Author Archives: Aiyushman

MUSIC FOR THE SOUL: UMAKANTA BAIRAGI

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In conversation with eminent Assamese Tokari and Dehabisar Geet exponent Umakanta Bairagi

By Aiyushman Dutta

(First published in melange, Nov 27, 2017)

Whenever we talk of Tokari Geet or Dehabisar Geet, the first name which comes to mind is none other than Umakanta Bairagi. In a career that spans around fifty long years, Umakanta Bairagi has achieved eminence as the foremost performer of Tokari and Dehabichar Geet. A man who has performed throughout the country, he has spent an entire lifetime striving to popularise this ancient oral folk tradition of Assam through his performances, books and recordings.

Umakanta Bairagi was groomed in the traditional Tokari Geet and Dehabichar Geet tradition of Assam by his father Kanakeswar Gogoi. He began presenting the art initially on religious occasions and then on public stages. An institution in himself, he has been performing on All India Radio, Dibrugarh station regularly since 1969, and has later sung from the Dibrugarh and Guwahati stations of Doordarshan.

Not just performances, Umakanta Bairagi has also taken on the responsibility of documenting this centuries-old tradition for posterity. He has to his credit a large number of audio recordings of Tokari and Dehabichar Geet besides compiling two books on the same. He has also trained a number of students over the years and has established an institution for that purpose in Guwahati, ‘Kanakeswar Gogoi Memorial Dehabichar/Tokari Geet Prashikshan Kendra’, which has been named after his father.

Shri Umakanta Bairagi has been honoured for his work by various institutions in Assam. He was bestowed the title Bairagi by All India Radio, Dibrugarh, in 1971. But the foremost honour was when he received the prestigious Sangeet Natak Akademi Award for his contribution to the Tokari and Dehabichar Geet of Assam.

I recently met the veteran artist in his residence at Guwahati to talk about his journey with Tokari Geet/ Dehabichar Geet. Following are excerpts.

Q. Please tell us a bit about your childhood.

Ans: I was born in Chaulkhora village of Khowang subdivision in Dibrugarh district in 1954. Our house was in a deeply forested area and I was born and brought up there. My father Kanekeswar Gogoi used to do odd businesses for our livelihood. I grew up along with five other brothers and sisters.

Since we stayed in a very remote area, it was difficult for us to go to school. Somehow, with a lot of difficulty, we managed to complete our Lower Primary schooling and also two classes of MP School. That however was the end of my formal education.

Q. How did you get interested in Tokari and Dehabichar Geet?

 Ans: I have always been fascinated by the Tokari as an instrument. When I was a child, my father used to play the instrument but only after we slept. So on the pretext of sleeping, I used to listen to him play the Tokari instrument and sing Dehabichar geets. Dehabichar geet is a form of spiritual discourse carried out in the form of songs and which is accompanied by the Tokari. I used to love listening to these songs and also to the sound of the Tokari. I have never had a guru in life and I am an entirely self-taught artist.

When I was very young, a local MLA had come to visit our village and my grandfather had taught me two songs to sing in front of him. That was the first time I sang in public. But after that, nothing much happened as far as my singing career was concerned.

when I got married, I decided to learn the Tokari instrument on the sly. Once when my father left for a business trip, I used to play his instrument on the sly. You can say that just like Eklavya, I learnt the Tokari by stealing.  So once, during a 6 day stretch when I continuously played the Tokari, I learnt how to play the instrument.

After learning how to play the Tokari, I and my friends would roam around the villages in the evening, visiting different households and playing in front of them for some tea and til or tekeli pitha.

Q. How did your tryst with the radio start?

 Ans: In the year 1968, the Dibrugarh station of All India Radio had announced an audition for Tokari artists. One of my friends had applied for the audition and I had gone along with him. When his turn came, he could not play even a single song, out of the 15 songs that were asked to him, in front of the interview panel. I felt very bad because he should have been able to play at least one song.

I approached the station director and asked him if I could participate too. He made me fill up a form and accordingly after three months, a call letter came to my house. When I went for my audition, the interviewers did not let me finish even the first song, and said that I would definitely be hearing from them.

I did hear from them and they called me to record four songs. I cannot express my happiness at that moment. The four songs were aired at 4 pm in the month of January and I felt fortunate that I was able to sing my own composed songs in front of the people of the entire State. I counted my blessings and thanked god for making me, a person who sang for pithas, capable enough to sing in the radio.

From 1971 onwards, I become a regular artist of All India Radio and I continue to perform even today.

Q. You have been performing in different stages across the country. Do you remember how many songs you have composed and performed till now?

Ans: I have lost count of the number of performances but till now, I have composed around 775 Dehabichar Geets. All the songs are spiritual in nature or based on the story of Krishna or the Ram-Leela. In some of the songs, I question our own spiritual existence – why we were born, what is the purpose of our existence, and the like. They are sort of self-introspective in nature.

Q. Dehabichar Geet is an oral tradition which existed even before the time of Srimanta Sankardev. Please tell us about your efforts in documenting this centuries-old oral tradition.

 Umakanta Bairagi

Ans: Like you said, Dehabichar Geet is an oral tradition which existed even before the time of Sankardev. It did not exist in written form and the earlier practitioners did not think about writing it down. But although an oral tradition, a lot of changes has creeped into this tradition once we entered the Xankari era. In the songs of yesteryears, there used to be no mention of God but nowadays, it is mandatory to at least mention the name of one single God out of all the different gods we have.

I have taken the initiative to document and compile around 150-200 age-old songs and their meanings in the form of two books which I wrote in 2008. I was fortunate enough to receive the support of the central government under their “documentation/ preservation of cultural and traditional heritage” scheme. The government official was very supportive in my endeavour and I was able to record many ancient songs – right from my grandfathers’ times. Now there are around 400-500 songs of the present day period which I have not been able to record till now.

Q. Please tell us about your first audio cassette recording.

Ans: In 1985, I recorded an audio cassette, ‘Brindrabon’, in Jyoti Chitrabon. The recording was made possible with the support of Suresh Phukan, who was a folklorist and professor of Assamese in Joysagar College. ‘Brindabon’ was the first audio cassette of Tokari geets to be released in Assam. After ‘Brindabon’, I released another audio casette on Tokari geet, ‘Mathura’, and that was also produced by Suresh Phukan. Later on, Rubul Bora produced two of my other audio cassettes on Tokari geet like ‘Amiya Madhuri’ and ‘Porom Guru’.

Q. How many cassettes and recordings have you made till now?

Ans: Till now, I have produced around 6 audio cassettes and one audio CD. But I still have a lot of my songs which are yet to be recorded.

Q. Nowadays a lot of artistes are using the Tokari to create fusion songs. What are your views on this issue?

Ans: Nowadays, a lot of people are doing fusion music with the Tokari and Dehabisar geet. I personally believe that they should not do such kinds of fusion. Dehabichar geet is not for entertainment, it is not some kind of Bihugeet; it is more of a spiritual discourse that is needed for the wellbeing of the mind and body.

I feel this kind of fusion should stop because if it continues, the future generations will not be able to comprehend the real or true nature of Tokari and Dehabisar Geet. Many people are approaching me to accompany them on fusion tracks. But I have been refusing them all. I will not leave the Tokari to sing or play any other instrument or song.

Q. You have performed in a lot of places outside the Sate. How do people outside receive your songs and music?

Ans: Besides Assam and the Northeast, I have performed in various parts of the country, like Punjab, Haryana, Delhi, Kolkata, etc. I have felt that people outside really appreciate our songs and performances. I remember one show in Haryana, especially, where young women and girls broke out in dance after hearing our songs. They later came and felicitated us on stage. That was one memorable performance we did.

