RTI ACTIVISM IS JUST ONE MAINSTAY OF THIS NAGALAND CAFÉ.
Few highways in India are as trouble-prone as the 436-kilometre NH39 which winds south from Numaligarh in Assam to Moreh on the Manipur-Myanmar border. It is a passage infamous for highway extortion and ethnic clashes. The highway hits the hilly Nagaland capital Kohima, almost at the halfway mark, before sharply bending southward at a T-point as if alerting of the ethno-political turns ahead on its snaky path through the hills into Manipur yonder.
This chaotic, congested and cacophonic highway T-point, Kohima’s busiest traffic point, skirts a terraced cemetery that the Commonwealth War Graves Commission maintains. This cemetery, where hundreds of World War II soldiers were laid to rest isn’t just a Kohima landmark; it is symbolic of the blood Nagaland spilled in five decades of insurrection. Death reigned here for more than 50 years, but life has now taken over.
In 2003, diagonally across the road from the tapering end of the cemetery, opened Dream Café, established not just to vend cappuccinos and snacks but to arguably be Kohima’s liveliest haunt for Naga youth, out to change mindsets with guitars and ideas of self-reliance.
“Dream Café is about a vision to inspire the youth to dream beyond today and the present situation, that the youth can make it happen and make a dent on this earth,” says musician and entrepreneur Theja Meru, 40, who owns the café. “People in the 18 to 25 age group comprise 80 percent of our clientele,” he says.
“There are the tourists too (British descendants and kin of the buried soldiers) who prefer a pep-up after some sombre moments in the cemetery,” adds the former member of Blood and Fire, a Chennai-based rock band of the 1990s.
The cosy L-shaped café is also about hanging out and jamming. It periodically hosts local bands and soloists seeking a platform to graduate to the big stage. And it offers, for those with a mission, a “thinkpad” corner for people to meet and discuss issues. One such brainstorming session helped sire “YouthNet” in February 2006 and its key members have been meeting at the café almost weekly ever since.
A non-profit organisation, YouthNet was formed primarily to “cash in on peace” after Naga rebel outfits called the on-going truce between 1997 and 2001. Young Naga professionals pursuing careers across the globe returned with the dream of rewriting Nagaland’s destiny and creating new opportunities for the less privileged local youth. Through its entrepreneurship fund, for instance, YouthNet has helped a number of individuals, like Jon Rengma, 25, who now runs a poultry business in Kohima or Irangwan, 28, who opened a grocery store in Peren district.
“Nagaland needed a change of image, from a made-for-violence state to a happening one. But we decided not to go about preaching people to do this or not to do that. We have been trying to do the small things right, identifying and working to the strengths of the people and helping them with ideas and experience acquired elsewhere,” says YouthNet director Hekani Zakhalu, 35, who has a Master of Law from the University of San Francisco.
YouthNet, she adds, works in coordination with the government, traditional grassroots organisations, tribal community elders, educational institutions and the corporates to help channel youth energy. “We are not issue-specific, but we believe in the power of ordinary people to make extraordinary changes.”
One of the changes, YouthNet organiser Kuchi Rangkau Zeliang points out, is taking up Right to Information (RTI) as a youth movement to flush out corruption. “We were instrumental in introducing RTI in Nagaland to keep officials on their toes,” says Zeliang, an international management post-graduate from the University of Westminster.
For instance, YouthNet’s RTIs revealed anomalies in the Nagaland health department’s payrolls and serious discrepancies between the rice provision declared and actually received at ten local schools, all with the connivance of the officials concerned.
Meru admits the iconic coffee houses of Kolkata and Allahabad, around since the 1930s and where many a revolutionary idea was germinated, inspired Dream Café. But being a musician, he felt it more appropriate to hang framed portraits of rock and pop icons, rather than those of Tagore’s on the café walls. One of the byproducts of his venture is the Rattle & Hum Music Society that networks with musicians at the national and international level, organising concerts and helping bands with recordings or exchange trips.
This society often coordinates with the Music Task Force (MTF), formed by the Nagaland government in 2004, as an initiative to “replace gun culture with guitar culture” and help young Nagas “find both employment and a better life.” The MTF properly got going in 2009, when allocated funds started going towards scouting talent and providing financial assistance to musicians and businesses comprising the fledgling music industry. Unlike the art and culture department in Indian states, MTF isn’t restricted to folk and traditional cultural activities. It promotes and facilitates rock, reggae, rap, Bollywood and every other popular genre that the youth can hope to make a living out of.
“The government believes that music, though primarily a hobby, can be easily turned into a well-rewarding profession, and this, in turn, can provide employment opportunities to hundreds of talented young people,” says MTF director Gugs Chishi. “Music is a way of life in Nagaland, so it makes sense to produce soldiers armed with guitars, drums, saxophones and what have you.”
In order to mean business, MTF has been providing free equipment including audio systems for bands and individual rockers to strut their stuff. It is also setting up a Centre of Excellence for Music and Performing Arts at Jotsoma (near Kohima) that with recording studios, music labs, seminar halls and a library is expected to foster professional musicians, in the aspiration that music will evolve into a viable career path and young Nagas will have the competitive edge to succeed in the country’s entertainment, film, hotel and nightlife industries.
But, as Meru feels, Nagaland’s musicians, who are largely self-taught, have to break out of the cover version mould. “How long can you sing other people’s songs? Total rock and pop is not us and is bound to wear off soon. So we must bring in a lot of fusion incorporating the traditional stuff, and that will bring the economic breakthrough,” he says.
Some bands have started doing just that. Abiogenesis, for instance, is banking on “howey” – an improvement on the traditional hum-yodel hybrid sung by some tribes in the Northeast – to break new ground. And take Nagaland to a new musical high, higher than the café at 4 904 feet where the dream first took wings.
Byline: Sheela K
Photographs: S. Fotheringham