Some cairns from the way: An artist's retake
- Part 1 -

Aribam Syam Sharma *

9th Dr Thingnam Kishan Memorial Lecture at Imphal Public Library, Urpok Sorboan Thingel :: 28 June 2018
9th Dr Thingnam Kishan Memorial Lecture at Urpok Sorboan Thingel on 28 June 2018 :: Pix - Shankar Khangembam

(Text of the 9th Dr Thingnam Kishan Singh Memorial Lecture on on 28 June 2018 )

"Though one may at some moments think that one is original, independent and has nothing to do with tradition; though on the face of things it may look like that, no work can come into the fore without the background of tradition."

I am thankful to the trustees for giving me this opportunity. In a moment of optimistic self-appraisal I said yes. The immensity of the challenge came to me afterwards with quite some force. Then, I thought I could take the lecture not to be a rigorous academic exercise but as an occasion to ramble.

One could take it as an old man rambling to his children and grandchildren. It was once explained to me that the word "Ahan" could have come from the observation that they keep on repeating (hannahanna) the same thing. Please take what is to follow as repetition of things that I have said again and again. I claimneither authority nor authorship.

Old age fascinates me. In a certain way, it is liberating to know that the journey ahead is way shorter than the one already travelled. It has been a long journey since I composed a tune to my friend Khuraijam Phulendra's words at the back of the classroom Class IX, Johnstone Higher Secondary. It was around this time that we saw public address system for the first time in a mela at Kangjeibung. We were infatuated with microphones and fought for opportunity to sing on it.

I might have stopped along the way to think about art, its purposes and concerns but I could not hold on to those questions because the imperative and drive to create was stronger. This invitation has compelled me to think through the questions that I had left on the way. I retrace them and find them again.With it I stir up again memories of my share of trials and tribulations. At this moment the good moments are on the surface.

The creative process is something that I have tried to understand but it has remained out of reach. The process seems to have a life and drive of its own. It seizes you in some way and once the process ends what has been created begins to have a life of its own. It is still a mystery how and wherefrom creative ideas come. But there seems to be a connection with the body. I have created many of my songs while riding the bicycle. These bicycles were big and tall Humber cycles. Somehow my short legs managed them.

It must have been an awkward sight. I was unmindful of the surrounding. This cannot be attempted in today's traffic without endangering oneself.My daughter, coming back from school on foot, would be happy to see me coming her way but would then be deeply disappointed that I do not see her. She still tells of these encounters in a rather sad way.

One of the most frequent destinations was Yaishkul. Here Roop Raag was germinating. On the way I would compose a song. This was the time when no recording instruments were accessible. One way was to notate it so that I do not forget tunes and melodies worth remembering. But there was a better and more faithful option in Ayekpam Kamala.

One of the most talented and gifted singers of our times, she had this amazing talent for learning and memorising melodies to the last detail. I would teach her and she would still remember it when I had already forgotten it. Where was the need for writing or recording?

After a night of performance, Aheibam Buddha and I, hewith his tabla on the front of his cycle; harmonium on his back carrier, would stop at the crossroads in our locality. (On top of these, he would, if needed, carry a passenger on the horizontal rod of the bicycle frame.) There was then a big peepul tree, which was supposed to be haunted. From here, he would go one way, I the other. Sometimes, forgetting that sleep was due and the day would be up soon, we continued with our conversations.

Some of the performances, like the incident which started Buddha's singing career, demanded these conversations. I was to sing at two different venues on the eve of Shivaratri in Singjamei on the invitation of two well-known rival leikai goondas. The first one detained us for more time with requests, which was not wise to decline. Buddha was initially my percussionist. He had learnt a few songs by listening to me teach students.

I had to ask Buddha to go to the other venue to start the program by singing those songs. Having exhausted these few songs and not knowing how to carry on further, Buddha was in a disturbed condition when I reached there. That incident made me resolve to take him as a student.

Later in life, members of families nearby told me that they knew that it was going to be morning soon, when they heard these conversations.

