Tuning up to save tradition

Villages in Pynursla feel the need to work together to preserve
‘musical identity’

By Olivia Lyngdoh Mawlong

If you are at Khrang and happen to hear a bird cooing at a distance, then take a minute and listen to the sound again. It could be a young girl calling her friend or a mother asking her child to come home for lunch.
Khrang, a remote village of 150 households in Khatar Shnong under Pynursla, is among the 23 hamlets in the civil sub-division which have the unique tradition of using tunes for names. In fact, it is the first village on the way to Kongthong where this tradition is still alive.
While Kongthong has already earned its share of fame for ‘musical’ names, the other villages have remained inconspicuous. It was only recently that these villages claimed their share of recognition.
Khrang is around 55 km from Shillong. From Mawjrong, the Sohra road branches out to the left. The condition of the road changes as it travels deeper into Khatar Shnong. On a clear day, the gorgeous hills and the ridges are visible making the ride on the undulated road less arduous.
Khatar Shnong literally means 12 villages but there are actually 50 hamlets under the block managed by 12 sordars, or chiefs.
A cloak of silence covers Khrang and the tin-roofed houses look uninhabitated. The irregular cooing at a distance and clucking of hens are signs of life.

A group of children was singing out a short tune to a friend from atop the hill, “asking her to come and play” on a Sunday afternoon. She stays somewhere down the slope. As the voices of her friends reverberated in the hills, they were answered by a similar cooing.
“The tune we were calling out belongs to our friend. She knows we are calling her,” said one of the girls, too shy to give her name or continue the conversation. But she showed the way to the right house.
When a baby is born at Khrang, parents start looking for a tune, said Newsonroy Shabong, the headman. “Mothers here sing different lullabies to their children and the tunes become their second names. I have seven children and all have unique tunes accorded to them,” he added.
According to Fantin Phanbuh, the 25-year-old headman of Raid Rymmai, the practice must have started more than 100 years ago. His village with 60 households also follows the musical tradition.
“Babies get their tunes when they are as young as four months. When they grow up, mothers teach them the tune,” Phanbuh told Sunday Shillong on phone.

No two tunes are same in or outside a village though they may sound similar to untrained ears.
Pynshngailang Khongrymmai and his brother Shemphang were enjoying the Sunday sun inside their worn out wooden house.
Pynshngailang is a trainee at ITI, Shillong, and was home for the weekend. Everyone in his family has a ‘tune name’, known as jingrwai iawbei. “This age-old practice makes it easier to reach out to people at a distance as the echo travels far and wide,” said Shemphang whose three children have already acquired tunes.
“When we are in Bara Bazar, we prefer tune to name and it helps even in that cacophony,” Pynshngailang quipped.
The tradition is unceremonious and is as natural a ‘process’ as breathing. However, Raid Rymmai has an interesting custom, shad tynrai or shad khatar shnong, where every individual who takes part must have a self-composed introductory song.
“Like tunes, songs too are different from each other. Through this personalised song, friends and family can know about one’s presence in the field or in forest. We recognise people from other villages (practising shad tynrai) from their songs,” explained Phanbuh.
About 35 km away from Khatar Shnong is Wahkhen. It is another picturesque village amid the wilderness that practises jingrwai iawbei. Wahkhen is already known for its music and musicians. To add to the bejewelled crown is the tradition of ‘tune’ names. “The tradition is the same and here too, children get their tunes a few months after birth. It must be a really old practice as my ancestors too followed this,” said renowned musician Komik Khongjirem.
“It is their musical identity. It is not just for the sake of communication but is also significant because of the uniqueness of identification… They (the villagers) are very musical. To compose this (tune), one needs a lot of musical ideas and imagination,” said musician Benedict Hynniewata about the tradition.


A group of children was singing out a short tune to a friend from atop the hill, “asking her to come and play” on a Sunday afternoon. She stays somewhere down the slope. As the voices of her friends reverberated in the hills, they were answered by a similar cooing.
“The tune we were calling out belongs to our friend. She knows we are calling her,” said one of the girls, too shy to give her name or continue the conversation. But she showed the way to the right house.
When a baby is born at Khrang, parents start looking for a tune, said Newsonroy Shabong, the headman. “Mothers here sing different lullabies to their children and the tunes become their second names. I have seven children and all have unique tunes accorded to them,” he added.
According to Fantin Phanbuh, the 25-year-old headman of Raid Rymmai, the practice must have started more than 100 years ago. His village with 60 households also follows the musical tradition.
“Babies get their tunes when they are as young as four months. When they grow up, mothers teach them the tune,” Phanbuh told Sunday Shillong on phone.
No two tunes are same in or outside a village though they may sound similar to untrained ears.
Pynshngailang Khongrymmai and his brother Shemphang were enjoying the Sunday sun inside their worn out wooden house.
Pynshngailang is a trainee at ITI, Shillong, and was home for the weekend. Everyone in his family has a ‘tune name’, known as jingrwai iawbei. “This age-old practice makes it easier to reach out to people at a distance as the echo travels far and wide,” said Shemphang whose three children have already acquired tunes.
“When we are in Bara Bazar, we prefer tune to name and it helps even in that cacophony,” Pynshngailang quipped.
The tradition is unceremonious and is as natural a ‘process’ as breathing. However, Raid Rymmai has an interesting custom, shad tynrai or shad khatar shnong, where every individual who takes part must have a self-composed introductory song.
“Like tunes, songs too are different from each other. Through this personalised song, friends and family can know about one’s presence in the field or in forest. We recognise people from other villages (practising shad tynrai) from their songs,” explained Phanbuh.
About 35 km away from Khatar Shnong is Wahkhen. It is another picturesque village amid the wilderness that practises jingrwai iawbei. Wahkhen is already known for its music and musicians. To add to the bejewelled crown is the tradition of ‘tune’ names. “The tradition is the same and here too, children get their tunes a few months after birth. It must be a really old practice as my ancestors too followed this,” said renowned musician Komik Khongjirem.
“It is their musical identity. It is not just for the sake of communication but is also significant because of the uniqueness of identification… They (the villagers) are very musical. To compose this (tune), one needs a lot of musical ideas and imagination,” said musician Benedict Hynniewata about the tradition.

Heritage tag

Rajya Sabha MP Rakesh Sinha recently sought inclusion of Kongthong in UNESCO’s list of Intangible Cultural Heritage to preserve the unique tradition and called for the creation of a Heritage Library for this purpose. “The MP had also visited Kongthong but we came to know only after reading about it on the social media,” said Shabong.
Shabong was part of a press conference held recently in Shillong where representatives asked for similar status for other villages.
“We want that other villages are also given the heritage tag. For that, we have to work together with the other villages,” Syllok Majaw, the headman of Kongthong, said.
Phanbuh echoed Majaw’s views saying it is necessary to work together “if we want the tradition to continue”.
When asked about the heritage status, he said, “Yes, we want it but I cannot understand the heritage village tag and its advantages and disadvantages. In fact, I had no clue that the unique practice in the villages would attract so many people today. We are only following our ancestors and doing what was taught to us.”
But has the practice been impacted by rural-urban migration? “Not much,” said Shabong confidently. “Even the youth are proud of this tradition and diligently follow it. Though many of them are living in the city for livelihood, they have not forgotten their tunes and use them when necessary,” he added.
Poor road condition has discouraged tourism in these villages in all these years. Now, the villagers are hoping to tune in to a better future with the heritage recognition.

(With inputs from
Nabamita Mitra)

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