Excerpt of a telephonic interview with Padma Shri Guru Rewben Mashangva

I feel like I am a bridge that connects antiquity with modernity. My ability to manipulate different musical instruments also contributed to the recognition of my works. Since other musicians don’t know how to play these indigenous instruments (Tingteila and Sipa), my music stood out distinctly.

Guru Rewben Mashangva was born on 21 June 1961 and brought up in Choithar village of Ukhrul district, Manipur, to a father who was a carpenter. Guru Mashangva has come a long way from the life of matriculate, street hummer to the podium of Padma Shri, India’s fourth highest civilian award in 2021. Along Guru’s uncharted and hard way in his musical journey, with sheer hard work and entirely self-taught, Guru Mashangva went on to create a unique soundscape, revitalizing Naga folk songs and music.

Guru Mashangva was honoured with an award by Manipur State Kala Akademi in 2005 for his commendable contribution toward Tribal Culture, and certificate for training “shishyas” in Tangkhul Naga Folk Song, 2004-2006, under the Guru Shishya Parampara of the Ministry of Culture, Government of India, and accolades such as North East Excellence Award by Indian Chamber of Commerce, 2009, “in recognition of his innate musical mastery and knowledge of Naga Folk Music”, and National Tribal Award by the Ministry of Tribal Affairs for his contribution “in the field of Tribal Art and Culture, 2011-12.

The following is excerpt of a telephonic interview with Guru Rewben Mashangva by Ningchihan K Hungyo from Ukhrul Times on January 27, 2021.

Heartiest congratulations from Ukhrul Times on receiving India’s 4th highest Civilian Award Padma Shri 2021!

Oh! Thank you very much.

How do you feel having received the prestigious award?

Ok, well, I have always enjoyed singing, but I never ever imagined I would attain the present popularity level. In the course of time, due to my passion as I learned and sang (Tangkhul) folk songs, I began to feel the need to change the style of our folk song because people, by that I mean our own Tangkhul people, do not like it anymore. There is a need for change; the essence of folk songs will remain as it is but by polishing them into fashionable version so that it could be acceptable to modern world, I began my singing. It was not for any award as such.

Obviously, I never ever imagined I would receive the Padma Shri Award. Now that I have been honoured, I am just wondering what I would do next after having been given this great responsibility! I really don’t know how to react! I was happy when I was conferred on the title ‘Guru’. I was happy too when I received All India Tribal Award. But, this Padma Shri award is too much for me!

(Humorously) What am I supposed to do now? Am I supposed to cover my head as I walk down the road? Am I not allowed to go to small events? And, will people stop inviting me to dinner due to my status now?

Ha ha ha . . .

Hope status and popularity will eventually answer all these questions. What are the criteria of selection for this Award?

I was nominated by our state (Manipur). All the states in the country nominate their own candidates with extraordinary contribution in their respective arts such as music, literature or any field, and those who will bring laurels to the state are nominated by the state governments. If you look around, there are many artists much better than me. However, there are ‘things’ in my music which are not found in others’. It was the responsibility of the state Home ministry. My works focused on ‘Culture and Peace”; I am not only a singer but an activist of Culture and Peace. I am not a broken love song singer but a human right singer.

When there was any conflict, I was there with my songs. In fact I was so present everywhere that there were times my integrity and sincerity were questioned by people as well as by the authority. For instance, when I sang the song “Wuhan”, since there is ceasefire with NSCN and the Government of India, I received a call from the Intelligence Bureau questioning me if I was connected to the Naga Peace Talks, and that I supported China. But when they did research they realized that my works were nothing but ‘Culture and Peace”.

You mean, even though there were words about you doing the rounds, as they found nothing malicious or fishy after verification, they have nothing to implicate you?

Exactly, there is nothing to implicate me. In a way these controversies made me even more popular.

How do you relate Padma Shri Award with Manipur?