Every residence was then surrounded by thick bamboo groves. 'The full-moon through the bamboo groves' is an exampleof the beautiful in our folk consciousness. It captures you, just as Haraba might have been captured. With bamboo groves almost gone and the city lights getting brighter the chance of being entranced by this beauty is becoming rare. Time changes and it has changed. To wish time to be what it is not is to invite pain.

We of the post Second World War found ourselves in an aesthetic crisis. The traditional theatre, song forms and content somehow restricted the new found spirit, its yearnings and destiny. We had to evolve. That was how 'Matam Eshei' came into being. It had its heights. It also has to pass over to some other Matam Eshei . Time and timing is an element that I find to be a tremendous force when it comes to the creative process and its ends.

As an element of these ends, fame and fortune were perhaps the last to come to our minds. When Dhobi Leinu picked up a tin-can and sang the valor and tragedy that he witnessed on the Khogjom battlefield he created a unique and enduring genre. It is never an easy task. I don't think he did it for fame or fortune. His was a soul that reached to sing the irrepressibility of a nation even in its defeat. That task needs an artist. Though much is not known about him, he must have been extraordinary.

In the making of documentaries on different aspects of Thang-Ta, I associated with some of the finest exponents and gurus of this art-form. These were some of the artists who secretly trained and conserved this art when it was declared a crime to practice it. Such was the commitment of these artists. In this tradition there are certain things that are passed on only after one crosses the age of forty years.

Consummation, mastery of this art-form cannot be through the blaze of effervescent genius but through a display of extraordinary patience that brings in maturity. Quick fame and fortune cannot be had here in this serious art-form.

There were some occasions when I felt almost famous. On one occasion while coming back home on my cycle. A person, obviously drunk, shouted at me to stop. He then asked a question from a distance, "Isn't that Syam Sharma from Thangmeiband Country ?" I didn't answer but made haste.

Recently, I was buying fish from an elderly woman. There were some young men amongst the buyers who recognized me. They asked her, "Do you know who this man is?" The woman said, "No, who is he?" Sometimes I wished I were a little more famous like the time when my house was surrounded by armed men who then forced in. The commander put a gun on my forehead. Hestarted to interrogate me as to where I had hidden them. They took me from inside the house towards the bamboo groves.

But the informer (we knew them as zorros) gave the indication that I was not the one. The next morning,I made written enquiries seeking an explanation of that worrying incident. The matter of fact reply given was that the troopers had information that persons whom they wanted held were in the vicinity. Since our by-lanes do not have names, and our houses without numbers, they must have made the mistake of going into the wrong house.

Time brings discontent with what has been handed down. This was the case with Matam Eshei. But this does not mean that the new negates the old. What is new is grounded in the old. Though one may at some moments think that one is original, independent and has nothing to do with tradition; though on the face of things it may look like that, no work can come into the fore without the background of tradition. Art cannot sustain nor evolve in a vacuum. Grounding is needed to make the leap that is identified as the original.

We found ourselves in the situation of the prawn eater. There is this story of origin of two brothers travelling. They saw prawns for the first time; caught them and proceeded to cook. They boiled them but were puzzled that it turned 'raw-red' instead of getting cooked. Not able to wait any longerthe elder brother moved ahead instructing the younger to follow him when the prawns are done and eaten. He made cut marks on the trees, left as cairns for the younger one to follow.

It so happened that they passed through a forest with trees that blackens quickly where it is cut. The name of the tree is Lamuk, from which the word "lamuknaba" or getting lost perhaps is derived. Meanwhile, the prawns became redder and redder. Finally, the young man gave up hope of tasting the prawns and threw them away.

During the time when expectation turned into frustration, the newly made marks made on the trees looked old. The cairns were lost, and the path forked. He reached a different destination.We need to see that different paths do not contradict one another. They only lead to different journeys.

To be continued....

* Aribam Syam Sharma gave this speech at 9th Dr Thingnam Kishan Singh Memorial Lecture on on 28 June 2018 which was published at The Sangai Express
This article was posted on July 05, 2018.

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