It was sometime in 2007 in Delhi
when Ashley Tellis, a friend, called me up and asked me to sing a few songs at a protest event at Swami Vivekananda
Statue, Arts Faculty, Delhi University. The event was organised by People’s Union for Democratic Rights and they were demanding the immediate release of Dr Binayak Sen
who had been arrested by the Chhattisgarh Police without citing any reason. I was broke as usual but i managed to take an autorickshaw to the protest venue. All the performers at the event were performing in Hindi. They were singing songs of Safdar Hashmi
and many other protest songs
. I carried a few printed copies of my own poems that I had written for Dantewada
after reading an editorial column of Hindustan Times
. I should call it a collage of images of Dantewada rather than poetry because I had translated the imagery directly from the newspaper.
That day I sang three songs, two of my poems and Dylan’s “I shall be released”. No other songs could suit the situation better than “I shall be released”. This was how I started to sing at protest events.
These days, more than music, poetry has given me the space to express myself and my existence in this violence-driven undemocratic country. Not only was I addicted to creating my own poetry, I started to search for poetry that match and reflect my hunger and anger. And then one day I stumbled upon the page of Thangjam Ibopishak’s poetry collection “Apaiba Thawai”. The restlessness and anxiety in Ibopishak’s early work during the late sixties was just like that of my generation today. What is different is that my generation is not expressive; perhaps we are timid. And the tragedy doesn’t end here, many youngsters don’t even realise the existence of such poets.
When it comes to my poetry and lyrics, I can hardly trace the dividing line. I can always sing my poetry in my own style. Admittedly many may not like my singing style but I have the freedom to do so.
By 2008, I had written and composed several songs and I was restless to record them. It was sort of a burning desire that I could not suppress. So in the summer, along with Sachin and my sister, Riki, I recorded eight songs which collectively formed the album ‘Tidim Road’. We named ourselves “Imphal Talkies N The Howlers”. Many friends helped me in recording the songs, both financially and physically. Many thanks to them! The recording session was fun. We were nervous. The idea of playing music in a studio really frightened us. On the first of the days that we booked the recording studio, we couldn’t record. We were very much shaken by that dark sound proof room. But what actually scared us most was the cost of the recording.
With every tick of the clock, our bill was mounting and we were not able to play anything other than stuff just enough to make the cue tracks! But finally we did it and it took us nine days to record the whole album.
Subsequently, with help from e-pao.net, we released the album in Delhi in February 2009.
Around this time something very tragic happened. Dr Thingnam Kishan and his two subordinates, Rajen and Token, were murdered by NSCN (IM). This incident left many shocked. Kishan was someone our generation looked up to for his uprightness. That uprightness cost him his life. Manipur went up in flames with protests engulfing every nook and corner of the state. With a lot of help from the Manipuri Diaspora, NGOs, student organisations, Manipuris in Delhi organised a candle light vigil at Jantar Mantar.
At Jamia, I was pasting posters for the vigil when I received a call from a guy named Raju Athokpam saying he would like to perform a few protest songs of Tapta at the vigil. On the day of the vigil, Raju and I met. We played a few songs together and my sister, Riki, sang some new songs. The vigil was successful, with many people from different communities of Manipur turning up for Kishan, Rajen and Token.
The last time I met Kishan was exactly one year ago from the month of his death. We met in Delhi and had argued over Manipuri poets. He opined, “Manipuri poets are visionless, they can write of only blood and death. They should look forward to a future beyond this current turmoil.” I countered as I felt there would be the right time for a new crop of poets who would feel the need of a new form of literature.
One night after the vigil, I called up Raju to ask if he was interested in recording a song for Kishan as a tribute to the great man. He said, “let’s do it”. Then we went on to record a song named “Ballad of Kishan” at some music school in North campus which incidentally did not have a proper recording studio. The track lacked quality. Raju played everything – bass, lead, rhythm. I was there just to boost his energy and to do the vocal part. The song was criticised by many people for my voice being out of tune. Later I realised I was indeed very much out of tune. In my defence, we recorded the song in just one day. We took three days to compose it and we were not professionals. Our main concern was to show that we cared for Da Kishan. We would not leave any stone unturned in our effort to do so. And we felt the urge to initiate a movement despite our rather insignificant existence as amateur musicians.
Thus Raju joined my bandwagon and became a member of the Imphal Talkies N The Howlers. The time that followed never lacked in incidents to inspire us to write new protest songs.
Soon after, the incident of July 23, 2009 fake encounter at BT road took place. Once again me and Raju set out to record a song called “Rise” and we recorded it at the same studio. It was not even sound proof, yet we tried our best. It was 1am by the time we were done with the recording. Later the same night, we dissolved our worries in a bottle of whiskey till the wee hours of the morning.
