Keeping tradition alive

Wahkhen does not need introduction any more. The village under Pynursla sub-division is the epicentre of traditional Khasi music. It is also the home of National award-winning Khasi musician Komik Khongjirem and talented musician Rojed Buhphang.
What makes Wahkhen unique among the villages in Khasi Hills is its mission to protect and promote traditional music and musical instruments and Sieng Riti Institute has taken up this daunting task.
Housed in a traditional iing, the institute, under the aegis of Khongjirem and Buhphang, has been working since 2001-02 to keep alive age-old practices and rituals which were once part of Khasi life but are now losing popularity, especially in the urban areas.
The institute faces several challenges, the most important being lack of financial support. Sieng Riti trains young talents from the village not only in playing traditional instruments but in making them too. It also organises annual cultural programmes, one of which was held recently. The members of Sieng Riti and local participants enacted various practices, which are still common in the village. Sunday Shillong witnessed the rich culture of the tribe and the perseverance of Sieng Riti members, musicians, young and old, and villagers in making the mission successful. Here is an account of some of the practices and rituals which were showcased on the occasion:

■ Pynshad Khun: This is a practice that is followed by every mother of a newborn in the village. An infant needs protection from the evils in the world and he or she is blessed by the mother and an elderly person with a song through which they seek good health and long life for the child. Lyngit Malngiang, a senior member of Sieng Riti, was among the actors.

■ Skit Tem Sur: It was a musical performance where both male and female musicians played traditional instruments like ksing kynthei, ksing shynrang, bom, padiah, tangmuri, tanglod, shyngwiang, mieng, shakuriaw, singphong and dymphong. All the instruments used in the performance were made in the village and the musicians have been trained under Khongjirem and Buhphang.

■ Thep Mawbah: While Pynshad Khun is a ritual for a new life on Earth, Thep Mawbah is performed for the departed souls. In this ritual, the dear ones of the deceased take the ash and pray for the soul in front of a cluster of stones. The prayers are accompanied by traditional music played in a slow rhythm. The participants and the musicians go around the stones before starting the prayers. The tune of the indigenous flute, complemented by slow beating of drums, is heart-wrenching and yet divine. Led by Khongjirem and Buhphang, the musicians aptly expressed the pathos through their poignant performance.

■ Tied Kdor: It is a musical performance using a bamboo instrument known as kdor. Made of hollow bamboo, the instrument makes a joyful sound with the rhythmic beating of two sticks. A young musician of the institute was the performer at the programme.

■ Pynshad Dngiem: Pynshad dngiem is the practice of chasing away wild animals, especially bear that is common in the region, from the fields. Through a skit, the actors depicted the ritualistic process of preparing for the encounter. The village elders and the youth meet to discuss their strategy to kill the beast that destroys their crops. With bows and arrows, they look confident to venture into the forests. After killing the animal, they rejoice by singing the phawar: Ban beh krad ia nongwan thom bor;/Ki ring Kynram ki tied ka Kdor. They dance as they bring the ‘trophy’ to the village. Their bows and arrows dance in the air along with their singing and tapping feet.

■ Phawar Iasiat Khnam: Phawar is an important and interesting part of Khasi music. The lyrics are based on the time and place of the performance. There is phawar for all occasions, including archery. Archery, or teer, is a popular sport among the Khasis. Besides being an entertainment, archery is also a mode of earning fast money, provided one’s luck accompanies him or her till the end. But the second avatar of the sport is only a commercial evolution of the traditional archery.
The actors depicted how, before going for the competition, phawar artistes croon witty lines on the subject. With a win or a loss too, they sing to encourage the players or taunt the winner/loser. The custom shows the bonding in the community, unity in time of crisis and the hard life amid dense forests. The actors’ dedication was laudable.

■ Pynhiar Synjat: Now is the age of cupid and Valentine’s Day and love marriages. Arranged marriages are rare today and yet the custom of pynhiar synjat has survived time. Here, the boy’s family comes to meet his potential bride and her family. As the elders agree to the marriage, they also seek the opinion of the boy and the girl. A young resident of the village who works in the city said the traditional practice is still there and his marriage was fixed through pynhiar synjat.
These are among the numerous customs which are still in practise at Wahkhen and in some villages in Khasi Hills. The Khasi folk music especially needs attention and promotion and the existing artistes need due recognition. Sieng Riti not only needs financial support from the government but also prominence. But the question remains whether the government is truly keen on preserving the tradition.
Photos by ST

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