The bird is small. The smallest I’ve ever boarded. A 48-seater ATR aircraft with a tiny propeller on each side will fly us from Kolkata to Dimapur, the administrative centre of Nagaland. Except for the fact that I will hear some of the most powerful metal music, I expect little else on the trip.
Clan culture: The Angami tribals perform the popular Dapfhu Phita dance. Photograph: Lalitha Suhasini
I don’t make checklists, and a few minutes before I board the flight, I realize that I need a line permit to step into Kohima. Luckily for me, an organizer of the Hornbill National Rock Contest, Nagaland’s biggest music festival, bails me out.
On board, it’s a doll plane. My handbag won’t fit into the overhead cabin, but the seats are surprisingly comfortable. My co-passenger asks me, “How many pieces of luggage do you have?” I tell him just the one more that I’ve checked in, and he tells me he was billed for excess baggage since he’s carrying art material for an exhibition in Kohima.
A native of Dimapur, 32-year-old Temsu Yanger Longkumer is a printmaker and artist now settled in London. Longkumer is a good storyteller and describes how he struggled to make it in Dimapur for nine months, “but there were no opportunities here”. When he received an invitation to exhibit his work in London, he jumped at it, and turned towards mixed media. For one of his works, he erected an entire set to shoot a traditional Naga dance from a top angle in chroma, and removed the live images, retaining the shadows. “If you can match the steps then you can also be a part of the dance. I wanted it to be interactive,” he says.
Warding off evil: A tribal building detail in Morung Kisama village. Photograph: Lalitha Suhasini
The flight rattles like a shaky, bony old woman as it touches down on a small patch of runway. There is no hustling ground staff or wait for airport buses. The nondescript airport is a few feet away from where we land, and I can smell the fresh grass as soon as we touch down, and wonder why I didn’t do this a long time ago.
Longkumer offers to drop me off at the Tourist Lodge, 6km from the airport. En route, I ask him about his hometown. “There’s nothing here,” he says as we pass by grey cement skeletons at construction sites and interminable stretches of dust and sand, “nothing much to do”. All along the road, hand-painted health warnings about leprosy, polio and AIDS draw attention to the shabby walls. Army men stand around listlessly all along the route, gawking as we pass by.
Some trucks loaded with sand drive off the road. “It’s a joke. Transporting sand here must cost more than the sand. There’s a lot of politics involved so you can’t even buy sand off a place close by,” sneers Longkumer. Most Nagas get tetchy when they discuss politics, insurgency and the army.
I arrive at the Tourist Lodge that looks impressive on the outside—a traditional arched entrance with a bison (mithun) head at its peak, a murky pond of lotuses and even a driveway. “No room,” argues the man behind a dusty wooden desk. Longkumer and the caretaker have a heated discussion in Nagamese, a creole of Assamese and Naga dialects. The caretaker finally relents and agrees to put me up.
Luggage stored, I step out and realize there’s little on offer except a few stores that sell some really impressive winter wear, handicraft stores that display Naga shawls, bags and bamboo curios, and “Yes coffin?”, an imaginatively named store that extends on to the pavement with coffins piled on top of each other.
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Mobile phones, as is the case with most small towns in India, are a rage in Nagaland. Teenagers hang around and make eyes at each other at boxed stalls as they blow their pocket money on little trinkets that they can attach to their phones, phone cards and ringtones. Most of them are extremely well turned out in skinny jeans, fur-tipped leather jackets, fitting tees and knee-length boots, walking around like mannequins in a ghost town.
It’s pitch dark by 5pm and shutters are downed even earlier—around 4.30pm. One of the few places that stays open until about 7pm is a shack next to the Tourist Lodge called Anna Rice Store, where I buy myself dinner. Nono, the 26-year-old who runs the place with her aunt, is full of questions: “Are you married? Where is your husband? Do you have children? Have you met Bollywood stars? Were you in Mumbai when the terror attack occurred?” Nono is a pretty Angami (Angami is one of the 16 Naga tribes) Mumbaiphile who is especially interested in travelling to the city to meet her favourite star, Salman Khan.
A different music: (clockwise from top left) Ao tribesmen perform at the Hornbill festival; Khiamniungam tribeswomen at Kisama art village; Aizawl-based band Boomarang in concert; and a poster of Amitabh Bachchan’s Vijaypath at a cinema hall in Kohima. Photographs: Lalitha Suhasini
Married with two children, Nono—like most other Nagas—spends time on her appearance, has coloured her hair fiery red and belongs to my grandmother’s generation. She is perplexed that I have travelled to Nagaland alone. When I ask her whether she owns the store, she tells me that the Anna Rice Store stands on party property and that she can’t afford to buy one, so she doesn’t mind the store being a vote machine.
Back at the lodge, my conversation with Inato, the caretaker, is constantly interrupted by calls on his phone. I notice he has two phones. He says he has disabled one because a militant outfit had been chasing him to extort money. The day’s news said that the group had abducted 14 teenagers from Phek, a district close to the Myanmar border with over 100 schools, three important colleges and home to the Chakhesang and Puchury tribes. Insurgency has troubled the state for long now, and driven a lot of its youth out.
Although it’s the biggest city in Nagaland, Dimapur is nothing more than a connecting point—except during the Bushu festival at the end of January, when members of the Kachari tribe sing, dance and have a meat feast to celebrate a good harvest.
