U Swami Vivekananda u la batai shaphang u Blei Hati bad shaphang u Blei Mahut (U Nongñiah Hati) ha ki hynñiew sngi. Ka jingkylli kaba mih ka long, balei la mane Blei ïa u Hati?
Don u Blei hapoh jong u Hati kumta u Hati u dei u Blei bad u Blei u don hapoh jong ka Dohkha ruh kumjuh, kata ka mut ba u Blei u don ha ki ba bha bad kumjuh ha ki ba sniew ruh.
Ha kane ka jingiathuh khana, u Rangbah Niam u la ong ïa la u synran ba kiei-kiei baroh ki dei ki Blei. Ha kawei ka por shikynhun ki Hati lamwir ki la wan, baroh ki synran haba ki la ïohi ïa kane ki la phet hynrei tang uwei napdeng jong ki um shym la khih na ka jaka ba u don namar ba u don ka jingngeit baskhem ïa ki kyntien kiba u Rangbah Niam u kren, ba ngi dei ban pyndem ha u Blei u ba don hapoh jong uno-uno ne kiei-kiei baroh. Wat haba u Mahut u la hylla, “Phet shajngai! Phet shajngai!” hynrei une u synran um shym la patiaw satia.
Kumta, uwei napdeng kita ki Hati u la bret ïa une u synran sharud, hynrei donbok ba um shym la iap. Ki synran ki la wan biang hadien ba u Hati u la phet ki la ïalam ïa u sha u Rangbah Niam, u Rangbah Niam u la kylli ïa u, balei ba um shym la phet na kata ka jaka? U synran u la jubab, “Kynrad, dei maphi hi ba ong ba u Blei u don hapoh jong uno-uno bad kiei-kiei baroh, nga la bud beit ïa ki kyntien jong phi”. U Rangbah Niam u la ong, “Khun jong nga, balei pat phim sngap ïa u Blei Mahut?”.
U Blei u dei trai bad u dei hok ruh ïa uno-uno uba don ka jingmut jingpyrkhat kaba khuid ba suda. U don hapoh jong baroh kiba don ïa ka bor sngewthuh kaba shida. Nga dei tang ka tiar, u dei u Nongshna tiar. Nga dei tang ka ïing, u dei u Nongsumar ïing. Une u dei u Blei Mahut.
U Swami Vivekananda u la batai shaphang u Blei Hati bad shaphang u Blei Mahut (U Nongñiah Hati) ha ki hynñiew sngi. Ka jingkylli kaba mih ka long, balei la mane Blei ïa u Hati?
A MEMOIR OF ARCHBISHOP REV DOMINIC JALA, SDB
Most Rev Dominic Jala, Archbishop of Shillong Archdiocese and Fr Mathew Vellankal passed away in a fatal road accident on 10 October, 2019 when the car they were travelling crashed with a truck at Colusa County, Oakland, California, USA, while Fr Joseph Pareckatt suvived with serious injury. Rev Jala was the Chairman Catholic Conference of Bishops in India Commission for Liturgy from 2015 and the member Vatican Congreagation for Divine Worship and Sacraments from 2012 to 2019 September, besides some vital religious responsibilities in the local, national and international congregations of the Catholic Church. Rev Jala was born on 12 July 1951, he professed liturgical devotion on 24 May 1969, and ordained a priest on 19 November 1977. After serving the church in various capacities including the Provincial of the Salesian of Don Bosco, Guwahati before his episcopal ordination on 2 April, 2000, even as he was appointed the Archbishop of Shillong Archdiocese on December, 1999.
