May 2011
#North-East , 1705 Views
Smoke on the Water

Byline: Akoijam Sunita
Photographs: K Khundrakpam

In Manipur: the rise and fall of rock and roll and the music legend who has endured.

“Once more! Once more!” shouted the crowd, and so the music continued, louder than it was before. The cheering was unstoppable and it was a rare occasion in Imphal, Manipur when the sound of excited, happy chatter filled the night, in place of the usual silence or the ringing of gun shots that would either be explained in the following day’s newspapers, or remain a mystery.

Four bands played that evening at Imphal’s Hapta Kangjeibung Ground. It was the closing event of last December’s Manipur Sangai Tourism Festival and about 400 residents had turned up for the gig. Performing, were local heavy metal bands, Kanglasha and Cleave, Recycle a Manipuri new age metal and rock band – and Soulmate, the well-known blues group from Shillong. With people thronging the seating area, many were forced to move beyond the temporary rope perimeter. I had to weave my way through the crush to take pictures. One boy shouted after me, “When you come out, tell us if Tukun’s hair is real!” I nodded; a little puzzled by his question. When the cheering grew louder, I realised why Kanglasha’s vocalist’s hair was of concern to that boy. She’d started head bang­ing on stage, and her swishing mane was sending the crowd wild.

It is said that Manipur is where the gods took to dancing. A land of natural beauty and abundant resources,Sanaleipak, the “land of gold” – as it was known meant leisurely pastimes like dancing, were also enjoyed by the people. A love for the arts endured for a long time in Manipur. It is hard to say what happened to the dancing gods but the music eventually got louder and louder.

There used to be a clear divide between the rock loving youths and the fans of softer Hindustani classical music. Those who followed rock music – a scene that peaked in the 1980s and was confined to urban centres were considered elitist. To understand English lyrics they were likely to have come from wealthy families who could afford to send them to private, English medium schools, unlike the more common Manipuri medium government schools. Listening to “English music” was a symbol of status and language was the divisive barrier. Those who identified with rock and heavy metal culture were seen as rebellious by the elders and roamed around dressed in the fashion of their Western counterparts – long hair, skin-tight leather pants and chains with crosses. But the growing popularity of fusion music sung in Manipuri also called Meiteilon, the lingua franca spoken by the majority of the population – enabled the bridging of this gap. Many local artists such as Sanaton and Naba Volcano popularised this peppy, fun genre. And when the 23 member band Tapta bounced onto the scene in 1996 with their debut album “The Power of Attraction,” it marked a turning point in musical history. A bridge had been forged.

Tapta was an instant hit with the youth. Beauty, in the lyrical and vocal sense, didn’t apply to their vibrant music. Frontman and founder, Loukrakpam Jayenta, had a voice that was raw and alluringly unconventional.

Today, posters and billboards of Jayenta – the man who is synonymous with Tapta – are visible across Manipur, and he is often photographed in his charac­teristically modest performance attire, a suit jacket over a tee shirt. When we meet, little about his appearance suggests that he is the youth icon that he has become. A man in his late 40s, offstage, he looks like a regular guy, if not a little unkempt in a mismatched tracksuit and wiry hair.

A classically trained instrumentalist, Jayenta classi­fies himself a “fusion artist.” “Being born in India, my music would fall under Hindustani classical music,” he says.“[But] being a Manipuri, my music is heavily influenced by the folk music of this region.”

“Tapta’s song form and approach is very traditional,” says Uttam Aribam, a philosophy professor at North Eastern Hills University (NEHU), Shillong and a clas­sical guitarist. Traditional Manipuri ballad styles, such as that of “Khongjom Parva,” a musical narration of the 1891 battle between the people of Manipur and the Brit­ish, or “Moirang Kangleirol,” the tale of star-crossed lov­ers Khamba and Thoibi, says Aribam, “are presented in a form that the present generation can relate to instantly.”

Indeed, Jayenta will merge elements of hip-hop or rock, and instruments such as the synthesiser or the electric guitar with traditional song arrangements. But a contemporary sound, coupled with the relevant issues that he sings about, are what find an eager audience in Manipur’s youth; his concerts are often sold out.

“His music is unique. You hear about something today and he will be ready with a song the next day. His music is so fresh and so rooted to the present real­ity,” says Momo, a young fan.

From singing about love, to poking fun at mobile phone culture or fashion, Jayenta will also close in on bleaker issues embedded in human rights violations, corruption and the state’s armed liberation movement groups; his subjects range from the inane to the very serious, and a satirical social commentary through music has become his trademark. For example, the song “Bomb Bomb” addresses how a patriarchal Manipuri society labels women, who may be widowed or divorced, as moral suspects. In this song, he focuses on the marginali­sation of the paan dukan phambi, the female vendors that run paandukan, small shops selling paan and cigarettes.

The lead singer of Cleave, performing at last December’s Manipur Sangai Tourism Festival in Imphal. Photograph by Akoijam Sunita.