I head south to Kohima, hoping that the capital has a lot more to offer, and am not disappointed. The dust cover doesn’t matter so much when I see the landscape turn greener. Ababe Ezung, another official involved with the Hornbill National Rock Contest, fills me in on what I missed in Dimapur. He tells me that a new café run by his sister-in-law may be the beginning of Dimapur’s nightlife. “There are no movie theatres, no bars, no pubs, nothing to keep the youth going there,” says the Dimapur resident.
We pass by fields of pineapples growing on a series of steps, like a tea plantation. A signboard at a closed wayside stall says Medziphema Pineapple Village, and that’s probably how I’ll always remember the place. All other stalls are also closed because it is a Sunday, Sabbath for the predominantly Christian population. Ezung tells me that I should come back in summer, when the pineapples are sweeter.
Rows upon rows of blood-red poinsettias grow wild on the roadside, but for the orchids I’ll have to venture deeper into the forest, which is when I might need my permit. Restricted access permits (RAP) aren’t easily available to international tourists, cribs Ezung. “We have just two representatives in Parliament. I don’t think enough is being done by the Centre for our tourism industry,” he says.
The air and mood in Kohima contrasts starkly with Dimapur. “December’s our favourite month. We are so excited we can’t sleep,” says Atso, my 23-year-old guide for the rest of the time that I spend in Kohima. Atso, like many other Naga women I meet, has poker-straight hair that rebonders would kill for and frail child-woman features. She can do a perfectly off-key version of AC/DC’s Back in Black and switch to Rihanna’s Umbrella in the next breath.
But give her Korean bands such as Big Bang and VOS, and she’s your friend for life. Pirated Korean DVDs and Arirang TV, one of the biggest TV networks in South Korea, brought the biggest Korean wave or hallyu to the state about three years ago. “These Korean movies have (a) lot of emotion. Even my 85-year-old grandfather watches these movies although he cannot understand them,” Atso says, “We don’t have anything to do in the evenings, so we watch TV.”
Naga girls swear by Korean fashion and strut around Phoolbari market at the centre of the city in knee-length knitted tops, smart fitting jackets and black slacks or hoody tops and skinny jeans. The boys, who are a little slow on the fashion beat, are no less obsessed with Korean stars. Arirang TV flew down VJ Isak, who anchors the TRP-booster Pops of Seoul, to the first Indo-Korean music festival held at the Secretariat Plaza Festival last year. The 24-year-old with one album to her name had some 4,000 Naga boys and girls hooting for her louder than they did for any act during the entire Hornbill festival. Naga kids even sang in Korean at a music competition on the same day.
This didn’t go down too well with some Naga musicians. “We should be proud of our culture. Why should Nagas want to impress someone else by singing in their language?” asks 26-year-old Lui Tzudir, lead singer of the cutting-edge rock reggae band OFF from Kohima.
Gugs Chugato, the visionary head of Nagaland’s Music Task Force—the organizers of the Hornbill festival—feels differently: “There’s room for all kinds of music. Besides, by inviting Arirang TV, we are only building relations, which could translate into job opportunities for our youth in Korea.”
Back in my hotel room, everything, including the TV, is functional. Channel [V] also rides the wave with its Korean top hits show. There’s a mindless pattern to all videos: Pretty boys and girls make out, break up and make up again or not.
The next day, I head to Kisama art village, 12km from Kohima, where there are folk song and dance performances that turn out to be Naga exotica for tourists who can’t make it into the villages. These folk songs, with their multi-part harmonies, need an open field—not a centre stage with a gallery of spectators—but the international tourists lap it all up with handycams and heavy-duty cameras. Morungs (traditional huts) set up by every tribe to display local handicrafts are open to tourists all year round.
The war museum at Kisama holds a screening of a World War II documentary of Naga veterans recounting how they fought the Japanese when Kohima was under attack. Battlefield relics, including canons and other militaria, draw several tourists every day.
I head back to the Phoolbari market for a quick lunch and a dose of good metal. Another day, I go for a stroll in the market, to be assaulted by the stench of dried fish, a Naga delicacy that comes second only to pork intestines. I spot an elderly vegetable hawker, who has the market’s best batch of King chilli, also known as Naga Jolokia or Bhoot Jolokia (ghost chilli). The chilli is supposedly the hottest in the world and my Andhra nerves can’t resist the temptation, so I quickly pocket 250g for Rs25.
Later that day, when I show up at rock band Diatribe drummer Temsu Kichu’s house, his mother treats me to some dynamite gooseberry pickle with Bhoot Jolokia pounded in, and I’m ready to pass out after one bite. The band, which was wreaking havoc until then, falls apart laughing as I try to stop the ringing in my ears.
In the evening, there’s more celebration as I down my first mug of fresh, frothy, slightly sweet zutho (rice beer) with friends. Some sociable Naga college kids discuss Queen, guitars and emo. The Hornbill festival is the only time of the year when the younger lot gets to drink in public, and not slink away into the shady underground bars that line the main street.
Suddenly, a Pritam number from Life in a Metro unsettles our beer-happy group. Everybody’s singing Baatein Kuch Ankahi Si at the next table, and the next, and the one below. We quickly order another round of zutho. Tomorrow is another day filled with good music.
Graphics by Ahmed Raza Khan / Mint
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