On a Song

Shillong has got some interesting music, and it’s not rock

Bah H Kerious was inspired to learn Khasi music by old folk singers who performed at the festive community meals. ALL PHOTOGRAPHS © WANPHRANG DIENGDOH
01 January, 2010

ON A COLD DECEMBER afternoon, my friend Lal and I walked through Laitumkhrah, a busy locality of Shillong, the hill-station capital of Meghalaya in Northeast India. In less than an hour, darkness would fall. In about two, the streets would be empty. I was back in my hometown (if that’s what they’re still called in these rootless times) after many years in Delhi and elsewhere. A variety of things intrigued me—the number of mobile phone shops that lined the street, the loss of dusty old establishments to brand stores, the striking trendiness of local fashion. I noticed posters on the wall. Some faded and torn, others hidden under newer ones. They announced, in bold letters, the arrival of many international musicians. The lead singer of Mr Big had been in town again in October 2008. White Lion was here in December of the same year, and so was Firehouse (also on their second trip), The Scorpions were here in December 2007.

“Rock Capital,” Lal said, with sarcasm. On a much smaller, less flamboyant poster, hidden between ‘Rock 4 Life’ and ‘The Beatles & Elvis Show,’ was an announcement for a traditional Khasi music concert organised by the Hynniew Trep Cultural and Welfare Organisation. We concluded our stroll at a small roadside teashop crammed with after-work visitors. I introspected over my tea, wrapping my fingers around the cup for warmth. Having grown up in a household of George Harrison LPs and David Bowie tapes, and listening to everything from The Who to Led Zeppelin through college and beyond, I suddenly felt a yawning absence I’d never been aware of before. I must guiltily admit I had never really been interested in anything other than rock music.  “What exactly,” I asked Lal hesitantly, “is traditional Khasi music?”  He told me to finish my tea. “I know someone you should speak to.”

“Who?” I joked, as we headed out into a bitterly cold evening, “the Oracle?”  “Something like that,” he said.

The cab we took from Fire Brigade dropped us at Nongrim Hills. We walked down a narrow, sloping, non-motorable road to an old but freshly painted house with a wrought-iron gate. “Is Mup home?” Lal asked the woman who opened the door. I stood aside, admiring the rows of lady slipper orchids blossoming on the veranda. ‘Mup’ turned out to be Sanjarawaiñ Risaw, a thirty-seven-year-old man in a heavy jacket with a pleasant smile. He is the son of the late Bah Brek Wanswett, Lal told me as we walked indoors, a noted composer and musician who wrote the lyrics for Khynriam u Pnar, U Bhoi, U War, something of an anthem for the Khasis.

“The origins of traditional Khasi music is in storytelling,” Mup began, offering me a shang kwai (a basket of betel leaves and betel-nut). “I remember, as a child, when we’d go to the village for winter holidays, my grandfather would sit us kids around the hearth in the evening and sing us stories as he played a duitara (a two-string instrument).” The stories were mainly retellings of Khasi folktales mixed with fables from the village and the surrounding area. “The words were all impromptu,” he continued, “and one story would flow seamlessly into another.”

The idea behind setting up Snap Paka in 2006 was to preserve Khasi music. {{name}}

I remembered these words as we drove to Mawngap a few days later in search of Bah H Kerious Wahlang, probably the most well known folk singer in the Khasi Hills (although repeated Google searches didn’t bring up a single result). He has performed in Shillong and across the country at various folk and tribal festivals and done recordings at All India Radio and Doordarshan. Looking at each passing roadside village, I wondered how many of these ‘storytellers’ still lived in them, if at all. Before long, we drove into Mawngap, a bustling little town with a gigantic market complex. A local guide helped us find Bah H Kerious’ house, a traditional two-storied building with cheerful green walls and a white staircase. He was sitting outside, wrapped in a tapmohkhlieh (thick woollen shawl), basking in the brief winter sunshine. H Kerious was a small man, diminished by age, with pepper-grey hair and a wrinkle-lined face. We were ushered into the sitting room with photographs of him on the walls. The most striking one had him performing on an ancient mawkynthei or table-stone—a monolithic slab erected by Khasis in commemoration of people and events.

