From an activist who planted a forest to a composer who brought together Shillong’s best musical talents; a doctor who’s healing remote villages to Assam’s best wordsmith – this year’s Padma awardees from the Northeast are an inspiring lot.
1 Neil Herbert Nongkynrih, 44, (Meghalaya)
Who: Founder of Shillong Chamber Choir
The first thing you notice about Neil Herbert Nongkynrih is his voice. Soft, but steady as a rod: measured and without a waver. The minute he starts speaking, he exudes a certain charm. So it’s unsurprising that he founded and led what is arguably India’s most successful choir group, the Shillong Chamber Choir (SCC).
The SCC, since its inception in 2001, has performed for dignitaries such as US President Barack Obama and his wife Michelle when they visited the Rashtrapati Bhawan in 2010, as well as for the then Prime Minister of India, Dr Manmohan Singh. In its debut performance at the prestigious World Choir Games in 2009 (the Olympics for amateur choir groups of the world), the SCC got a silver in the folklore category. And the next year it won three gold medals, one each in the Musica Sacra (Sacred), Gospel and Spiritual, and Popular Choral categories of the competition. It got a lot of mainstream attention after winning
India’s Got Talent
“I never wanted all that TV fame. It was just another musical journey that I thought we could be part of as a group. I didn’t even expect us to actually win it,” says Nongkynrih.
Born in Shillong, Nongkynrih was always musical. “I’ve been told I was quite good at the piano,” he chuckles. That his sister Pauline Warjri is herself an accomplished jazz pianist and composer, helped develop his sensibility too. He played his debut concert at the age of six in Shillong, and won the national piano competition when he was fifteen.
Nongkynrih went on to study music at the Guildhall School of Music And Drama and Trinity College in London later on. When he returned after 13-odd years, he was worried about the political climate. Music was the only alternative he could think of, and in 2001 the SCC was born.
Nongkynrih’s group has performed on some of the best global stages, but the high point, he says, has always been the time the choir prays together. “We do a lot of meditation and praying,” says Nongkynrih. “When I take in a new member, her/his singing is of course a prerequisite. But more important than that is character and whether the person can handle the rigours of touring, as well as live in harmony with the choir, which is the family.”
Jadav Payeng, 56, (Assam)
Who: Known as the Forest Man of India, Payeng single-handedly helped grow an almost-1,300-acre forest in Majuli – one of the largest river islands in the world
Jadav Payeng remembers when the Brahmaputra swelled. It was in Aruna Sapori, a sandbar region in Majuli, and it must have been 1979, he says. The monsoon brought with it the usual deadwood, slime – and a huge number of snakes.
When the waters receded, the snakes didn’t have an exit route because of the barren terrain. Exposed to the elements, all of them died.
“I must have been about 15. I cried seeing those dead snakes,” says Payeng. “I asked some elders what I could do to prevent the animals from dying like this in future.”
The village elders told him to plant bamboo to ensure some shelter for animals. Payeng not only followed their advice, but made it into an obsession.
This was followed by a state afforestation project in the same year by the Social Forestry Division of Golaghat district. It was abandoned, but Payeng kept planting seeds, undeterred by the lack of support. Now, that same tract of land that Payeng nurtured for close to 30 years has matured into a lush forest.
“Shimloo, shishoo, segun, jamun, bhelo, aam, kathol, gamari,” rattles off Payeng when asked to name some of the plants he’s helped grow. “The forest is also now home to wild elephants, tigers, rhinos and deer among other fauna.”
Born in Majuli, Payeng belongs to the Mishing tribe of the Northeast. Educated till Class 10, Payeng tried working in the cities as a contractual labourer, but always returned to his roots.
Now, with national recognition – a Padma Shri no less – does he want to settle in the city finally? “Karagor laage muk! Moi eyatei thik aasu! (The city seems like a jail to me! I am fine where I am!),” he exclaims.
This, despite the fact that he has what many may find to be a gruelling routine: he and his wife get up at 3am to milk and bathe their livestock, after which he delivers the milk to the men who row it across the river to Jorhat. Chores done, Payeng proceeds towards Mekahi Island: his newest project, another island to resuscitate with thousands of other seeds to sow.
LN Bora, 82, (Assam)
Who: Novelist and short-story writer, best known for Gonga Chiloner Pakhi
Lakshmi Nandan Bora was always the scholar. He was among the toppers in his school’s final examinations (Nagaon High School, Assam) and received the highest score in Sanskrit in his batch of 1948; did his BSc (Physics) from Cotton College, Guwahati, MSc (Physics) from Presidency College, Calcutta, and went on to do a PhD in Meteorology from Andhra University.
He held a range of important positions including the president of Asom Sahitya Sabha (1996-97). He retired as the head of physics and meteorology from Assam Agricultural University, Jorhat. But Bora is best known as one of the foremost literary authors of Assam.
“I was born in Kujidah village of Nagaon district,” says Bora. “As a kid, I didn’t write much. I started writing seriously only during my MSc days. Science was my profession. But literature is my obsession.”