In November 2009, New Socialist Initiatives observed the beginning of the tenth year of Irom Sharmila’s struggle to repeal the draconian AFSPA. They organised the event at the same Swami Vivekananda Statue, Arts Faculty, DU, where I had performed for Dr Binayak Sen. Just before the performance, I got a phone call from a friend from Imphal informing that one of my closest friends passed away that morning in a road accident. I didn’t know how to react. All I could think of doing and did was to call my father and ask to go to see my deceased friend’s parents. I cried for a few minutes in a loo as his face suddenly appeared in my mind. He used to be the one who would come to my home in the early morning and wake me up just to talk to him. I still remember the day I blacked out and collapsed on the road sitting on my Honda Activa at his Thongal after consuming half a bottle of Old Monk rum. He helped me up and I waved good bye. That was how we departed. I never knew that would be the final goodbye. What surprises me is that I can’t even compose a poem in his memory. I have tried but in vain.
But I had to perform that day, leaving aside his memories. Because I know life is that way. I’m going to meet death too and being a Manipuri, death can come easily to me with guns and bombs.
I reached Arts Faculty along with Bomcha (Nila) and Sanjeev Thingnam. That was the first day I peformed with Sanjeev Thingnam. We sang a song called “India, I see blood in your hands”, a poem I had written some months back. We performed it impromptu at the spot. The song started with the line “India, have you ever crawled down enough to smell the soil of Kashmir?” And Jilangamba, a friend, insisted me to sing a Manipuri song, so I sang “Lainingthou lairembigi manairensa Kumsi di Army yam lakka ni hairiye”. Even today wherever we perform, I feel like singing these songs. We then performed: “When the home is burning” and another called “Freedom” written by Sanjeev.
That day after the event, we were asked to perform at Miranda House. And we did perform. We added a few new songs to our repertoire, such as “Ghost of Machang Lalung”. Machang Lalung was from Assam. He spent 54 years in prison without any trial. The maximum sentence he should get was ten years in prison. He was even dumped in a mental asylum. Sometime in 2006, a few Assamese activists managed to get him released. But the tragedy was that no one remembered him in his own village, let alone other places and he didn’t even recognise his home. It is almost unimaginably tragic. When I heard his story, I could not help pour out my feelings into a song.
Soon after the Miranda House programme, the Progressive Students Union organised an event on the same theme for Irom Sharmila at Jawaharlal Nehru University. Imphal Talkies N the Howlers was the main performer of that evening. There, the three of us – Raju, Sanjeev and me – performed together for the first time. Raju started as a thrash/metal music fan, Sanjeev as a bluesy guy and me addicted to the likes of Dylan and Cohen. We were very different musically. What bonded us together is our shared love for original music that speaks for our bullet-riddled Manipur.
Later in early 2010, we performed the same repertoire of songs at Kirori Mal College and National School of Drama, Delhi. Where ever we performed, Sharmila has been our focus. We didn’t plan it but her spirit and this nation’s deafness was already there in many of our songs. Through these small events, I gained many valuable friends.
And in the middle of 2010, the spectre of the Commonwealth Games (CWG) loomed like a giant monster, evicting beggars from the streets and students from university hostels. But people didn’t just give up easily. Many organisations protested against such injustice done to poor people and students. University Community for Democray (UCD) was one such organisation formed particularly to protest against the CWG. Many of my friends were in this organisation. I wrote a song in collaboration with Tara Basumatry of Kirori Mal College, on this issue. It goes like “Heart shaped balloon in traffic jam, fade away as they bring their dirty games, they wanna hide the beggars from the streets, cos they are the real indians…”.
Sometime later, I sang the song again at Swami Vivekananda Statue, Arts Fauclty, DU. By this time, I was convinced that this Vivekananda Statue would be able to pick me out even if I were standing in the middle of a Chandni Chowk crowd.
A few days later, I attended a one-day relay hunger strike accompanied by my songs, again organised by UCD. The next protest event took place at Jantar Mantar for Bhopal Gas Tragedy victims. I went with a friend (Venus) who ended up being my mic stand. From such events, I learnt an important lesson – there is no race or religion for the suffering ones, they will always be together. And me being someone who spent half of his school days in the streets of Imphal, holding placards, shouting slogans, I know how it feels to be at the receiving end. But what comforts me is that the world seems to be dominated by the suffering ones. Just look around!
This song is originally by Delhi-based band Imphal Talkies N The Howlers. I love the song — written by Delhi-based PhD student and Imphal Talkies frontman Ronid Chingangbam — so much that I just had to record it! Please check the Imphal Talkies page atwww.reverbnation.com/imphaltalkiesnthehowlers
Lyrics, melody: Ronid Chingangbam. Please check his page at
India, have you ever crawled down enough to smell the soil of Kashmir?
India, have you ever heard of a lady named Sharmila?
India, can you explain to me what happened in the land of Gandhi, in Gujarat?
India, what are the charges against Dr Binayak Sen?
India, I see blood in your hands
India I see blood in your flag
India, are you waiting for the stone pelters to become suicide bombers?
India, Why are your farmers so suicidal?
India, why the Poets in South are mourning for the Tamils killed in Sri Lanka?
India, why did you let Narendra Modi walk free preaching genocide?
India, what have you done to the villagers after salwa judum?
Is there a dream that we share from north to south?
Is there a song that echoes from east to west?
released 20 December 2011
Irom Sharmila’s photograph by Chitra Ahanthem
12-string guitar, blues harp, keyboards, vocals, arrangement: Sumit Bhattacharya