Q. Do you feel that the upcoming generations will continue to embrace the tradition of Tukari Geets?

Ans: From whatever I have learnt after years of teaching, I feel that the Tokari and Dehabisari tradition will continue in the days to come. I say this because nowadays I find a lot of young people interested in this tradition. In our days, only old people used to sing Dehabisar Geets but nowadays, I find even bachelors coming forward to learn and perform these songs. The Tokari and Dehabichar geets are presently being performed on stage as well as aired on the radio and television. As such, I feel that the new generation will indeed embrace Tokari geets in the days to come.

Q. You have been bestowed with one of India’s highest honours in the form of the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award. How do you feel at receiving such a big honour?

Ans: I received the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award in 2013. It was like a surreal feeling for me. There is an interesting story as to how I received the news of the award. When they announced my name on the TV, I was in a nursing home in Guwahati for some minor illness. The nurse was about to serve me food when the news broke out on TV. I did not know whether the news was true or not. Only later on when my family also verified the news, I realised that it was true. I feel thankful for receiving such a big honour and it has given me the much-needed impetus to carry on with my work.

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In Perpetual Search for Drama: Vikramjit Kakati

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In conversation with veteran photographer and eminent design engineer Dr. Vikramjit Kakati

By Aiyushman Dutta

(Published in melange, Dec 10, 2018)

Many of us would know immediately recognise him as being one of the most brilliant photographers of the region. A doctorate degree holder in engineering design from the prestigious IIT-Guwahati, a PADI-certified Scuba Diver, Chartered Engineer besides being a photojournalist of repute, Vikramjit Kakati is a name which hardly needs an introduction in our regional circles. And although he has his made his mark amply in diverse fields such as engineering design, chartered accountancy as well as photography, he is more content and happy to be identified as the father of google.

While many would be curious to know about his relationship with the internet giant – google, here’s another surprise for you. For this multifaceted personality, Google is none other than his son, Google Kakati, whom he dotes upon, and not the internet software giant.

This decision to nomenclature his son as ‘google’ is just one of the many surprising facets which describe Vikramjit Kakati – a highly creative individual who is always on the lookout to present a different view of things. He is a man who is in a perpetual search for drama in his photographs as well as other facets of his life. A celebrated photographer and an eminent design engineer, Vikramjit Kakati is truly a man of many surprises.

I recently caught up with the ace photographer and design engineer to know more about his life and journey in the world of photography. Following are excerpts.

Q. At the beginning, let us talk about your family and childhood. Please share your childhood memories with us.

Ans: I come from a very old family of Guwahati which served as accountants (Kakati) to the Barphukans (Ahom Generals). In the earlier days, we lived in the area where the present day Old DC Bungalow is located at Panbazar. In those days, that area used to house the quarters of the Barphukans. Later on, we shifted to our own place in Tokobari and thereafter to Bhangarh where I live now. My father worked as a magistrate. As informed by my father, I was born in 1971 in Goalpara where my father was posted.

While I did my initial schooling in Lakhinath Bezbaruah Sishu Bhawan, Sibsagar, I passed my matriculation examination from Don Bosco High School, Guwahati in 1987. After that, I joined B Barooah College and then joined the Jorhat Engineering College to become a mechanical engineer. I passed out from JEC in 1995 and after a year or so, I worked in the Indian Railways where I worked till 2007. After that, I worked for a short while in the Indian Oil Tanking. During the time I was in IOT, I gave the Ph.D entrance examination for IIT. I was selected for the Ph.D. course in IIT which I completed recently. I am now working as an Associate Professor and Administrative Officer in the Department of Mechanical Engineering, School of Technology at Assam Don Bosco University. 

Q. How did you get involved into the world of designs?

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Ans: I have always been interested in the world of art. From childhood, I realised that it was important to be different from the rest, to do the same normal things but from a different perspective. From JEC, I had a junior Dr. Buljit Buragohain who also did his P.hD from IIT. He introduced me to the design department of IIT. Before that, I was not aware of its existence.

I went to IIT-Guwahati’s design department and found its philosophy to be quite different. This department is one of the best in the world and students from all across Europe, Middle East and elsewhere come here for further studies. I have qualified in the IIT selection process and joined the design department.

I had based my P.hD subject on a social media topic but my pathfinder cum Ph.D. supervisor, Prof Amarendra Kumar Das, a veteran scientist and who is the inventor of Dip Bahan rickshaws, then head of department of Design, IIT instead asked me to work on the socio-economic aspects of design. Prof. Das has suggested me to design and innovate a machine which would help reduce losses in tea gardens of Assam due to non-availability of physical resources. So under the guidance of Prof. Das, I developed such a model. I am also working in the field of rapid prototyping and mechatronics, which are fast developing fields. 

Q. You are a respected photographer. How did you get interested in photography?

Ans: My father played the key role in developing my interest in photography. I remember taking my first photo when I was just around 6-7 years old. The photo was that of the gate of the Assam State Zoo. My father had brought a AGFA CLICK 3 camera which was a legendary camera during those days. He insisted that I shoot photos with it and looking back, he was the first person who influenced me to study photography.

Then in Engineering College, I was lucky to meet a few individuals who helped hone and nurture my photography skills. I met Prasad Chakraborty, who was in Assam Agriculture University, and who taught me the nuances of SLR cameras. DSLR cameras had not come up at that time. Then we had a teacher, Gautam Hazarika, who owned a Russian-model SLR camera. He used to give me the camera to practice and take photos.

The seeds of photojournalism were sown deep in mind right from a very early age. I am one of the very few photojournalists who still have a photograph of Prafulla Mahanta’s signature while accepting the Chief Ministership post in 1885.

Then again, when it comes to non-news photography, the concepts of creativity and innovation have also been deeply instilled in my mind. As I said, right from my childhood days, I wanted to do things in a different way. The same desire to things differently also reflected in my photography as well. For instance, probably I am the first photographer to have shot the light trail of GS Road. After that, many photographers have taken the same photo. I will always remain thankful to Mr. Utpal Baruah of UB Photos for providing me a launching platform. 

Q. Your photographs have a lot of drama. How important is drama in photography for you?

Ans: I feel drama is the soul of photojournalism. A photographs needs to have drama to make even a normal thing look outstanding. Many photographers talk about right framing, composition, etc being the pre-requisites for a good photograph. However, I feel that for a photographer it is very important to have a good Point of View (POV). POV is very important if we want to create drama in a photograph. Mr Manash Jyoti Dutta of Sivsagar & a correspondent of UB Photos taught me about importance of point of view (POV) in News Photography. 

Q. How do you manage to find out time for photography amidst your hectic work schedule and all your diverse roles?

Ans: Every people has time to do what he or she wants if he knows how to manage time properly. Those who complain about not having time are the ones who are superficial and those wanting to do a sloppy job. These are the same people who take up 10 jobs but cannot complete even one of them properly.

In any case, suppose I work for 10 hours in my office and sleep for another 6 hours. I still have 8 hours left for photography. And if I can visualise my subject well, even a single hour is sufficient for photography.

Q. Please tell us about the present scenario of photography in Assam.

Ans: At present, there are a lot of photographers in Assam. But I find very few innovative photographers among them all. Every day we get to see thousands of photos being shared on Facebook, Instagram and other social networking sites, but we come across very few memorable photos, pictures that remain with us long after we have seen them.

I feel that our photographers are getting stereo-typed. Nowadays, there is a trend of wedding photography and one will find a lot of photographers working in this field. But I feel that the saturation point has been reached.

Another thing that I would like to point out is the importance of contributing to stock photography. It is very important to contribute to stock photography platforms if one wants to generate revenue from their photographs. Our photographers do not contribute to stock photography platforms. To them, I would like to say that just sharing on Facebook is not enough; you have to think about how to generate revenue from the same.

Overall, I feel that a lot of maturity and entrepreneurship skills are needed for the present generation of photographers if they want to develop and progress in their field.

