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Manipur's Tarao language, on the verge of extinction, is being revived through a musician's folk project

Joshua Muyiwa
·5-min read

In 2009, the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) put together an Atlas of the World's Languages in Danger, and categorised them as vulnerable, definitely endangered, severely endangered, critically endangered and extinct. The motivation behind this project was to "raise awareness about language endangerment and the need to safeguard the world's linguistic diversity among policy-makers, speaker communities and the general public" and it was to be used as a tool "to monitor the status of endangered languages and the trends in linguistic diversity" across the world.

Unfortunately, India tops this list with 197 languages on the brink of disappearance. One of the many Indian languages declared as extinct by the UNESCO was the Tarao language of the eponymous tribe in Manipur.

Global attention had just shone further light on this situation already recognised by the remaining members of the Tarao tribe. After years of campaigning, in 2003 €" six years before the UNESCO's atlas €" the State Government of Manipur had recognised the Tarao tribe as one of the aboriginal tribes of the state for their distinctive cultural heritage, especially their traditional attires, music and dance. However, they still haven't received the Minority Community status from the national government, as accorded by the United Nations' 1992 promulgation of the Declaration on the Rights of Persons belonging to National or Ethnic, Religious and Linguistic Minorities, which India has undersigned. The 830-strong Tarao tribe €" spread across five villages in two districts of Manipur €" have an uphill task ahead of them to preserve their language and culture. Luckily, they have found some individuals €" locally and nationally €" to help along the way in these efforts.

Enter Manipur-based musician Akhu Chingangbam of the Imphal Talkies and The Howlers, who has in the last decade or so been looking to "folk music [from the region] to decode our collective pasts in order to help connect different ethnic groups despite their political divides". This isn't simply a noble pursuit but a project that also stemmed from experiencing a visceral loss of these sounds in his surroundings. "Growing up, these sounds of folk songs and music were always around you, but these days they can't be heard at all," he pointed out, over a call from Imphal.

While he has incorporated these tones into his political songs since the genesis of the Imphal Talkies and The Howlers in 2009, it was seven years later that it took on a more concrete form. In 2016, he started A Native Tongue Called Peace, where he worked with children from different tribes, teaching them folk songs from each other's mother tongue. While among adults this exchange continues to be a hurdle because of the long years of ethnic conflicts among the 36 tribes of the state, "among the children, it was more organic. The focus was to teach them folk music without forcing the histories or prejudices against any of the groups," he explained. "In fact, the ease among the children in these sessions was the lesson we learned from them," he added.

While from the outside, we constantly make the mistake of painting the people of the entire North-East region with the same brush, it is a vibrant, culturally-rich society made up of various ethnic communities. And the state of Manipur, without the cultural contributions from any of its 36 tribes, might be much poorer for it. Akhu is determined to draw attention to the magnificence and wealth of the regional culture that is being chipped away. In 2019, he started Foothills Community Centre €" 12 kilometres from the state capital of Imphal €" where he hopes to document and record folk music, host weekend concerts and happenings, as well as create a museum of indigineous music. To this end, in January of last year, Akhu was travelling in the hills of the state in the Chandel district to document the folk songs and music of the Anāl Naga tribe. On his way back, a serendipitous stop-over at the village of Leishokching, a Tarao village, introduced him to the Tarao people and their present predicament. He quickly understood the urgency and said, "I would love to help in whatever way I could."

On that day, Akhu had met with Pabung Morre, the chairman of the Tarao Cultural Committee, who told him about their language being on the brink of extinction and the efforts required to save it. "I had heard of this tribe but wasn't aware of any of this," he admitted. While the various tribes, such as the Meiteis, Nagas, Kukis, Meitei Tangals, might dominate the state's narrative, Akhu has found that folk music and instruments are the way to undercut this single story of the state. "Take the bowed mono-string instrument, called a pena among the Meiteis, a tingteila among the Tangkhul Nagas and other names too, which shows that historically, there has been a movement of instruments," he said, pointing to the nodes of connection among the many tribes.

One of the pressing needs of the hour was conducting a workshop to pass on the knowledge to the younger generation. "There's only one artist who knows the songs, the music, the instruments and traditional attires of the Tarao people, and if this lone artist is gone, everything Tarao will disappear," said Akhu echoing the words he had heard at his meeting with Pabung Morre. On 21 February, International Mother Language Day, Akhu posted a call for funds on his social media pages, and soon they had raised all the funds required to put together a three-day workshop taking place over the last weekend of March this year. On his social media, Akhu alerted us that he'd been given master and mother copies of Tarao folk songs, which were recorded in the early 90s. He learned that some of the artists singing had passed away, and he will digitise these tapes to save these songs. He has also been able to channel his resources to help them hold this workshop that will be another step towards saving the Tarao language.

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