“Blood soaked streets/ That’s my ground/ That’s where I play around/ Sound of gunshots/ That’s my song...”
So go the lyrics of ‘Lullaby’ by the Manipuri ‘protest’ band ‘Imphal Talkies’ that, since its release in March this year, has become quite a hit online. Ronid Chingangbam, the band’s founder, frontman and lyricist-vocalist-lead guitarist, says he’s surprised at the response: “I’ve had people writing to me from all over, from Canada and Sweden, saying they like our music. And here we are sitting quietly in far off Imphal, making music and putting it up on the Internet. It’s very encouraging.”
‘Lullaby’ talks about the situation is Manipur: the long-standing insurgency and the army’s brutal repression of it, particularly through the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (AFSPA). Most of the band’s songs deal with the experience of living under the shadow of the gun, of people being kidnapped or killed, and women raped. There is anger, of course, in their songs but also pathos and biting satire. An early song is cheekily called ‘AFSPA (Toilet session with Netbook and 50RS condenser mike)’ and ‘Qutub Minar’, another huge hit, tells an elaborate story about lifting the 12th-century monument, the icon of Delhi and carting it off in the Assam-Avadh Express to Imphal, in order to place it next to the Samu Makhong sculpture there.
Keith Wallang, founder of Springboard Surprises, a Shillong-based company that manages several musicians from the North-east, says that while there has been an explosion in rock bands from the region, no one is doing such baldly political stuff, or hitting out at the army excess as Akhu, as Chingangbam is known everywhere. “Back in Manipur, people are so caught between the police and politicians that they have no voice. It is perhaps because he was away in Delhi that Akhu could be objective about the situation here.”
But not all the songs of Akhu, who formed Imphal Talkies in 2008, have to do with Manipur. ‘India, I see Blood on your Hands’ talks about everything from Kashmir and Narendra Modi to Binayak Sen and the salwa judum, and the recent release ‘Song for Bangladesh’ expresses solidarity with the Shahbag protesters.
It was as a PhD student in JNU, Delhi that Akhu first began making music, spending half his scholarship money to record his first song. “There was just me and my guitar in my room,” he says, only a little fancifully. It was also here that he gained a following, with gigs at university campuses, then small concerts, followed by more established venues such as Blue Frog and NH7 Weekender.
Has there ever been a problem at any of his shows, I ask him. “No, not really,” he says, sounding a little uncertain. “We were dropped from a few concerts in Guwahati and once, after I had performed ‘India, I see blood...’ at a college in Pune, a few students came to me and said that I should not sing such songs. And yes, the students of Manipur University asked me not to perform ‘I want to go to Moscow’ at a recent concert.” (‘I want to go to Moscow’ talks about an army camp inside the university.)
It is, thus, ironical that Akhu has moved back to Imphal this month. “Our music is not something that is commercially viable. You just don’t earn enough to survive in a place like Delhi. In Imphal, I have a house. I don’t have to struggle, except for the political turmoil. Besides, I have applied for an asistant professor’s position at the National Instituteof technology here. Hopefully, I’ll get it.” And Delhi is just a flight away.