Q. What do you feel is more important to become a successful photographer – creativity or technical equipment?

Ans: You will need both. If your equipment is not proper, a lot of problems come up. Along with a good point of view, you also need good gear. For instance, I use a wide lens (10-22 mm) most of the time when I want to create drama in a photo. The drama which this lens can create cannot be achieved by a normal 18-55 lens. Just like you cannot win the Formula 1 race with a broken down 800cc car, you cannot achieve quality photographs without good equipment. Sometimes one may get good photographs though mobile phone cameras. But that is accidental and happens only once in hundred times.

You have to spend money. Only talent is not enough. You need some gear to showcase your talent.

Q. What is your advice to upcoming photographers?

Ans: My first advice to upcoming photographers would be to drop your egos. Ego is of no use and nobody has ever been able to rise with ego.

Secondly, photographers have to search for stock photography. We have so many varieties of plants and insects. If these can be given to stock photography, monthly one can earn a good amount as revenue. Nowadays with the help of internet, you can sell your photos to customers in any place of the world. I sincerely believe that one has to take advantage of the internet instead of wasting time chatting on Facebook.

Third, think from the other side. It is always important to think from a different POV if you want to achieve good results in photography. There is no point in having a normal POV. If one wants to be memorable, he or she needs to have a different perspective.

Q. What are your views on photojournalism as a profession?

 Ans: I feel that photojournalism is very challenging as a profession. But if you are in Assam, it is better not to become a photojournalist as you will not be able to earn much from it. Unless you work for an international photo agency and you are based in Assam, photojournalism is not exactly a rewarding job profession as such in context to Assam.

In Love with Tradition: Debananda Ulup

By Aiyushman Dutta

The Singphos, one of the most ancient tribes of this region which boasts of a glorious heritage and tradition, are found scattered across the hills of Arunachal Pradesh and plans of Assam. A hilly tribe of Mongoloid origin which traces their ancestry of the Kachin State of Myanmar, the Singphos have a glorious story to tell about their deep-rooted association with greater Assamese society in all aspects – be it economical, social or cultural.

As noted by eminent writer Dr. Anima Guha in her article, ‘An Encounter with Singpho King Bisa Nong Singpho, “The Singphos have originated from the slopes of the southern hilly region of Patkai mountain extending up to Hukong Valley of Myanmar. Presently, they live on both sides of the boundary between Arunachal Pradesh and Assam as well as in the Yunnan province of Southern China. The Singphos are divided into twelve sub-groups.”

A community which has no written history of its own, their history more or less depends upon legends. And in today’s age of globalisation where orally passed down traditions and cultures are dying a slow death, many facets of Singpho culture and heritage and dying a slow death or at the threshold of being forgotten. It is in this sort of dreary and gloomy background that we tend to appreciate the works and efforts of artists like Debananda Ulup.

A worthy scion of the Ulup family of Margherita in Tinsukia district, Debananda Ulup has converged the art and culture, lifestyle and folklore of the Singpho tribe on canvas. Ulup’s brilliant depiction of the life and art and culture of the Singphos, as well as their folklores and legends, on canvas has met with a lot of critical acclaim throughout the globe. Besides, it also acts as a catalyst for the growth of renewed interest in Singpho art and culture amongst the new generation.

Born in 1964 at Margherita, Debananda Ulup is a widely travelled artist, having participated in many national and international art exhibitions and workshops. The recipient of many prestigious awards like the Indira Gandhi Memorial Trust Award, New Delhi, Award for Painting at the 11th All India Art Exhibition organized by SCZCC in Nagpur, amongst others, his art works are part of many art collections in India and abroad.

I recently met the veteran artist to know more about his journey in the world of art and his tryst with Singpho art and culture. Following are excerpts.

Q. At the very outset, please tell us about your collections like ‘My Valley’ in which you have strived to depict Singpho life.

Ans: My creations are deeply based on the Singpho way of life and their art and culture, their folklore, myths and legends. My paintings also depict my long and most cherished association with Singpho culture. My art works are like a visual language that talks about lost cultural fragments like myths, folk narratives and textiles, architecture of the community house, livelihood sources and the socio-political scenario. For me, The My Valley series is an aesthetic rapture of Singpho culture and society.

Q. After spending so many years practicing different forms of art, what made you depict Singpho culture in your paintings?

Ans: I have crossed many phases in life and the same can be said about my art – it has crossed many phases. My collection on Singpho culture probably stems from a deep-rooted nostalgia for my home-town. Just like a person staying on foreign shores remembers his native place, I too remember with fondness my growing-up days in Margherita. My childhood follows me wherever I go. It is as if my mind wants to go back to my hometown. The Singpho collection is a reflection of all these thoughts and emotions.

Q. Through your art and with the help of the internet, you have taken Singpho culture to the international arena. Do you feel that your work has led to more interest amongst the new generation to know about the Singphos and their culture?

Ans: Yes, after seeing my pictures, a lot of people do contact me, wishing to know more about Singpho art and culture, and their traditions. They want to know more about our traditions. However, I am afraid of what I am doing because if I want to be really successful in what I am doing, I have to devote more time and effort to it. At present, I am doing just in bits, not as a whole.

Q. What do you feel is the present situation of the Singpho tribe?

 Ans: The present situation of the Singpho people is not very good. Being a very small tribe, we do not have even the capacity to elect our own MLA. But I feel that in the days to come, the Singphos will play a major role in shaping Assam’s economic progress. I say this because 80 per cent of the Singphos are engaged in organic tea cultivation, which is soon becoming one of the biggest industries of the State.

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Q. Please tell us about your childhood and growing up days.

Ans: I was born in Ulup Village, 12 kms away from Margherita, in 1961. My forefathers had established the village where I was born, hence the title ‘Ulup’. While I am not aware of my ancestor’s migration accounts, according to our historical records, it is noted that the Singphos of Assam migrated from the Hukong Valley in the Kachin State of Myanmar.

Both my parents were farmers and I grew up in my village itself, amidst much poverty. I stayed in the village itself till I was around Class 8 or 9. But by then, our family’s economic condition had worsened and the schools were also closed due to the Assam Agitation. Due to both these factors, I came out of my village to find a better calling in life.

Since I did not have any purpose in life, I wandered around meaninglessly in the beginning. In the initial days, I stayed for some time in Malow Ali of Jorhat. After that, by sheer luck, I earned the love of a respectable family. It was the house of renowned economist Dr. Jayanta Madhab Sarma and seeing my plight, they gave me shelter in their own house. I spend a considerable part of my growing up days in their house near Nehru Park.

Q. You are mostly a self-taught artist. When and how did you develop an interest in art?

Ans: I have always been interested in art. But I guess it was sister Bonn (Sakuntola Devi, sister of Jayanta Madhab Sarma) who helped nurture and develop it. One day when she saw my work, she became immensely happy and got me admitted in the fine art school of Jorhat Fine Art Society.

In Jorhat Fine Arts Society, I had my first real encounter with art. There, I met other geniuses like late Madhab Baidhya, Bhrigupati Hazarika and the like. I attended Sunday classes in art for around six months there. At that point of time, I felt a certain kind of restlessness growing inside me for I had failed to understand my purpose in life.

In that later part of 1979, I came to Guwahati and took up a job in a book store. While working in the book store as an apprentice, I used to meet many students and artists who used to come to buy paints. In that way through my meetings with these artists, my interest in the world of art got a new lease of life. One fine day, I went ahead and took admission in the Gauhati Artists Guild. But unfortunately, I could not continue my classes in the guild for long as my pressures in the job increased.

Q. Did you ever think that you will become a professional painter?

 Ans: I myself do not know how I became a professional artist. I started painting professionally only from 1996. Before that, I never thought I will become an artist. Maybe it became a profession through my constant practice.

Q. You have won the Indira Gandhi Memorial Trust Award, New Delhi and also the Award for Painting at the 11th All India Art Exhibition organized by SCZCC in Nagpur. How do you feel with these recognitions?

