North eastern names of an Indian identity: musician-physicist-activist Akhu Chingangbam

akhu chingangbam

That the issue of alienation from mainland Indian that people from the north eastern part of the country has to often deal with is a reality indeed no matter how sad the realisation of it might be. But to come to dwell in this feeling of non inclusion not by imposition by by own awareness instead speaks of an even sadder state of affairs. Because while others validating or not validating one’s identity does not deflect much from the essence of that truth, the inner experiencing of that turmoil in the ambiguousness of identity is one questioning of our very existences even. It had been such instances of personal dawning upon Akhu Chingangbam that led to the emergence of an unlikely artist, wielding since the power of that art to try and drive away that unsettling experience in isolation.

For Manipur born Ronidkumar Chingangbam, the identity of his own occurring as an Imphal native had been reason enough to be proud in his belonging to a country so cosmopolitan in its composition. In fact so precious is his hometown to Chingangbam that also reflects more than amply in the name of his band Imphal Talkies. The irony however is that perhaps Imphal Talkies would never come to be if not for the feeling of disassociation and abnormality that crept up in the mind of a young Ronid when he moved to the capital city of Delhi to pursue his studies more than a decade and a half back.

imphal talkies
Source: Mint

It came as quite a stark revelation to the till then happily ignorant Ronid that life does not necessarily have to be about violence and protests and guns and strife. Having lived that version of reality his entire life back home, it made for more than hard hitting a realisation for the proud north easterner that the India he alluded to in his idea of existence wasn’t exactly the kind that defined more endowed existences elsewhere in the country.

This dawning upon him in much harshness the as harsh realisation of being an outsider indeed of his own regard is what led an otherwise ‘ordinary’ Chingangbam upon a path that would be more than unconventional specifically in that period of living. Back when he sought out the power of music to voice his own pathos sometime in the mid 2000s, Ronid was still a student and not the ‘Akhu’ of the present. But his tender mind was stirred enough by the dual assertion of reality in as dramatically diversive versions of each other to lead him to sing his heart out. And thus he sang and rued and mused the state of affairs about his homeland in the capital city, taking over streets and protest venues in angst and anger of that not normal residing.

In the years since then, Akhu might have evolved in his singing out of anger to being greatly emerging as a seeker of peace and not just in his own spectrum of existence but that jarring perspective in the alternative that spelled a new identity for him continues to hold ground in that foremost assertion of Imphal Talkies. As an alternative folk band that pursued the musical route in its allegiance to the protest culture that has largely shaped the existence of Manipur, Imphal Talkies and the Howlers might be a resonating phenomenon of that replaying and repeating of the displeasure for and in dissent. But the name of it is no less significant as well, even when it might generally occur as one deliberately evoking of the Imphal narrative.

Formed in 2008 by Akhu with four other members, the band took after its namesake cinema theater in front of Kangla fort. And while the premise of it might seem quite ordinary, it even had been in that version of the Imphal Talkies that the strand of daring difference would come across as necessary even if allegorically. Famously screening only A rated movies in a time and society considerably conservative might have been the plot then in advocating for the same kind of ‘normalcy’ that dictated living elsewhere. With Akhu’s musical interpretation however, the idea of normalising extended beyond the fore of the cultural to thrust upon areas of the social as well. That the band still sought out a way through discovering that appeal resident in every fore of the culture in making known its objective only emphasises further the immense scope and power and prestige that this expression in creativity can lead the human existence to experience.

akhu chingangbam musician manipur

Armed thus with the riches of the melody and the effective expression in lyrics, Chinbangbam dug even deeper into the extent of the emotions to churn out thus such a powerful medium in protesting against the agent of many a lesser lived lives that had led him and Imphal Talkies to further diversify and expand the expanse of their attending. In drawing upon his own emotional desire for peace and normalcy as the natural character of life, the scathing-in-presenting-his-demands musician has built up in himself such conscience that does not confine to just his consideration in Manipuriness. As a greater seeker of peace in fact be it voicing in favour of the Manipuris now calling Bangladesh their home or just about any and every other identity as needing to be entitled to a life not essentiated by strife, Akhu Chingangbam and his headlining of the Imphal Talkies sings of a spirit in humanity emerging out of experiences of his own.

For all his prominence as a musician though- and one powerfully potent in the play of it- Anku Chingagngbam is largely resident in the impact of his words. He identifies himself as more of a poet than a singer by own admission who started out with voicing his disapproval of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, 1958, to now denouncing every form of atrocity and violence. So stirred is he by this need to realise a peaceful existence all over that makes him thrust particularly on the innocence of children and tender minds to tap into the potential of what can bring about real change that counts.

The man behind the project named A Native Tongue called Peace is this singer- songwriter- poet that he initiated as a musical endeavor in ushering in peace amongst the different tribes and communities of what shape the larger Manipuri existence. Finding a lease of life in 2015 with support from the Foundation for Social Transformation, the project seeks to teach children from different ethnic backgrounds the art of music so as to discover for themselves the unity that only a deep delving into the arts can afford. And while Chinbangbam has been more than successful in this aspiration of the musical with the 65 children covered under this project boasting even of original releases of their own, the span of his undertaking today encompasses also the greater notion of the welfare of its members.