At the peak of militancy in Meghalaya, Rev Dominic Jala played a pivotal role in the Khasi Jaintia Church Leaders’ Forum and was instrumental in pacifying with the rebel cadres on certain occasions. Although as an apex church leader in the region, he was known for his secular outlook, humility, versatile scholarship and intellectual acumen. Among the trivial but significant religious traditions, he will be remembered by every faithful for the synergy between the ordinary faithful, laity and clergy in various religious issues. Till the other day, it has always been a conventional practice among the Catholic faithful to pay homage to the bishop with a bow or a kneel including a kiss on his pontifical ring, but it ceased to continue during the tenure of Rev Dominic Jala. He was also a connoisseur of fine arts when he related the famous sculpture of Michael Angelo, the Pieta with the matrilineal custom of the Khasi people. Rev Jala indicated that the sacrifice and passion of Christ for mankind found solace and compassion at the bosom of his mother, Mary. Many astounding and thought provoking deliberations on wide range of topics were elucidated in simple oral narrative and that was the forte of his genius. Rev Archbishop Jala had visited the Vivekananda Cultural Centre on 21 December 2016 where he was enthused by the ‘fruit of dedicated service by Ram Krishna Mission.’ He will always be remembered for his ever pleasant smile and affectionate gesture to every person he met on the way.
Dream offering (far left) by Benedict S Hynñiewta is the manifestation of the mother as the custodian of an inclusive matrilineal family and her fecundity for the sustenance of mankind. Sigmund Freud puts it “The interpretation of dreams is the royal road to a knowledge of the unconscious activities of the mind”. The Khasi folk archery is the pastime for social amusement, even as the serious involvement of the archer in his bid against the intruder as narrated through the tale of lamentation about ‘U Sier Lapalang’ reflected through the artwork by Skhemlang Hynñiewta ‘On Target’ (above). Although in the contemporary situation a dream in the urban folklore would predict the number for betting in the game of archery for fortune hunters. Fortune and destiny is something that an angler never dreamt of, but Harata caught a fish of fortune that became the Royal Mermaid (left), the ancestral mother of the Sutnga royal clan emerged through another artwork by Skhemlang Hynñiewta. Riti Academy hosted a colloquium on Dream, Folklore and Art for folklorists, cultural exponents, scholars of humanities, shamans, artists and any mindful practitioners of transcendental folk knowledge, with more deliberations in the offering.
On the way back from the brink of Nohkalikai falls on Sunday 3rd December, 2017 the sun was about to set and before reaching Khliehshnong, Sohra, the skyline bade farewell to mother sun, when suddenly we were awestruck by the huge celestial wonder, the Big Full Moon. Till that moment, we were never aware of the phenomenon of a big moon and casually got excited with the visual treat. It was around 5 O’clock in the evening that we clicked a few pictures until nightfall. As soon as I reached home I downloaded the pictures and posted on Facebook, when comments started pouring in as I was about to finish the caption. We received some information and for the first time came to know about the particular instance of the moon being nearer to the earth. The full Moon is a supermoon coined in 1979 by Astrologer Richard Nolle, as he refers to either a new or full Moon that occurs within 90% of perigee, its closest approach to Earth in a given orbit.
There was prediction that this year the supermoon will appear on 7th April, 2020, but it was disheartened that the full Moon was normal, even on the subsequent days as it waned. Nevertheless, it was informed that there will be more occurrences in the subsequent months and for that we are anxiously waiting. In the Khasi mythology, the Moon is the only male element among the five primary elements of the creation myth. The other four female elements are the Sun, Air, Water and Fire, which serve as the sources of energy for every life on earth. Interestingly, the myth is one of the principles of the Khasi matrilineal system. The other cultures of the world did not recognise the Moon as an element with a primary source of energy, but in Khasi culture Moon is of vital importance for all beings on earth pertaining to their relations with nature.
What does visual art mean for a blind person?
From a workshop – “Blind Spot” – organized by Reiko Shimuzu, a Japanese artist and a devotee of Ramakrishna-Vivekananda, as a part of a year long “5 Million Incidents’ projects at Goethe Institut/Max-Muller Bhavan, Kolkata. This project started with the necessity of organizing art classes for the Blind Boys Academy, Ramakrishna Mission, Narendrapur. The idea generated from the question – “What does visual art mean for a blind person?” which gave rise to creating a space for blind boys and others to explore a creative process together. The project was about openly experiencing a creative process together with the visually impaired and visually unimpaired people.