 Ans: The prizes that you have mentioned are recognitions of work in my early phase of life. Since the time I got interested in creating through art, I do not have any craze left for prizes and recognitions anymore. Nowadays, I draw only for myself. When I paint, I feel a kind of bliss, a feeling of indescribable happiness. That happiness, and the comments of those who appreciate my paintings, are the biggest award or source of recognition for me.meme.

Love for the Homeland

 

By Aiyushman Dutta

(Published in melange, The Sentinel (Jan 7, 2018)

The call of roots is something very hard to define. Indeed, just what is it that makes a person come back to his or her roots, even after having gone far away to a distant land, to embrace new people and newer cultures, to a place where there is no trace of his traditions or ancestry? While we often tend to forget about our origins in the humdrum of day-to-day existence and in our quest to move ahead in life, the fact remains that a person is incomplete without his cultural heritage and roots.

Such is its power that it can make one go out of the way to preserve his or her heritage, even in foreign and unknown shores, against the set and conventional patterns of life of the land where he or she now resides. It is an age-old saying that a man may travel and settle down in the other end of the world but he will always carry a slice of his native in him. Same runs true for a number of Assamese people settled in different parts of the world who are doing, in their own little way, things to preserve and promote their traditional culture.

In this context, one cannot but look with admiration and gratitude at Ankur Bora – a senior software engineer who has been working in the USA for a long time now. Born and brought up in Assam, Ankur Bora shifted to the US in the nineties where he has spent a considerable period of his professional life working at Microsoft under the leadership of none other than Bill Gates. Despite staying abroad, he has been continuously striving to promote the singular achievements of Assamese people across the entire world.

Ankur Bora is the founder vice-president of Friends of Assam and the Seven Sisters (FASS) and served as the general secretary of Assam Foundation of North America. He publishes an annual magazine, Friends, which recognises the exceptional work being made by Assamese people living in the State as well as different parts of the globe. Through numerous philanthropic and highly dynamic initiatives, he has been able to act as a catalyst to help bring recognition to the exceptional efforts being made by the people of the State. It was due to his efforts that the efforts of four individuals working in the State managed to get global recognition and acclaim.

The love for his roots, his people and culture runs so deep in the veins that despite staying overseas, he has spent a considerable amount of his time and money for the greater cause of promotion of Assamese and developing a network among Assamese citizens across the globe, recognising the achievements being made at the grassroots levels. His series of write-ups on Assamese people doing exceptional work in different parts of the globe has helped acquaint them and their work with the people of Assam, as well as Assamese people spread all over the world.

Ankur Bora is presently in the State to be part of the release of AFNA’s annual calendar and also to release his new book, In Pursuit of Excellence, at the Jeevan Kite Festival. The melange team caught up with the dynamic personality to know more about his life. Following are excerpts.

Q, You are in the city for the release of the annual calendar of Assam Foundation of North America (AFNA). Please tell us more about AFNA and the calendar.

Ans: The Assam Foundation of North America (AFNA) was set up in 1982 as a non-profit charitable organization by US based Assamese non-residents to support socio-economic development in Assam and to foster social, cultural, technical exchange between Assam and North America. AFNA’s volunteers, working closely with people back home, have contributed in a vast number of fields including primary and higher education, supporting women’s group, providing scholarship to meritorious college going engineering and medical students from economically poor background, supporting disabled adults and artisans. Every New Year AFNA publishes an annual Calendar, the proceeds of which goes towards supporting these organizations. The AFNA calendar does not merely represent a catalogue of pictures. Instead, the stunning photographs and resonating words reconnects the non- residents to their roots and continues to enrich their bonds with motherland. In the words of Pallav Sakia, President of AFNA “While celebrating and ushering in the New Year, AFNA calendar will certainly help in making a difference with a message of community involvement, global cooperation and collaboration”.

Q, You recently released your book, In Pursuit of Excellence. Please tell us about it.

 Ans: In the last few years a number of non-residents Assamese have been working closely with people back home and have contributed in a number of fields, including supporting financially a number of schools for underprivileged children, supporting women and women’s groups, providing scholarship to meritorious college going engineering and medical students from economically poor background, student interactions and meetings with Non-resident experts in diverse fields spreading across the globe.  A number of organizations of Assam went on to win International awards including founder of Rickshaw bank (The Tech Awards) as well as innovator Uddabh Bharali (Create the Future Design Contest 2012 , Nasa Tech Briefs) , Founder of Swabalambi and  the founder of  Fertile Ground winning women’s World Summit Foundation (WWSF) Prize for women’s creativity in rural life. Some of the non-residents are also involved in environmental projects including controlling the erosion of Brahmaputra, promoting individuals like Jadav Payeng, organizing cultural troupes abroad, supporting inclusion of Assamese scripts in Unicode and others. The book, Pursuit of excellence, is a treasure house of the unique stories, knowledge, work experiences and expertise of these individuals.

Q. You were born and brought up in Assam. Please share with us your memories of your growing up days.

 Ans: I was born in Nagaon to Rabindra Chandra Bora and Malati Bora. My father retired as the Head of the Department of English, Nagaon EDP College while my mother also retired as a Head of Department in Nagaon Girls College. There was a strong environment for learning in our family. My father, being a professor of English, used to buy a lot of books and we grew up in that environment. My mother too was very strict about creating a conducive environment for learning in the house. I remember vividly the first book she presented me, which was the Diary of Anne Frank. The book had such a deep impact on me that during a recent visit to Amsterdam, I went across the entire place searching for Anne Frank’s house.

My uncles – both in my paternal and maternal side – were well-respected and recognised personalities on the State. They were a huge source of inspiration for me. Herein, I remember how my uncle Rajen Bora had once won an international-level essay competition and travelled all the way to the United States to be felicitated by the US president. He was probably around 15 years old then. The very fact that a 15 year-old boy from Assam can travel to the US and have breakfast with the most powerful man of the world of that time, was a big source of inspiration for me. His achievement inspired me a lot and gave me the confidence to aim big in life.

After my schooling in Nagaon, I studied in Cotton College and then passed out from the Computer Science Department of Jorhat Engineering College. After passing out from JEC, I got a job with the government in NIC. But I soon left the job because I wanted more out of life. I worked with a private company in Delhi for two years before I finally got the job with Microsoft in USA.

Q. How do you remember your days in Delhi?

 Ans: Working in Delhi was tough. It was humid and the work was exhausting. I used to stay near the airport and every evening after coming back from work, I used to watch different aeroplanes leaving for foreign shores – to Los Angeles, New York, Miami, etc. Those were difficult days but I did not stop dreaming. I continued to work towards my goal with the hope that one day, I too will be on one of those flights.

In 1998, I got the job with Microsoft. I was so happy because it was as if I was living one of my dreams. During the entire flight to the US, I was so excited that I did not let my co-passenger sleep for the entire duration! After all, that was the moment I had been waiting for my entire life.

Q. Please tell us about your work for Assam…

 Ans: If you look at it, all my work is actually the fruition of the experiences I gained in America. I learnt and understood the finer nuances of compassion, empathy and donation in America. I had a lot of ideas and I needed a channel to implement them. Assam became my channel and thankfully, the people also reciprocated my efforts.

Herein, I have to make mention of two people who influenced me to come out. One is Uttam Teron of Parijat Academy and the other is Jugal Bhuyan of Pragyalay. Uttam Teron’s sincerity towards the cause of education for the underprivileged moved me. On the other hand, Jugal Kalita, when I first got to know him, was almost on the verge of giving up Pragyalay. But I spoke to him and maybe my call gave him renewed interest to work. Those were significant moments for me.

Initially, I did my homework and created the websites for these two organizations – Parijat Academy and Pragyalay. I shot a video on their activities. And then AFNA came into the picture and started supporting their cause.

Family

Q. You also published an annual magazine, Friends…

Ans: When I actually started working for these organizations, I came in touch with a lot of new people whose work and stories amazed me. My network grew and I knew I had to put all those amazing stories in some form of writing. That was the genesis of Friends.

