Shillong is the capital of the North East, and this part of the country is the least visited region of the country by tourist wanting a taste of Incredible India. It is a Hill station in Meghalaya, one of the smallest states in India. The drive from Guwahati airport to Shillong feels like I have arrived in a very different nation. I notice the faces, features and skin tones change. This is the home of the Khasi people, an indigenous or tribal population of whom the majority live in Meghalaya.
I’m sharing a taxi with two musicians, a hip-hop rapper from Japan and his promoter and a music engineer from Kolkata. We talk about the independent music scene in India and Ankit tells me about music that has made it big on the global circuit. Once we arrive in Police Bazaar, the beating heart of Shillong, we find the nearest bar Cloud 9 for a beer. Here I meet a film-maker from Mumbai who is here to select locations to shoot a film about rock music in India.
The temperature has dropped and the odd person appears along the dusty winding road now and again, wrapped in a thick shawl, walking or running as the evening approaches and the sky darkens. I left all of my warm clothes in Mumbai, how will I survive this temperature?!
For me it feels like it is bloody freezing. Everyone here says that I should be used to the cold weather. I hate the cold but at home we have central heating everywhere and I am usually dressed and equipped appropriately, with more than just a cardigan to stay warm. But I soon learn that Shillong is a place with a natural warm glow because of the people I am fortunate to meet, and the generous spirit of this part of the country.
Music is a big part of the vibe here, almost everyone I meet here is a musician, partly as my host Gordon as well as a local radio DJ and singer is in a huge local ensemble the Aroha Choir that I met in Switzerland whist working on a Human Security conference in Switzerland in 2012. In many parts of India you hear Bollywood songs on public transport or on the radio, but here on the local bus you’re more likely to hear old numbers by Bryan Adams or The Beatles. There is none of the staring I have experienced in other Indian cities, but more of a relaxed vibe. When I go to the local shops and markets no one is greeting me, pushing products in my face or urging me to buy, but quite the opposite; so laid back.
Women in North East India
I have the opportunity to meet women of different generations and they inform me of the matrilineal approach they have grown up with. Here one takes on their mothers’ name, not their fathers’. There is no real tradition here of arranged marriage. My friends’ mother tells me about her youth, the boyfriends she had and how she finally fell in love, but her boyfriend died. She showed me her wedding photos and how she eventually married aged 30. I meet a few single parents with children. There is a different kind of freedom here, and I can see this in the way men and women young and old relate to one another. Women in the villages and tribal areas run things, they are the pillar of the community making decisions and taking a lot of responsibility for both family and the community, not the men. There are many stereotypes about people from the North East as living in the trees and eating wild animals, as they are tribal people with different histories, but what I am exposed to is a culture that in numerous ways seems more progressive and liberal, even if the infrastructure isn’t. There is a close nit community here, and you will not escape bumping into friends and family in the street; a small town feel.
I am invited to a friends album launch one Saturday afternoon in a posh hotel in town. Local government representatives including the minister of Arts and Culture are also present-both women. They announce the development of a new International Centre for Arts and Culture in Shillong in 2015. Hopefully this will allow for the nurturing of the many up and coming talents the City has to offer. Lampeng sings a few numbers from his new album that I don’t understand as they are in the local Khasi language, but the tone, rhythm and folk style completely melt my heart as we are given a description of the lyrics being about friendship and life. The audience is full of friends and family, and there isn’t a dry eye in the house when Lampeng gives his very warm and heartfelt speech, whilst dedicating the album to his late father. He is from a family of musical talent, it’s a real pleasure and honour to experience.
My friend Gordon has recently been in the studio recording, and I have the opportunity to hear his new music and visit the radio station where he works. I also meet many other musicians and singers from Shillong, and there are so many. A music promoter I meet is a part of NH7, an annual independent music festival that is the biggest of its kind in India, that will be taking place in Shillong. Here the hills are truly alive with music, its everywhere, loved, listened to and recorded in this part of the country that I didn’t previously know much about.
This is definitely a part of the country worth visiting, and I’m lucky to make so many new friends that reveal to me what a progressive, warm and cultural City Shillong is. A sanctuary for mellow musicans and also great if you enjoy chill and spice as the food here is hot! Like many other regions of India there may be infrastructural problems, lack of industry and corruption, but what is impressive about the people here is how warm, creative and global minded many of them are.