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IIC Festival of Arts: Experiencing the North-East

Bringing the flavour of India’s North-East, a five-day IIC Festival of Arts focussed on the rich culture and diversity of the region that is touched by the first rays of the rising sun in the country, reports Kanika Tripathi.

Kanika Tripathi |

While one is aware of the cultural richness and diversity of India’s North-East, few know about the indiviual artform. While the region evinces much interest, various factors, including infrastructure and access often act as a chasm that needs to be bridged.

A five-day Festival of the Arts embraced various streams of art, bringing in a distinct and rounded touch to experience the North-East in its entirety. First started in 2004, this year marked the 15th anniversary of the festival, which has grown to become an imperative feature in the cultural life of India.

While most art festivals celebrate individual art forms, or a small collection of closely related arts, the circle of India International Centre’s (IIC) festival was far larger. Artists from all eight northeastern states presented traditional dance, music, film, poetry, photography and special cuisine, creating an entire spectrum of art, thereby providing the faraway experience of the North- East in Delhi.

“The Festival of the Arts this year is somewhat unlike the past years,” stated NN Vohra, president IIC. “The focus is on a part of India which is distant and not so well-known in the North. A pleasant concept is that there are a large number of spaces where we can experience the North-East.

This festival provides an opportunity of getting to know more of the North-East.” The festival focussed on the cultural richness and diversity of the North- East states. In collaboration with the North- East Council (NEC), Ministry of Development of North-Eastern Region (DoNER), the festival showcased the North-Eastern states in a manner which moved away and beyond the conventional representation of the region by focussing on the idea of continuity of traditions and exploring their intersections with the contemporary.

Cultural exhibitions

A stroll through the festival exhibitions covered the cultures and traditions of the North-East. It was as though one had embarked on a flying carpet to behold the unique beauties of the states. Themed exhibitions saw weavers from across the North-East region who displayed their skill and wonderful creations. Handlooms of the region, which caught the attention of many, were displayed along with the exotic and organic local produce, processed food, multi-cultural and diverse cuisine of the region.

Tripura: Time Past and Time Present exhibited the history of the state, its people, literature, craft tradition and archaeological heritage. On view were archival and contemporary photographs, books, manuscripts, texts and textiles and objects of everyday use.

The Monpas and their Mountains was an exhibition of photographs on the Monpas of Arunachal Pradesh and the monastic world of Tawang. Vinay Sheel Oberoi’s photography captured vividly the cheerful and hospitable Buddhists of the high Himalayas- the Monpas.

Contemporary art by artists from Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland, Sikkim and Tripura showcased Blurred Perimeters, an exhibition aiming to construe a series of post-studio ideas and post-disciplinary tendencies in the socio-cultural landscape of the region. It advocated against all kinds of inequality to counter the growing culture of hatred and thus unite people across the globe for the sake of humanity.

Unbroken Threads ~ Broadening Narratives was an exhibition featuring contemporary and cultural textiles of the multiethnic communities of North-East India and exceptional pieces from private collections. It celebrated the significance and beauty of traditional and contemporary textiles together with designer apparels demonstrated in the spectrum of designs, symbolism, and their functions. Characterized by geometric motifs and intricate weaving techniques, the textiles revealed the brilliance and textile artistry of North-East weavers.

Literary diversity

This year, the festival included a day devoted to literature, presenting writers and poets from Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram and Nagaland. The literary event was titled These hills we come from…Voices from North-East India, and it focused on the linguistic and literary world of the North- East through talks, readings, presentations, discussions and interactive sessions with authors from the North-East.

One saw the rich literary landscape of the North-East through a series of literature-themed events like Linguistic Diversity of North-East India; Of Art and Artists; Storytelling: Oral and the Written Word; and Writing: Politics, Language, Culture. Alongside were readings and conversations with several authors, linguists and poets.

North-East through its Writings was an exhibition of books in English and other languages by writers from all eight northeastern states. The works included fiction, non-fiction (political, historical and travel), short stories, children’s literature, poetry, translations and academic publications.

Exclusive Performances

Depicting the uniqueness of North-East culture and talent were the many performances that were brought on to the stage. The inaugural concert presented by the well-known Shillong Chamber Choir, conducted by Neil Nongkynri, made the audience tap their feet to Bollywood medleys. The multigenre choir, which won the reality TV show India’s Got Talent in 2010, sung to the beat of a running train with the lyrics, “Chaai- Chaai, Bread-Omelette-Bread-Omelette, Coffee-Coffee”.

A concert, Moirang Sai and Lai Haraoba by Mangka Mayanglambam with Laihui Ensemble from Manipur saw ancient performing arts with contemporary perspective. Mangka broke age-old barriers when she began performing the dying art form, called Moirang Sai, a traditional Manipuri ballad opera particular to the Meitei. To begin with, women were not encouraged to perform Moirang Sai, nor were they allowed to touch a pena, a fiddle-like folk instrument.

