Think football and what comes to mind is Baichung Bhutia. Instantly and naturally. And what comes to mind when you hear Mary Kom’s name? Boxing, of course. Now, think of where both these sports stars come from. Not many would know that Bhutia and Kom come from two different states in the North East of India. The North East comprises eight states: Assam, Arunachal Pradesh, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Manipur, Nagaland, Tripura and Sikkim. And often people from this region are mistaken for Chinese! But for those who know them, people from that part of India are a lively bunch who love the good life like everyone else. And if you are GK Pillai, the former Union home secretary, you might like to add that they are “a talented lot.” (Make that “very very talented!”)Pillai should know. He has had a long stint as a government official in charge of the region. "There is immense potential in the people and the land. I have been impressed by their talent and creativity. Today, their talents are partly recognised, but they need to be fully recognised," says Pillai.
To writer and filmmaker Jahnu Barua this recognition of North East talent is just “the beginning of a long journey.” Nonetheless, he says: “The driving force of these people is immense since they know that they have come from so far away to make something out of themselves. So you cannot ignore them anymore.”
Indeed, you can’t. Whether it’s sports, music or fashion, we’re seeing a lot of North Easterners out there. Their food too is preparing to compete with other cuisine in the market. And their unexplored and virgin land is drawing tourists like never before.
So is it time to look East? We think so.Fashionably yours
The innately stylish don’t need a big brand to make that statement. Even a simple export surplus off-shoulder top teamed with a label-less made-in-China skirt can give them a diva look. "Brands do not spell style. I am not brand conscious but quality conscious. And we have the ability to understand what looks good on us," says well-known model from the North East, Esther Jamir. So is being well-dressed part of the North East culture?
Kos Zhasa, former board of governors member of the National Institute of fashion Technology (NIFT), says: “Ours is a very effortless, natural style. I would attribute it to our culture and partly to Western influence because of our faith, Christianity.” Churchgoers in Nagaland often look as though they’re in a fashion show, she says, when they’re dressed in their Sunday best.
Youngsters Winnie Sangtam and Imsu agree that style is a personal thing. “I mix and match and follow my instinct,” says Imsu, a fashion blogger. And Sangtam the student doesn’t dress in the college uniform of salwar kameez or jeans. She stands out in her dress or spaghetti top with jeans.
Naturally, when innate style goes commercial, looks and cuts are bound to be different. Look at designer Atsu Sekhose whose Western sensibility has an impressive client list across India and a niche market overseas. Since he started his own line in 2006, he has never looked back.
Kos Zhasa, a fashion and textile designer from NIFT, started her career as designer for embassy clients. She sold her label, Personal Touch, at up-market stores around the country. Zhasa is now back in Nagaland researching textiles of the North East for book she plans to compile. And as a student at NIFT, Devson Yengkhom, a designer from Manipur, made news when he invented a machine that would produce garments without seams.Designer Raghavendra Rathore was one of the first designers to experiment with fabrics from the North East. "It was one of the most successful collections that we had ever done and that was purely because of the range of fabrics," he says. "They had a tremendous recall value and we did exceedingly well where this collection retailed."
Give them a guitar and you’ll get a song. While this may be slightly exaggerated, you’ll always find music in North Easterners. Three consecutive winners of the Indian Idol contest were all from the region. Prashant Tamang, Amit Paul (runner up) and Sourabhee Debbarma proved that music is part of their life. And last year, Divine Connection, a gospel band from Nagaland, won the Kurkure Desi Bests Rock show on MTV.
Shillong-based music legend Lou Majaw continues to draw crowds from the farthest corners of the world when he celebrates Bob Dylan’s birthday year after year. "I have been singing with the deepest devotion since the 50s," he says. And every state in the North East boasts multiple musical bands.
But in Nagaland, there is a slightly different approach to music. The state government has set up a Music Task Force that organises India’s biggest rock festival, the Hornbill National Rock Contest, every December. “We see music as an industry and we are focusing on every aspect, including sound, visual media and recording,” says Gugs Sema, director of the Music Task Force.
In Patkai Christian College, a premier college in Dimapur, music is part of the curriculum. And every year, 20 to 30 music graduates pursue higher degrees in music in the state. With over 66 home-grown bands in 11 districts in 2008, the number has only increased over the years. In Shillong, Majaw estimates that Meghalaya has about 15 to 20 local bands who sing in English. Mizoram is not far behind with its own rock band, Magdalene, releasing well-made music videos for local audiences. And Albatross, Frisky Pints and others have performed in metro cities as well.
