Thursday, November 18, 2010

The Glorious Songs of Yore: Tangkhul Folk Songs

Tangkhul, one of the major sub-tribes within the Naga tribe, native inhabitants of present Ukhrul district in Manipur state, within the Union of India, has a very unique past. Blessed by the quiet and green surroundings, it is said that life used to be very pleasant and peaceful. The Tangkhul tribe, as it is said, was well known as one of the most hostile tribes among the Naga tribes, in the days when head hunting was considered a heroic sport.

Agriculture and hunting being the chief occupations, life is said to be hectic and busy. However, there always seem to be a special space for merriment, entertainment and healthy social interaction to grow, in spite of their busy daily chores. Every Old men in their octogenarian stage claim that life in the past was more calm and ideal and social life to be more robust than that of the present day. Looking at the youngsters of today, most of them lament, ‘You have missed so much fun and merriment as youths.’ Of course, what they perceive and what we have to say about the present are two different poles, which cannot be compared. However, the real problem lies in our inability to find the point where the past and the present converge.

Though I am a Tangkhul, I find it hard to reshape the past in my mind, listening to the tales of aged men, narrating their glorious past; their tales appear to me more like a fairytale. My fate of not being able to identify myself with the past is not an isolated case but is shared by all the younger generation. According to my perception, this sense of alienation is caused partly due to the absence of written History and our ignorance of oral literature as the equal alternate source. What strikes me most today is the oral tradition of my forefathers, through which they preserve history of all sorts, mainly in the form of folk songs.

In my venture to know more about Tangkhul folk-songs, I was really surprised, when I came across songs which were purely historical. These songs speak about, origin, identity, of war between villages, business dealings, marriage, death, and many other interesting facts, which are not in the least second to written history. Enlightened by the captivating facts buried within the content of various kinds of folk-songs, that I happen to come across, I decided that every possible means be explored to preserve these songs at least in print even if we might not be able to sing in their original tune and flavor.

Folksongs were part and parcel of life in the past, sung both in times of joy and sorrow. It is said that there used to be sixteen types, each having special occasions of its performance in the indigenous calendar. Out of the sixteen kinds, only six to seven can be heard sung today, that too by very few old people. Hence, it is a rational fear that these songs would be lost forever, with the passing away of the few aged sources.

The traditional harp which was the main accompaniment is rarely seen today, after being replaced by modern instruments. It is not an exaggeration to say that none among the youth of today, knows how to sing folk-songs. It is indeed a chance to pity ourselves of our own plight, being carried away, or charmed more by Western pop, heavy metal and such other songs at the cost of letting our indigenous songs to rust and rot. Like the steady extinction of endangered species of flora and fauna; culture, tradition, and customs of yesteryears are going away, along with the process of change.

The mountains which are said to be green and impenetrable once are now barren; the seasonal songs of both mirth and sorrow are no longer heard. The harp strings which used to twang are now rusted. It is true to say that ‘change is inevitable,’ and we at least feel fortunate to be living in a better world today, considering the positive sides of change. However, this must not make us forget our past. The days of head hunting are gone, but we are still known as head hunters, let it also be known that, our forefathers were great composers of verse, songs, poems, and great preservers of history through oral means, by preserving the precious lyrics of the folk-songs, which according to me are comparable to the finest works of literature.

Folk songs like the indigenous customs of the Tangkhul tribe slowly got discarded with the advent of Christianity in the late 19th century. Once converted, the converts were forbidden to drink wine, and were not allowed to sing folk songs as these things were perceived to be aligned to paganism. There was mass conversion, and as a result of this the popularity of folk songs diminished. Those Songs which have some occasional similarity with Christian rituals were retained (like, harvest, seed sowing, New Year etc,.) But, this also cannot uphold the popularity, so, very slowly these songs also got assimilated to western tunes.

Songs which are purely aligned to indigenous festivals are now forgotten forever. Songs said to be sung on auspicious occasions like, erection of Totems, birth, death anniversaries etc. can no longer be traced. Taking into account all the changes that have come about in a matter of a century, it won’t be surprising if the following generation forgets totally about yesterday, which we ourselves seem to be unaware today. By saying all these things it must not be misinterpreted that; I’m considering the past to be more glorious than the present. We know that in many ways we are privileged than the past. The customs, ways of life of yesteryear may not be applicable to us anymore, but that does not mean we can just throw away the past.
Documentation of all the existing Folk-songs of the said tribe, and translating the whole lot will not be a task so easy to be completed in a matter of months or years.

The main difficulties that any researcher is likely to face, pertaining to the aforesaid documentation, are manifold. There are no guidebooks, references, and other printed sources from which one will have direct and cooked information about the folk songs of this tribe. One interesting feature of the Tangkhul Naga tribe is every village has its own dialect, though they belong to the same language family. It is very difficult to communicate in one’s own dialect to a person from a different village, and the possibility of understanding each other become remote with distance of location of the scattered villages. The dialect, ‘Tangkhul,’ originally the dialect of Ukhrul/Hunphun village, now one of the district headquarters’ of Manipur, was made the lingua-franca by William Pettigrew, the first Baptist Missionary.

We need to understand that Folk songs of the tribe are not sung in the lingua-franca alone, every village has their own version and varieties. Owing to this fact, the effort to document all existing version would be a mammoth task, as there are about 300 villages inhabited by this tribe. As has been cited before, about absence of printed sources, the only way of documentation is hectic field work, which would include, recording the songs, getting to know the context and content of the songs, translating etc. Folk songs are sung mainly during Festivals, like the seed sowing festival (Luira/Luita), post cultivation festival (Mangkhap/Rishit), post harvest festival (Chumpha) etc. Since these festivals are now, in many ways, assimilated with Christian festivals, originality of the songs are said to be doubtful. Therefore, the most dependable sources for data collection are from the non-Christian aged grannies and grandpas, which again are hard to trace.
This could be the right moment to profess our pride for the long ignored past, which was once considered to be shameful and uncivilized. I have very high respect for the past, because it is the past which shaped our today. As a tribute to the past, and as our responsibility to the coming generation, we should shoulder the task of preserving folk-songs of the Tangkhul Naga tribe in print, and translating them into English, so as to showcase to the outside world that, we had a very rich oral tradition. This also will ensure that the coming generation would not feel lost and detached from their root. Let the songs which used to enlighten our forefathers be objects of marvel not oblivion.


Anonymous said...

Keep writing and do more research on our PAST. U r doing a gr8 job and it'z gonna b really useful for the future generation

Tharmingam.Khangrah said...

Thank you. I've been sucked deep into the Corporate world now. I really want to go home and do some field research but I'm afraid my pockets would run dry. :-)