A female bastion in matrilineal Meghalaya is falling out of tune. And it’s is music to men’s ears.
For ages, women in the remote Khatar Nonglyngdoh area in Ri-Bhoi district have been using the muin to keep suitors and lover-boys at bay. Muin is no pepper-spray or stun gun; it is a four-inch multi-purpose musical instrument resembling the Jew’s harp.
“The instrument is gender-specific and is made out of a special kind of bamboo grown,” said folklorist Desmond Kharmawphlang. “It has been helping the women in a cluster of seven villages say what words often can’t.”
If a woman has to spurn a suitor, all she has to do is play the beh khynraw, a made-for-muin tune to composed by the villagers’ foremothers to chase away men they did not like. Conversely, there’s a tune to accept the suitor.
According to Kharmawphlang, muin underscores the inherent civility of the Khasi people. “The instrument emits a twang with the mouth as the soundboard, the tone varying with the expression of the face. The idea behind it was to deal politely with the harshest of situations. Muin music is absolutely haunting,” he said.
The muin magic, however, is waning with very few women keen on spending time to learn to play it when a firm but polite “no” to the “marrying types” suffices. Others like Eni Lyngdoh, though, want the tuneful tradition to carry on.
Kharlyngdoh, who heads the Centre for Cultural and Creative Studies under the North Eastern Hill University, has been relying on Lyngdoh to make the muin a constant companion of every Khasi woman in the Ri Bhoi area. Lyngdoh is a resident of Pahambir, one of the seven muin-made villages. Lyngdoh recalls how she had played the muin to spurn half a dozen boys including her husband, one of those rare men not deterred by the chase-the-suitor tune. “Fortunately, though, we have been able to rope in a few young girls for tradition’s sake,” she said.
Extensive research and documentation have revealed muin tunes for occasions other than matrimony. “It plays a significant role in birth and death, like the jam lu tune that is assigned to mourn a death in the family. Jam lu, incidentally, was the first tune on the muin.