Beyond music, the children also get to learn the arts of dancing and sketching and origami or even the science of the numbers but what is even more heartwarming an expression in this regard happens to be the greater nature of involvement. From hiring teachers to crowdfunding a child’s entire procedure in surgery, Akhu Chingangbam has taken pains indeed to steer his dream surely but steadily to reality.

In such expanding scope of activism that does not just deliver those reverberating calls in protest, this Manipuri musician of an intriguing alternative identity might perhaps have managed to instill in own self that sense of proud belonginess he once blissfully dwelled in. And it is remarkable indeed that his path of such achieving a validation for himself and so many others like him has been one steeped in the chants of availing yet another distinct identity altogether. A festival director of the annual crowd funded festival of music and arts “Where Have All The Flowers Gone?” and a grantee of the India Foundation for the Arts in Bangalore, Chingangbam’s reputation as a musician has been established in numerous many acknowledgements of the appeal in his expression of art.

Organisations as prestigious as the Amnesty International India have made use of his music for its numerous campaigns even as his songs found incorporation even into the realm of the cinema. His band Imphal Talkies too have granted him equal a share of that recognition, having been termed the Voice of the Northeast by Rolling Stone Magazine. Even exemplary has been their distinction in having been chosen as one of the 33 bands from 33 countries for the 2013 music album compilation Album of the Revolution by the UK’s In Place of War and Unconvention.

Sustained in his efforts at lashing out against violence in a stirring rendition of both vocals and melody, it occurs as quite a surprise that Dr. Rohindkumar Chingangbam is what occurs as the academic distinction of this much artistic personality. Specifically in an alluding to his Delhi days again which had been indeed the defining moment of his life, Chingangbam once identified as a physicist by profession. A Ph.D. in Theoretical Physics from the prestigious Jamia Millia University as a Naresuan Postdoctoral Research Fellow 2012, he went on to pursue his post-doctoral assignment on cosmology at the Institute for Fundamental Study, Naresuan University, Thailand. That someone maneuvering through such complex courses of the scientific should come to chart out his ultimate destiny the way Chingangbam did in the fore of the arts only speaks further of his honest devotion to the cause he began out advocating.

With lyrics carefully curated in both English and his native tongue, Chingangbam’s headlining of the phenomenon that Imphal Talkies has turned out to be is significant indeed. From singing his heart out in such power that has raked up interests all over the country to dominating also the cultural scene in which music essentially finds expression as an indulgence of the soul, both Imphal Talkies and Chingangbam has served indeed as being the voice of the north east. But even in his so long association with a band even born out of his own, it still are solo performances that Akhu feels afford him greater freedom in expression.

Very often thus he takes to the stage all by himself, as a guitar yielding musician no any less prominent however in assertion of both music and intention. Much personal indeed is music in its occurring to Chingangbam, having started out along that line of realisation several years back as a young, rather naive soul. Brimming today with a lifetime almost of experiences, Akhu continues to be as relevant as ever across every such instance of similarity anywhere but returning still to his nostalgic identity of the north eastern residing.

He remains as affected by the issues back home now as he had been when he sought out this provoking but peaceful means in protest. And time and again thus Chingangbam has scripted lyrics of such leaning and sung them in such emotions essentially availed out of the happenings in this part of the country. The first album of Imphal Talkies released in the year of 2009 as Tiddim Road set the tone for what would flow out of the band’s charged up conscience in the times that would follow. Their very remarkable dishing of When the Home is Burning was more than apparent in fuelling that feel of protest and was very prominent in pushing the extents of their popularity throughout the country. Much assertive also would be their 2010 release of Eche that commemorated Irom Sharmila’s ten year old protest against the AFSPA.

The 2013 single Lullaby that went on to chart international acclaim emphasises again that underlying theme of tyranny by evoking the real existences of the Manipuri children. Notable also is Qutub Minar that occurs as one of Akhu’s personal favorites and is much striking as well a symbolism in protest in extolling the journey of a man carrying the minaret to Manipur and carving upon it the names of the Manipuris killed under the atrocious AFSPA. Not so protest centric but filled with pathos still of the identity that Chingangbam has lived with is his 2018 album Ema gi Wari that chronicles the life of the Manipuris living in parts of Assam and Bangladesh. Stand United against CAB as the 2019 musical expression of Akhu might not be as allegorical in its title but is definitely as steeped in the spirit of protest as ever and even more assertively.

A consistent ‘performer’ therefore but even more dedicated an activist who has been instrumental in being the voice and raising the hopes of his people, or even those not so much like him in ethnicity but more than identifying with the wallowing of his soul, Akhu Chingangbam’s residing in one extent of space in the geography of what conjures up the idea of the Indian name might have been emergent from an exclusionary experience of it but is today emblematic of an identity that covers all aspects of the human living in experiencing the ultimate freedom of peace.