Tarun Bhartiya: The Last Songs of Life

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Tarun Bhartiya’s documentary is a celebration of the essential Northeast whose music carries the sighs and sorrows of the soil

WHAT ARE THE songs we live by? For some, fragments of lullabies, perhaps, sung by mothers, grandmothers, nannies, older siblings. Or the soundtrack of our youth, marking the passage of time, of changing tastes, of growing up. Relationships too may have their music, shared on rooftops and bus rides, an exchange of tunes as much as love. There are also songs to celebrate or offer comfort sung at ceremonies, repeated through the centuries, communicating a continuity of faith and belief. Others run deep, helping to form and sustain an auditory reimagining of the world and our place within it.

Tarun Bhartiya’s ‘cycle’ of six documentary shorts collectively titled Songs to Live By transports us to a place where music embraces all this and more. The title acquires a particularly potent meaning primarily because the documentaries are shot in the Khasi, Garo, and Jaintia Hills in Meghalaya in the northeast of India, places inhabited by communities that share a largely oral culture. (The Khasi script, for instance, was introduced in the 1850s by Welsh missionaries eager to translate the Bible into a local language.) Consequently, as with many oral communities around the world, this entails a reliance on, and penchant for, the spoken, the narrated, the sung. As Bhartiya, filmmaker, writer, and activist based in Shillong, says in his director’s note, people here ‘have always sung their lives’. Not ‘about’ their lives. The exclusion of the preposition indicating a closer, more profound communion between the two.

In the past, Bhartiya has made The Darjeeling Himalayan Railway, (part of the BBC series Indian Hill Railways, which won a Royal Television Society Award), and edited In Camera by Ranjan Palit (for which Bhartiya won a National Award, since returned in protest), Jashn-e-Azadi by Sanjay Kak, Girl Song and Songlines by Vasudha Joshi. Bhartiya admits that he hadn’t made many films about Meghalaya because he felt that due to his ‘Maithilness’ (being a dkhar, ‘outsider’ in Khasi) and struggle to situate this ‘strangeness’ he needed to first ‘get into the rhythm of the place’. With Songs to Live By he has done this with much aplomb, bringing to the series his informal, intimate camera style, and characteristic lightness of touch.

The six documentaries, none longer than 40 minutes, flit from theme to theme, yet remain connected through a singular point of view—that of exploring what folk music means to a particular village or community. The spotlight, interestingly, is far from Shillong, popularly, yet problematically, called ‘Rock Capital of India’ for its association with Western music. In Songs to Live By, conscious effort has been made to avoid well-known or officially sanctioned exponents of folk culture in the state. The films in the Garo Hills, for instance, were made possible by Sembertush Sangma, a school teacher, intellectual, and artist, who helped Bhartiya once he realised the filmmaker was ‘interested in people as people and not as an image’. By doing this, attention is drawn to the less known, the little documented, and—dare I say it—more authentically vibrant. And despite the focus on the local, these explorations of folk culture, touching on ownership, memory, and documentation are relevant to other forms of ‘traditional’ art elsewhere.

Initially envisioned as one long film about labour songs in the region, the series opened out through an accidental encounter in Umpohwin, a Bhoi village on the Assam-Meghalaya Border, with Hos Shadap, a farmer, and Albinus Kharkongor, the village’s ‘master of rhyme and verse’. “[It was] one of those documentary moments,” Bhartiya explains. “I had gone to shoot some location images for my film on fishing and we heard the Shoh Kba [threshing] song— we weren’t even prepared for it. We ended up recording the song on the camera microphone.”

Threshing in the Khasi-Jaintia Hills involves free and voluntary exchange of labour and that day Shadap’s paddy field was the recipient of that voluntary exchange. The ‘documentary moment’ captures them in the field, and as the paddy is pounded, a simple rhythm emerges that Kharkongor sets to song. It’s pertinent that Bhartiya chooses this as an entry point to the series. Throwing up questions touched upon in various ways by the rest of the shorts: What makes folk music? Is it performed, and experienced in staged settings? Or does it still erupt in the outdoors, to the rhythm of breath, mood, and labour?

It is telling that when Bhartiya and his crew invite Kharkongor and his friends, three months later, to sing the same Shoh Kba song indoors, he is unable to perform. He cannot remember the song. Out in the fields, though, the lyrics flow effortlessly. He taps into vast topical territory, his lines marked with irreverent wit and skilful improvisation. Like indigenous Aboriginal communities in Australia who mapped their landscape with song lines, their songs too carry similar euphonic cartography—‘ In the east flows the river Umiam Umlen, from Ummat to Umtyrchiang village to disappear behind the hills.’ A strong sense of place, geographic and otherwise, is located within the song. It’s also fitting that the series begins with ‘A Brief Life of Insects’, an exploration of folk music as intrinsic to seasons, to the cycles of sowing and harvest, and ends with the short ‘Kings have their Resorts, People have their Songs’ which revives a weeding song in Syndai village in the War Jaintia region of Meghalaya that has died alongside the loss of an agrarian past.