The workshop sought to provide creative answers to questions like ‘How is it like to not have a visual sense in this visually overloading world that we live in now? What is the visual sense doing to us as individuals? Or as a society? And how about other senses?
Aspects of Orality in Literatures from Northeast India
I begin by specifying the area that comes under the purview of this article, which is, what may be termed as, literature transcribed from the oral. I go back to referencing from my own Khasi literature, therefore, and quote from one of my essays in which R.S. Lyngdoh the famous Khasi historian in his book Ka Histori ka Thoh ka Tar Bynta I & II (1979 &1983)(A History of Writing, Part I&II) talks about the oral beginnings of Khasi Literature. I quote thus:
Chapter One sets in motion the foundational discourse of Khasi thought as it begins its language making process in collusion with nature in the symbolic take from a “leaf”, from which draws breath – the unblemished word: “Kane ka jingmaïa jong ka rukom lum jingstad u Khasi ka long kaba da phylla shisha. Ha iwei-pa-iwei i syntiew, ne i dieng i siej, ne i phlang i kynbat, u Khasi u la pynkhamti ba kan long ki nongkynshew ïa ki jingstad barim bajah baroh.” (The mystiques of knowledge accumulation for the Khasi is truly incredible. In every flower, every tree, bush or bamboo leaf, grass or herb does the Khasi perceive an accumulated wealth of knowledge that is the storehouse of wisdom from time past). (Writer’s own translation)
Having established this, R.S.Lyngdoh moves on to the mystiques of hill and valley, river and mountain, tree and animal that relinquish themselves to the semiotics of the oral. (p 14). As he chalks out the history of Khasi written literature, he indicates the existence of this vast store of oral resource that existed prior to the written. And it is at this early point in Khasi literary history, at this juncture of the imagination as it were, that I would like all of us to pause for a while to understand the germ of the oral that forms the core of much of the written literature in many hill communities of Northeast India (I am differentiating them from communities like the Assamese and the Meiteis which already had a rich history of writing).
From Mizoram comes the story of Pi Hmuaki the “first known composer,” singer of songs, tragically buried alive by a chief and his village elders “for fear she would finish composing all the songs and leave nothing for posterity.” Seven days after she was buried alive, her singing accompanied by her gong could still be heard before it was finally “stilled.” (Misra 207). It is in the Mizo songs and chants and oral narratives that she lives on unhindered in spirit, vocal in voice. In Nagaland near the village of Chungliyimti comes the story of the six stones of Lungterok from which the clan lineage of the Aos may be traced. Temsula Ao’s stone-people “Were Born/Out of the womb/ Of the earth.” These are the stones that signify upon a reality compounded by nature and its natural ally, the human imagination with its uncanny sense of the “Savage and sage”(Book of Songs 109 & 111). Elsewhere in these communities, the narratives are birthed in figures and characters that form the symbolic parameters that unequivocally strap the present onto an unwritten past. In Meghalaya, the lore of the land rings out with the stories that permeate the interstices of a society that is now governed by technology yet paradoxically, charged by the proverbs and maxims that originated around the hearth in the aura of traditional fireplaces.
This aura though severely eroded continues to fire lives and emotions: many still are governed by its ethics. Take for example a tale that I have always used as a guiding post: the ‘Tale of the Lost Script.’ This tale is common to the Khasis, Garos, Nagas, and Mizos amongst other communities. There are variants to the tale in all these communities. The Nagas tell about the script that God handed over to them on an animal skin. When they hung it out to dry a dog came and ate it up. Thus was their script lost to them. The other communities have similar versions; except for the one told by the Khasi, about the messenger who inadvertently swallowed his script, as he struggled to cross a flooded river. He had put his into his mouth whilst trying to swim across a swollen river. The “wily” plains-man, however, had his securely knotted up within his ponytail, which is the reason why people from the plains have been able to retain the script that they received from God.
