Often when we think about indigenous culture, amongst the first things that come to mind are indigenous music and dance forms. Every community has its own distinct sounds and melodies, rhythms and beats, words and poetry which preserve: Identity and Essence. So, where should we look, if we wish to find the answers to these questions: What is the foundation of Khasi music? Where lies its Soul?
The late Rangbah Rojet Buhphang, who was an exceptional musician and master craftsman, would tell his students at the Sieng Riti Institute in Wahkhen, “Ka Tem ka Put ka ïaid ryngkat ryngkat bad ka Akor ka Burom” which can be translated as “Music goes side by side with good conduct”. This wisdom is a window into understanding the mind and soul of a Khasi. He left us much too early, but his knowledge and contributions will live on forever. His words help us realise that ‘Respect’ is one of the strongest foundations of Khasi music… Respect for oneself and one’s ‘Way of Life’.
The world today is more connected than ever before. Every style of music is at our fingertips. The world we live in offers infinite possibilities. However, there will always be a flip side. As we grow more connected, so too does homogeneity, putting at risk the vibrant diversity that exists. Fortunately, the world is also looking within, more than ever before. The need to connect and grow with the world is being counterbalanced by an innate sense of responsibility to preserve sacred roots and ancient inheritance. Staying rooted is imperative to progress in the churn of globalisation. A positive realisation has dawned. A fine balance must be found. The search and the solutions must come from within.
Shad: Dance, Suk: Peace, Mynsiem: Soul
It has been said that to understand the Khasi, one must go deep into the root of his religion. Similarly, to understand and find the soul of Khasi Music, one must dive deep into the sacred rhythms and melodies of the land. One must immerse oneself in the Dance of the Peaceful Heart, Shad Suk Mynsiem.
The traditional Khasi dance has existed since time immemorial. It is an integral part of the culture. The dance is a celebration and it is also a unique form of community worship. Several forms and names exist for the dance. However, the dance held by the Seng Khasi at the historic dance arena – Lympung Shad Weiking – in Jaiaw, Shillong is the most well known. Held annually in the month of April, the dance is a beautiful showcase of the depth of Khasi thought and belief and the richness of the culture that is born from this consciousness.
KI HYNÑIEW SKIT
The Khasi word for rhythm is Skit and there are Seven that are integral to the dance held at Weiking. The seven skits or “Ki Hynñiewskit” of the Shad Suk Mynsiem are:
Lumpaid, Ksing Lynti, Mastieh, Padiah, Dum Dum, Nalai, Klang.
These rhythms are also called by alternate names in different parts of the Khasi Hills of Meghalaya, India. Not only do they have different names, these beats are even played with slight variations, from traditional state to state and even, village to village. This diversity and depth flourishing in tandem within such a small area is rare to find in the world today. There are four types of traditional drums used to play the rhythms:
Ksing Shynrang, Ksing Kynthei, Padiah, Ka Bom, Kynshaw. The only melodic instrument is the wind instrument, Ka Tangmuri. The traditional musicians are known as Ki Duhalia.
ONE FOUNDATION, SEVERAL WAYS
The musicians who play at the dance are usually from the same village, town or region but sometimes they are brought together from different parts, assembled like a supergroup. All these factors influence the style of play and the sound produced. Every musician has a special touch or feel of their own. The Shad Suk Mynsiem held in Weiking, Shillong was for an initial period, the only dance organised by the Seng Khasi, but now the dance is held at over a hundred locations, across the Khasi hills by units of Seng Khasi. You will find the rhythms and sounds and even the style of dancing varies from dance to dance. The Khasi religion – Niam Khasi – is often described as “Ka Niam bad Ki Rukom”, which means “The Religion and its Ways”. The same truth applies to the music of the dance: One Foundation, Several Ways. At the dance in Weiking, the seven skits listed above must all be performed. In four out of the seven skits, a specific and essential rhythmic layer must be performed on the Ksing Kynthei (Female Drum).
The first skit performed is the Lumpaid and it is played to assemble people together in the front courtyard of the Seng Khasi headquarters in Mawkhar, Shillong. The skit has a commanding mid tempo waltz like beat. The pattern played on Ka Bom (large drum) and the Ksing Shynrang (male drum) may appear identical at first but there are slight embellishments on the latter that fill the spaces in between subtly. The Tangmuri melody that flows in veers into musical territory that even the most avant garde musicians in the world could never dream of writing. After the short ceremony conducted in the courtyard has concluded, the gathering which includes leaders of Seng Khasi, dancers, flag bearers, men and women of all ages then proceed to walk towards the historic dance arena, a few kilometers away.
The musicians play their instruments as they walk. The skit they play is the most recognisable and popular Khasi beat: Ka Ksing Lynti. When one thinks of the quintessential Khasi rhythm, this is it. You can’t help but move along to its gallop powered by the Bom and propelled by the energetic patterns of the Ksing Shynrang. The Tangmuri melody twirls around the beat, restraining itself at first before launching into some of the most primordial yet futuristic sonic expressions in the world. Its range and frequencies cannot be transcribed. The Tangmuri – the Queen of instruments – exists in her own “Melodic Universe”.
