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Work Songs

Jamming on the job


In a second class compartment of a train running between Guwahati and Kolkata, a blind man is seeking alms, singing a song. The camera lingers on his face before the clip shifts to the original number by Bhupen Hazarika. It ends with Tom Dooley, the American folk song that inspired the Assam balladeer. In the span of a minute and a half, viewers get to see a fascinating bond unfurl, linking a blind and destitute minstrel in eastern India to a folk tradition that dates back to the 1880s in distant North Carolina.

The clip is part of the Uramili project, an effort by two Chennai-based youngsters to document the country. It started in March last year when two friends, Iswar Srikumar and Anushka Meenakshi, decided to backpack around India. Meenakshi, a documentary filmmaker, decided to film on the go, and both began raising money for the trip.

A few months into their travels, the duo witnessed something strange. They were in Tabo, a town in the Spiti valley, when the strains of a song emanating from a group of about 20-25 men tilling the fields filled the air. "We began to ask around and found that there was a name for such songs - work songs. In fact, you can see it in many places. Fishermen sing them when they go fishing. If 10 men are rowing one sings to keep the rhythm. There is even a song that roof painters have in Kolkata, " says Srikumar.

The discovery gave their work a new direction. Thereafter, the two filmmakers would seek out work songs across India. This became part of the larger objective of recording instances of music and rhythm in everyday life. "We wanted to seek out performance in daily life, " says Srikumar, a theatre person.

Among the performers they filmed are the Tetseo sisters, well-known singers from Nagaland who specialise in traditional songs of their region sung in the Chokri dialect. It was this quartet that suggested the name Uramili. "We were looking for a name and they came up with this word which means 'song of the people' in Chokri. It had the scale we wanted and was short and poetic. It jumped right out at us. "

As they went about tracking down performers to film, the two relied heavily on local feedback. While shooting, which is still carrying on, they also ensure that they spend at least a week at a single place to soak in the local spirit. This shows in their work. The film has no narration or interviews - just ambient noises and background music that come from a deep understanding of the place.

Nor is Uramili just a film. While the original idea was to produce a feature-length film, Srikumar and Meenakshi soon realised that they did not want to limit themselves to video recordings. Over time, the film turned into a larger project with photographs, sound recordings and essays. These have been put up on a website, Uramili. in, which is updated at regular intervals.

The duo travel without a film crew and without any fixed transport. Like backpackers, they stay in cheap hotels and use taxis, trains and buses. A trip to the Nilgiris proved to be a memorable experience, where they encountered members of the Kurumba tribe who are traditional honey gatherers. "There were bees all over the place and here they were, singing songs!" says Srikumar, disbelievingly.

Nagaland is another state that gets a special mention. "We were at a place called Phek when we heard a unique song. There was a group of people, carrying heavy loads of paddy harvest on their backs, singing a polyphonic tune. There were about 7-8 individual parts to the song and they were singing in perfect harmony. "

For Meenakshi, the best part of the job is to go in search of something and be pleasantly surprised by another that is equally interesting. "We went to film something in Sivakasi and came across these wonderful examples of Drishti Dosha, or evil eyes, painted on the walls of houses. Perhaps we'll do a series of photographs on them later, " she says.

The two have already visited Rajasthan, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand and most of the Northeastern states and have gathered about 8, 000 minutes of footage. "We thought we will have the film ready by 2014 but we are now looking at a year's delay, " says Srikumar.

He hopes it can get a theatre release and plans to set aside some amount of royalty for the performers who feature in the film. But it is too early to settle on a concrete plan. For now, the duo is concentrating on the shooting.

Reader's opinion (1)

Aruna HariharanDec 30th, 2012 at 12:02 PM

Anushka Meenskshi is my daughter and I am very proud of her

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