Thursday, 25 August 2016

Love at First Sight - Singing and Dancing with the Beautiful Folks of Northeast

When both guests and hosts play their parts, the boundaries created due to ignorance and misconceptions dissolve

A guitar is swiftly produced before the moment passes away. The gentleman takes a long swig of thoutshe, a local rice drink, puts down the bamboo mug by the side, wipes his mouth with the elbow, cradles the guitar, caresses the strings, clears his throat one last time and starts to croon.

Having some fun at the Hornbill Festival, Kisama, Nagaland

We are in Kisama on a chilly and crisp evening. The next day, the annual Hornbill Festival will open bringing a mindboggling array of people and colours and festivities to this Heritage Village a few kilometres from Kohima. Going around the now empty morungs – community halls of the different tribes - we come to this snacks stall. The kids running the stall are the usual kids we have come across in these few days in Northeast and have grown fond of. They are courteous, always smiling, fashion conscious sporting latest branded sneakers and jackets and they do not seem to have a hair out of place on their gelled-up head. Most of them are college going students and are working part-time during the festival to make some money. Lots of them have Delhi connections and stories and jokes are flying back and forth.

The enchanting evening at Kisama - some music some long lost song
We are all having the time of our lives. We have been offered chairs and are being treated like celebrities. Soon thoutsche is passed around. Of course, at around this time now, songs have to make entry here. We do our bit and sing some Hindi songs. This is when the kids prompt us to ask the gentleman to sing. The gentleman is the owner of the shop. And when the words come out, we are blown away. The soft lyrics ‘Tum kitni khoobsurat ho’ reach our ears. This is unbelievable – this is a never heard before beautiful Hindi movie song! To be honest I do not ever remember listening to this song when I am a self-confessed Kishore Kumar fan. The fingers delicately strum the guitar and these mellifluous notes float in the night air. Time has stopped in Kisama.

Coming from Delhi with all the trepidation of a first time visitor to Northeast who associates the region with insurgency and blockades, never in my wildest imagination, I would have conjured up listening to a rare Hindi movie song in Kisama to the accompaniment of guitar and thoutshe. This is the beauty of India and her people. Just when we start forming opinions and biases, a scented breeze tiptoes in bringing sweet notes of a forgotten song and right now this feels like home.

The awesome kids at the stall in Kisama - their rapping their dancing had to be experienced to be believed - God Bless Them

The song opens the floodgate and the kids join in. They rap, they croon. To me it is like BoyzIIMen of long ago have come alive. They break-dance; they do headstands and cartwheels. We are laughing our heads off. I still do not remember the last time I had so much fun.

Some styling happening in Cherrapunji, Meghalaya

A performer at the Hornbill Festival, Kisama

In the next few days, we will see more smiling faces. People here in Northeast are always eager to talk and are always helpful and enjoy a good laugh. Dressed sharply and speaking sophisticatedly, there is no loutishness that is experienced in the parts where I come from. Not for a single moment during our stay we felt scared or fearful. Yes the omnipresence of security forces is a way of life here but I am sure that will be a thing of the past soon. 

During our stay we made it a point to chat with as many people as possible – driving around pretty Majuli, walking in the flowery lanes of Mawlynnong or cruising in downtown Shillong. Sometimes it was broken Hindi or English or sometimes it was just gestures. But there were always lots of smiles and a lot of feelings and goodwill were exchanged.

Two little girls trying their hand at some weaving - Majuli, the world's largest inhabited river island in Assam

On the train from Dimapur to Jorhat, I see a young monk with pony tail and wearing a dhoti. My deduction is right. He belongs to a satra in Majuli Island, our next destination. Yes, he will be more than happy to ride along with us to the ferry. We share rides in the auto and on the boat filled with people and automobiles. Like us, he too had come to Kisama for the Hornbill Festival. We talk about his life in Majuli. He provides us an introduction to the satras and their working in fluent English. We jump at the idea when he asks if we would like to visit his satra. The next day our new friend is happy to see us. We are taken around the satra campus. Monks of all ages are seen busy in the daily activities of growing food and tending to the cows. Our friend announces that we are lucky - a dance performance is about to take place for some visiting foreign guests and we are welcome to join in.  

This satra is one of the 22 satras set up here in Majuli in the 16th century in the aftermath of the Bhakti Movement that swept across the country. These Vaishnavite monasteries, devoted to Lord Krishna, pioneered the use of music and dance to enact the various stories associated with Krishna’s life.

The Dancing Monks - Majuli, Assam

Just like the other night, we are enthralled by another unprecedented and unexpected performance. In the prayer hall facing a simple shrine, the monks beating their drums rhythmically dance in unfettered abandon as their smiling eyes reflect content and joy. After taking some photos, the small audience sits back to enjoy the genuine and carefree dance and musical performance. The energetic Gayan-Bayan symphony, where the gayan are the khol drums and bayan are the tal cymbals, leaves everyone mesmerized. Later, we bid goodbye to our friend taking photos and exchanging phone numbers. This is another wonderful day with the friendly folks here in Northeast.

We are all alike!

Back in Kisama, I am speaking to a gentleman in the Konyak Morung who is nursing his ruffled hornbill feather back to health that crowns his traditional headwear. Here is a man who belongs to a tribe that was feared for their headhunting customs. Today, we are talking like old friends. I realise that there are no boundaries such as the language we speak or food we eat or even how we look. 

Now when was the last time you saw this frame! At Kisama where dancers from Punjab had come - Hornbill Festival 2015, Kisama, Nagaland

The past few days in Northeast have made it quite apparent that we have a common underlying affinity towards our fellow human beings. This interaction becomes even more cordial and happy when we find ourselves as guests in a part of our country that is out of reach and is not well understood. This is the time when both guests and hosts play their parts so that the boundaries created due to perceived human differences dissolve. Northeast seems like home; next visit to the beautiful Northeast with its beautiful smiling people will be like homecoming.

Discover India's Northeast

A version of the story appears in the incredible travel magazine Discover India's Northeast July-August 2016, pages 66 & 67

The Link to the lovely song ‘Tum Kitni Khoobsurat Ho’


  1. Replies
    1. Hi Gits,

      Northeast is indeed Love at First Visit!

      Thanks for reading!