Ronnie and the Band from Nagaland emphasised on rock-solid but simple melody, instrumentation and groove inspired by jazz, old-school Motown, funk, soul, R and B, with a hint of Bossa nova, all to make the audience call for an encore.

A being ~ Human; Being Human Human Beings was a powerful satiric drama on what it means to be human today. Choreographed by Lapdiang A Syiemand and her team, it was an interactive, physical theatre piece that employed the style of the bouffon and the grotesque in performance. Constructed around stories about identity loss, displacement and violence, and how they are portrayed on social media, the performance centred around the grotesque performative body to raise questions on how the body becomes a mere object.

Other highlights included an evening of classical piano and vocals by Nise Meruno from Nagaland; a rock concert by Girish and the Chronicles from Sikkim; and Raas Leela from Manipur.

Film festival

The rich heritage of the North-East was showcased through A Festival of Films. Far away from the glamour world of big-budget Hindi cinema ~ and consequently the gaze of the usual filmgoers in the Indian heartland ~ filmmakers in North-East India have, over the years, been consistently telling their stories in an artistic and grounded manner.

Two very special film festivals were seen on the occasion. Aribam Syam Sharma Retrospective celebrated the work of the consummate filmmaker, actor and music director’s contribution to Manipuri cinema and to Indian and world cinema.

New Cinematic Voices: A Festival of Films presented some significant voices among a new generation of filmmakers, who are following the footsteps of veterans like Aribam Syam Sharma, Jahnu Barua and the late Bhabendra Nath Saikia, and have made a mark at the international and national level.

The films were selected for this retrospective by the filmmaker, and include award-winning features as well as documentary films. This festival brought together nine contemporary feature films from Assam, Meghalaya, Mizoram and Nagaland.

Unique cuisine

The five-day extravaganza featured exclusive North-East cuisine as an integral part of the festival. It brought in fusion food prepared by two chefs from Nagaland, Joel Basumatari and Imna Longkumer, who partnered to present contemporary cuisine, thus bringing a three-course meal with a creative blend of culinary traditions in a dining excursion.

Meitei temple food of Manipur was prepared by traditional Bamons, chef Gurumayum Sanatomba Sharma and Hidangmayum Saratchndra Sharma. Meitei food is largely influenced by faith or religion.

Baankaahi, Assamese traditional food, prepared by Utpala Mukherjee, is a traditional bell metal dish used to serve food to honoured guests. The menu for the IIC festival dinner included not just mainstream Assamese cuisine, but also the diverse cuisine and cooking styles of the various tribal communities of the Bhramaputra Valley.

From A Khasi Kong’s kitchen traditional Khasi meal was prepared by Davidson Shangpliang. The rich food culture of Meghalaya, which adorned the table was largely influenced by the natural environment of the hills.

Prepared by Nimtho Restaurant, the Sikkimese food carried its organic cuisine tradition. To savour each of their culinary creations is a tribute to nature and tradition.

The Naga platter, by chefs Joel Basumatari and Imna Longkumer, incorporated quintessential flavours of Naga cuisine by the use of aromatic herbs, seasonal and indigenous ingredients. An entrancing blend of supper and storytelling, the tour of Naga cuisine by way of an education in culinary traditions, thanks to the chef-storytellers, was a feasting adventure through artisanal Naga food.

Travel and tourism

Welcoming the onlookers was an array of booths promoting tourism in the states. The whole region is a dream, and not just because there is less honking than the rest of India. The tranquil pace of life is alluring to even the speediest travelers, and precious is the fresh Himalayan air that nips the nose while crossing sky-high mountain passes.

Although the northeastern region has tremendous tourism potential, the tourism industry in the area still has miles to go to bring out the best of the states. This is mainly due to lack of infrastructure and attention towards the greater potential of the region as it has been subjected to century-long neglect. Best known for their unique natural beauty with flora and fauna, historical monuments, pilgrim centres, tea gardens and colourful cultural festivals, the states can make one of the finest tourist destinations.

Tourism is one of the world’s fastest growing industries and a major source of foreign exchange earner for a nation. With the increasing concern of widening of inter-state disparities and lack of development, it is highly imperative to assess the effects of globalisation on North- East India. Tourism in the states has a vast scope for the generation of income and employment.

Green gold

Special displays during the festival were by North-Eastern Region Community Resource Management Project (NERCORMO), North-Eastern Regional Agricultural Marketing Corporation Limited (NERAMAC), Cane and Bamboo Technology Centre (CBTC), North-East Rural Livelihood Project (NERLP), and North-Eastern Handicrafts and Handlooms Development Corporation Limited (NEHHDC).

Of these, CBTC has facilitated the emergence of a new scenario in the North- East. It has paved the road to untapped cane and bamboo sector in the region. Bamboo and cane significantly occupy the topography, culture and customary practices in this area since time immemorial.

CBTC involves its creativity and resource in talent scouting, training, technology sourcing and market linkage to give a new-age thrust to the age-old bamboo sector. Keeping in mind the fast track changes in the global marketplace, contemporising the traditional presentational aesthetics of bamboo end products receives priority by CBTC.