DESPITE THE CHILL of the mid-February evening, Rewben Mashangva and his son Saka were stripped down to their shorts in the tiny green room of Pragati Maidan’s Lal Chowk Theatre. Other artists from across the country, who had travelled to Delhi for Desaj, the Sangeet Natak Akademi’s annual concert of tribal and folk music and dance, jostled for space in front of three full-length mirrors. A dozen giggling children from Kerala, who had just finished a Singari Melam percussion performance, were taking group photographs backstage. I watched as Mashangva and his thirteen-year-old son each wrapped a long cotton cloth around his waist, knotting it just above the crotch. Mashangva slipped his arms into a sleeveless red-and-black jacket typical of his tribe, the Tangkhul Naga, while Saka pulled on a black T-shirt. Some performers nodded towards them in recognition, others stared curiously at their hairdos, called haokuirut, with long ponytails and clean-shaven sides.
By the time father and son took the outdoor stage towards the end of the show, the sun had set and the air was biting cold. The sparse audience—mostly people who had wandered in from the adjacent 2014 World Book Fair—had already sat through Manganiar and Himachali folk music, Rai dance and Chutkuchuta from Odisha, and looked a little dazed. Mashangva walked on with an acoustic guitar strapped to his back, a mouth organ hanging around his neck, and a yangkahui, a three-foot Tangkhul Naga flute made of a single piece of bamboo, in hand. He blew into the flute, pressing its four holes to produce deep, haunting notes.