The contentious point as folk-history points out lies in the act of swallowing; which ironically, becomes an important factor: that of empowerment, other than disempowerment. Having ingested the script the Khasi messenger must seek to justify his own action. This, his descendants have quickly been able to do by pursuing a discourse that has emphatically privileged the spoken over the written. Bevan Swer the Khasi poet and thinker, speaks about this at length in his book Ka Matïong ki Khanatang (1968). He examines the oral lore as being potent with latent meanings for the now “literate,” meaning writing Khasi, who has benefited from Western education and learnt to transcribe words into script. The benefits of being conversant with the oral resource seemed to have fired the writings of people during the Khasi Renaissance. The oral finally seemed to have found home within a new medium. What had happened within the Khasi community was something that had also happened to all the other hill communities as they were brought face up with the fact of their so-called ignorance in light of the Western civilizer. All of them were in a hurry to get to the point where the writing communities had reached, which for the oral communities all over Northeast India meant the algebra of reading and writing.
Easterine Kire’s novel When the River Sleeps (2014) encapsulates the narrativising potential of the oral retrieved by memory and imagination. She goes back in time to recast a narrative from days gone by, about the quest for the “heart-stone” as told by village elder or matriarch. In permitting the narrative to enter a new medium, that of the written, she enables it to take on formations that on one hand traps it within the formulated structure of the flat pages of a book and on the other, retrieves it through memory and protects it from loss. Either way, the re-telling becomes an act of commission that will attempt to stay the omissions of memory; a conscious act of the imagination, an act of political will that reiterates that a river does sleep and a man can claim the forest as his wife. She is an important writer for not only does she recast the speaking universe within the confines of the written but also takes up the challenge to re-invoke dimensions of erased oralities that are intertwined with erased histories; joining the historiographical efforts made on the part of other indigenous and women writers today.
Reading some of the reviews on the When the River Sleeps, one is slightly taken aback by the polarising responses of readers from outside the region; some suggesting improvements to the book, some glossing over it, tossing off flattering observations and some actually likening it to a fairy tale. And fairy tale it will be if the mystiques of nature as represented in the book remains unperceived by the reader. This is the reason why I have called Easterine Kire’s novel seminal to our understanding of what constitutes the oral aspects of writings from Northeast India, for it sets the gauge for the kind of aesthetics that a writer from this region can and has come up with. By definition, it may be seen as a novel for it has all the ingredients of one, but if it is to be stamped by the legalities and legitimisations of literary criticism, then literary criticism must expand its boundaries of thought or revise categories and sub-categories to incorporate the oralities that are constantly being transcribed or alternatively resisting transcription so as to open up other avenues of exploration. To this observation I add another, that it is not only writers from Northeast India but indigenous writers from across the world that are grappling with their own specific oralities:
indigenous formulations that have never fallen under the purview of the written [interweaving] the physical world with the spirit world in a mode that western schools may categorise as magic-realism. But the question is: can they be labelled thus? – valid issues from Northeast India which clearly demands that the accepted parameters of traditional literary history (and literary theory as well) can no longer remain untested. (Margins p.139)
Keeping this in mind I refer to an essay, “Head-Hunting: Some Thoughts” taken from On Being a Naga Essays by Temsula Ao. (2014) She re-visits a cultural site that was declared forbidden by the powers that be. She enters it with the expectation of a retrieval that begins with an important take from the past, that the head is an inviolate part of one’s self. She cites the example of the Konyak tribe who collected the heads of their dead by “putting them into individual pots and burying them”. The practice of headhunting had social sanction and the “rightness or wrongness” did not enter the minds of the ones practising it until such interventions came that questioned the very foundations of their society. She reminds us that this was a practice that had more to do with “peace-time activities”, tribal honour and the generation of specific discourses and rituals that interpenetrated the lived life, making it distinguishable from other communities. The discourse surrounding head-hunting became an important attribute of a society that lauded its warriors for bringing heads back. Young women favoured these warriors over and above all the others, and in time sheaves of songs and sayings accumulated around this institution.
