Rising Asia Journal
Rising Asia Foundation
ISSN 2583-1038
PEER REVIEWED | MULTI-DISCIPLINARY | EASTERN FOCUS
NORTHEASTERN CULTURE

SUDIPTA BHATTACHARJEE

Former Resident Editor, Northeast, The Telegraph

How the Song of the Bambaneng (Bumblebee) Began Meghalaya’s Traditional Musical Culture that is Now Being Revived

The author interviews traditional musicians of Meghalaya, as well as young performers, to discover how the traditional music and musical instruments of the state are being popularized among the younger generation, leading to a current resurgence of an ancient artform that has a rich folkloric oral history.

The wealth of folklore and legends behind the genesis of traditional music in the state of Meghalaya makes for an engrossing narrative. The residents of Northeastern India are naturally gifted as musicians, and in recent years there is a conscious effort to rekindle interest in, and promote, traditional musical instruments—percussion, string and wind-based—in Meghalaya. One story goes that it was the bambaneng (Garo for bumblebee) that demonstrated the art of drilling holes in bamboo to mankind. And thus, the flute was born. Before the instruments took shape, it was more of clapping and foot stomping that added the rhythmic flavor. The instrument, Adil, for instance, is a type of trumpet made from the top six inches of a buffalo’s horn to which a long bamboo mouthpiece is attached.[1]

According to legend, retold by Boris Momin in The Meghalayan, in the beginning, Rabuga (the progenitor of man), first built rang (similar to a gong) out of clay, hoping to sell them in the land of Susime (the Goddess of Moon).[2] His rang were rejected right away at the a.kang (market) as they did not produce enough sound and broke easily. Disappointed, Rabuga was returning home when he met Katchi a.ning, a spirit of the underworld, who felt sympathetic towards him, and told him to rest in his nokpante (bachelor’s dormitory). That night, Rabuga had a dream in which the spirit revealed to him the art of smelting metal and to make them into a rang, with the words, “Mulko ping.e nibo, Gaminchiko tinge nibo, rue nibo” (“cover the bellows and see, strike the metal and see, heat and pour it out and see”). The next morning, when Rabuga went to wash his face in the stream, a shrimp showed him how to use the bellows by flapping its wings. By the lights of Garo legend, this is how man discovered metal and made rang and other steel instruments.

According to another folkloric story, Rawil Racha (a person) collected the skin and horns of buffaloes and went to A.ning Bokjare Chining Dimjare Nore Chire (a spirit) who dwelt in the subterranean region and asked her to teach him to prepare shields and trumpets out of those skins.[3] The spirit told him that while preparing them, he should observe the leaves of the kochoos (Colocasia Indicum) for their shape and then imitate the stars in decorating them. He returned to his village and crafted the first danils (shields) and adils (trumpets) as he had been instructed.

Such folklore comes alive at Wahkhen near Pynursla, a hamlet along the winding road from Shillong to Dawki on the Bangladesh border. The vegetation that delineates the sylvan landscape turns from pine to palm as the gradient descends towards the plains. Amid green fields sits a uniquely thatched structure. It is here that gifted musicians Rangbah Komik Khongjirem and Rangbah Rojet Buhphang, both associated with the Sangeet Natak Akademi, are the living legends behind an institute called Sieng Riti in Wahkhen village.

Preservation Efforts

According to Shillong-based musician Hammarsing Kharhmar, Sieng Riti is one of the “most authentic places where traditional music is being passed down in a very organic way.”[4] Speaking to the author on July 25, 2023 Kharhmar explained that musicians from Wahkhen are brought each year to Smit, a village in the outskirts of the state capital city, Shillong, to perform at the annual Shad Nongkrem dance of Hima Khyrim, the largest traditional Khasi state still holding firmly to the Khasi religion. They arrive more than a month before the main dance, to live in the sacred house, Ka Iing Saad, and prepare not just for the dance but also for the rituals that take place over a month. Kharhmar adds, “There are rhythms they play during specific rituals that cannot be recorded or performed even under unnatural light. It is intricate and in my opinion one of highest forms of Indian classical music.”

Hammarsing explains that Rangbah Komik Khongjirem and Rangbah Rojet Buhphang have been honored with several awards including national ones. “Recently the government of Meghalaya recognized their exemplary work and has started promoting the institute at Wahkhen as one of the centers of Khasi traditional music,” he adds. 

Children learning music at Sieng Riti Institute with the male drum (ka ksing shynrang), the female drum (ka ksing kynthei), and the round drum at the center (ka bom ka nakra). Picture by Pynkhrawkupar Khongwet.

