Ao musician Sademmeren Longkumer is a lone crusader: In his native Ungma village in Mokokschung in Nagaland, the 86-year-old is the last one with the knowledge of about 300-400 folk songs of the Ao warrior tribe. Without a written language to help him and his failing health, Longkumer is afraid he might take the glorious music with him.
The Nagas are an ethnic community comprising of 40-odd tribes and sub-tribes spread over northeastern India and parts of northwestern Myanmar. In the absence of a written language, music fills the void by acting as a tool of documentation of decades-old traditions and histories. It also serves as a cohesive tool of communication stringing the various tribes together, and in passing the cultural knowledge between generations. The role that music plays in Naga society has intrigued anthropologists and musicians alike for years, and is now the topic of award-winning film critic-turned-filmmaker Utpal Borpujari's newest feature film Songs of the Hills.
"Despite a rich folk tradition, Naga music was greatly influenced by the Church. The missionaries shifted the focus from traditional folk music to gospel music and hymns, localising them to Naga lyrics," says Borpujari. "In the last few years, there has been a revival of Naga folk music. As a member of the advisory board of the Centre for Cultural Resources and Training of the Union Ministry of Culture, I sought to explore the topic. They preferred visual documentation, which led to the feature."
Music in the remote northeastern state is taken seriously, with choir musicians trained in Western Classical music travelling to choir festivals and meets in the UK and Phillipines. Nagaland is also the only state in the country with a state Ministry of Music, formed to promote the music in the state. The annual Hornbill festival is one of the oldest and most revered music festivals in the country, and its rock music competition is considered the most prestigious amongst enthusiasts. The 96-minute feature, produced by Girish Joshi, released last month and has already bagged six awards, and will travel to many international film festivals in the coming months.
The film has been a part of the New York Indian Film Festival, Eyes & Lenses Ethnographic Film Festival (Warsaw, Poland), Visions du Reel Film Festival's International Doc Market (Nyon, Switzerland). It is now travelling to Gothenberg Independent Film Festival and the World Music & Independent Film Festival at Washington, and is in competition at the Federation of Film Societies of India's Signs 2014 at Kochi.
A former journalist, Borpujari's debut documentary Mayong: Myth/Reality, based on the legend of witchcraft of Mayong in Assam, travelled to various film festivals. As a member of the International Federation of Film Critics (FIPRESCI), he has served on several prestigious film juries and is currently researching for his next documentary film on World War II's famous battles in northeastern India. As part of the film, Borpujari and his team stumbled on more than what they were looking for. "What started of as a 40-minute documentary soon turned into a full-length feature. We came across so many musicians. The common thought between all of them today is that their folk music must be preserved. I strongly feel that they must focus on documenting the rich musical traditions visually," says Borpujari.
"Naga music is not made up of just the war cries that you hear on television, or see as part of music festivals. It may been seen as primitive, but in reality it is complex and very evolved. It is multi-layered and serves as the thread that makes up the fabric of life in the hills," says Borpujari.
Longkumer isn't taking chances. He has already passed on more than 150 songs to a young man from his village, but he feels that time is running out. "These songs came to us from our forefathers, and in the absence of a written language, they are usually passed on to generations orally. If I don't teach these folk songs to someone, they will be gone forever."