A little before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, I had the opportunity to visit the Hornbill Festival in Nagaland in December 2019. The main arena is tucked away in the foothills of Kisama, which is a short drive away from the capital city of Kohima. There are various events scheduled throughout the day that showcase the art and the culture of the tribes.
On that trip, I also learnt about musical instruments I had never even heard of before. Atutu, a long bamboo trumpet, used in ceremonies is also used to ward off stray animals from the farms. Tati, a single stringed instrument used by the Angami and Chakesam tribes, is made more popular by the Tetseo Sisters band whom I had the opportunity to see live and meet. They are singularly responsible for bringing Naga music on the national map.
When my then best friend from college asked if I wanted to go to Hogenakkal Falls in Tamil Nadu, I unhesitatingly agreed. I tagged along with her cousin, dad and aunt.
The scenery was a sight for sore eyes. We hopped aboard a coracle, which covered the parameters of the falls. The fisherman sang us a song upon request from my friend’s dad and I had never heard anything more beautiful. I did not understand the language, nor did I know what he was singing. But it did not matter; for I felt it in my bones. The setting of the falls, the ride, and most importantly the fisherman who sang us that song became an etching memory for a 16 year-old. I hadn’t realised I had tears in my eyes.
Every time I embark upon a trip, I make sure to tune into the tunes from a local language of the place I’m visiting.
The advent of winter marks the onset of the Poush Mela or the winter carnival in the town of Shantiniketan, one of West Bengal’s most cultural hubs. The fare is a potboiler of creative displays of handicrafts, textiles, paintings, musical instruments and artworks that are native to the state. In 2012, I travelled from Kolkata to witness the carnival with my friends. Despite the stellar handicraft displays, it was the Baul akharas that instantly grabbed my attention. The akharasare makeshift spaces that host a congregation of folk singers, travelling from various parts of Bengal to showcase their talent in this mega platform.
As I peeped into one such Akhara, a few Bauls gathered within, graciously invited me to join them and sing along with their tunes. Even without a microphone, the space resonated with their powerful voices as they sang in perfect harmony, plucking at the strings of their handmade ektaras and dotaras, and beating down on percussions like the khol, gubgubi and khanjira. They offered me some food, and passed on a large tin can containing what they said was ‘Buro Shadhu’, a literal Bengali translation for ‘Old Monk’ dark rum. Seated amidst music and camaraderie that chilly December evening, I felt the moment warming my soul. Before I knew it, the night had passed and the winter sun was peeking over the horizon. As I stood up to leave, an elderly Baul handed me his plectrum as a souvenir and said: “Gaan-ta hrid majhare rekho, chhere diyo na” (keep music in your heart and never let go).
I have got the chance to watch musicians perform on the streets of Copenhagen and Athens, at train stations in Berlin and Stockholm, and opera in Vienna. But what haunts me is the soul-stirring music of the Bauls of West Bengal. When I first watched Bauls perform at a haat (weekly fair) at Shantiniketan, I saw that they lose themselves in their music, pour out their feelings in their songs. Onlookers join them in unison, dancing and singing with them.
But an interesting fact is that Bauls never write their songs down. It’s an oral tradition passed down through generations.The vocals are accompanied by flutes, percussions like khol and kartal, and ektara (a single string instrument).
I first set foot in Shantiniketan 14 years ago and have longed to return ever since. Eventually, when I did return to watch the Bauls, I made sure to capture every moment of the performance being enacted on the banks of Kopai river.
I recently went on a day-long trip to Naya, a quaint village located in the east Midnapur district of West Bengal that is home to hundreds of Patachitra artists. The musical folk tradition of visual storytelling unfolds against the backdrop of several painted frames as artists take the audience on a mythological adventure by singing the narratives as they unfurl the scrolls.The beautiful murals tell stories of ancient Hindu mythology, epics, tribal folk through painting, storytelling, music and even contemporary issues like the COVID-19 outbreak, global warming and environmental pollution. Patachitras are incomplete without the accompanying songs referred to as pater gaan. In Naya, one can find Muslim chitrakars painting Hindu fables and singing songs praising the Hindu deities and vice versa.
It was my first ever tour to Madhya Pradesh in 2016. While my sole interest was in spotting tigers, Kanha had much more to offer as a memorable trip.
The night before the final wrap, the resort arranged for a local tribal performance. Not knowing one bit about the Gond and Baiga tribal community of Kanha, I was all set to witness the performances. Their colourful attire, ethnic accessories, feathered headdress along with traditional tattooed hands arrested my attention.
The folk songs are played with huge drums called mandar, and buffalo horn trumpets along with tiny bells. Each song is associated with nature or the harvesting season.
The music beats made me tap my feet in a jiffy and had the other guests join the revelry. It was a power packed cultural performance that brought all the strangers together dancing on one beat. It made me realise that music truly has no language.
During my visit to Jodhpur, I met like-minded people at the hostel I was staying at and one of the days, we all decided to visit the Mandore Garden to see the sunset. As soon as we entered, we saw an aged local musician sitting on the bench holding a ravanhatta, a folk instrument.
We requested him to play something, so he played ‘Ghar Aaja Pardesi’. The music was soulful, and moreover, was a version of the song I personally hadn’t heard on the ravanhatta. As he started playing, he got lost in his tunes and almost took us along to another magical plane of experience.