Nearly two decades ago, a dozen enterprising individuals decided to carry the advice of musicologist and historian Helen Giri Syiem to preserve Khasi traditional music from being swamped by Western influences. Today, parents willingly send their children to this music school to promote the worthy cause.

Speaking from Wahkhen on July 27, 2023, Rangbak Komik said, “Sieng Riti was set up in the year 2005 after I received the national award from the Sangeet Natak Akademi, New Delhi. Along with Bah Rojet Buhphang and late Samsit Malngiang, we set up Sieng Riti Institute in order to promote, preserve and impart Khasi music as well as Khasi traditions, keeping Khasi traditional music alive.”[5] Sieng Riti was inaugurated by the then chairperson of the Sangeet Natak Akademi, danseuse Sonal Mansingh.  

Asked about the ways in which Sieng Riti Institute functions, Rangbah Komik adds: “Sieng Riti has promoted traditional music not only in our state but outside as well. It has shared many skills of teaching on how to promote, preserve, and impart traditional music that has been taught by our forefathers long ago.” It encourages the youngsters to respect their own culture and have the passion to learn traditional music with enthusiasm to present with dignity, he explains. “As we endeavor to pitch Sieng Riti to the next level in the years to come, it hopefully will be at the top. There are hundreds of students who come to Sieng Riti.” Most of the students being trained in traditional music come to the institute every Sunday morning.

Speaking of financial assistance for such a unique venture, Rangbah Komik laments that as of now, the institute does not get any grants or funds from the government. “We just run the school with our own pocket money as much as we can afford. The government has not been forthcoming because of political issues. However, some individuals have volunteered to help us with a small amount of money as they love to hear or witness traditional music, folk dance and the way we play indigenous instruments,” he says. Since the exchange was in Khasi, his grandson Pynkhrawkupar Khongwet was my willing translator.

Hammarsing, too, has a musical ensemble called Da Minot, essentially a contemporary Khasi music collective inspired by the rhythms, melodies and wisdom of the Khasis. “We build our songs from this appreciation and want to share its essence with the world through our music and videos. We also believe that modernity does not have to imply Westernizing ourselves. Rather, it is more important to grow with the world from our own roots,” he says. They use several traditional musical instruments, and blend them with traditional attire.

In Shillong itself, women like Kong Silby Passah teach students traditional music and dance at home. “I took a group to Delhi recently to perform and held performances at the Northeast Zonal Cultural Centre,” the spirited mentor says (on July 25, 2023).[6] She is very appreciative of the younger generation’s interest in reviving traditional indigenous music and plays the drums and the duitara, a two-stringed instrument. Nowadays, several musicians experiment with a four-string duitara.

Types of Instruments

Speaking of gender, even drums are classified as male and female, because the boys and girls play different kinds of drums, although the segregation is not rigid. To the uninitiated, some of the Khasi traditional musical instruments comprise the following: duitara, or sawsai, so named because it originally had two strings. Now it has been improvised with additional strings. It is the typical musical instrument of the Khasis and Jaintias. Made of hardwood, it can be played with a wooden pick. It has four holes at one end, with wooden pegs to hold the string in tune. The body is covered in animal hide.

The traditional Northeastern (Khasi) instruments are:[7]

Ka Tangmuri, a loud wind instrument. 
Ka Besli, or flute.

The percussion and rhythm section consists of:

Ka Dama: a long, narrow drum made of wood and used for all occasions.
Ka Bom/Ka Nakra: a low frequency drum.
Ka Ksing kynthei: the female drum.
Ka Ksing shynrang: the male drum.
Ka Shawshaw: small cymbals (percussion).
Ka Mieng: known as a Jew harp.
Ka Maryngod: somewhat like a violin.

Quite remarkably, these instruments are also used by mainstream Meghalaya bands like Summersalt. Its founder, Kitkupar Shangpliang, a youthful forty-three-year-old musician, launched Summersalt sixteen years ago “with very little support.”[8] He named it Summersalt while “looking for a three-syllable season-and-seasoning combination.” The articulate and forthcoming Bah Kit (as he is known) told me on July 21: “We are small as an indigenous identity but we have a lot of value, like salt.” Asked about incorporating traditional instruments, he adds: “It is the calling to go back to our roots, to indigenous culture. We grew up in church using modern instruments and wanted to make it organic. We use duitara. But with four strings, the sawsai is played according to the melody of the song. But we play it as a rhythm accompaniment. You give a different structure to the song. We call it summer slide.” The band featured in the Bollywood film Rock On 2 that was shot at Laitlum Canyons, about 20 km from Shillong.

