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Jingle Bell Rock goes local

  • There are countless examples of original Christmas compositions in regional languages such as Sadri, Mundari, Garo and Khasi
  • The sound of Christmas in India is gloriously multilingual

Graphic: Jayachandran/Mint
Graphic: Jayachandran/Mint

On the evening of 11 December, an excited audience assembled in the auditorium of Kala Academy, Panaji. It waited eagerly for the Goa University Choir to begin its performance, The Big Ocean Cantata. A hush descended as a soprano soloist, a violin soloist and a mixed choir sang in Tibetan and Sanskrit, accompanied by two pianos and a Tibetan percussion set. Dedicated to the 14th Dalai Lama, this cantata combined elements of Tibetan and Indian musical and philosophical traditions with Western composition techniques.

The Big Ocean was performed in front of the Dalai Lama to mark the setting up of a special chair for Buddhist metaphysics studies in the university. This was also the closing concert of an incredible year of performances across India," says Santiago Lusardi Girelli, chair professor for Western music at Goa University, who founded the choir in August 2013.

As December progresses, with a warm fuzzy festive spirit descending on one and all, strains of carols and songs like The Big Ocean resound from different corners of the country. Age-old Christmas carols such as Silent Night can be heard along with those in Indian languages such as Sadri and Kuki. Sounds of the guitar blend seamlessly with that of the madal and the wangala, drums used in Nepalese and Garo folk music respectively.

The Goa University Choir, comprising 44 members, sings in more than 20 languages, such as Sanskrit, Latin, Tibetan, Aramaic, Swahili, Aimara, Greek and Quechua. In recent years, they have held performances featuring Gregorian chants with Hindustani and Carnatic music and Baroque music from the 16th-17th centuries with the tabla, sitar and bansuri. As part of the closing concert at the Goa Arts and Literature Festival 2019, they took everyone by surprise by singing hymns from the Bible in Sanskrit and text from the Rig Veda in Latin. “These are all original compositions written especially for our choir, as part of the research done at the Western music chair of Goa University," says Girelli.

The Argentinian-Italian music conductor-composer and scholar has worked with professional and amateur orchestras and choirs in more than 20 countries, and has researched Indian philosophy for more than a decade. “The choir is a project of the visiting research professor programme (VRPP) and comprises members across age groups, including former and current students, faculty members and those from the local community in Goa. Through this, we hope to bring the community back to the university."

As one goes scouting for regional carol traditions, some heart-warming stories emerge. Take, for instance, the Choir of the Loaves and Fish, in Bengaluru. Its members hail from the Holy Spirit Retirement Home compound in Bannerghatta and range in age from 63-96. As Christmas approaches, they can be seen rehearsing carols in Tamil, Kannada and Konkani, besides the English ones, to perform at their Christmas concert.

It all started in 2012 when Pervin Varma visited her aunt and uncle at the Home for a singing session. Talk soon veered to the dreams and hopes of the residents and Varma floated the idea of a choir. “I suggested that instead of singers from outside performing for them during Christmas, why don’t the residents invite people and sing for them?" says Varma, who is on the board of the not-for-profit Child Rights and You (CRY). She co-founded the choir with a colleague, Regina Thomas. The first concert received such a tremendous response that the residents of the senior citizens home decided to hold performances twice a year—on Independence Day and Christmas.

The aim of the concert is not just to put up a good performance, it is about the residents realizing that they haven’t come to a senior citizens home to die, that they have something meaningful to contribute. “Though most of our songs are in English, we do a couple of compositions in local languages as well. For instance, one of our members is a Konkani-speaking person, so she does a song and reading in her language. People have done songs in Tamil and Malayalam in the past as well. It all depends on who the residents of the Home are at that point of time, and their language of choice," says Varma.

Thousands of miles away in Ranchi, Jharkhand, Manish Rohit Ekka, a music teacher with the Gossner Theological College, is busy with rehearsals. Choirs from the city have been getting together since 8 December for performances, singing hymns in Hindi. “However, in parts of Jharkhand, particularly in the east, you will find original compositions in Sadri and Mundari languages being sung as well," says Ekka, who has studied at the Music Hochschule für Kirchenmusik, Dresden, Germany, and takes classes at the Ranchi School of Music. He shares an example of a Christmas song in Sadri, Charni Upare Tara Teem Teem Chamkela, about the bright star that shone during the birth of Jesus Christ.

Until last year, original Christmas compositions in Sadri could be heard in Margherita, Assam, as well. This year, however, has seen widespread agitations against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, even an internet shutdown. A day before protests began, Reverend Dahanga, the presbyter-in-charge of the Margherita pastorate that consists of eight churches —which comes under the diocese of North-East India, Church of North India (CNI)—explained over the phone how Sadri came to Assam.

“My grandparents were brought in from Jharkhand as bonded labour by the British to the Namgaon tea estate in 1913. My grandfather couldn’t bear working under the British and ran away to settle down near Nam Gaon soon after," he says. In the villages he works in, half the population speaks Sadri and the other half Mundari. “But, in both languages, Christmas carols are called jhali, which tell the story of the birth of Jesus." Members of CNI refer to a book called Dharam Durang for Mundari songs and hymns such as Nelipe Nelipe Nelipe, Jono:Ipil Tura Kan Nelipe (Look, look, look, you can see the star which foretells the birth of Jesus Christ, Look!). “But for Sadri, we have no such books. We sing carols and songs that are more than 100 years old and have been taught by our forefathers," says the reverend.

