance, music rhythm, into their everyday lives. We made short edits of the things we filmed and screened them along the way.
We arrived in Phek by chance and screened some edits at the government high school there, where the students reacted to images of farming that we had shot in the Spiti Valley by suggesting that we visit the rice fields in Phek.
It was October then, the harvest season, and when we went down to the fields the next day we had walked downhill about two hours when we met a group of people carrying back heavy sacks of rice to the village. They were singing and as we walked back accompanied by the music, we were amazed by how the music had the power to energise the very difficult task of carrying back the rice back. We filmed a little with this group over the next week and when we came back to Madras and looked at our footage, we really wanted to return and make a film about the connections between music and rice cultivation in Phek.
What kind of research went into the film?
On our very first visit, we began by speaking to elders in the village who had a sense of the history of the music as well as its structure – understanding the polyphonic structure of the music, and how it is sung in large groups helped us with both recording it and filming it.
We don’t speak Chokri, the language in Phek, and initially we would travel to Phek during the seasons when agricultural work is at its peak. The people who could translate for us were also busy on the fields.
Much of our initial work was observing and filming people at work. Each season when we went we would find out who were the müle – the cooperative farming groups – who were working together, and then go the fields with them over several days of their work.
When we finally decided to do the interviews, Bibi, who is our associate director and also one of the main translators, was quite central to identifying the people who could speak to us. Aside from the müle we had filmed with, we were looking for other groups of people, especially older people who had worked together in müle and who knew each other closely.
Have the songs been written by the farmers, or passed down over the years?
All the music has been passed down orally – the tunes and the lyrics – but there is also some amount of improvisation in the lyrics that happens. So the singers may use one or two lines that they have heard others sing, but also add their own contextual lines, about the weather or a co-worker/friend, or something humourous.
What kind of sound design did you come up with for the documentary?
We had to figure out the structure of the music to do good recordings. When people work together, they often position themselves in particular ways so that people singing the higher harmonies take a particular position on the field (depending on the work), and the middle harmonies have a different position and so on.
Some of our recordings from the first two years of filming were quite messy, especially in the work songs where there is a lot of physical movement. It took us a while to start hearing the nuances in the music and took us time to get better recordings.
But we were really lucky to have generous sound designers – Sanjay and Allwin, who really worked with the mess of the material we gave them. While selecting the recordings to use we tried to go with excerpts that conveyed the energy and mood of the work the best even if they were not always the ones that were the cleanest.
We were quite sure to bring in a lot of the seasonal changes and nature in through the sound as well. What was fun for us during post production of this film was that the suggestions that the sound designers brought in also created some changes in how we edited the film and the flow of it.
You use long and wide shots, lengthy sequences that reveal the links between the cultivation and music, and frontal frames for the interview subjects.
The film has been shot in bits and pieces over five years, so some of the visual ideas we had at the start of the film changed as we approached editing. When we began, we were mainly only interested in the movement, in rhythm, in gestures, but as we went on, we felt that we also needed visuals that communicated the difficult nature of the work. This really was the reason we’ve put in the long shot, for us it also draws attention to the boredom, the fatigue, and not just the beautiful things.
The other thing that we kept thinking about was the fact that people working in the field are almost always bent over and it becomes difficult to film their faces without getting too close. And we had to find ways to work around this as well.
There have been several recent films about folk music traditions in various North-Eastern states. There seems to be a growing concern over the erosion of practices linked to communities and professions.
In the case of Phek, it’s hard to say how much the songs and the lyrics have changed since the past, since there are no written records, but what is interesting is how people try to keep what they feel is still relevant to them. Which is what happened in Phek. Conversion to Christianity did mean that many people stopped singing Li, but at some point there was also a feeling that the two could go together, that some practices and especially music, did not have to be abandoned because of religion.
Many people don’t even consider the work songs as part of a tradition, but just as something that they do to make the work easy and more enjoyable. The fact that the music is integral to work has kept it going, and the concern is more whether people have the space to make their own decisions about what is relevant to them.