No wonder then, international stars would rather play in the North East than in India’s big cities. On his maiden trip to India in 2007, Eric Martin, the voice of Mr Big, headed straight to Shillong where other bands like Firehouse and White Lion have played. Pradyot Manikya Deb Burman, the current king of the royal house of Tripura and the man who brings international acts to Shillong, says: “It’s purely for the love of music. There is also a need to show that our region is capable of hosting world class shows. Also, the perception that the region is unsafe had to be removed, and what better way to do it than with packed stadiums?”
If there is a will, there is a way. And when Raja Sithlou and his wife Ahoi returned from a holiday in Thailand in 2006, they were decided. They would start ‘the McDonald’s of spas’. In 2008, the dream came true. The couple now run Oriental Senses at Select Citywalk mall in Delhi, a spa that offers luxurious services at affordable prices. “We saw a great business opportunity in introducing commendable services at affordable rates,” says Raja.
Ahoi trained in Asian massage therapies in Thailand and Indonesia, and now personally trains her staff who are mostly from the interiors of Manipur. “We wanted to do something which will directly help build skills and create employment opportunities for our people,” says Raja. And it helps that most of his staff are from the North East. “A lot of customers do come in thinking that the spa is run by Thais. It does make a difference if the therapist ‘looks’ like a Thai!”
As the head designer for an export house, Dodou Tunglut always wanted to start something of his own. In 2006 he chucked up his job and set up a studio manufacturing home furnishings. Today he caters to high-end boutiques in America and Europe. “People who are familiar with my work keep ordering more,” says Tunglut. As of now, he is researching the textiles of the North East. Mary Claire dived into designing out of sheer passion.
The Mizo, married to an Italian restaurateur, the owner of Delhi’s Flavors, is already making many trips to Europe to meet clients. But for someone who made her own dresses at the age of 12, this is only expected. Claire fuses North East handlooms with frills and adds stones and beads on table runners, mats, and head boards. “They are all sold out in Europe,” she says.Lost and found
A few years ago, heading to the North East for a holiday would have been unthinkable. Forget the insurgency problems. There weren’t enough hotels! It was also difficult to get there. Now, there are more direct flights to the region than ever before. And accommodation? You are spoilt for choice. So tourist traffic to the North East has really taken off. Assam, for instance, had 36.7 lakh domestic arrivals in Assam in 2008. In 2010, it was 40.51 lakh.
"The region is clearly poised for a growth in economic activity, linked both to the huge tourism potential and the availability of resources, natural and human. Hence, we anticipate that the region will see a greater presence of branded hotels, going forward," says Prabhat Pani, CEO & director, Roots Corporation Limited.
Locals are also doing their bit. Take for instance Pradyot Manikya Deb Burman, the current king of the royal house of Tripura, who opened a heritage resort by converting his family’s summer home into a hotel, Tripura Castle, in Shillong. He is now adding a few more rooms, another restaurant and a spa.
“The market is growing. There is a definite demand for high-end hotels in places like Kaziranga,” says Subrto Sharma who invested in a luxury resort in a tea garden in Kaziranga. Says Rakesh Mathur, president of Welcomheritage which has a slew of properties in Jorhat, Sikkim, Arunachal and elsewhere, “It was only a question of time for us to promote the North East as a destination. The doors have opened and the time is ripe.”Mayfair Hotels & Resorts has opened the region’s first luxury resort in Gangtok, complete with spa, helipad and casino. And ITDC, which owns two hotels in the region, is open to proposals for new hotels.
New star on the Culinary map
When 12-Michelin star chef Gordon Ramsay came to India to shoot a Great Escape episode, he headed to Nagaland and Assam. Two recipes, fish tenga, a sour fish curry from Assam, and Majuli fish cakes with tomato, another local dish, made it to his 100 favourite recipes from India. And when Italian slow food icon Carlos Pertini came to India, it was in Meghalaya that he bonded with locals over sumptuous pork curry and herbs and spices that he was surprised to see. "I have never had such delicious food," said Pertini.
There is something about the flavour from this region. Considered exotic anyway by gourmet gurus, the simple but healthy and flavourful food that uses natural spices and little oil is slowly finding takers. Celebrated chef Bill Marchetti for one, thinks the cuisine has huge potential.