YET THE HISTORICAL processes that have wrought these changes, Bhartiya implies, are more complex than that of rampant urbanisation. The region’s colonial experience, first hinted at in Kharkongor’s wicked inclusion in the Shoh Kba song of the ‘white man’ (who went out on a hunt looking fine in his sahib hat but returned ‘laid out in a coffin’), hovers constantly over the hills. The encounter with the ‘white man’ is later addressed directly in ‘Songs and Secrets in Sadolpara’, which includes a shot of ‘Garo cotton’ fields that we’re told once supplied Dhaka with raw material for the famed fabric that some say ‘shipped colonial empire to these lands’. This heralded too the coming of Christianity to the region, and wave upon wave of subsequent conversion, giving rise not just to syncretic religious and social practices but also hegemonic cultural polarisations. Here, colonialism forms a crucial frame for the discussion on identity and representation. As Bhartiya explains, “‘tribal,’ which is a colonial ethnographic term, or ‘vanvasi’, a pre-colonial term, place communities outside the flows of historical civilisation”, setting up the idea of the ‘savage’. Hence, the question he asks is how do they see themselves? Do they engage with forces outside their immediate locality? Isn’t their local allegiance to their village, forest, river a definite historical process but not forged in an impersonal textual way? The six films then function as slivers of resistance and reclamation. “[They] show us a view of the world which is not an island far removed from the times,” the filmmaker says. “These songs are not in the usual God, Forest, Mother, Nation (eternal metaphysical) mode which we usually hear. They are concrete—they talk of modern institutions like courts, colonialism, oppressive lecherous kings, lovers denying you real fleshy intimacy.”

I had gone to shoot some location images for my film on fishing and we heard the Shoh Kba [threshing] song; we weren’t even prepared for it. We ended up recording the song on the camera microphone

The films also serve as spaces within which various forms of cultural hegemony are explored. If the hymns brought by colonial Christian missionaries have diametricised indigenous folk music as backward and ‘barbaric’, what are the effects of inviting the Seng Khasi (a Shillong-based socio-religious cultural organisation established in 1899, to ‘protect, preserve and promote the customs and traditions of the Khasi populace’) to perform at the annual Shad Lekhempong at Umtlieh village, in the disputed territories of Assam and Meghalaya? As we see, even within the ‘local’ there are intricate cultural hierarchies—the Seng Khasi arrive with their rehearsed choreography and finery, while the locals of Umtlieh though armed with enthusiasm and sense of purpose are less equipped in terms of elaborate costumes and staging showmanship.

Also pertinent to the series is the issue of context. What happens if these songs—composed, improvised, performed within a time, place, and often ritualistic, ceremonial situation— are removed from their setting? Interestingly, the query is similar to one asked within the purview of critical museology where museums are associated with the politics of domination (especially with regard to questions of how the West exhibits non- western cultures). Museums are increasingly seen as sterile, highly controlled places, silent and silencing. Objects, especially those ethnographic in nature, are said to be ‘museumised— deadened, decontextualised.

Tellingly, the third documentary in the series is titled ‘Escaping Museums’, nudging the viewer to question whether the same could be threatening folk culture. That the drive for cultural homogeneity—in the form of tourist shows and culture festivals—translates into a flattening of ethnic plurality. Where performances are also stripped of context. Is a harvest song still a harvest song if it’s performed on stage? Is a community’s funeral dance still a funeral dance if it isn’t performed at a funeral? The shorts may attempt to carry, as K Mark Swer, researcher and script writer on the project, says, ‘an immediacy of culture as it is made and remade and maybe even re-imagined with the past used only as a loose reference point’ but the process of fixing and archiving what they seek is also problematic, as is the role that the crew play as documentarians. As Bhartiya asks, “Will Songs to Live By create another canon?” The last film ‘Kings have their Resorts, People have their Songs’, in which the filmmakers attempt to revive Long Hai, a lost weeding song, could be said to be about the whole series itself—‘Is the loss of a way of life something worth remembering?’ the filmmaker asks. ‘If so, who should remember it? Should Long Hai be sung anymore?’ Who has the right to decide whether to bury or to exhume?

One of the strengths of the series is its ability to fluidly hint at rather than impose these questions on their audience, evidence of Bhartiya’s conviction that for him, “documentaries are primarily a mode of research.” That sometimes it’s important to ask rather than provide answers. Also impressive is the way in which the contradictory nature of cultural experience is captured. “I was not looking for pure indigenous or ethnographic showpieces,” says Bhartiya. “Bhim Singh (from ‘Songs and Secrets in Sadolpara’), one of the few Achiks (meaning ‘Garos’ in their own language) who can still recite the traditional chants and rituals turned out to be a recent convert to Christianity—what more could one ask for?”

In ‘Sounds from the Truck Country’, set in Shangpung, a small urban settlement in Jaintia Hills, the sounds of local musicians invoking deities, chanting sacred chants to honour familial lineage merges with the relentless wail and roar of trucks, laden with coal, on the village roads. They hurtle towards an imagined future of wealth and ‘progress’, while within the walls is traced, patiently, the past. Through the series, there is also a careful build-up in the layering of sound—from the relative rustic environs of Umpohwin filled with human voices, speaking, singing, and the strum of the duitara (two-stringed instrument), towards a more contemporary auditory entanglement of telephone rings, mobile phone conversations, announcements over loud speakers, singing into microphones. Everywhere are also linguistic transgressions, specifically in the villages located on the border areas. As Bhartiya explains, “Borders are always interesting, for their deceit, their liminality, their constant taking on various personas to survive. People and cultures in the borders can never survive by being inward looking—the Khasi, Jaintia, Garo hills border two large valley societies, Ahoms and Bengal. To survive they had to communicate, understand and recreate this reality. Borders are always impure, aren’t they?”

In places lyrics swing from the local dialect to pidgin to the plainly imagined. A group of traditionally clad performers shimmy to modern dance music. A local Shad Lakhempong dancer speaks into a cell phone in Hindi. Transgressions, interweavings abound, helping to situate the project, as the filmmaker intended, at the overlapping crossroads of traditions, at the junctures of history and biography. Firmly where all discussions on ‘culture’ need to be placed.

(Janice Pariat is the author of Seahorse)