“Forgive me,” he said, “I have a cold, I’m not feeling well…but I will answer as best I can, since you have come all this way.” I was touched by his humility.  A round of red tea later, he began his story. His interest in folk music comes from leh kai theatre in Sohra (now known as Cherrapunjee) where he grew up in the 1920s and 30s. He was inspired by the old folk singers who performed at the festive community meals, called bam khana.

Bah H Kerious is an accomplished musician. Aside from writing lyrics, he’s taught himself the ksing (drums), tabla, harmonium and other instruments, some of which he carves himself.  “When I was young, I was very active on stage. That is where I learnt to play the harmonium.” In a blink, he was out of the room and back lugging the instrument, setting it up on the floor. He sang jingrwai, a form of Khasi music that is far more contrived than the traditional improvised folk songs. His voice, although slightly timorous with age, was beautiful. Its melancholy filled the room. “Ka jingim jong ngi ki briew, ka tyllun kumba ki tyllun ki lum ki wah ” went the lyrics, roughly translated as “our lives roll with the flow of the hills and the rivers.”

The school now has 30 students. {{name}}

H Kerious scurried away again, and this time brought back a marynthing (a string instrument much like the sitar, which some even consider the sitar’s predecessor) that he’s made from scratch. While he strummed a few chords, I asked him what he sang about. “Shaphang ka jinglong u briew,” (about the nature of man) he said. There was something epic about his music, especially when he sang about the lawkyntang, or sacred groves, in nearby Mawphlang. These deep, dark forests that have remained virtually untouched for hundreds of years are an important part of the Khasi subconscious. They are symbolic of Khasi niam, or faith, which believes in respect towards all creatures and things. “You can see they still stand tall,” he sang, “just the way they were born/they still breathe/ they still dwell/they overwhelm the heart/to look at them with nothing but joy.”

Though the singers he listened to sang folktales, he includes contemporary elements in his songs. “But the youth,” he added, putting the marynthing away, “are not interested in this music.” Thinking of the posters on the wall in Laitumkhrah, I found I had nothing to say.

The thought was troubling. I hoped it wasn’t true.  The youth perhaps appear uninterested only because they haven’t been exposed to this music. There are many reasons why Khasi traditional music hasn’t been visible in the public sphere over the last century. In The Dictionary of Welsh Biography, Dr John Roberts declares Khasis had “no music of their own.” But Nigel Jenkins’ Khasia in Gwalia, a collection of prose and poetry from the Khasi Hills, attempts to right that wrong. “It’s a grotesque lie, symptomatic of the way in which the missionaries, sweepingly dismissive of ‘backward’ custom, encouraged their converts to look with shame and contempt on traditional Khasi culture.”

“Converts,” Jenkins adds, “were obliged to disassociate themselves from all manifestations of ‘erroneous’ former ways and adopt not only a new religion but a new culture.”  Later that day, I asked my father if he knew something about this ‘cultural manipulation.’ During World War II, he started, Shillong was a rest and relaxation camp for thousands of British and American soldiers fighting in the Burmese war. “The entertainment scene at the time comprised, naturally, of Western music—Frank Sinatra, Vera Lynn, Bing Crosby. These songs were sung around the piano, on stage, and were danced to at parties. An entire generation grew up on them. They became the ‘cool’ thing to listen to. Khasi songs were more distant.”

