She Rocks

A Manipuri diva’s fierce devotion to rock music

01 December, 2011

TEN DAYS AFTER Metallica’s Gurgaon show was cancelled at the last minute, leading to much rage and rioting, uncertainty hung over another long-awaited Delhi rock concert. On the evening of 8 November, 20-30 young guys and girls from the Northeast, stunning in their well-tailored jackets, ankle boots and glossy hair, gathered anxiously inside the Shah Auditorium in Civil Lines. Some stood huddled on the front stairs, urgently nodding as they talked, while others paced about nervously. The show’s organisers, two Manipuri boys—from the ‘BPO sector’—looked miserable and made call after call. Three hours later, one of them announced to a restless crowd that the White Fire Band, visiting from Manipur for this sold-out concert, wasn’t going to perform after all. The fans, who had travelled north from all across the rest of Delhi, were crushed that they wouldn’t see the band—and worse, miss the star attraction: Alvina Gonson, the band’s “front man”. She’s a big deal back home, the organisers told me.

The next day, as Gonson walked straight out of bed into the living room of a Malviya Nagar apartment—with big peroxide-blonde hair, perfect charcoal eyes, torn denim shorts, a graphic-print vest and a fluorescent green plastic belt, and gripping with her right hand the freshly-retouched tattoo of a bloated angel on her leftI could indeed believe that she was a big deal. She explained to me, after a quick handshake, that the band did not show up because the organisers couldn’t arrange for a decent pair of drums.

A 28-year-old Naga girl from Imphal, Gonson (a surname she has fashioned from the names of her long-divorced parents) is a well-known face in her home state. The second child of a radio announcer-news anchor couple, she started singing on All India Radio Imphal at the age of seven. Since then she has acted in several TV serials and films, participated in beauty pageants, composed film music, made local pop albums and performed at countless concerts in the Northeast, singing whatever she is paid to sing—from gospel to Hindustani classical. She cares for none of it, though. Her passion is rock music, to which she wants to dedicate her life: “I acted in films because they are commercial, but I didn’t like it. I want to make rock songs.” Her voice in ‘Haiyu’ (Tell me why), the first song that the “punk rock, nu-metal” band has recorded for their dream album, sounds sweet but powerful, resounding over the guitar and pounding drums. In the song, Gonson tells me, an angry girl questions her boyfriend in Manipuri about why he doesn’t make her happy: “Tell me why you hurt me, tell me why you do this shit.”

In 2009, she started an organisation named GONSON, here a backronym that stands for the ‘Global Organisation for Nurturing Societies Obsolete Norms’. She then organised the first Manipur rock fest under its banner “with her pocket money”, she says. Its mission statement reads: “GONSON believes in oneness—ie, One world, One universe in the midst of different ethnic communities. We would like to promote peace and harmony so as to extinguish this burning world.” The third edition of its rock festival, held in Imphal this October, brought together more than 20 local bands—including White Fire, which she formed in 2004.  Support from the Manipuri government has been slow and scattered, she complains.  How so, I ask. After a long pause, she says: “Our politicians, they love India. They want us to keep singing Manipuri versions of Bollywood songs.”

She wants to take her pursuit to the level of Hornbill, the whale of a music festival in the neighbouring state of Nagaland. But she says getting there might take years. She hopes to use profits from GONSON’s rock festival to “build an orphanage in Manipur. We have many orphans. I will marry only after I have done that.” Pointing to her boyfriend, Kumar, the drummer for White Fire and general secretary of GONSON, she says coquettishly, “He can wait for me, or he can marry someone else.” Judging by Kumar’s deep blush, my guess is he will wait.