These interruptions and assumptions of history that Temsula Ao interrogates lift the veil that had hitherto shrouded it in criminality. And as she does this, she is also throwing up questions and queries pertaining to other narratives that refuse to allow themselves to be hardened within time-slots and bounded-spaces even though they have been overlaid by an overweening present that tries very hard to discard them as being unintelligible because they are unrecognisable. In doing so she elicits empathetic voices from others who are also intent upon finding a home-grown aesthetic that would inclusively filter stories and songs, art forms and rituals in a space free from the encumbrances of prescriptive literary proscriptions.
And so it is within the pensam-space of Mamang Dai categorically explained in The Legends of Pensam (2006) that these find fruition within a circle of people, alive and knowledgeable, living in what was then considered to be the “excluded” or “semi-excluded” hill tracts of what is now called Northeast India, but which have an entity separate and well-defined, coded in orality:
In our language, the language of the Adis, the word ‘pensam’ means ‘in-between’ …it may also be interpreted as the hidden spaces of the heart where anything can happen and everything can be lived; where the narrow boat that we call life sails along somehow in calm or stormy weather; where the life of a man can be measured in the span of a song. (to be continued)
Culture and Social Values
by Dr Desmond Kharmawphlang
The underlying fundamental challenge facing every society is to create political, economic and social situations and systems that promote peace, human welfare and the sustainability of environment upon which life depends. To even begin to understand and meet this challenge is to acknowledge that achieving the above is a task beset with problems and the only realistic way to engage with them is to work on issues and in spaces where these problems are located. It has been the human experience that the preeminent approach to social problems is to help build common understanding, enable people to improve their lives and reinforce their commitment to society, enhance excellence, and to assure committed participation by men and women from diverse communities and at all levels of society.Culture should be appreciated and used as a very important means of finding promising approaches to modern problems and to usher in new intellectual agendas. As individuals who rejoice in the benign influences of culture, we need to define and employ public values related to fairness and tolerance, respect for knowledge and pluralism, upholding and protecting rights including language rights, freedom of expression and sexual preference. Culture is about participatory decision making, and broad access to asset creation and dependable livelihoods.
Education, the arts, religion, culture and more recently, media play vital roles in the life and vitality of communities and nations. All of these domains help us understand who we are, what we know, what we can imagine and how we function as diverse groups and as individuals trying to make sense of our place in a rapidly changing world. They help us express what it means to be human, and they provide commentary and a critique on human events. They also illuminate differences and similarities, and can serve as forces for positive social change by promoting democratic values, human achievement, pluralism and respect for diversity.
Concerns about poverty and equity are also growing in the environmental field. Many groups have recognized that the protection of natural resources must take into account economic activity — hence the over-used phrase ‘sustainable development’. Environmentally sensitive economic development often ignores the concerns of poor communities. In response, some of the most innovative thinkers about these problems have begun to place concerns about poverty at the center of environmental strategies.