There are some talks in Shillong of a Khasi revival.  Among the hopeful are Kong Helen Giri, founder of La Riti Traditional Training Centre, and Kong Sylbie Passah, a national award-winning Khasi songwriter. “It’s currently on an upsurge,” Mup agreed.  “Folk is in.”  Twenty years ago, he said, someone carrying a traditional instrument down the street would receive odd looks from people. “I used to carry my ksing to school, and go for recordings after classes. My classmates teased me, they thought me an oddity.” The ‘change,’ as he puts it, happened due to a combination of factors. An important one was the inclusion of Khasi music in the syllabus; it is now taught in schools like La Kreh Memorial and KJP Synod among others. “When my father was a Khasi music instructor at the government Arts and Culture Department from the 70s to the late 90s, he had no students,” Mup said. Now, there are over 30 students learning traditional dances, songs and instruments. Another push for Khasi music came from the new recording industry in Shillong. “Bands like Snow White (who sing in Khasi and draw influences from the local mythology in their lyrics) and Summersalt (a gospel-inspired band who include traditional instruments and household items like brooms and baskets) have a platform to showcase traditional Khasi music.”

Encouraged, I asked Lal, while on another stroll through Laitumkhrah, whether he knew of anyone who ran a school of traditional music. He nodded (the benefits of a small town—everyone knows everyone else). This time, we went to the grocery store of D Suiam, fondly called Bah Mai. He co-founded the Snap Paka Institute in Nongthymmai, an initiative of the Seng Khasi (a socio-cultural and indigenous religious organisation formed in 1899 in retaliation against the alarming rates of Khasi conversions to Christianity). “The idea behind the school was to protect, preserve and promote Khasi music,” he said, “and though we started in 2006 with a handful of students, we now have over 30. It’s open to everybody, tribals and non-tribals.”

I set out for the school. The Nongthymmai road was overcrowded with vehicles and pedestrians, and I thought it an odd place to open a music school. But Snap Paka is located on the top floor of a three-storey building, and once inside I couldn’t hear the noise anymore. I met Kong Lawansuk Syiemlieh, the institute’s general secretary, a tough, efficient little lady, who Bah Mai calls “the backbone of the school.” Shyly milling around were eleven students, six girls and five boys. These students are learning the traditional arts by choice; as Bah Mai said, “it’s not part of their school syllabus.”  The girls, dressed in gorgeous silk dharas (two large hand-woven pieces of fabric pinned on either side at the shoulder), told me they would like to start a band.  Some of the boys already composed their own songs.

The girls want to start a band, while the boys already compose their music. {{name}}

One of two teachers at the school, Realley Lyngskor, whom everyone calls Bah Duh, was a soft-spoken man in his twenties who had recently completed a diploma course in music from North Eastern Hill University. Like Bah H Kerious, he taught himself duitara and ksing.  He likes to take the Khasi beats (each one unique to the occasion and the tribal clan) and make something new out of them. “What do you mean?” I asked. In reply, he took me to the rehearsal space where he and four of his students perform, where on the wall hung a plaque: ‘Tip Briew Tip Blei’ – know your people, know God.

He sat at the bom, a large, bassy floor drum, while the others stood, ksing slung across their shoulders. They began with the three basic patterns: lum paid, a beat to gather or call people; iaid lynti, a beat to make people move or travel; and finally mastieh, beats to which men wield their swords in a mock duel. They performed a piece that Bah Duh had composed, and which the troupe played at the Seng Khasi’s annual Seng Kut Snem celebration in November.  The beats were bewilderingly complex, yet played with ease and joie de vivre. It’s difficult to describe how it felt listening to this deeply primordial music. The walls fade out, and you are taken back to a place within yourself you didn’t know existed.

Mup, the son of Bah Brek Wanswett, a noted Khasi composer, plays percussion in a local rock band. {{name}}

The road to Demthring was heavy with smoke-belching trucks in the evening. Only permitted to drive through the town after seven pm, they roared through the streets like gigantic, medieval monsters. I was on my way, directed by an acquaintance, to meet Kong Battimai Kurkalang, a woman who runs a kwai stall at Bara Bazaar and composes and performs traditional music. Her house was at the end of a long flight of stairs, and the small sitting room I entered was warmed by a glowing coal stove. She sat across from me like a wary bird, with a wide smile and sharp, intelligent eyes. Her voice was marked by a singsong intonation, characteristic of the place she comes from, Laitkyrhong village. Far from Bah H Kerious’s lyrical turns of phrase, she got straight to the point. “Although I’ve been playing the duitara and ksing since 1994, it only came of use to me in 2001.”

