Sunday, October 25, 2009

Voices from the Northeast.

Northeast came alive on the 13th and 14th of October in the nation’s capital Delhi. In a literary meet titled “Voices from the North East”, some new writers from the region came together to highlight the literature that comes from the region’s oral traditions and myths. The event was organised by Jaipur-based literary consultancy Siyahi at Delhi’s India Habitat Centre.

The two day event comprised of readings by some known writers of the North-eastern region and also a performance by the well-known band East India Company. Mita Kapur, who heads Siyahi, said that their organisation has always stressed on highlighting writers from such remote areas of the country and said that the North East has much more to offer than what seems. She saw this event as an opportunity to bring out these voices in front of mainstream India’s arena.

The first day i.e. 13th October, comprised of a reading session by well-known Khasi writer Mr. Kynpham Sing Nonkynrih and the performance by East India Company. Nongkynrih began by reading passages from his poem “Identification Marks” which talked of the various tactics that Khasis adopted while identifying their own breed. His talk comprised of mostly the elements which influence Khasi writings and culture on a whole. He said that the Khasi poetry is called Kathawar because of the oral tradition that has been followed for its preservation. He also delved into the importance that kwai (areca nut) has in their society. Worth recalling is his account as to how the British used to called the Khasis as “red-mouthed monsters” because of their red-stained mouths from eating kwai. Nonkynrih also talked about the matrilineal society of the Khasis which got the audience especially interested because it mostly comprised of mainland Indians.

After the reading session by Nongkynrih, came the performance of the East India Company headed by Angaraag Mahanta (Papon). The band left the audience spellbound with their music which had a blend of various genres from Assamese folk to Rajasthani folk and classical Sufi music. Angaraag’s father, the great Khagen Mahanta, was also present during the show which performed to a packed auditorium. But the best part of the band’s performance was their electronic rendition of Assam’s Bihu. Many from the audience came to the front and broke into Bihu dances that made the entire auditorium come alive. Truly, it was the perfect ending to a beautiful evening!

The next day i.e. 14th October was marked by a panel discussion titled, “Turning Point: New Writings from the North East.” Taking part in this conversion were writers from the North East such as Ms. Mamang Dai, Ms. Bijoya Sawian and Ms. Temsula Ao. The discussion was moderated by well-known author Ms. Namita Gokhale. The talk was mainly centred on the oral traditions and local myths that are influencing the new writings from the region. Most new writers are going back to their traditional roots that are giving a different picture to the readers of the mainland India who have always held stereotyped assumptions about the North East.

The first reading was done by Ms. Mamang Dai, who is a former IAS officer and is presently a journalist with Hindustan Times. She began by reading poems from her book “Legends of Pensam” and went on to talk about the new focus that the writers from the region are turning to which is finding a flavour with the mainstream readers. Dai, who hails from Arunachal Pradesh, said that one of the biggest inspiration for her book came from the villagers who are abound with myriad folk tales and myths. She said that myths in North East are either held as very sacred or else discarded as total nonsense. But they do help in maintaining the distinct identity and flavour of the community concerned.

The next talk was given by Ms. Bijoya Sawian, who hails from Shillong and is a writer of repute. She began with reading a few passages from her upcoming book “Men in the Shadows” which deals with the wave of intolerance against the non-Khasis in Shillong. She also went on to talk about the matrilineal Khasi society in length. She said that though militancy in Meghalaya is minimal, the cause of problems is more economical than political. It is due to this that an atmosphere of intolerance has emerged against the non-Khasis in Shillong. She also threw light on her religion i.e. the Nyamthrai religion which dwells on the concept of monotheism. She said that it is a religion with very minimal religious rites and rituals and focuses on living a simple and clean life. One more thing that came to front was Shillong’s never-ending obsession with country legend Bob Dylan when Ms. Sawian mentioned that one of her inspirations to write the book was a song by Dylan.

And lastly came Ms. Temsula Ao, who hails from Nagaland and is currently the Dean of the School of Humanities and Education at the North Eastern Hill University at Shillong. Ms. Ao went on to talk about the new way in which old myths and legends are reinterpreted by the new writers to bring out a new flavour in them. This she demonstrated by reading out two poems from her book “Songs of the Other Life.” Her most soulful reading was the poem which dealt with the famous Momola legend of Nagaland. Ms. Ao also spoke on the importance of the English language in writing. She said that writing in English has its advantages of reaching out to a larger audience who understand the language. For her, English has helped in bonding together the various people of the North East. She also said that the reason for writing in this language was because of the Christian religion that the Nagas adopted.

This event definitely was an experience to remember for most people who attended it. For Namita Gokhale, who moderated the second day’s panel talk, it was a usual opportunity to interact with writers from various regions and getting to know intimately the socio-cultural fabric of the North East. For Ms. Bijoya Sawian, it was a great opportunity for writers of the region because it was a platform to reach to the larger Indian audience. She also said that Shillong had become the new launching ground for upcoming writers from the North East because of the presence of the NE Hill University and the various literary meets and discussions that keep happening there. Aruni Kashyap, an upcoming author from Assam and a member of Siyahi, said that such events are a great opportunity to highlight the vast talent that the North East has to offer and break the usual stereotyping of the region.

“Voices from the North East” was surely an event to remember and it is hoped that such meets will continue to happen. The angle of viewing the North East is changing in mainland India and it is hoped that the gap between the region and the mainland will continue to narrow down from such meets.
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