The first issue of ‘Friends’ was published in January 2010 with an objective to connect the non-resident Indians hailing from the north-eastern States with the students and youths residing there. Friends had facilitated in building a bridge for exchanging ideas and information, thereby assisting a worldwide medium for active and continuous participation.

Q. You have also been highlighting the amazing stories of a few Assamese achievers through your writing…

Ans: I believe that the biggest achievement for me is the fact that through my writing, I could nominate four individuals working in Assam for prestigious awards. That’s a tremendous achievement for me. The first person was Dr. Pradip Sarmah who got the Tech Awards 2011 in San Francisco for Rickshaw Bank. The second was innovator Uddhab Bharali who was included in the NASA Tech Awards. Then there was Sushmita Mazumdar of Swabhalambi Foundation and Peggy Carlswell, who both won the World Women Summit Awards. While we all know of Sushmita, Peggy Carlswell is a Canadian who has dedicated the last 25 years of her life towards the cause of organic farming in a village in Upper Assam.

Complete information of Utpal Borpujari’s new film, ‘Ishu’

 

 

Guwahati / Mumbai, Aug 3: Children’s Film Society, India (CFSI)’s newest production “Ishu” is a feature film that will instantly take the viewer to a world of a kid whose innocent and happy-go-lucky world turns topsy turvy thanks to the superstitious society of adults around him.

Set in a remote tribal Rabha village in Lower Assam area bordering Meghalaya’s Garo Hills, this Assamese feature film is based on renowned Assamese writer Manikuntala Bhattacharjya’s popular novel “Ishu”, and marks the feature film debut of National Award-winning film critic and acclaimed documentary director Utpal Borpujari.

The film takes a look at the inhuman practice of ‘witch hunting’ that is prevalent in parts of Assam as well as some other parts of India, through they eyes of an innocent child whose favourite aunt is branded as a ‘witch’ by the evil village “Bej” (quack) who conspires with another aunt to do so.

Treated like a fairy tale albeit set in today’s times, “Ishu” is a sensitive take on how such incidents impact a child psychologically, with the narrative taking the viewer along protagonist Ishu’s quest to find his aunt who goes missing after being assaulted by the villagers at the instigation of the villainous quack.

The social evil of ‘witch hunting’ has been a recurring problem in Assam, so much so that the state Assembly unanimously passed the Assam Witch Hunting (Prohibition, Prevention and Protection) Bill 2015, following years of sustained campaign by civil society organisations and an intervention by the Gauhati High Court. The Bill, however, is still awaiting the President’s assent to become a law.

Several incidents of witch hunting has been reported in Assam during this year too, while according to data placed in the state Assembly, 93 cases of witch-hunting were reported and 77 persons, including 35 women, were killed during 2010 to 2015.

“However, despite its sensitive and serious backdrop, my film treats to subject in a way that it is suitable for viewing by children. In fact, the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) has given it a U certification without any cuts,” says Borpujari, who believes that children’s films can affectively take up social issues if handled sensitively.

CFSI Chairman MukeshKhanna said this movie will give a clear message to the people that social evils are bad and must be eradicated from the society. “Children are the future of our country and should always be motivated. By practicing social evils like ‘witch hunting’, we are making circumstances worse for children and disturb their psychology. This will have an adverse effect on the children and will not help them in their career and overall development.”

“Movies like ‘Ishu’ bring awakening in the society about the ill-effects of social evils and educate people about their harmful aspects on the society. CFSI will continue to make and promote such films whose themes are aimed at bringing about transformation in the society for the benefit of mankind, particularly children,” he says.

According to Dr Shravan Kumar, CEO of CFSI, “This is a highly sensitive film in which exploitation of people due to social evils such as ‘witch hunting’ is highlighted. The movie is informative, educative and throws light on the harmful effects of social evils practiced by people in the society. The movie tells the audience that such evils harm children and have an adverse effect on their psychology. Our attempt at CFSI has always been to focus on issues concerning children and their welfare.”

“I am happy to note that in Assam, a Bill to prevent social evils like “witch hunting” has been passed by the State Legislative Assembly, and is awaiting President’s assent. Let us hope that it would become a law soon.”

“This is the first feature film made by well-known film critic and documentary film maker Utpal Borpujari and we hope that children as well as elders will like it,” he says.

Incidentally, the script of “Ishu” was chosen as the only Asian entry into the 2012 Junior Co-Production Market of Cinekid International Film Festival, Amsterdam.

In the film, the lead role is played by 10-year-old Kapil Garo, who hails from Sonapur area near Guwahati. Kapil, who has given a performance with a maturity much beyond his tender age, was selected for the role after the director and his team interacted with nearly 300 kids across Assam. “Kapil has the required innocence and charm that I had visualized in Ishu, and being from a village himself, he blended naturally with the character,” says Borpujari.

The film also stars two-time National Award (Special Jury Mention)-winning actor Bishnu Kharghoria and National Award-winning Manipuri actress TonthoingambiLeishangthem Devi, along with veterans like Chetana Das and Pratibha Choudhury and talented younger actors like MonujBorkotoky, DipikaDeka and NibeditaBharali. Others in the cast include Mahendra Das, Rajesh Bhuyan, Naba Kumar Baruah, MonujGogoi, etc.

Along with KapilGaro, other child actors in the film include MahendraRabha, SrabantaRabha and UdayRabha.

The film’s dialogue, with emphasis on how the Rabha people living near Goalpara area speak Assamese with a particular accent, has been written by Borpujari in collaboration with award-winning theatre director SukracharjyaRabha of the famed Badungduppa Kala Kendra of Rampur, Agia.

Several actors from the Badungduppagroup, including Dhananjay Rabha and Basanta Rabha, have acted in pivotal roles in the film, which has been shot in pristine locations of several Rabha tribal vilages near Agia in Goalpara, located on the south bank of the mighty Brahmaputra.

It may be mentioned that NSD graduate and actress Pranami Bora conducted an 8-day workshop for the actors of the film at Badungduppa Kala Kendra premises, and MadanRabha and BasantaRabha were in charge of imparting accent training for the actors so that all of them could deliver their dialogues in the local accent.

The film has been edited by the legendary A Sreekar Prasad, while its sound design is by Amrit Pritam Dutta and music is by Anurag Saikia, all National Award winners. The cinematographer is Sumon Dowerah, a veteran of many award-winning and mainstream films in Assamese, while other prominent crew members are JItendra Mishra (executive producer), Hengul Medhi (final sound mixing), Monjul Baruah (associate director), Homen Borah (production manager), Golok Saha (art director), Rani Dutta Baruah (costumes) and Achitabh (Shanku) Baruah (make up). The assistant directors of the film were GhanshyamKalita, Ronal Hussain and MonujBorkotoky.

Director’s Profile:

An M.Tech in Applied Geology from IIT-Roorkee, Utpal Borpujari won the Swarna Kamal for Best Film Critic at the 50th National Film Awards of India in 2003. As a professional journalist, apart from cinema, he has written extensively on politics, society, culture, literature, etc., while working with some of India’s top media houses. Since 2010, when he decided to turn a filmmaker, he has made several acclaimed documentary films that have been screened across the world in various film festivals. Among them are “Mayong: Myth/Reality” (2012), “Songs of the Blue Hills” (2013), “Soccer Queens of Rani” (2014) and “Memories of a Forgotten War” (2016). Borpujari has also served in international film juries as an erstwhile member of the International Federation of Film Critics, apart from having served on juries for National Film Awards and Indian Panorama. He has also curated films as well as served as a consultant for the Northeastern sections in the International Film Festival of India as well as various other film festivals. “Ishu” is his debut fiction feature. He is currently developing scripts for a Hindi and an Assamese film.