This incredible experience definitely impacted the course of my remaining journey. Later, when I visited other parts of Jodhpur and came across someone sitting with a ravanhatta, this particular version of ‘Ghar Aaja Pardesi’ would instantly start playing on loop in my head.
In non-pandemic times, Darjeeling’s Mall Road is always swarming with tourists. Like any other tourist, I was making my way up and down the road that is littered with shops selling handicrafts, winter-wear and of course baked goodies, when I came across a street musician churning out some incredible tunes. I stood there for several minutes, mesmerised by his music and then went on my way, just knowing that he would still be at this spot, playing his lovely tunes when I returned. And sure enough, hours later, there he was. I have visited Darjeeling on two different occasions, and had the good fortune to cross paths with him, and his music—always soothing, serene, and the kind one might expect to function as a back-score to a mountain shot in a movie—multiple times. This musician is a local legend, his tunes an amazing addition to anyone travelling through the popular road.
I came across a musician in Paderborn, Germany from my trip back in 2019 who was playing jazz music on his piano that was in turn, installed on a mobile trolley. His obvious joy in playing the keys and sharing his music with those around him, was an instant mood uplifter.
It was in the winters of 2017 that I had taken my first trip to the world’s largest mangrove forest—Sundarban. Hopping on to the ferry from Canning, enroute to Gosaba, one of the many islands in this river labyrinth, was when I first heard the intoxicating ‘bhatiyali’ tunes. Derived from the Bangla word bhata, meaning ebb, the songs are a lively concoction of everything earthy and reminiscent of the rivers.
The fisherfolk sing these songs throughout their hard day’s toil, and when coupled with the slow rippling sound of the water, rustling winds through the Hetal and Sundari leaves, these melodies touched my soul.
They are catchy songs in heavy Bangla, with Bangladeshi strains and influence, to rub off the tiredness of spending long days at the open river mouth. Bhatiyali songs are famous all over Bengal Delta region, along the entire Bengal Ganges and Bangladesh.
After that first trip, I have been to mangrove land several times. And everytime I sit on the front of the small ‘dingy’ boat, and listen to then bhatiyali song of the nearby boatmen and fisherfolk, something soothing and tranquil fills my heart.
The first time I heard someone playing the ravanhatta, an instrument that is predominantly played by folk artists of western Rajasthan, was at the Mehrangarh Fort in Jodhpur. As I entered through the gates of the fort, a unique melodious sound trickled into my ears and slowly seemed to bring this ancient fort castle back to life. As it turned out, the sound was from a ravanhatta being played by an endearing folk artist couple who were sitting on a mat laid out on the sides of the entryway. From ‘Kesariya Balam’ to ‘Duma Dum Mast Kalandar’, they played on and I took a seat next to a pillar to witness what I recall as one of the most soulful musical experiences of my life.
After a while, I moved on to take in the grandeur and marvel of the fort’s rich history and architecture, but somehow it was the music that I had just listened to, which made the whole experience so wholesome. With the lilting songs as a playlist in my head, I explored the fort, imagining that the darbar halls were once again filled with the royal courtiers and the jharokhas occupied with Rajputani princesses.
I had taken a road trip from Gurgaon to Ranthambore with my sister and her husband in December 2012, and we’d decided on a luxurious stay at the palatial Alsisar Hotel, Nahargarh once there. It was here that I chanced upon a sweet rendition of the popular hindi song ‘Pallo Latke’, blended in with a flavour of Rajasthani folk music. It was a cold December evening, but I stayed warm inside the lobby, raptured by a duet performance: a father singing the popular tune to the thrum of his sarangi, while his son carried out an accompanying folk dance.
The musical interlude definitely left quite an impression and I cultivated a special place in my heart for Rajasthani folk music and dance. Even now, I sometimes take out my video recording of the performance and, caught up in its magic, I dance along to the tunes of ‘Pallo Latke’.
Back during the onset of winters in 2019, my family and I decided on a trip to Ranthambore. Even before we could enter the hotel, my eyes were instantly drawn to an elderly man playing the sarangi, with so much heart and passion.
I’d been a student of music before, taking piano lessons till the third grade, but ended up taking a break to focus on studies. A decision I thought I was alright with, until I saw this man playing his melodies and finding peace within them. Immediately after I returned from the trip, I rejoined my piano lessons.
Whenever I think of memorable musical experiences which changed my life, I think back to the tunes that were abound across the hills of Pelling in Sikkim. I visited the town this January and although until then I wasn’t a big fan of hills and mountains, watching the sunset through the crests and troughs of the Kanchanjungha changed me. This particular holiday wasn’t just about the scenic beauty I got to witness, but one that was made better due to the people, food and music I encountered along the way. One particular tune that stayed tight with me was the Nepali song ‘Phul Butte Sari’. I was out sightseeing in Pelling on a rainy day and the driver played his favourite Nepali songs as he commandeered the vehicle through the twisty roads of Gyalshing and Rinchenpong. The music, to me, was a catalyst to the mesmerising beauty outside my window.
Even now, when I’m stuck in drudgy old city traffic, I plug in my headphones and listen to ‘Phul Butte Sari’ and I’m instantly taken back to those windy roads clambering past lush rhododendron bushes, and the crystal green of the river Teesta. Before this trip, I had never connected the memory of a place to a tune, but now it’s the way I go.