So it’s no surprise to see Nagaland’s Kitchen, a 48-cover fine dining eatery right in the middle of Green Park Extension market in Delhi, vying for attention and customers with more established neighbourhood restaurants. Chubamanen Longkumar, all of 29, and his two sisters, owners of the restaurant, are more than confident that this venture will work. Why not? The siblings from Nagaland have already felt the pulse of locals with more than a decade of successfully running the buzzing Nagaland Kitchen at Delhi’s arts and crafts junction, Dilli Haat. They know that soon, their sumptuous smoked pork curry, Naga thali and other authentic dishes will find more converts. Since they first opened last October, their restaurant has attracted 60-70 diners a day.
So it’s not surprising that even five-star kitchens are intrigued by North Eastern cuisine. Take the Park in Delhi. It has incorporated a dish from Manipur in its coffee shop menu after a North East food promotion was held in the hotel. At the Oberoi in Gurgaon, executive chef Ravitej promises that their multicuisine restaurant threesixtyone will soon feature a smattering of North Eastern dishes too.
Ravitej was prompted to do this when one of his chefs, Siamsang from Manipur, asked him to sample a Manipuri dish. “It was tasty and different and I felt I could take it up to a commercial level,” he says. It will need initiation, though, he adds. Just like the Japanese and non-Schezwan Chinese food that were introduced in small doses. “We will use the same approach to promote North Eastern food,” he says.
And chef Praveen Anand of Chennai’s ITC Sheraton will soon hold a long-planned Brahmin Manipuri food festival in his restaurant. “It will be during navratra as I intend to serve only vegetarian dishes that are best prepared by the Manipuri Brahmins,” he says. “There are a number of connoisseurs in Chennai who would love to eat something new. In my research I realised that there is so much to unearth from the North East.”
Chef Sabyasachi Gorai of the Japanese restaurant, Ai in Delhi, knows this. He has been quietly sourcing his ingredients from there for half the price he would have paid in Japan. Organic blackberries, passionfruit, black mushrooms, flat bamboo leaves, black rice and more come from Shillong. Gorai vouches for the quality and freshness. “The North East is home to many interesting ingredients,” says Gorai.Good sports
Circumstances have made them fighters and winners in their chosen fields. Whether it is Mary Kom, three-time world champion, or gold medallist boxer Dhinko Singh or weightlifter Kunjarani Devi or soccer king Baichung Bhutia, they all say hard work was their mantra. "Whether it’s training, cooking or housework, Kom does everything with precision and perfection," says Kom’s husband Onler.
Soccer star Baichung Bhutia, the first Indian to play for a European team, believes the highest number of footballers in India come from the North East. “Football is bigger than cricket here,” he says. “Also, kids are much more energetic here and the weather is generally good for outdoor games.” To catch that talent, Bhutia’s newly-formed club, United Sikkim, will be perfect. “This is going to be the biggest and most professionally-run club in the country,” he says. “I see a lot of young talent all over India and this can be a platform for them.”
And now, it seems the “most interesting voice in India” is from the North East. And VK Karthika, chief editor of HarperCollins India, is serious when she says that. Karthika is referring to Kynpham Sing Nongkynrih whose poetry has just been published by HarperCollins India. “He has a sophistication of thought and ideas which is combined with a very dramatic story-telling voice,” says Karthika. “We have not explored voices from the North East before.”
For a long time, writing from the North East remained confined to the region. Sometimes, it was because good writers did not necessarily write in English. Kynpham, 46, for instance, says that he has been writing in Khasi and English for more than two decades. But as translations take off, you’ll read more from the region. Zubaan, for instance, has translations from Assamese in their list.
For more than a decade, a group of writers under the North East Writers’ Forum has been meeting and encouraging its members to write. “And they are committed writers who write for the love of it and not necessarily to be published or with any political agenda,” says Karthika. “We have been getting good manuscripts.”
Preeti Gill, editor of Zubaan, says writing from the North East has a certain freshness and strength that compels the reader. “And to me, it presents a reality that many of us were unaware of till recently,” she says. “I see a certain truth, honesty, a brutal ‘reportage’, retelling of popular myths, of local histories, of community stories. It’s a very exciting area with rich literary traditions and there is much to be discovered.”
Zubaan has in fact held writers’ forums where writers from the North East have interacted with fellow writers from other states. Gill has personally built up Zubaan’s list of titles by travelling in the region and getting in touch with new writers through friends and associates.
From HT Brunch, September 4
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