Jayenta is not the first artist to sing about the issues that are ailing Manipuri society – HIV, violent conflict and the repressive rules enforced by different institu­tions – but the difference is, while other artists incorpo­rate metaphors to speak out, Jayenta sings openly about such subjects.

This is itself an achievement in Manipur. There’s no dearth of both legal and self-appointed moral policing institutions or organisations that are ready to take citizens to task. He is able to bring out what is kept in denial into the public and popular domain. “I too rub people the way they don’t agree,” he acknowledges, “but I have to say what is true.”

“I am not a political singer,” he insists. “I am an artist. Mockery is part of my style, otherwise too I do sing on social, political issues but my songs on current trends are more popular than the political ones.”

Jayenta’s use of satire may in part explain how he is able to openly sing about the issues and institutions trou­bling Manipuri society. When commenting on Jayenta’s social role, Aribam, the philosophy professor, likens the musician to the court jesters of past monarchies, who were considered wise and commanded respect, and were the only subjects that had the freedom to ridicule and criticise the king. “Tapta comes very near to that,” he says.

Many listeners of Jayenta’s music believe that his lyrics are unquestionably political. “How can his songs be not political?” asks Dr A Bimol Akoijam, an associate profes­sor at JNU. “Anything against the state and talking about the aspiration of a common good is political.”

Other listeners read into his music differently. “Many people try to brand his songs as politically rebellious but if one listens carefully, it’s 70 percent about sexuality,” says Bobo Khuraijam, a columnist with Manipur-based English daily, Imphal Free Press. “He can be called the most liberal artist of Manipur.”

And while he says women are generally offended by Jayenta’s lyrics, male fans are inspired to produce rare displays of public affection. “During his concerts boys would go up to the stage and kiss his hands as they shower money on him,” says Khuraijam.

Jayenta acknowledges his songs about women and sexuality “might hurt some people’s sentiments,” but he says they are “instant hits” amongst his male fans. Plus, he adds somewhat unapologetically, “by nature, women are beautiful in ways men can never be.”

For Rojio Usham, a Manipuri lecturer at Delhi Uni­versity and an art researcher, Jayenta’s songs continue to provide a unique mirror into Manipuri society and the mindset of its people. Citing the example of a catchy track called “Round Kick” – about women who are fed up with the advances of drunken men and decide to fight back, by beat­ing up one such man – Usham says these songs may not be flattering to women, but speak of a society “which takes pleasure in showing women in a certain way which borders on degrading.”

Tapta arrived at a time when rock culture was in decline. In the 1980s and 1990s, Manipur’s youth had started turning to drugs. Continued political unrest, the absence of recrea­tional outlets and a general lack of infrastruc­ture were gnawing at society, and the easy availabil­ity of heroin, pharmaceutical pain killers that could double up as drugs, and exposure to Western culture made for a heady mix. Rock and roll, drugs and fast lifestyles claimed many young lives until HIV and AIDS – the first HIV case was reported in 1989 – added a darker twist to a grim period. Most who tested HIV positive were amongst the drug users who injected. By the late 1990s the fear of HIV and AIDS had grown so close to each and every household that it could no longer be ignored.

With the increasing fear of HIV and AIDS and a wide­ly held association of drugs with rock culture, social stigma was also on the rise. Manipur’s rock music scene went through a lull, and popular 1980s and 1990s bands like the Cannibals, the Dark Crusaders and Phoenix disappeared, almost in tandem with spiking cases of HIV and AIDS.

Tapta’s music was a revelation. Their emergence in the mid-1990s represented something of a silver lining during a low point in Manipur’s music culture, and their songs gave rural and urban listeners alike a welcome alternative to the established traditional and rock music genres. The growing prominence of rock bands since the mid-2000s, has seen popular Manipuri bands actively take on the message of HIV awareness. Even today, at most musical events, especially the ones that proffer rock, fusion and pop music, HIV awareness parapherna­lia has become part and parcel as the high risk group, the youth, comprise the majority of these audi­ences. But rock bands are also trying to do away with the drug tag associated with this genre.

Cleave, a newer heavy metal band write on their blog, “most people think ‘rock’ means drug addiction.” They aim to convey that rock music is both a plat­form for personal expression and for sharing the “messages and the role you play to your society.”

As rock music carves out a scene in Manipur today, Tapta, which now has just six members, has been com­manding a growing fan base ever since they emerged 15 years ago.

While Jayenta’s music continues to captivate Ma­nipur’s youth, the artist, who says he has penned over 400 songs, admits it’s a challenge “making each song sound unique.”

Through his music, Jayenta poses certain questions, the questions that are afflicting Manipuri society. But the changes he expects are yet to be seen. In a state riddled by myriad political and social problems, he concedes that his music offers escapism, leading him to conclude:

“My songs are energetic and inspire people to dance. But this audience do not understand that I am asking them, telling them through my song, this is no longer the time to dance. This is the time to wake up and do something before it gets too late.”