What made him think he could be a writer? “During my MSc days, the college had organised a talk on Sankaradev, the 15th century Assamese religious figure,” says Bora. “I was asked to speak about him, and I spoke so well, the organisers said I had all the qualities to be a successful writer.”
The same night Bora wrote his first short story,
. It was published in an Assamese magazine
in 1954. Soon Bora came out with his first collection of short stories called
, in 1958. But it was with his first novel in 1963,
Gonga Chiloner Pakhi
, that he really arrived on Assam’s literary landscape. The National Book Trust translated the book into 11 Indian languages, and it was also made into a film later on.
Bora also won the Sahitya Akademi Award in 1988 for his novel
. But one of the most engaging of his recent books is
, published in 2002 and given the Saraswati Samman in 2008: a fictional tale about a young scientist’s discovery of a drug that can preserve youthfulness forever and reverse ageing.
Bora admits his belief in ayurveda and meditation: “If you follow all the principles of ayurveda and lead a healthy cycle of life... your chronological age advances, but physiologically, your age remains the same. I’ve been practising yoga for 40 years and my friends say I look 20 years younger than I am!”
Jahnu Barua, 63, (Assam)
Who: Best known for
Halodhia Choraye Baodhan Khai, director Jahnu Barua has won 10 National Awards for his work
We could have lost filmmaker Jahnu Barua to Poland when he was deciding where to learn his craft. Poland’s Film Institute had a six-year course, while the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII), Pune offered a three-year course. Thankfully, Barua chose FTII.
Born in Sivasagar, Assam, Barua wasn’t terribly interested in films while growing up. But while at B Borooah College, Guwahati, he went to a film festival organised by the Guwahati Cine Club where he saw Satyajit Ray’s
and Romanian filmmaker Ion Popescu-Gopo’s
A Bomb Was Stolen
“Films like these left a vivid impression on me,” says Barua. He joined FTII soon after, and then moved to Mumbai where he worked with the Indian Space Research Organisation as a television producer, making educational programmes.
In 1983, Barua made his debut film,
, which won the National Award. The film was about a young woman living in a tea estate who gets drawn to an ex-lover because her husband has work priorities. “My theme was loneliness, but people were shocked because they viewed only the infidelity,” says Barua.
His third feature,
Halodhia Choraye Baodhan Khai
(The Catastrophe) won the Best Film at the National Film Awards in 1988, getting acclaim at Locarno International Film Festival and the Tokyo International Film Festival.
Given the political climate he witnessed in Assam, Barua says he knew he’d always make cinema that mirrors reality. “Good films have a social responsibility and I try to stick to that,” he says.
His only Hindi film has been
Maine Gandhi Ko Nahi Mara
(2005) which Anupam Kher produced and acted in: “I’ve seen lot of violence in my region. And I saw a solution in the Gandhian ideology... I wanted to make a story on those lines. Also at that point, I met an Alzheimer’s patient. So I thought of combining both aspects and the film was made,” recollects Barua. Barua is working on another Hindi film.
A movie starring Shiney Ahuja had to be shelved after problems with financing among other things, but Barua says, “Another one is on the cards, as is an Indo-UK collaboration. You’ll see soon.”
Sarungbam Bimolakumari Devi, 59, (Manipur)
Who: Chief Medical Officer of Imphal West, Bimolakumari Devi has worked towards providing better healthcare to inhabitants of remote places in Manipur for close to 35 yearsThe ability to be proactive in the face of difficulties came early – and naturally – to Bimolakumari Devi. While in Class 5 in Pettigrew Jr High School, Devi was part of a student protest march on 27 August, 1965 against the scarcity of food grain in the state.
That day, now known as Hunger Marchers’ Day in Manipur, is observed every year in remembrance of the students who lost their lives in the violence that followed.
"My parents had no idea I joined other students in the protest. They were scared because they heard stories about how some had died," recollects Devi. "Because of my age I couldn’t do much but I always felt strongly about doing something for society."
Born in Manipur, Devi had always been academically inclined. She studied medicine at DM College of Science, Imphal. In 1979, she joined the state medical service and travelled extensively within the region to places where "hardly any health officer visited."
She gained experience about how the locals actually lived and that ground reality compelled her to stay with the medical service: "In these places the resources are too few... some areas don’t have a doctor anywhere nearby. Living in such areas can be really tough."
Devoting herself to serving areas off the radar for other officials, Devi engaged with the locals wherever possible. For her selfless service Devi got the Dr Ambedkar National Award for social work in 2014, and now the Padma Shri. She’s surprised, upon being bestowed with the Padma Shri, and even being interviewed about her work. "But it’s good. The more people become aware of the situation here, the better," she smiles.
The consummate professional Devi is already focused on her next task: "There’s a tobacco awareness programme I’m working on, aimed at students mostly," she says.
Tales from Assam's Majuli, an island on the edge
Thanks to taste and health benefits, Northeast cusine is finding new takers
From HT Brunch, May 17
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