Growing up amidst the sounds of bombs and guns’

Interview by Rupsa Nag

Akhu Chingangbam 

“… You wanted the land, but not the people

Oppression has been your culture

You wanted to write new stories and fables

But my Kingdom is older than your nation …

… We have learnt how to have fun, amidst the guns and militarisation…”

Powerful, subversive poetry such as this, in song after song, shames you, lifts you, soothes you. Imphal Talkies and The Howlers, though, is not consciously making protest music. “Artists derive material from their surroundings. We do the same. We don’t plan a political song; it comes from our lived experiences. We have seen Irom Sharmila fast for 16 years; we grew up in a heavily militarized neighbourhood and lost friends to the armed forces. These shape our music,” says Akhu Chingangbam, singer-songwriter and frontman of the band.

Manipur is an armed conflict area, where the shadows of violence between the Indian armed forces and insurgent groups, political agitation and conflict between ethnic groups loom. Akhu’s poetry and music are a celebration and assertion of his Manipuri identity. “My music is like a love song. I love this land; it’s where my roots are.”

Akhu grew up amidst the “sounds of bombs and guns”. “We would stand in front of CRPF soldiers as they fired blanks in the air. It did not scare us. Violence was normalised and part of our growing up. We have lost friends in gunfire, been continually exposed to political violence. Like the northeast, people of Kashmir will have similar stories, as will Dalits across the country and adivasis in Dantewada and other parts of central India.”

The draconian Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA), applied in the northeastern states and erstwhile Jammu and Kashmir, confers complete impunity on the armed forces. Irom Sharmila, the “iron lady of Manipur”, through her hunger strike, demanded that this law be abolished. The song Radha Leela, the band’s “satire on Indian democracy”, was written when Anna Hazare, along with Arvind Kejriwal, was fasting against corruption in the country. “Their hunger strike shook the entire nation. But the country failed to rally behind this woman from Manipur who had been fasting for 12 years then. In the song, Radha is fasting in Vrindavan because Krishna is flirting with other gopis. That’s why it’s called Radha Leela. It blends the sounds of keertan into contemporary music.”

‘Accidental musician’

An “accidental musician” and ex-physicist, Akhu started becoming vocal about his politics during his stint in Delhi. “Growing up in Imphal, I was used to cases of students getting killed by the army, of daily disappearances, etc. It was only once I made friends from other parts of the country, while studying in Delhi University, that I realised my childhood was not the norm, that their childhood did not involve violence and bullets.” This awareness disturbed Akhu and he began making music. Human Rights Activist Dr. Binayak Sen’s arrest in 2007 was the “turning point”, Akhu says. “I was part of a protest group demanding his release. I started singing on the streets, at Jantar Mantar and other protest sites.” He was also pursuing his doctorate – which he completed in early 2012 – during this time. “I had a double life then – of a musician on one hand and an academic on the other.”

In the summer of 2008, Akhu went back home, gathered six musicians, formed Imphal Talkies and recorded eight songs with his PhD scholarship money. The band comprises a drummer, cajon player, guitarist, bassist and an indigenous folk instrument called the pena.

The band draws inspiration from traditional folk music; but categorising them as a folk-rock band is “a sweeping generalisation”. “We pick up things from here and there and make our own kind of music. In some songs we may sound like a funk band even!” Although the band’s popular music are their “protest” songs, Akhu points at their “not-so-political songs”. With a million views on YouTube, Nungshi Hidak (meaning love medicine in Meiteilon) is a playful love song involving mint leaves in a love potion. 

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The Loktak lake, a rich wetland ecosystem in Manipur known for its floating phumdis, is a recurring theme in the band’s songs. Ode To The Loktak and Loktak Ngami Eshei,speak of environmental degradation of the lake, and of loss of livelihood and settlements of the fisherfolk around the lake, caused due to the government’s development and tourism plans. Keibul Gi Sangai, the band’s latest, is a song on the Keibul Lamjao National Park. The song, that incorporates “traditional folk music to make a contemporary political statement”, opens with a condemnation of the Ithai Barrage, a part of the Loktak Hydroelectric Project.“In the name of development, the government has brought in schemes that are destroying its flora and fauna,” Akhu says. In 2009, the Indian forces laid siege to the national park, when a nine-day long Operation Summer Storm killed 12 suspected PREPAK militants. Fishing communities around the park bore the brunt of the operation as a destroyed ecology was the collateral damage, he says.

A “big fan” of the American Beat Generation, Akhu draws inspiration from Allen Ginsberg’s work. “Manipuri poets Thangjam Ibopishak and Yumlembam Ibomcha changed my understanding of Manipur. After I read them, my idea of poetry, of Manipur and my roots completely changed. I am very grateful to them,” he says. Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen and rebel band Tinariwen are some of his musical influences.

I ask him to pick out some favourite songs: 1922 Blues (Charlie Parr); Lockdown (Koffee); Beirut (Yasmine Hamdan); Iswegh Attay (Tinariwen).

