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PROJECT DIARIES
TRIBES UNITED BY MUSIC
Winter 2015/2016
To See God
in a Wooden Instrument
is no Small Matter
Reconnecting with our roots, my brother and I travelled through
some of India’s remotest regions to document folk musicians
Tarok Das had long, frizzy hair and a beaming smile. Under the golden canopy of Shantiniketan’s famous Banyan trees, he threw his shoulders back and began humming, joyously nodding his head in rhythm. A troupe of men clad in bright orange and red drapes formed a circle around him. Each held an instrument made of wood, gut strings and skin. Softly at first, then growing along with the sound of leaves rustled by the river-side breeze, they joined the melody.  

Das stood out first; his raw and melancholic voice sang of higher spirits and the power of nature. His tone was robust, but his demeanor playful. The song intertwined with the beat of his men that accompanied his now moving feet. Seeing this, I couldn't help but grin and feel a sway in my hips.  

Das was our first collaborator on an epic journey that I embarked on with my brother Soumik last November. We traveled to six Indian states in search of rural folk musicians, the last torch-bearers of fading crafts. We had heard about Das from a few contemporary performers in Kolkata, who insisted we head into the countryside to discover ‘real’ India and ‘original’ music.  

When we first met, Das was perched on the broken bench of a local bus stop, sipping chai from a clay cup and singing to a spontaneous but entirely captivated audience that had surrounded him. In his mid-50s, Das is one of the foremost proponents of the Baul tradition, which is both a religious sect and a musical genre. His is a dying art, yet one that is still popular in Bengal's countryside, informing many more established genres over the years such as Rabindrasangeet and Kirtan. Baul performers sing and play indigenous instruments such as the khamak, ektara and dotara.

“Have you seen God?” he asked me deep within the forest, still humming and strumming his dotara.

“To see God in a wooden instrument is no small matter. No one has seen God. You say Krishna plays the flute in the woods? But there is no Krishna, no flute, no woods. There is only a power, within these instruments and within ourselves, that drives us.”
By Souvid Datta
January 2016
Above   A dancer from the Gaarudi Gombe Kunitha tradition playing the evil demon Ravan, poses for a portrait in Karnataka. 
Above:   Tarak Das Baul, performs near Santiniketan, West Bengal.
My brother and I grew up in a house filled with Indian art and music. But over time—perhaps caught in the commercial rat race of London—our connection to these traditions and the values they embodied began to wane. With this journey, we set out to rediscover Indian music, to trace it to its rural and folk sources, and experience firsthand its most compelling and colorful renditions.  

Throughout the nation, within villages and rural enclaves, indigenous musical cultures have thrived for centuries. From the tribal hunting songs of Nagaland to the celebratory Kunitha dances of Karnataka, each district of India has artistic traditions shaped by unique local histories, climates, geographies, religions and social structures. Yet, today, in an age of speeding urbanization and modernity, many of these ways of life are in danger of vanishing.  

Soumik and I decided to put these artists back on the map, creating intimate portraits as well as documenting live musical collaborations. Beyond this, we aimed to give audiences a glimpse into everyday realities of rural India and raise the question of how local customs might survive and stay relevant in a changing world.    
6 states
9 languages
40 musical groups
100 artists
TRAILER
Right:   A villager blows a conch shell at a ritual in the Dwarkadheesh temple, Mathura, during the Holi festival

Left:   Village children rest after a day of singing, prayer and celebrations during the annual Holi festival near Mathura
Right:   Members of the Konyak tribe perform a hunting dance in the north-eastern state of Nagaland during the annual Hornbill festival
Our first stop was West Bengal, where our parents were born and raised, and where we met Tarok Das and Rabi. They shared with us the soulful Baul way of life, which embodies generosity and mysticism, and where music and song act as a conduit to the divine. We also met Kirtan singers, acrobatic Chhau dancers and the last practitioners of the ancient Jumur form based in religious Hindu texts. Within a few weeks, we realized just how much there was to learn and to share with a wider audience. We decided to continue the project across states spanning the length and breadth of India.  

A few months later, we arrived in Nagaland, a rural state tucked within the mountainous area between Bangladesh and Myanmar. Nagaland is home to 16 major tribes, each with their own customs, languages and traditional attire. Predominantly Christian, its musical and dance traditions are heavily influenced by Eastern and Xino themes, and stand in stark contrast to mainland India’s better-known, Hindu forms. Their dances are intercut with striking battle cries and zoomorphic poses, which celebrate the region’s hunting and farming history.

“We all neglect our own culture,” Venolu Puro, an 18 year-old member of the Rengma tribe, told us. Plucking her ancient Tati instrument, she talked to us about Nagaland’s identity crisis and her commitment to maintain her culture. “We have to learn from our parents so that we can preserve our culture, our identity. We may learn everything. I may learn parts of your culture. But if I forget my own culture, no one can teach this to me."  