Hmm . . . many misunderstood me when I say I am a Manipuri, but I am not a Meitei. I am a Tangkhul and I belong to the state of Manipur. My Aadhaar Card, Driving License and other ID cards say it all. I got the Padma Shri Award because the Government of Manipur nominated me. So I am deeply grateful to Manipur government, the state that I belong to. Please don’t misunderstand me when I say this. Whenever someone from other state asks my state, I say Manipur. And the message of my music is meant to spread beyond the barriers of all political and racial boundaries with focus on Peace and Culture.

To whom do you ascribe your success?

I whole-heartedly thank the President of India for honouring a humble person like me. And of course, without the support of Manipur government, I could not have achieved all this success. Secondly, I acknowledge my hard work. And most importantly, my faithful wife Sh. Happylove Mashangva is the No.1 supporter all along.

Please enlighten us more on her contribution?

She has never complained all these thirty years and has been giving me full support. Though I wasn’t home most of the time, she gave me approval that I was doing the right thing. Besides giving me support, trust and comfort, she fed and took care of my children. She said, “Go ahead, don’t you worry about family responsibility.” So I dedicate my success to her. I think I could not have achieved all this without her.

Guru, you are the origin of “Naga Folk Blues” and we would love to know more about this unique genre for which you received recognition worldwide.

Ok, initially when I began singing folk songs, many used to disparage me saying, “It’s just rubbish!” “Your folk songs are false.” “Why don’t you come learn from us?” So, I told them my songs are not folk songs but “folk blues” implying to the western blues. The flavor of salt is bitter if consumed directly, right? But if the right amount of salt is added to a curry, it is more palatable. Metaphorically, my genre ‘folk blues’ is a unique product of this blend of folk song and western blues. Adding the word “Hao” to “blues”, I convinced our folks that my music is Hao Blues. That’s how I not only silenced complaints but also began this genre.

In order to promote the Naga Folk Blues, or Hao Blues as you put it, what indigenous musical instruments do you use?

I play ordinary acoustic guitar. But when I play guitar in natural regular chord, the music sounds too close to the blues, so I tuned guitar in a different chord to make it sound closer to our folk music. It is ‘open string’, I guess, like a violin. It produces a melodious open sound without any flat, and it sounds good with folk songs.

Secondly, I sometimes sing along with Tingteila. Third, with my version of Sipa, also called Yangkahui, which is an indigenous flute with only four holes. Actually, my ability to manipulate these different musical instruments also contributed to the recognition of my works. Since other musicians don’t know how to play these indigenous instruments (Tingteila and Sipa), my music stood out distinctly. Even though there are lots bigger fish in an ocean, people look out for a rare species even though it’s smaller. It’s something like that.

So, in selecting you for the Award, themes of your songs and your expertise and promotion of indigenous musical instruments were altogether taken into consideration, right?

Yes, partly. Another criteria was the role I played in promoting folk arts, which otherwise are dying. As mentioned earlier, I promote folk arts by refining them so that they can be fashionable for modern platform. So that’s how I added ‘folk salt’ to modern ‘blues curry’. And that’s the uniqueness about my music that keeps the folk arts alive.

Bravo! With the onslaught of western popular music like rock and pop culture, our folk arts are on the brink of extinction. However, your efforts and ingenuity have given a ray of hope for their revival. We youngsters are truly grateful.  

Thank you very much.

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Who has been your role model? Has anyone influenced your work?

Yes, of course. There was this artist Matpam Happy from Ukhrul. When I was young, I didn’t know how to sing in English, and when I sang Khokharum Laa (Tangkhul Hymns) my voice sounded awkward. So I used to sing all the songs in my own way! Then Matpam commented one day, “Rewben, the way you sing and play guitar has a unique appealing melody.” See, Matpam Luikham was a very intellectual and famous hippie artist of that time. He even contributed his art for the Bollywood movie Bobby, so he looked at things from three dimensions. So one day he played some songs of Bob Dylan and introduced his other songs to me. Instantly Bob Dylan’s music appealed to me because his way of singing is akin to our local style of singing. Since then I have been listening to Bob Dylan’s songs. Thus, Bob Dylan gradually influenced me. By the way, don’t I sing like Bob Dylan? (Laughs).