On arriving at the arena, prayers are offered by an elder of Seng Khasi – U Tymmen U San – following which the gathering disperses briefly. A short breather taken, the musicians move to their positions on their platform and then unleash the most exciting and invigorating of all Khasi beats: Ka Mastieh. The sacred ground – Lympung Shad Weiking – comes to life. The dance to this rhythm is intricate and difficult to perform, but that doesnt stop even the youngest of dancers from attempting it. Immense pride and joy is felt by all. Participation means everything. It takes years and years to find unison. The dance when performed by seasoned dancers and musicians feels deep rooted, powerful, elegant and distinct. It deserves to be included in the list of Indian Classical Art forms.
For many, the dance truly begins when the sixteenth note stride of the skit Padiah takes off, supported by the high and deep notes of the Ksing Kynthei (female drum) which syncopate and displace the measures over a rhythmic bed played with light sticks, on a small circular drum from which the skit gets it name. The female dancers enter the ground and begin their minimal yet mesmerizing dance in the inner section. The hypnotic Tangmuri melody swirls in and out, inspiring the dancers into focus. The dancers begin to appear like waves in a sea of colours. Moving and adjusting to each others movements to keep the flow constant.
The Padiah is followed by the Dum Dum rhythm which feels slower than the rest but in actuality the tempo does not drop much.The dancers subtly adjust their steps and movements. It has a soothing groove that pulls ones shoulders and head into a synchronized bounce. You will find your feet automatically tapping along. The tangmuri melody played is the same as the one for Ksing Lynti. The inherent nature of the female drum and the way it is played allows for melodic and sonic tones to be created, which bounce alongside the melodies of the Tangmuri.
The third rhythm introduced on the female drum is the Nalai. A rhythm unlike any other. It skips and stutters, ricochets and bounces, deceiving the listener into thinking it keeps falling out of time, but on the contrary the pattern played on the small circular drum – Ka Padiah – is actually very consistent and must be played with focus. This rhythm has always drawn my interest the most, especially since it is not played very often, perhaps owing to its complexity. To execute this rhythm well, one requires skill, practice and an inherent talent and deep connection to the music. The accompanying melody on the Tangmuri makes the Nalai even more unusual and intriguing.
The fourth rhythm which requires the Ksing Kynthei that we are introduced to is the Klang, also known as Skit Mareh. The small drum leads this one too. It sets the foundation, with a repetitive and driving triplet pattern pushing against, while simultaneously locking in with the pulse of a four four meter. Gradually the tempo lifts. The change in the movements of the male dancers is most evident. They tune themselves into the rhythm and find a balance between a brisk walk and a run. Once a round of each skit has been played, the four rhythms that must feature the Ksing Kynthei are all performed again, in the same order, until the dance reaches its last segment.
SHAD WAIT & SHAD MASTIEH
Evening approaches and a beautiful sight is often witnessed: The Sun – Ka Mei Syiem Sngi – casts a soft golden light over the dancers, before slowly beginning her retreat behind the majestic silhouette of the Lum Diengiei mountain range. A surreal atmosphere engulfs the entire arena.
In the final section of this unique form of showing gratitude through dance – Ka Shad Ai Nguh Ai Dem – the male dancers hold Ka Waitlam (Khasi sword) in their right hand, switching the Symphiah (Whisk) over to their left. The musicians feed off the energy of the dancers and deliver their rhythms with more passion and commitment. The large drums power the arena while the Kynshaw (hand cymbal) serves as a timekeeper, adding a crucial layer of brightness to the sonic scape. The rhythm section is then joined by a wailing Tangmuri that drifts between an otherworldly tone and the most organic of sounds. When all the instruments are locked in tight and flow together the feeling transmitted is transcendental. Ksing Lynti has transformed into Shad Wait. This energy is reciprocated by the dancers who wave their whisks higher and raise their swords above in sync, taking turns to move faster, criss-crossing, switching sides in beautiful motion. The foundation of each group is the same, but there are slight adjustments and embellishments found within each group. This is a supremely beautiful aspect of the dance.
The Shad Wait comes to an end. The female dancers leave the dance ground, but not before offering a prayer at the centre of the ground. The male dancers prepare for the last dance that wil performed at Lympung Weiking. During this second and final round of the Shad Mastieh at the arena, the ground is filled with dancers. The sound of the Tangmuri soars and cuts across the arena
̣̣. The drums roll with thunder and boom. More zeal and poetry can be felt as several pairs and groups launch into their dance at different moments, bodies bouncing, turning and adjusting with more determination, pride and joy! The drummers embellish their parts, adding extra slaps and hits, watching the dancers as they play. It is a mesmerising site. Each movement adds to the sanctity. The last sequence of the Shad Mastieh at the arena sees the dancers on opposite ends rushing towards each other with their swords twirling, as if preparing to strike an opponent. They chant as they draw closer and then stop a close distance apart. They bring their swords and whisks together, like hands in folded prayer. Lifting gently and then lowering them down again. They bow to each other three times, chanting:“Hoi Kiw”.
A deep sense of spirituality flows in this last moment and we are reminded that this dance is a form of Worship and Thanksgiving to the Almighty – U Blei Trai Kynrad Nongthaw Nongbuh – for all he has bestowed on us. It brings peace to the heart. It brings pride to the people. The dance is a way of connecting with Divinity within. The Soul of Khasi music lives in the “Shad Suk Mynsiem”.