Not all choirs sing ancient songs—some prefer the contemporary route. “Our founder, Uncle Neil (Nongkynrih), has written several hymns over the years, which we also sing around Christmas," says William Richmond Basaiawmoit, a soloist with the Shillong Chamber Choir. One of Nongkynrih’s most popular compositions is Haba Ka Mynsiem Jong Phi Ka Iam (When your heart cries out), one of the first hymns written by him. It has a simple tune, with lyrics about how Christ came to earth.

The choir hopes to achieve two objectives with its performances—take the Khasi language beyond Meghalaya and draw listeners from across the world to it. “As of 2012, Khasi was a dying language. So, to help preserve it, Uncle Neil began to write a Khasi opera, titled Sohlyngngem, to achieve this vision," he says. It helped that the soft, gentle cadence of the language lent itself to such a mighty art form. Nongkynrih started writing the opera in 2004 and it is only in 2019 that significant excerpts from it were showcased at the MTV India Music Summit in Jaipur.

“Writing an opera can take years. And this one grew and developed as Uncle Neil evolved as a musician. Also, the choir is now artistically mature enough to do justice to the piece," adds Basaiawmoit, who will be performing at the choir’s Christmas performance in Chennai on 21 December.

In most parts of the country, rehearsals and preparations for Christmas celebrations start well in advance—in November in the Garo Hills but as early as January in the Kuki tribe areas in Assam and Mizoram. Jenialson Marak, 26, who lives in Assam’s Kokrajhar district but whose ancestors came from the Garo Hills, has beautiful childhood memories of the festival. “Carols were sung with far more heart earlier," he says. Even now, in Kokrajhar, several families originally from the Garo Hills prepare with great enthusiasm for the Christmas service.

The mornings are dedicated to preparing a feast; in the afternoon, they head to the church for service. “In our village, we perform carols from evening till night on 25-26 December. People from all faiths can participate in the celebrations—the idea is to partake in the joy," says Marak. Ask him to hum an original composition in Garo and he complies shyly, the first few words punctuated with giggles. “Tralalalala okamgen na salgio seok gimin jatrangko.... It means that on Judgement Day, all the believers, irrespective of caste or religion, will be lifted to the heavens."

Lamkholal Doungel, a political science professor in Dibrugarh, has similar memories. Hailing from the Kuki tribe, he grew up in a remote village on the fringe of Mahur PS in Haflong, North Cachar Hills, now part of Assam’s Dima Hasao district. “Till date, there is no road connectivity to the village, with only a narrow footpath leading up to it. However, the sense of community is very strong there and preparations for Christmas start in January itself, with the new session of the church. Every Sunday, women of the village collect firewood and store it in a central place," he says. A temporary structure is constructed in the village ground and decorated with branches and local flowers. Christmas Day starts with a church service, then people of all faiths come together to sing songs.

“We have translations of popular carols such as Joy To The World in Kuki. But there are many songs which have no references in Western culture. Between the 1960s and early 1970s, there was a revival as people in Mizoram and Meghalaya began to be deeply inspired by the Holy Spirit. During that period a lot of songs were composed locally to reflect that," says Doungel. One such popular Kuki song is “Vannoiya hin leng sangja ana peng nan jong, Leng Christa bang hi khatcha ana peng khalou; Lhandampu ahung peng Bethlehem bong ina, Van Lengpa lem dingin noi le vanmi kikhom". A literal translation: The world may have seen the birth of many princes and kings, but none of them were like Christ, the king. Christ, the Saviour, is born in the manger at Bethlehem. A host of heavenly angels and people throng to welcome him.

Many of the songs are accompanied not by the guitar or keyboard but by traditional instruments. For instance, the Kuki Christmas songs are accompanied by a drum called hom while the Sadri ones in Assam are set to the beats of the nagada, dhol, madal and rabka.

In Mizoram, however, the original Christmas songs are composed in the Western four-part harmony, just like the hymns. “I think Mizos have the best Christmas songs in the world. There are innumerable ones that are devotional in nature and are sung in traditional Mizo tunes as well," says Anc U. Mavuana, 49, a noted musician and associate professor in a government college in Aizawl.

His personal favourites include the carol Kum Sul Liam Hnu Kan Nun Ngaih Lai Tho Leh Thin, composed by C. Lalkhawliana, a former Mizoram National Front insurgent. “It was written in the insurgent camps somewhere in the jungles of Bangladesh. Another favourite is by Rokunga, who has contributed several Christmas songs and was named ‘poet of the century’ in Mizoram. It goes A mia’n riang maw, van mi a lo piang, Bethlehem bawng in tlawm a nghak e," he adds.

Carol singing is serious business—but needless to say, it can’t be done on an empty stomach. Communities across the country have a tradition of sharing snacks with the carollers. “Once you sing outside a home, the family shares snacks such as pitta wanti, sakkin, jak kep and me’mil. These are being replaced by other food items like puri chana and pakodas but some families still serve the traditional fare," says Marak. In Jharkhand, special Christmas breads, called tel chata roti in Sadri and tel chaka lan in Mundari, are made. The Kuki style of celebration is systematic, with community members given the responsibility of preparing specific dishes. “They pound rice, make a dough, wrap this in banana leaves and steam it," says Doungel. “But most importantly, there is a wonderful community spirit all around—nothing spells Christmas better than that."

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