Source : The Hindu – Ranju Dodum
Around 9 p.m., two men take to the stage, mic in hand. The one seated begins to recite a poem in Nyishi, in the singing style of the shamans, once ubiquitous in this eastern-most State of India, Arunachal Pradesh. The crowd cheers. The humid weekend has dampened everyone’s backs but not their spirits.
In the first weekend of August, the Arunachal capital, Itanagar, which usually hosts late-night parties and binge drinking sessions, played host to a very different event: the Arunachal Literature and Art Festival, or Alaf, as the organisers call it, and the shaman-style singing was part of the curtain-raiser.
Organised in a span of four months by a motley crew of young people united by their love for the arts, Alaf brought together artists, writers, poets, publishers, journalists and academicians from the Northeast who congregated to discuss the value of highlighting indigenous voices and art forms.
“My grandfather was a writer himself but I didn’t get to learn from him because I was away [in Mumbai, pursuing a career in film production],” said Karry Padu, who masterminded the event.
Padu, who wears many hats including that of singer, film-maker, and occasional artist, said: “There has been a generational shift in the language of literature from the time my grandfather used to write to present times. Through the festival I wanted to learn about the nature of this change by being surrounded by creative people.”
Another driving motive was the need to provide a space for artists and writers in a State that’s been seeing growing numbers of artists but no platforms to showcase their work. An art exhibition organised in Itanagar last December was Arunachal’s first.
Realm of enchantment
Gyamar Nanam, an artist and also part of the organising team, said he tries to preserve indigenous tribal culture in a different form in his work. Many of Nanam’s works are portraits of men and women in ethnic tribal wear, complete with headgear and traditional daos (single-edged swords). “Not everything has to be written down,” he said. “Through my work I hope to preserve and pass down knowledge of our culture to future generations.”
Indeed, much of the discussions at the festival centred around the need to safeguard dying traditions and make the voices of artists from the Northeast heard. The festival logo — two fish in tribal motif facing each other in the sea — was an attempt by Jompi Ete, an artist whose work is reminiscent of that of Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki, and Ogin Nayam, yet another artist from the team, to capture the essence of indigenous tribal culture while merging it with the various layers a piece of art can represent.
As the artists said, “Fish live beneath the surface, in the unknown. What we see is only the surface but underneath there is a whole realm of enchantment and wonder.”
Kenjum Angu, whose work was displayed at the lush Indira Gandhi Park in the heart of the city, said that her “sole aim as an artist is to preserve our culture through my art for the next generation.I’ve always seen my State as a mini version of India, full of diversity but somehow losing its originality and its true beauty to modernisation.”
The Karbi language writer from Assam, Dharam Singh Teron, who was part of a discussion on ‘Indigenous Traditions: Continuity & Convergence’ on the first day of the festival, spoke about the marginalisation of tribal literature, pointing out how the Ramayana and the Bible, and their version of the creation story, are aggressively marketed. “The so-called mainstream has always ‘othered’ us: indigenous writers must write back now,” he said.
In the beginning was unity
Amidst the panel discussions, art exhibitions, book readings and musical and poetry performances, there was one event that stood out. While showcasing the traditional art form of the state, it merged the old with the new. This collaborative piece, ‘The Journey of Evolution’, was performed on August 5, the final day. It told the story of the beginning of humanity as believed by the people of the Adi, Apatani, Galo, Nyishi and Tagin tribes of Arunachal Pradesh, and the Mishing of Assam. They consider Abo Tani, a primordial being, to be their common mythical ancestor.
Tarh Tama, a genealogist by profession, began by reciting a few verses in Nyishi in the style of the Nyibus shamans — in metre and sung in a slightly raspy voice. When he paused, Tai Tugung, Tama’s friend, took over and explained the meaning of what Tama had just recited in crisp Hindi. Sentence by sentence, Tugung didn’t merely translate but made the verses his own.
A lecturer in Hindi whose passions include theatre and cinema, Tugung has made a name for himself as an actor in a State that churns out barely 10 feature films a year. “Somewhere along the way, we have lost our identity,” he said later, adding that people have to be made aware of the symbolism in the stories that were once orally passed down.
Tugung said that a festival such as this is essential for Arunachal Pradesh to create the right atmosphere for artistic expression in present times. “We are at a crossroad and this is a good start.”
The writer is an Itanagar-based journalist and blogger writing about the Northeast.