Certainly, you do sing like him! Well, is there any particular song of Bob Dylan that inspired you the most? And why Bob Dylan?

Yes, I first began with Blowin’ in the Wind. Dylan has a special style of handling acoustic guitar. His songs are simple yet deeply meaningful, and he sang like one of us. I practiced and practiced for a very very long time to sing Blowin’ in the Wind like Dylan. It never worked. Then one day I saw Calvin from Grihang village playing the song. See, there were no TVs in our days and all we did was listening to the cassettes over and over again. Seeing someone play or sing the song I liked eventually improved my skills. Besides, whenever I needed lyrics for songs in English, Ngachonmi Chamroy was always there for me with his inspirational resources.

Despite having received many awards and recognition at all levels – nationally and internationally, UT feels that our Tangkhul society seems to not fully digest or understand the status you have acquired, considering the fact that you were even belittled once. What are your views here?

I don’t have any grudge with anyone. Most of our people are not exposed to the world; obviously they can’t be compared with people of Delhi or Mumbai. There are things which ignorant villagers will never learn, no matter how much we teach them. They might have lakhs of rupees in their pockets, but they don’t know where the notes are minted. At times when it comes to arts their views are just beyond the pale. Athumbingchi nayong akhrang akhur wut dhardhar eina ngaraichai!

Guru, you are the origin and ambassador of your works. In other words, you created a new genre and you are the sole singer of the same. How do you like to institutionalize this genre as a part of academic curriculum?

I have been invited to Woodstock School, University of Hyderabad and even to the National School of Drama, New Delhi to perform as well to exhort on my works. They said my art is quite academic. I was even told that it is more than music. They take my songs as a source of folk culture and knowledge.

Even research scholars might have approached you?

Certainly, many research fellows have come to me. I have guided many to the source of Hao music and culture. I feel like I am a bridge that connects antiquity with modernity.

What sort of questions do they ask?

Ah ha, there were times these scholars asked me funny questions. I told them I used to fail in exams because I didn’t want to answer my teachers’ questions. And now you are asking me questions. How can you ask me questions without knowing the lesson? So, I told them to listen first, learn their lessons and then come and ask me questions. Go to the original roots first – the aged village folks. That’s my message to the research scholars. At times, they can’t help wondering about me.

That’s a very good message indeed! Now, how do you want to pass on your legacy?

Some youngsters have accompanied me in my songs. Tangkhuls are slowly beginning to like Hao Laa (folk songs). I have heard talented singers in their Hao songs with guitars. However, as they simply play in G or E, without any real study of the music, the ultimate melody can’t be produced. 

Some youngsters who really want to know my skills visit me occasionally. Other than that I have no pupils as of now.

UT is concerned that the beauty of this generic Naga Folk Blues might fade away along with you.

That’s bound to happen! Friends commended, “Guru, your music is perfect. Why don’t you collaborate with modern musicians?” I told them to leave aside the notion of ‘collaboration’. If they want to learn my music, they have to know my efforts of five years that I had invested in composing just a single song. Without knowing this traditional insight of hard work, they can’t collaborate with me or create something new.

For instance, Steve Ray Vaughan listened to hundreds of Jimi Hendrix’s musical pieces and tried to understand his music. He practiced and practiced to play like Jimi. After thousands of practices, Steve Ray was able to produce his own music, which critics consider “smoother” than Jimi’s. Steve was able to create something new after knowing the musical tradition of Jimi.

Oh that’s a lovely insight! Last but not the least, what message do you have for our aspiring musicians or artists?

If you want to become a music artist, be yourself. Be what you are. Be humble and have no ego. Work hard and respect elders. Don’t complain that others’ music is bad. If you think their music is bad, strive to make better music than theirs. Without practice, there is no music.

Guru, thank you so much for interacting with us by sharing your precious insights and time. Our heartfelt congratulations and joy once again for bringing home pride and honour for the Tangkhuls in particular, and Manipur in general. God bless you.

Guru: Thank you. Good night!

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