There are many ways an oral society passes on its collective repository of memories and knowledge from generation to generation. The Tangkhul Naga tribe which resides in the lofty hills of the Patkai in Manipur’s Ukhrul district in India’s North East does so through its songs. From lullabies to soothe babies to rouse warriors for battle, from sowing in their lush terraced fields to pounding harvested paddy, from paying obeisance to their animist deities to performing their ritual dances, there is hardly an aspect of life that the Tangkhuls haven’t put into melody or couldn’t sing through songs. Collectively referred to as the Hao Laa, one can only imagine how rich the repository of folk songs must have been considering the fact that the Tangkhuls speak more than a hundred dialects among themselves, one readily intelligible to those of the neighbouring areas but may not be to others further in geographic spread.
Sadly, these oral traditions are a fast disappearing aspect of the Tangkhul heritage. Directed by a promising young ‘Meitei’ filmmaker, Oinam Doren from Manipur, Songs of Mashangva is the story of one man’s struggle to keep alive these hauntingly beautiful traditions of Tangkhul folk music.
Throughout much of their existence, the Tangkhuls, like the various other Naga tribes, lived in splendid isolation in the hills running north to south from the Himalayas in a gentle arc, west of which lie the Brahmaputra basin in India’s North East and in its east, the Chindwin-Irrawaddy basins of Myanmar. Annexation of Assam and Burma by the British and the arrival of the proselytizing Missionaries in the hills to ‘civilize the savage’ marked the beginning of profound changes in their ways of life. In 1896, Rev. William Pettigrew established the Mission School in Ukhrul, translated the Bible into the lingua franca of the Tangkhuls and baptized the first Tangkhul. In less than half a century perhaps, all Tangkhuls were converted to Christianity. Today, a hundred percent of the approximately 1,50,000 strong community is Baptist. That they are actually Hao Nagas and came to be called Tangkhuls because that is how the colonial conquerors enumerated them is one of those profound changes brought about to their age old tribal identity. Imposition of puritanical Christian morality made many a sensuous erotic Tangkhul folk song a taboo, thus hastening their disappearance.
While the Missionaries may have claimed to ‘civilize the savages’ as they considered the Tangkhuls to be primitive, their oral traditions and knowledge systems actually reveal a rather acute understanding of their environment and sophisticated practices in preserving them, an observation lost to the Orientalist view of their colonizers. The terraced paddy fields are as much a testimony of their sophisticated traditional practices as their folk songs are. Their songs are messages from the past and that they could be sung helps faithful transmission where the melody acts as a mnemonic device. Could a community of people who knew that, could actually be considered primitive?
Fortunately, memories composed into traditions over millennia continued to resist taboos and still lurk in the minds of the tribal elders like Stephen Angkhang or Luiola and through them we now know that the Tangkhuls sing Naoshumlaa or Naokhotla to soothe babies, Keo Keo while pounding paddy into rice in the mortar or Laa Khamanui for the virgin dance. And it is from them, Rewben Mashangva continues to reclaim his heritage.
Rewben Mashangva was born in the Choithar village of Ukhrul district of Manipur into a poor Tangkhul household. Not a bright student by his own admission, Rewben was just getting by in life till he became aware of his attraction to his folk heritage and set out to reclaim the messages from the past that their songs are. Songs of Mashangva narrates this intriguing journey where his life becomes the metaphor of a lost tradition being reclaimed and revealed to the whole wide world to see, listen to, understand and savour.
Rewben Mashangva is now a living repository of his community’s precious oral traditions in songs and music. What is heartening is that he is ensuring that the transmission remain uninterrupted into the next generation through his son Saka Mashangva. That he will not fail his father or his community is evident. Saka Mashangva is every bit a normal youngster like any from a middle class household who goes to an English medium school in Imphal and watches cartoon on TV. But Saka Mashangva also sings his tribe’s oral messages set as songs with his father wherever he is called upon to do so and he goes to school everyday proudly sporting the traditional Houkuirat hairstyle of his ancestors which sets him apart from his friends and classmates. This is just as well because, Saka Mashangva represents the future of the tribe and could be the beacon of hope to a land and people which has seen much strife throughout the past century and had been in the news most often for the wrong reasons.
In the past decades, the only time the outside world would take notice of the Tangkhul Nagas would be with reference to the powerful Naga insurgent group NSCN (IM) whose supremo Theugaling Muivah hails from the Tangkhul Naga community or the only time Ukhrul would be mentioned would be whenever there is turmoil and ethnic clashes in Manipur on demands for separations of the Naga dominated hills districts.
The appeal of Songs of Mashangva lies in its ability to reveal to us a refreshingly different world of the Tangkhul Nagas and entices us to go along to learn more. A simple linear narrative, moving cinematography capturing the rugged beauty of Ukhrul, the exotic charm of Tangkhul villages and haunting music by Rewben Mashangva, all makes the film immensely enjoyable.
Songs of Mashangva will dispel many false notions, some which may not be apparent to those who are not aware of the tangled skein of ethnic conflict and politics in Manipur. Those who are, will of course realize that Rewben Mashangva is a Tangkhul Naga and Oinam Doren a Meitei, the two communities which are supposed to be at war. How real it is could be fathomed from the months of blockade and violence Manipur faced last year as a result of confrontation between the Meiteis and the Nagas. Yet people make friends, create melodies and dream of futures. Songs of Mashangva is also a testimony to friendships that sustain overcoming ethnic and political divides. This is why the Songs of Mashangva are Melodies of Hope.
Songs of Mashangva is a feature length documentary of 62 minutes duration made in the digital format by the promising young filmmaker Oinam Doren. The film will be screened in Guwahati in a special programme organised by the Strategic Research & Analysis Organisation where Rewben Mashangva and Saka Mashangva will perform live.