Globalization had clearly made its mark there. Blaring red 4G signs lined the winding forest roads that connect Nagaland’s two major cities of Dimapur and Kohima. The increasingly educated and urban smartphone-wielding youth have a a declining interest in their families’ agrarian lifestyles, but also struggle to locate skilled jobs amidst the state’s climate of political insurgency, migration and declining tourism. Nagaland’s rich and unique subcultures stand at risk of being lost in the state’s rapid movements for change.
“We all neglect our own culture,”
Venolu Puro
18, Nagaland.
A group of teenagers from the Rengma tribe perform a traditional dance
NAGALAND
A boy chases his cattle through a valley near Kohima. The lesser-known, rural state of Nagaland is tucked within India's mountainous north-eastern region bordering Bangladesh and Myanmar. It is home to 16 major tribes, each with their own customs, language and dress. It is predominantly Christian, making it strikingly different from the rest of India. The area has a rich tradition of music and dance, but globalisation, the spread of technology and the rise of cheap travel to India and beyond means Nagaland is facing an identity crisis block.
Tribes from Nagaland gather before their performance at the Hornbill festival
Members of the Rengma tribe at the Hornbill festival sing a mothers' song about when sons left for battle
Teenagers from the Rengma tribe prepare for a chicken dance
For six months we drove, flew, trained and rode our way across four more states: Rajasthan, Karnataka, Uttar Pradesh and Goa. We met more than 40 musical groups and 100 artists, spanning nine languages and all age groups. We traversed jungles and mountains, islands and dense cities, and were finally left with a rare, compelling and intimate insight into India’s fading folk music traditions.

Cut into six thirty-minute episodes that respectively explore each state, we launched the series in 2016, and it has since been broadcast in the UK, India and Asia on platforms such as Channel 4, Discovery & BBC Earth.

One of the things that struck me the most during this project was that for the people we met, music was not just an occupation or a choice. Often harking from generations-long legacies of performers, these traditional genres had become inseparable from the people who practiced them, and the places they were born in.

An ancient musician – Rampal Ji Bhopa - we met in Rajasthan personified exactly the haunting melodies that reverberated from his Ravanhatha; Tarok Das's voice rang with the same warmth of West Bengal’s tropical and watery climate. These musicians lived and breathed their art. They were innately connected to a precious time and a place that was quickly disappearing.
The 6 episode
documentary show
has now been broadcast on Channel 4, BBC Earth & Discovery
KARNATAKA
Dancers of the dollu kunitha, a drum dance, leap during the climax of their performance. Karnataka is famous for its tribes who perform ritual dances, often enacting religious stories dressed in colourful costumes as gods, animals and demons
Dancers of the ritual halaki suki kunitha wait to perform near India's eastern coast
A goravara kunitha dancer in Karnataka. Goravara dancers wear black and white woollen garments and a black bear-fur cap, and play the damaru (a two-headed drum) and pillangoviya (a type of flute)
Performers move in a clockwise zigzag, with no fixed choreography, attempting to illustrate the ferocity and power of the region's black bears
"If somebody lives near the sea they dance something related to the sea; if someone lives by a mountain they dance inspired by the mountains. the people in the village have these customs... of eating in a particular style, dancing in a particular style, celebrating marriage in a particular style... all this put together, this is their way of life - this is folk."
Sreenivas G. Kappanna, local guide
Dancers of the gaarudi gombe get ready to perform
UTTAR PRADESH
Villagers sing and celebrate during an annual Holi procession through the city of Mathura. Musical traditions often center around community events such as births, festivals, marriages and deaths. Faced with globalisation, increasingly cheap technologies and rapid rural to urban migration, many of the most vibrant cultural practices and musical traditions inherent to India's villages are dying out
Women gather to sing, pray and take part in Holi festival celebrations in Dwarkadheesh temple, Mathura
Village devotees at the Banke Bihari temple in Vrindavan
Songs and prayers at Dwarkadheesh temple
A child devotee dressed as a god parades through slum streets on the outskirts of Varanasi while singing prayers
RAJASTHAN
Women sing traditional marital songs at a village wedding in Jaswantpura. Known for strong percussive sounds, haunting string melodies and the powerful qawwali tradition, the desert state of Rajasthan has one of India's richest folk music repertoires
A rural musician holds up traditional nagarra drums in Savitri village
Women sing and dance to traditional marital songs at a village wedding
A boy lights a fire outside a village wedding in Jaswantpura
Are there any accessible festivals or performances available for people to experience this music firsthand?

There is certainly a small, growing platform for seeing many of the musicians we encountered up close. For tribal music and cultures in Nagaland, for instance, there is the incredible Hornbill Festival, a seven-day cultural fiesta held amid the mountainous backdrop of Kohima every December.

For Baul music, there is Poush Mela every winter, a colorful rural carnival in West Bengal’s Shantiniketan that sees nomadic Bengali singers, tribal dancers, and folk opera acts attract millions every year.

For more classical lineups, the Sawai Gandharva festival in Pune every December is arguably the largest, most popular, and most sought-after Indian classical music festival in the world, famous for its star performers and all-night concerts.

And finally, the Rajasthan International Folk Festival is an annual music and arts presentation of rich North Indian traditions held in the magnificent Mehrangarh Fort in Jodhpur.
TRAVEL TIPS?
BENGAL
Two children pose before singing traditional devotional songs while tending to their father's mustard gardens in Jonhi village, Sasaram
Amalya Kumar, a leading practitioner of the jhumur musical tradition, sings devotional songs recounting tales of Hindu gods and goddesses in Purulia
Villagers attend a performance by chhau dancers in Purulia
A singer performs baul songs. The baul tradition of mystic singers and musicians is hugely popular in Bengal's countryside and features indigenous stringed instruments such as the khamak, ektara and dotara
Every Monday in Jonhi, women who have dedicated themselves to the god Shiva perform songs at a local temple. Usually such devotees are from the lowest of the Hindu caste system, facing societal exclusion and suspicion
This project was supported by the Bagri Foundation, Soumik Datta Arts and Tuning 2 You.
For more from the series follow Tuning 2 You on Instagram and Facebook.
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