Taking Bihu to the World

Prashna gogoi  (12).jpg

Whenever we talk about culture and traditions of Northeast India, especially related to music and dance, one of the first names that comes to our mind is none other than Dr. Prashanna Gogoi – an ethnomusicologist who had earned world-wide acclaim with his numerous research studies, spell-binding performances, choreographer of prestigious national and international festivals with his constant hallmark being innovation. The recipient of numerous awards and distinctions from across the world, and one of the youngest members of the prestigious Sangeet Natak Akademi, Dr. Gogoi has spent an entire lifetime, trying to understand the nuances of our diverse folk traditions and practices, taking them in front of the global audience and being in a constant bid to experiment and innovate, while keeping the basic rules in mind. To talk about his latest achievement, he has been entrusted with the music production of the entire SAARC games – an event which brought immense fame to Assam.

While very little needs to be said about him, for the uninitiated, Dr. Prasanna Gogoi is the illustrious son of late Bhuban Chandra Gogoi and Srimati Kiran Gogoi. Although his family hailed from Konwar Gaon of North Lakhimpur, Dr. Gogoi was born and brought up in Ziro of Arunachal Pradesh on account of his late father’s posting and where he did his initial schooling. A multi-faceted personality who excelled in numerous streams, Dr. Gogoi passed out from Ziro HS in 1st division. A keen sportsman with a passion for medicine, he later on joined the Assam Agricultural University to pursue his B.V.Sc and A.H. degree.

Although the recipient of numerous fellowships from the Indian Government, like the ‘Junior Fellowship from Ministry of Culture, Govt. of India in Sept. 2005 for the Research Project-An Echo of Assamese Folk music with special reference to Scientific and Acoustic improvisation of the traditional ”Bin” and recognizing it as one of the major assisting instrument in Tokari Geet, Deh-bichar Geet, Borgeet and Satriya Dance of Assam’, ‘Senior Fellowship from Ministry of Culture, Govt.of India in 2014 for the Research Project-Semantics & Semiotics of Bihu Dance of Assam with reference to music & musical notations’, Dr. Gogoi shot to international acclaim when he won the bronze medal in  Double Reed Traditional Wind Instrument (juria pepa) and the prestigious Delphic Laural Award in Traditional One or Two Stringed Instrument (bin), representing India, in the  III Delphic Games – 2009, held at Jeju, South Korea.

Having performed and conducted seminars and workshops and felicitated in more than 25 countries, he was nominated as a Guru for Bihu dance by the Union Ministry of Tourism & Culture, Govt. of India, in the year 2003, under the “Guru Shishya Parampara” scheme. Earlier last year, he received another major honour when he was appointed as a member of the Advisory Committee of the Sangeet Natak Akademi, New Delhi, for Folk & Tribal Arts – one of the youngest cultural personalities to be bestowed with the honour.

A regular artist of AIR, Doordarshan and an artist who has performed in countless programmes across the country, some of his most memorable achievements are personal Bihu performances in Delhi for the President of India Group of the Inter-Parliamentary Union, composing the music sequence of Bihu dance for the Republic Day tableau parade in 2005, performances in the closing ceremony of Commonwealth Games-2010, organized by Zonal Cultural Centres Ministry of Culture, Govt of India,  on 13th October, 2010, besides countless others.

In the international arena, some of his notable performances include performances of folk music and dance of Assam in Mauritius and Reunion Island, France in November’ 2001, presentation of folk music & dances of Assam as a solo performer and with troupe in Mauritius, Ethiopia, Djibouti, Kenya, Botswana, South Africa & Dubai in November’ 2007, performance during during Incredible India’s @ 60 Festival – depicting a panorama of rich Indian Culture, besides many others.

While Dr. Gogoi’s expert as a performer and musicologist is well known, he is all a choreographer of repute, having choreographed prestigious shows on Dance & Music of India during the ”Festival of India Celebration” under the sponsorship of Ministry of Culture, Govt of India, at Bushan & Seoul, South Korea and Naminara Island Republic in 2009. Besides composing and directing the music sequence for the Republic Day Tableau for Assam in 2005, some notable choreographic shows include choreography of a cultural programme on musical ensemble of Manipur, Tripura and Assam with folk dances in honour of Her Excellency Smt. Pratibha Devi Patil, President of the Republic of India and Her Excellency Dr Michelle Bachelet, President of the Republic of Chile at the Rashtrapati Bhavan Auditorium, New Delhi on March’ 16, 2009 to commemorate the 60th Anniversary of Diplomatic Relations between India and Chile.

A north-easterner at heart, he was also the choreographer and Music Director of – ”Unity Dance” & “Drums of the Hills” in the opening ceremony of Hornbill Festival-2013  during the visit of President of India on 50 Years of Statehood Day in Kisama, Nagaland.

As mentioned earlier, innovation is the hallmark of Dr. Gogoi’s career and he personally manufactures his own musical instruments. The same have been widely appreciated and he has been invited on numerous occasions to teach and showcase his instruments. Some of his visits on those lines include a musical training tour to Reunion Island (France) on the eve of “ Dipawali Celebration” there in October, 2011, invitation to demonstrate the crafting of folk musical instruments of Assam and teaching folk music & dance to the students of University of Valladolid, Spain, amongst others.

As a researcher and master craftsman on traditional / folk musical instruments of Northeast, his sole efforts are aimed at their revival for the upcoming new generations. Amongst his innovations, he is the inventor of ‘Hansa-Bin’ – a chordophone (fiddle-string instrument) of Assam, which he developed under the research project – An Echo of Assamese folk music with special reference to Scientific and Acoustic improvisation of the traditional ”Bin” and recognizing it as one of the major assisting instrument in Tokari Geet, Deh-bichar Geet, Borgeet and Satriya Dance of Assam, in September, 2007. He is the inventor of Cane Drums for a 50- member Nagaland State Cultural Delegation in 2013 to take part in the Royal Edinburg Military Tattoo Show in Scotland and for Hornbill Festival 2014, at Kisama Heritage Village, Nagaland. Not just craftsmanship, he is presently working as a research person for the documentation of all traditions of Bihu of various communities of Assam, for archives under Sangeet Natak Akademi (SNA), New Delhi.

In the field of academics, he has been teaching traditional/folk dance, music and musical instrument crafting to various interested students and individuals by organizing workshops in different places since 1997 till date. Regularly invited to demonstrate the art of musical crafts making across the country and globe, his list of achievements are simply endless and not possible to recount here.

In recognition of his immense contributions to the field of culture and innovation, he has been bestowed with a plethora of awards, which includes the ‘Asom Shrestha Pepa Badak ” ( best buffalo horn pipe player of Assam ) award consecutively for three years since 1993, 1994 and 1995 in Guwahati Bihu Sanmilani, Latasil ; in 2002 & 2003 again the  same  title  in  different places of Assam, the ‘Asom  Bihuwa 2002 award’ at Chandmari, Guwahati in  April,  2002, ’Shrestha Asom  Bihuwa’ (best Bihu all-rounder of Assam ) in 2003 and the much prestigious ‘BOR BIHUA’ title in the year 2011.

Dr. Gogoi lives in Guwahati with his wife Mousumi Saikia Gogoi, a Bihu Samragyee herself, a son, Chao Boncheng Gogoi, who has already started performances on stage and in films and a young daughter, Nang Chenxun.

I recently got in touch with him for a candid conversation. Although the conversation stretched on for quite many hours, following are excerpts:

Aiyushman: Thank you for taking out time.

Dr. P. Gogoi: It is a privilege on my part.

Aiyushman: You were born and brought up in Ziro. How did you develop a fascination for Bihu?

Dr. P. Gogoi: Well, you are right. But during the winter months, we always used to come down to our native place. And we had a very strong influence of tradition and culture at home. So Bihu was something which came naturally to us.

Aiyushman: You studied medical sciences. So there were no initial plans to be part of Bihu project as such?

Dr. P. Gogoi: Bihu has always been there in our lives. My aim ambition was to join the Army which was followed by medicine. So even while I joined AAU, not many people that I was really keen abour horseriding. In fact, I had represented the NCC for two years in the horse squad of NCC during the Republic Day celebrations.