Since then, Kong Battimai has travelled to Mumbai and Delhi to play at various folk festivals and is a regular at the annual Roots Festival and Autumn Festival in Shillong. No lilting lyrics on forests and nature for her,  Battimai’s songs are about politics, urban living, and mariang—her surroundings and the changes she sees therein. It’s easy to see why this is a central concern. Demthring, once a lovely hillside space with a river, is overrun with concrete buildings and polluting car workshops. The river is now a big drain. Once an instructor at Snap Paka, she now teaches from home and has five students.

Slowly, she opened up and shared with me the experiences of being the first recognised woman duitara player in the Khasi Hills. “It has been a slow progress. At first I wasn’t taken very seriously, but things have changed now.”  When I requested her to play a song, the wariness returned, though she jokingly said “I’m performing in Shillong later this month, you come and see me then. I’ll be dressed nicely in proper costume.” After refusing a few more pleas, she said with a smile that the next time I visit I should bring some jing bam dih sha (tea snacks). Then she told me that wherever she performs, she never does it for free. “After all, it is something I’ve created and own, something I’ve worked very hard for.”

I left Demthring feeling slightly disappointed; I’d looked forward to hearing her sing. It would have been nice if she’d played a song, a chorus, even a verse. As our vehicle crawled towards Laitumkhrah, I thought of the various kinds of revivals happening simultaneously—those where newer, different folk musicians were being born. Just as Bah H Kerious differed from those before him, so was Kong Battimai unlike Kerious. I thought of the folk revival happening across the country, the trend I saw in the many festivals organised by cultural institutions like India Habitat Centre and India International Centre throughout the year.

Folk art was making its way into galleries, and folk painters were getting recognition, as people realised their art was not just about the style (Madhubani or Worli, for example), to say nothing of the realisation of its business potential. Folk, like any other genre, could be commodified, packaged, and sold around the world. Here, in Shillong, as Mup put it, the recognition of Khasi folk music is at a nascent stage, but it’s a revival nonetheless. Bah Mai’s words resounded through all the optimism: “What we don’t want is someone to remember us just when they need us to perform at some state function, where the rest of the time we cease to exist.”

Demthring, once a lovely hillside space with a river, is overrun with concrete buildings and polluting car workshops. {{name}}

There is an urgent need for government funding to assist folk music initiatives. It’s not fair, after all, for Mr Big to have come here twice and for Bah H Kerious to not possess a single recording of his songs. “For all the years we’ve been running,” said Bah Mai, “we’ve received 10,000 rupees in funding from the government. It costs about 15,000 rupees to buy a single ksing.” Fingering his father’s duitara, a worn-out instrument, Mup admitted that he wished he’d devoted more time to traditional music. “Why didn’t you?” I asked. “Monetary reasons,” He replied. For now, he remains a percussionist for Kubicle, a local band that plays mainly covers, “crowd pleasers” as he calls them. It is, as for many others, an easier way to put bread on the table. All the while though, something more valuable quietly dies.

It was the journey’s end for me as I got into a cab to take me to Fire Brigade, from where I would walk home. Hardly any taxis go up Risa Colony hill where I live. I waved goodbye to Lal, who was off for rehearsals with his newly formed band: Bah Duh from Snap Paka and Dajeid, one of the students there. Lal plays the bass and is looking for a rhythm guitarist and vocalist. “I want to try something new,” he told me.  “Khasi traditional music like no one’s ever heard before.”

I smiled quietly to myself, feeling a trifle optimistic. When they have a concert, I shall help them put up posters.