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Shillong remixed

‘India's little rock town' Shillong revives its lost identity as it opens up to the world, writes Samrat.

india Updated: Oct 12, 2007 12:45 IST
Hindustan Times

We had heard there was some madness in Shillong over a reality TV show called Indian Idol, and gone there to report. The ‘madness' began to make its appearance as soon as we entered the town: posters of the contestant from Shillong, a chap named Amit Paul, were everywhere.

Then there were sounds of an election rally coming our way. It turned out to be a rally of people shouting, "Vote for Amit Paul". A song, nasha yeh pyaar ka nasha hai (this intoxication is the intoxication of love) was playing everywhere we went. It was a cover version of an Udit Narayan song the local boy had sung.

The whole town had managed to get high on this, and the hope of becoming known to the wider world. Fittingly enough, its hopes rested on a singer. After all, the place has long been known, among the well informed, for its love of music.

That was another kind of music, though. Legend had it that Shillong was full of guitar-toting dudes and dames, all of whom, it was said, could play a tune or hum a bit of Dylan and G'n'R. It was an image that fed on itself, and so the town did indeed grow to have a lot of guitar-toting dudes and dames.

But in truth, there was no music scene. Life pretty much ended at sundown. There were no hotels, pubs or bars with live music. Concerts were few and far between, and usually ended in mass drunken brawls. It stayed that way until about three years ago, when a militant movement, supposedly for independence from India, began to die down.

"There has been no music scene in Shillong for a while," says Keith Wallang, one of the town's most prominent musicians. Keith played drums for The Great Society, Shillong's original rock band.

The talent is there, he says, "but no one has really gone for it, if you compare the kid in Delhi, and the kid in the Northeast, I think the kid in Delhi will have worked harder."

The only ‘name' to have come out of Shillong is The Great Society's founding-member Lou Majaw, the man who is best known for his Dylan tribute concert, which he has been holding since 1972. Keith doesn't think that's such a good thing. Lou is a good songwriter himself, he says, but he's not writing or playing any of his own songs.

"I got to hear Lou's own music when he turned fifty. The next time I heard it was when he turned sixty. He has never played his own music!" Shillong's famed music scene was always cover versions of Western songs. Now, with militancy down and India suspected of ‘shining', it's also the uncool: formerly cover versions of Hindi film songs. So where's the original work?

"I went around the whole Northeast looking for original compositions," says Keith.

"I found almost nothing, we're still stuck listening to Bon Jovi, but tastes outside have changed." Like most of the Northeast, Shillong too has been in a bit of a time warp. The town started as a sanatorium for convalescing British in the 1860s. The Raj was going great guns then, but many of the world-conquering British found they couldn't handle the heat of the Indian plains.

They discovered little corners of the subcontinent that had climate close to back home, and made ‘hill stations' of them.

To Shillong, they gave the name, "Scotland of the East". Shillong then,knew The world and lived there. There were the English, Welsh, Irish and Scots. There were also many Bengalis, Assamese and Nepali-speakers. The Second World War brought American soldiers and airmen to the town in large numbers. And the local Khasis, and Garos and Jaintias from the neighbouring hills were there, of course - but very few of them made it to the upper layers of the then new urban society. It was, naturally, cause for angst.

Post-war, the Americans left. Post-Independence, the British left. Then in 1972, the state of Meghalaya was carved out of Assam.

Shillong went from being the capital of undivided Assam - which meant pretty much all of Northeast India except Arunachal - to being Meghalaya's capital. The Assamese left.

From the late-Seventies, anti-outsider sentiments began to express themselves. There were riots in 1979. Violence, mostly directed against the Bengali and Nepali speakers, continued through the 1980s and into the 1990s. The Bengalis and Nepali speakers left.

The town that began life being vibrantly multi-cultural had managed to chase out the world and isolate itself. In the space of little more than a hundred years, it had gone from being tribal clan lands and villages to a town with a global cast of characters - and halfway back.

Too many links with the outside world were severed in those years. No wonder Shillong is still listening to Bon Jovi … and Michael Learns to Rock.

Two years ago, in October 2005, MLTR performed in Shillong. The whole of Northeast India trooped in to see the show. There was a light drizzle, but that didn't seem to bother anyone. People lined up for hours. They climbed trees and up nearby hills. There was almost no security, but there was almost no trouble either. I'm no fan of MLTR's, but I went. The mood in Shillong that evening was magic.

Now there's more of these old acts coming by to Shillong. On October 27th, the Eric Martin Band, featuring former Mr Big singer Eric Martin, is performing in the Autumn Festival there. On October 31, thrash metal band Sepultura will be playing.

And oh, Phu Ning Ding, from Karbi Anglong in Assam, who composed some heavy metal during the recent ethnic clashes there, is also going to sing his own songs.

The world is coming back to Shillong. And dare one say, this time the Northeast too is finding its voice?

(Samrat is the editor of the travel, health, tech and auto pullouts in HT Cafe. He is from Shillong).

First Published: Oct 12, 2007 12:01 IST