Aiyushman: So how did Bihu happen?

Dr. P. Gogoi: You can call it accidental. We were performing our cultural activities simulataneously.We always used to perform Bihu songs as per their original structure. When I was performing, Mukul Bora noticed me and approached me to be a part of their troupe. My first public performance as such was at Rangapuriya Silpi Samaj in Ganeshguri. While everyone was playing modern versions, I stuck to the original Bihu traditions. I received the first prize then. And from 2005 onwards, I started getting invited for shows abroad.

Aiyushman: As a performer and ethnomusicologist of repute, what are your views on the current spate of Bihu in Assam?

Dr. P. Gogoi: Well, I always tend to get in the midst of controversies but I need to speak what is in my mind. Bihu today is no longer what it used to be in the ancient days. Most of the people of Assam are merely acting like parrots, totally avoiding any adaptation. One should understand that Bihu was never meant for stage. The moment it came to stage, it lost its basic essence. We have to adapt to changing times. Most of our performers play by learning. But I play with staff notation. You can call it like a classical form of music. There was a big controversy about it because people did not want to accept it. But at the end of the day, folk is also like classical music. We also have our own matras, just like classical music.

To put it simply, Bihu was earlier performed in the Rajdarbars while table used to be performed in kothas. But table today enjoys classical status while we don’t. Even Sattriya dance would have, in all probability, remained a folk dance if it was not the efforts of late Dr. Bhupen Hazarika.

So basically, I feel that the mindset of the people should change and they should be more receptive to adaptations and change. Things are getting modernised. We have to adapt to changes. That is why research plays an important part here so that we can bring in new influences while retaining our traditional influences.

Aiyushman: How would you define tradition and culture?

Dr. P. Gogoi: Very interesting question. See, culture is not just about music and dance. It is about our way of life. Of Course, music and dance is there but in today’s age, cultural practitioners have been relegated to mere entertainers. One one hand you talk about retaining tradition, and on the other you have a traditional cultural performance before any event, be it a political event or sports ceremony. The mindset needs to change.

Aiyushman: What are your views on the current trend of Bihu workshops and Bihu shows being aired on channels?

Dr. P. Gogoi: To be honest, it is a good sign. Parents want to teach their children about the basic of their culture. But at the same time, people should know as to who the experts or teachers are. Who are conducting the workshops? Do they have sufficient knowledge about it? For instance, the kind of Bihu performances that are being aired during Magh Bihu are not performed at this time. While the exposure is definitely good, we should not teach wrong things.

Aiyushman: How did your interest in developing your instruments start?

Dr. P. Gogoi: It all happened by chance. When I was in the Veterinary College, we had to go to the 9th Mile area to collect parasites. While there, I saw a lot of buffalo horns which were thrown away. I started collecting them and tried experimenting with the tone and scale of the sound. That is how I developed my own pepas – all of which have their own scale. The research continued further on.

Aiyushman: How do you feel with the immense recognition that you have attained?

Dr. P. Gogoi: I definitely feel good. But it gives me more pleasure to know that I have taken our own instruments to the world outside and see people appreciating the same. It has been a tremendous exciting and learning experience for me as well, which I believe will continue to go on.

(First published in The Sentinel)

 

The Shillong Experiment

How Padma Shri awardee Neil Herbert Nongkynrih made the Shillong Chamber Choir adept at Khasi opera as well as Hindi film music

For a person credited with adding a sizzling new layer to Meghalaya’s musical traditions, Neil Herbert Nongkynrih’s celebrations after winning the Padma Shri earlier this year were muted.

The founder of the Shillong Chamber Choir is not given to overt exultations, and the recognition by the government for his contribution to the arts is yet to sink in, 44-year-old Nongkynrih says. “I’m happy today because I’m at peace. Coming back to Shillong was a huge decision and I would question myself. But I don’t regret it,” says Nongkynrih.

To celebrate the Padma Shri, Nongkynrih ordered Chinese food to share with Assamese film-maker Jahnu Barua, who was awarded the Padma Bhushan and was a fellow boarder at Nongkynrih’s hotel in Delhi.

A winding road takes you to Nongkynrih’s Shillong home, Whispering Pines, which also doubles as the school for the choir. Piano strains drift into the spacious living room of the house, built along traditional Assamese lines. White-painted walls display framed memories of previous awards. A light breeze blows past stark white curtains to reveal a beautiful garden outside. Sitting on a leather sofa, Nongkynrih places a kwai (betel nut) in his mouth, and smiles warmly.

“After 13 years in Europe, life had become pretty monotonous,” he says. “A successful career awaited me as a (Western classical) concert pianist but I wanted something more out of life. I decided to come home and produce a choir with a difference.”

At 15, Nongkynrih won a piano student’s passage to London’s acclaimed conservatory Guildhall School of Music and Drama and the prestigious Trinity College, where he found Europe’s foremost pianists, Phillip Fowke and Katharina Wolpe, as teachers.

Back in Shillong, after having performed for British royalty and given recitals across Europe, Nongkynrih suddenly found himself armed with a purpose in life. “Away for 13 years, I felt ashamed with my own life. Doctors said I was stressed out and needed to rest. When I came to Shillong for a short vacation, I felt I was needed here. That’s a great thing, you know—the feeling that you’re needed.”

While he was ready as a teacher, students, though, weren’t as forthcoming. Nongkynrih’s frustration mounted at the high dropout rates of the few who came along, prioritizing their school and college education over that of a start-up choir. In 2002, Nongkynrih took a calculated risk by starting his “home school”, where music would be taught alongside regular courses of study.

His first student, Ibarisha Lyngdoh, now 22, is the “mascot of the home school”, says Nongkynrih. Gifted with an amazing voice, Lyngdoh can sing in Asomiya, English, French, German, Italian, Latin and Khasi. “She gave a solo recital in Switzerland at the age of 13. Such is her potential,” says Nongkynrih.

Lyndoh was followed by further enrolments. “Initially, I wanted only musically gifted children but soon felt that was being too elitist,” says Nongkynrih. Most students have come from troubled families or suffered some sort of mental turmoil. Some parents turned in their children for them to be a “good human being”. “These children now stay with me. I’m very concerned about the present education scenario in India that prevents children from being their true selves. My school is about living together and enjoying music. For me, music is a means to participate in the society.”

Jessica Shaw Lyngdoh, a member of the choir, finds the education at the school life-changing. “It’s not all about singing, but it’s about evolving spiritually. Among the most important lessons Uncle Neil taught me was to lead by example. He is more than just a teacher.”

When the choir gave its debut performance at Shillong’s Pinewood Hotel in January 2001, there were 25 musicians at hand to perform pieces from Handel, Bach, Gershwin, Mozart, Neil’s own compositions, Khasi folk songs and popular adaptations of Queen and ABBA—music with positive vibrations, as Nongkynrih describes their repertoire. Globally inclusive as their set list is, their performance of an opera in Khasi—a language rooted largely in Meghalaya—won the group a silver medal at 2009’s World Choir Championships in South Korea. Sohlyngngem, the Khasi opera, was essentially about a girl’s grief for her lost lover, but tied in contemporary Khasi socio-political events—widespread alcoholism, cruelty towards animals, the maternal uncle’s role in a matrilineal society, among others. While promoting local folklore through different forms of expression and showcasing music written in Khasi—“a dying language”—was part of Nongkynrih agenda, “the opera itself was based on a very dark subject interspersed with dark comedy,” he says. “The voice of North-Easterners, especially of the Khasi people, has elements of sorrow in it: (there is) a unique emotional appeal. It perfectly complements the Khasi folk tales which are mostly tragic in nature.”

As an empanelled entity with the Indian Council for Cultural Relations, the Shillong Chamber Choir has performed in Europe, the UK, Canada, the US, South Korea, West Asia and South-East Asia over the years, and before the US President Barack Obama at the Rashtrapati Bhavan in 2010. But much of India got to know—and love—them for their effervescent interpretation of Bollywood music when the choir participated in 2010’s edition of the TV show, India’s Got Talent, which they eventually won.

