The band at a concert in Imphal.
The band at a concert in Imphal.

Music: Songs about bloodshed

The harmonica-haunted, Cohen-inspired outfit in Manipur that sings against militarism and violence

As Akhu Chingangbam sips on sekmai, the local brew, there is a sudden commotion. A rat has been spotted in the front room of the Imphal house which doubles up as a sekmai bar. The man at the bar chases it, hoping to stomp on it. He only manages a weak kick—but it’s enough to stun the animal momentarily. The man is quickly upon the rodent, stomping on it brutally till it is dead.

The violence of the moment leaves us fazed; conversation remains dangling as Akhu broods over a glass of sekmai. When he begins speaking again, we return to the topic of violence.

Listening to the recently released album of the Imphal-based band Imphal Talkies & The Howlers, where Akhu is the songwriter, singer, guitar, ukulele and harmonica player, what comes through most often is the brutality implicit in our lives and surroundings.

In When The Home Is Burning—the long-pending debut of Imphal Talkies & The Howlers—the violence is sometimes spread across Kashmir, Gujarat, even Sri Lanka. Or it is closer home, when Akhu, as he is known, sings about Manorama Devi, who was raped and killed 10 years back in Manipur after being arrested by the security forces, or Pebam Chittaranjan, who immolated himself in 2004, demanding the withdrawal of the controversial Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, or Afspa, from the state.

Akhu Chingangbam
Akhu Chingangbam

While Akhu directs much of his anger at the “hypocrisy that is rife across Manipur society", his scalding criticism of the political system comes from the 13 years he spent as a student in New Delhi, a relationship with India’s power centre that culminated in a doctorate in physics from Jamia Millia Islamia. “I would sometimes retaliate physically against people calling me chinki," says the 34-year-old, soft-spoken, slightly built musician. “I found it difficult to reconcile to the racism of the streets.

“When compared to the Manipur of my childhood, a place that had no space for youth culture, it was in Delhi that I learnt about freedom. Yet, it was ironic that the place would be so unaccepting or appreciative of differences. Later on, I got used to this kind of ignorance and stopped caring," says Akhu.

While he was working on his post-doctoral research at The Institute for Fundamental Study in Thailand, public health activist Binayak Sen was arrested in 2007 on charges of sedition. This led Akhu to the stage, and his first public performance with the song India, I See Blood In Your Hands. He has not gone back to physics since, saving his area of study for a “retirement plan" that will involve building a space observatory in the Manipur of “beautiful night skies".

While “the India song", as it has come to be known among followers of Indian independent music, introduced a moment of cathartic rumination (“India, are you waiting for the stone-pelters to become suicide bombers? India, why are your farmers so fuckin’ suicidal?") in high-energy bacchanalian music festivals like Ziro and NH7 Weekender, Akhu had a set list that includes songs such as Eche (Sister), a tribute to Irom Sharmila, who has been on fast for the last 14 years, demanding the withdrawal of Afspa from Manipur, and the quirky Qutub Minar.

“In Qutub Minar I talk about a guy who steals the Delhi monument and brings it over to Manipur," says Akhu. He uses it as a bargaining chip for the repeal of Afspa, a law that gives security forces unprecedented powers. “In this song, I use magic realism to address our reality," says Akhu.

The debut album of the Imphal Talkies &The Howlers

Heavily reliant on a stripped-down sound that leaves ample space for his well-articulated singing to shine through, Akhu’s Manipuri roots find form through the consummate backdrop hum of the indigenous fiddle-like instrument, the pena, in the title song or the percussive oomph of the khol in Radha Leela, a number that throws into sharp relief the tale of two activists who had resorted to hunger strikes, Anna Hazare and Sharmila, and the frenzy of media and public attention around one and the marginalization of the other.

Singing as much in his native Meiteilon as English, Akhu’s initiative in starting the Imphal Music Project—conceived as a musical platform for creative minds from different backgrounds—has seen anti-dam activists and Mumbai-based musicians like Sumit Bhattacharya join in. Akhu and Bhattacharya together recorded the rousing Song For Bangladesh, taking off from 2013’s churning Shahbag protests in Dhaka.

The involvement of Tangkhul Naga musician Rewben Mashangva and Indian Ocean’s Rahul Ram, who went to Imphal to record the song Nonglei with Akhu, further hints at the borderless possibilities of his music. While the song is about the Loktak Lake—a sense of foreboding about the fate of the famous Manipur lake recurs in Akhu’s songwriting—the three musicians move out of the comfort zone of their own tongues: Ram and Mashangva sing in Meiteilon, while Akhu sings in Tangkhul, an exchange that defies the long-continuing ethnic rift between Akhu’s Meitei and Mashangva’s Tangkhul Naga communities.

While the album When The Home Is Burning puts the rarely used expression of protest and resistance in the middle and centre of India’s fledgling indie music scene, and evokes in its finest moments the restrained aggression of folk-rock, there is no missing the simplicity of children singing as a cheerful collective.

In Ode To The Loktak, a gaggle of children lend to the composition’s chirpiness. Akhu’s musical collaboration with children is a continuation from 2012, when Imphal Talkies recorded Lullaby, an alliance that elevates a song essentially about children caught in conflict zones like Manipur to the larger idea of innocence.

The rat is dead. The sekmai too is gathering charge. There is news of yet another bomb blast in a field near Imphal, taking yet another human life. Before we leave, Akhu talks about his plan: one more intensive round of collaboration with children, both as a teacher of physics and a mentor-musician. “They introduce a simplicity that I can’t," says Akhu. “They are the hope."

Imphal Talkies & The Howlers music is available for purchase at www.oklisten.com/album/when_the_home_is_burning

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