Ador Shangpliang of Summersalt plays the duitara while the octogenarian weaver sings a century-old song. Picture by Kitkupar Shangpliang.

A folk fusion band, Summersalt collaborates with various artistes. One of its members plays eight indigenous instruments. “Our wardrobe is also fusion,” Bah Kit says. “Eri silk is used to represent culture in all its forms.” The government of Meghalaya, in 2021, through the ministry of textiles (sericulture) got the band to write a song on ryndia shawls. The band is in partnership with the National Institute of Fashion Technology and the sericulture department. Bah Kit adds, “We went to the village and spoke to the women weavers and asked them what kind of songs they sing while weaving. An eighty-seven-year-old gave us a song, one sung to me by my grandmother, so we used a century-old song as a melody line for the one we created.” The band got the old weaver to start the song, and recorded it in the forest with the weavers and the band providing the music. The song was performed on National Handloom Day, August 7.

In the western part of the state, the Garo hills too have been witnessing efforts to popularize traditional music and indigenous instruments. Boris Momin explains, “The traditional musical instruments of the Garos have been one of the most diverse in the region, and known by many names. Local musicians of Tura have recently been trying to revive these forgotten instruments through their passionate music.”[9] Although modern musical instruments may have taken over to some extent, for some people of the region the essence of traditional music has not died yet, he adds. Instead, it is marching back to popularity with young musicians using traditional instruments that they see as an inspiration. Momin explains that the youth, through their music, has been trying to spread awareness that music is a way to learn about culture, for songs live on.

The boys and girls of Wahkhen practice playing drums. Picture by Pynkhrawkupar Khongwet.

The musical instruments, Momin writes, are made and used in slightly different ways. In categorizing them, “we find there are ‘idiophones’ (self-sounding), ‘aerophones,’ or wind instruments, ‘chordophones’ (stringed instruments), and ‘membranophones’ (drums).” The Garos have the dotrong (chordophone), a six-stringed instrument like a mandolin with no visible frets, played with a plectrum made of flat bamboo or steel that is attached by a string to tiny bells. This instrument can be seen in the border areas of the West Garo Hills. The sarenda is a one-stringed instrument, like a violin. The body is carved out of a gambil wood (Careyaarborica) and the strings are made out of animal gut or the bark of the kilkrabol (Celtis orientalis).

Conclusion

Across the Khasi-Jaintia and Garo hills of Meghalaya, there is now a conscious movement to go back to the roots of traditional music. Even Christian institutions like Martin Luther University are incorporating indigenous music in the curriculum, unlike in the past. With a few dedicated elders playing the lead role and contemporary bands like Summersalt and groups like Da Minot actively promoting the trend, the genre is set to flourish and prosper in the hands of the younger generation. The hills are, indeed, alive to this happy transformation.

Note on the Author

Sudipta Bhattacharjee, a career journalist, was Resident Editor (Northeast) at The Telegraph in Kolkata. She is a columnist and feature-writer for the newspaper. In the nineties, she was based in Shillong and reported extensively from the region. She traveled to the United States on a Fulbright Research Fellowship in 2004-05 at the Center for Justice and Peacebuilding (CJP) in Virginia. On completion of her research in conflict management, with special focus on Northeastern India, she returned to CJP in 2015 and completed a course in Strategies for Trauma Awareness and Resilience as part of her specialization. She is now an Adjunct Professor of Media Science and Journalism at Brainware University, Kolkata.  

END NOTES

[1] The Garo legends told as oral history and folklore passed down the generations.

[2] See, Boris Momin, “Thriving, Musically!” The Meghalayan, January 21, 2023. https://themeghalayan.com/thriving-musically/

[3] Ibid.

[4] Hammarsing Kharhmar, interview by author, Kolkata, on July 25, 2023.

[5] Rangbak Komik, phone interview by author, Kolkata, July 27, 2023.

[6] Kong Silby Passah, phone interview with author, Kolkata, July 25, 2023.

[7] This was explained by Kitkupar Shangpliang.

[8] Kitkupar Shangpliang, phone interview with author, Kolkata, July 21, 2023.

[9] Momin, “Thriving, Musically!”

WORKS CITED

Momin, Boris. “Thriving, Musically!” The Meghalayan, January 21, 2023. https://themeghalayan.com/thriving-musically/