While many think the choir was the first group from Shillong to sing Bollywood songs in mainland India, Nongkynrih says it was Amit Paul—the Shillong-born runner-up in Season 3 of TV show Indian Idol—who pioneered it. The choir’s riveting reworking of Hindi film music, nevertheless, stood out against the cultural and socio-political environment in Shillong that has over the decades fed an anti-dkhar (outsiders) sentiment and a highly polarized Westernized culture.

Folklorist, poet, musician and head of the department of cultural and creative studies at North Eastern Hill University, Prof. Desmond Kharmawphlang, feels that Nongkynrih has struck the right chord by fusing old Hindi numbers with choir music. “It is a continuum, you see, as music can never be divided into two poles. One cannot deny that old Bollywood numbers were a big hit way back in the late 1970s,” he says.

Shillong was the capital of undivided Assam till the capital shifted to Dispur in 1972. With the state of Meghalaya also concurrently coming into being, a strong wave of discontentment amongst the Khasis against dkhars followed. It still occasionally flares up through sectarian strife in the hill state.

“What Neil has done is really commendable,” Kharmawphlang says. Similar views were echoed by retired Indian administrative service (IAS) officer Toki Blah: “Living in a place like Mawlai, which is known for the immense anti-dkhar sentiments of the people, I have found that his music has been highly appreciated. It just goes to show that music has no boundaries.”

“This choir is a combination of music and voices that gives goose-bumps to listeners and transports them to an ethereal world,” says journalist and Padma Shri awardee Patricia Mukhim, a founder-member of the choir. “They are perhaps the only choir in India that brings a synthesis between East and West and raises Bollywood numbers to a different level.”

That music for them floats above clannish concerns is apparent in the way Lyngdoh, the choir’s first student, describes their genre-defying approach. “If you attend our concerts, you will find that our foundation is classical music and we blend it with other genres. Our popular numbers include Barcelona, a mixture of opera and rock, which I perform with William Richmond Basaiewmoit, (a choir member); and medleys between Bollywood masala numbers like Yeh Dosti/Ajeeb Dastan; Kaisi Paheli Zindagani/Stand By Me, Kal Ho Na Ho, Manwa Lage and Bar Bar Dekho/’S Wonderful. We also perform Uncle Neil’s own compositions, some based on Hindustani classical music.”

“Most people never thought that a choir group can be fun, can dance on stage and can also make the audience dance along. Most people perceive us differently now,” says Donna Marthong, one of the teachers at the choir. “We never dreamt of performing Bollywood music but when the time came, we had to do it. Now we find that Bollywood music is also catchy.”

“In the beginning, we were quite content performing classical pieces and our Khasi folk operas in front of niche audiences in Shillong and Guwahati,” says Nongkynrih. Then came the call-up for India’s Got Talent; the need to fit 12 different voices into a song and careful selection of new material; fame that contravened man-made borders; the tiring demands of long journeys; culminating with the Padma Shri and a wider engagement with audiences.

“It all started with India’s Got Talent and once we started, I actually started enjoying the joy of revamping these songs and reaching out to more and more people,” Nongkynrih says.

First published in HT livemint. For more details, please write to me or lounge@livemint.com

New folk fusion group utilizing Assamese folk elements in their compositions

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It goes without saying that Assam, with its various ethnic communities, is very rich in culture. Icons like Jyoti Prasad Rabha- Parvoti had set the trend of extracting the essence of musical elements out of the folk varieties and using them in the songs they composed, tuned and sang. Following their footsteps, a good number of Assamese artistes belonging to the new generation have been continuing with their endeavour to utilize the Assamese folk musical elements in their own compositions.

One such group is “Folk Tale” of Kolkata. Folk Tale is a Kolkata based musical band comprising artistes from Assam & Bengal. The artists from Assam are Ms. Anubhuti Kakoty (Vocal), Mr. Emon Goswami (Keyboard) and Mr. Ritu Pawan Kotoky (Guitar). The artists from Kolkata are Mr. Abhik Haldar and Pankaj Malakar.

Anubhuti says, “Folk Tale’s declared aim is to go to the world stage through the rural path and quay of the mighty Brahmaputra of Assam. This was the philanthropic and universal concept propounded by Rupkonwor Jyoti Prakash Agarwala (Gaonliya baatedi, luitor ghaatedi, biswa-dorbarloi juwa.)”

Ms. Anubhuti hails from Jorhat and is going to appear in the final exam of M. A. in Music from Kolkata University. Mr. Emon Goswami hails from Guwahati and is a Sound Engineer working in Mumbai for the last several years. He’s worked in film like Barfi and serial like Satyameva Jayate.

Assamese Bihu celebrated in UK

Dhol r Seu Outdoor 3Assam’s Bihu is no longer confined to the State alone. After Bihu performances started in Delhi and Bangalore at the behest of the Assam Association, Bihu was celebrated for the first time this year in British households. The initiative taken by Back2Music and Bordoichila Bihu Goshti was aptly titled ‘Axomor Huchori Britishor Suburit’.

Needless to say, the emotional quotient of every Assamese peaks during the time of Bihu. As such, ‘Axomor Huchori Britishor Suburit’ was a perfect attempt to showcase Bihu huchori in British courtyards. It was also a noble attempt to have an interaction with the Britishers and showcase the rich culture and traditions of the people of Assam. The event also helped market Assam as a potential tourist destination.

Bihu in British Suburi

The organisers went a step ahead by linking it up with the analogy of door-to-door carol singing as the huchori troupes visited British households in the neighbourhood. One of the promoters said, “The response was simply brilliant. They were impressed with our traditional attire, our drum beats, our food and everything related to Bihu. We plan to make it a regular event from now on.”

First Mizo novel in English released

Zorami by Malswami Jacob earning rave reviews across the country

Noted journalist and writer from Mizoram, Malsawmi Jacob, recently released the first Mizo novel in English. The book, entitled ‘ZORAMI: A redemption song’ is already earning rave reviews across the country.

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‘Zorami’ is based on the Mizo fight for independence that started in the mid-1960s and its social and psychological impact on the people of Mizoram. The main character Zorami, though an individual, symbolizes the people of Mizoram. The book also draws on the history, culture and folk-lore of the Mizo people to bring the story alive.

Malsawmi Jacob is no newcomer in the world of journalism and literature. She has earlier worked as a lecturer in English in Aizawl, Mizoram, and in Bangalore. She has also freelanced as a writer in different publications like The Assam Tribune, the Northeast section of The Telegraph, and the Northeast Frontier. She has published six other books and contributed to four other books.

‘Zorami’ is Malswami’s first novel. It is also the first novel written in English by a Mizo writer.

The book ‘Zorami’ has already earned rave reviews from critics across the country. Echoing his views, Sonny Zachariah, Ex-Principal, St Claret’s College of Bangalore, said, “Malsawmi has immortalised the Mizo people and takes the reader to their very soul.”

Not to be undone, Stacy Wiebe, a creative writing teacher, said, “I feel that I have gained a glimpse into Mizoram’s soul, not only through the history and culture that form the backdrop of the narrative, but also through Malsawmi Jacob’s gentle, unaffected voice.”

Another noted poet Nabina Das said, “Malsawmi Jacob’s story, in the backdrop of stunning Mizo lore and volatile politics, is complex and incisive. The author seamlessly and brilliantly uses Mizo folklore, songs and cultural terms.”

Zualteii Poonte, Associate Professor in English of Aizawl Government College further said, “The novel is written in Malsawmi’s distinctive restrained, understated, always beautifully lucid style that breaks into poetry in moments of passion.”

The book is available for online sale in most online stores and departments. Here is wishing Malsawmi the heartiest congratulations for her sincere efforts in bringing out ‘Zorami’.