When American folk singer Pete Seeger died in 2014, Akhu, a “big fan of his music and activism wanted to remember him in my way”. He organised the crowd-funded music and arts festival – Where Have All The Flowers Gone – in Seeger’s memory. In its sixth year now and with a footfall of ten thousand enthusiasts each year, the festival is one of the biggest in town. It brings together artists from all over, including Mumbai, Kolkata and Bangladesh. The “flowers” in the eponymous song by Seeger are a metaphor for the young Americans drafted in the Vietnam War. “The youngsters so picked up, came back in body bags. This is a very relatable song to all of us in Manipur. The place is so heavily militarised, nothing much happens here, youngsters don’t have a place to as much as hang out.”

‘A very hard time for artists’

Senior musicians made a lot more political music than the current generations are making, Akhu says. “The current music scene is vibrant. But younger musicians are shying away from being political and making a statement. This is the case not just in Manipur, but elsewhere too.” To be an artist in a time as volatile as this is not easy, he says. “It’s a very hard time for artists. Personally, as an artist, I don’t know where I’m headed. But life is too short to not express yourself; to not express your angst and anxiety, be it against the government or loved ones.”

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The pandemic has been tough on artists. “I am a musician. I don’t have another profession. The pandemic has been harsh on our livelihood,” Akhu says. The band released two songs – Ema Keithel and Eisu Nangi Nachani – in 2020. The first was recorded in 2016 and some of Akhu’s friends “just travelled around Imphal, shot and compiled the video” accompanying the song. The latter song, an addition to their 2019 album Ema gi Wari, was shot during Akhu’s visit to Bangladesh and Assam in 2018. Ema gi Wari is a dedication to the Manipuri people who migrated during the Burmese Invasion, called the Seven Years Devastation, between 1819 and 1826. The album looks at Manipur “beyond geographical boundaries”. “So, we haven’t done anything new during the pandemic.” Where Have All The Flowers Gone could not be organised either, owing to the pandemic.

“When I travelled across Bangladesh to meet the Manipuri diaspora – who are a minority hardly numbering ten thousand – for the project, I noticed they were using the native language to stand out from the Bengalis, to preserve their history, culture and identity.” For them, their language was everything, he says. Being able to write in his native tongue is important for Akhu too. “I don’t consciously decide what language I want to write a song in. Some come to me in English, some in Manipuri. Although my English is not perfect, music and poetry influences and exposure has made the language a part of my subconscious. But to be able to write in my native language and connect with my community is important to me. I want to focus more on that in the future.” 

Manipur Education Minister S. Rajen in November, during a visit to the Sanatan Sanskrit Vidyalaya in the State’s Kangpokpi district, announced the introduction of Sanskrit in the curriculum of some schools and colleges and a plan to open a Sanskrit department in Manipur University. “That’s an absurd imposition,” Akhu says. A crucial medium of self-expression, language and its imposition has been used as a tool of oppression since independence, endangering and erasing knowledge systems. “While the BJP is pushing for Hindi across the country, artists like me should push back.”

‘Collaborate, connect’

Akhu has composed music for Kivini Shohe’s Oh My Soul, a documentary that explores identity and relationships in a patriarchal and conservative Naga society through the lives of three transgender sex workers. Recalling the experience fondly, Akhu says, “Kivini was very kind, hosting me and five others from the band at her place and cooking us Naga-style pork and axone.” “Collaborating with other artists for me is a way of connecting with other cultures and communities.”

Akhu has previously collaborated with musician Rahul Ram, of the Indian Ocean and Aisi Taisi Democracy fame, through his Imphal Music Project. “But collaboration is also an expensive affair, and IMP stopped in 2015.” His latest collaboration was with Rajesh Rajamani for his satire The Discreet Charm of The Savarnas. The 20-minute short, a dig at the political correctness of ‘woke’ urban, privileged Savarnas, is a strong social commentary from Pa Ranjith’s Neelam Productions. “I was sent the raw footage of the film to help me in the process of composing music for it. I watched it and loved the sarcasm!” Akhu says.

A reflection of Akhu’s model society is evident from the philosophy of A Native Tongue called Peace, a project for children orphaned and abandoned in the decades-long ethnic conflicts of Manipur. Manipur has more than 30 tribal communities and “all of us don’t get along”, Akhu explains. “The Nagas, the Kukis, the Meiteis – all have their own propaganda about how the State should be governed or how Manipur should be made their own.” When he started the project in a shelter home, he saw children from all tribal communities living under one roof, respecting each other. “You could find a child from the Naga community singing a Meitei song or a Meitei child singing a Kuki song, which is impossible to imagine in the outside world. This is the emotion I want to nurture through the project, this organic exchange of culture and traditions, because that’s how we – the adult world – should live.” Akhu and the children in the project have recorded five original songs so far, all available on YouTube. “It’s an expensive project and we haven’t been able to do much all of last year.”

For now, I’ll leave you with the haunting refrains of the lullaby from the band’s Lullaby :

“Blood Soaked streets –
That's my ground,
That's where I play around
Sound of gunshots –
That's my song,
That's my lulla- lullaby”

Rupsa Nag is a freelance writer and editor based in Kolkata. She is currently working as a Research and Archives Assistant at the Experimenter Gallery.