The antiquity and all-pervasive nature of the market-driven economy in human history can perhaps best be demonstrated by the fact that the Inca Empire, in pre-Columbian America, may be the only advanced civilization in history to have no class of traders, and no commerce of any kind within its boundaries. Rich in foodstuff, textiles, gold, and cocoa, the Incas were masters of city building but nevertheless had no money and thus they remained until the decline of this great empire was brought about at the hands of the Spanish conquistadors in the sixteenth century.1
Therefore, the change in the nature of the world’s economies has been at the heart of many of the ebb and flow of civilizations. Subsequently, the idea that the market economy may have a detrimental effect on moral values has long been debated in the social sciences, ethics, and philosophy, although there has not always been a consensus as to the exact scale of this effect. This can be seen in sharp relief when we look back on how a fundamental disagreement on some aspect of the market economy has resulted in some of the most significant historical upheavals within modern societies. For example, the abolishment of trading human beings was a major issue in the American Civil War. Martin Luther’s critique of the trade of indulgences, in which buyers and sellers exchanged money for the freedom from God’s punishment for sin, was a key element of the Protestant Reformation. Karl Marx’s idea that capital stock should not be tradable, that it must belong to the workers themselves, is a cornerstone of communist ideology.2
Culture and Sustainability
In September 2015, the United Nations General Assembly adopted 17 goals as part of its “2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development”. UNESCO affirmed that one of these core goals was to “ensure that the role of culture is recognized through a majority of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), including those focusing on quality education, sustainable cities, the environment, economic growth, sustainable consumption and production patterns, peaceful and inclusive societies, gender equality and food security.”3
In light of this statement, we shall briefly delve into the role of culture, as both an enabler, and a driver of the economic, social and environmental dimensions of sustainable development. It is a pervasive feature of market interaction to impose costs on uninvolved third parties. Producing and trading goods often creates negative externalities, such as detrimental working conditions for workers, possibly associated with reduced life expectancy, child labor, suffering of animals, or environmental damage. People who participate in markets by buying such goods often seem to act against their own moral standards. The risk of moral decay through market interaction has been discussed in politics, ethics, and in the social sciences.
Many people express objections against child labor, other forms of exploitation of the workforce, detrimental conditions for animals in meat production, or environmental damage. At the same time, they seem to ignore their moral standards when acting as market participants, searching and buying the cheapest electronics, fashion, or food, and thereby consciously or subconsciously creating the undesired negative consequences to which they generally object.
Until recently, economists have been reluctant to rely on culture as a possible determinant of economic phenomena. Much of this reluctance stems from the very notion of culture: it is so broad and the channels through which it can enter the economic discourse so ubiquitous (and vague) that it is difficult to design testable (i.e., refutable) hypotheses. Without testable hypotheses, however, there is no role for culture in economics except perhaps as a selection mechanism among multiple equilibria. In recent years, however, better techniques and more data have made it possible to identify systematic differences in people’s preferences and beliefs and to relate them to various measures of cultural legacy. These developments suggest an approach to introduce cultural-based explanations that can be tested and are able to substantially enrich our understanding of economic phenomena.
Through the socialization process, by which it is maintained and transmitted, culture affects individual’s values. We distinguish between values that influence economic preferences (such as fertility or labor participation preferences) – which can be thought of as parameters of a person’s utility function – and political preferences (such as preferences for ﬁscal redistribution). Culture, thus, can affect economic outcomes through both these channels.4
Folklore in the Formation of Khasi Ethics
Ethics plays an important role in the life and history of every people. It shapes their minds and hearts and ensures the continuity of a civilization. Man is a moral being and therefore he is governed by moral laws in his personal and social life. Because he is also a relational being, he is also guided in his relationship with others by these rules of ethics. Ethics makes social life possible and gives integrity to a person in his or her personal life.
Barnes Mawrie, in his book Introduction to Khasi Ethics makes the case for the Khasis as being a group of people in possession of a very sound system of ethics. According to him, they are governed by a great sense of justice and righteousness. The Khasis believe that it was in the Second Divine Assembly Durbar-Blei Baar) that God assigned to them the moral code of conduct. Khasi Ethics has been preserved through oral tradition in the form of narratives which have passed on from one generation to the next. Therefore, we can see the tremendous power and relevance, and the subsequent influence of Narrative in Khasi Ethics.5
Other authors including Hamlet Bareh6 and Soumen Sen have also argued for the central role that folklore plays in shaping the ethics — and by extension — the culture of the Khasi-Jaintia people and how the same continues to serve as a commentary on the configuration and direction of the changes in their society, even in modern times, despite the influx of an ever-increasing array of other cultural forces.
Values — judgments about what is right and important in life — help steer our lives and institutions. Without explicit attention to values, we may run the risk of relying on notions and systems that have become fossilized and consequently fail to appeal and motivate people. Values serve as anchors in a rapidly changing world and that mobilize people around such problems as poverty, injustice, lack of education, intolerance and all kinds of authoritarianism including curtailment of freedom. No single set of values from the past is likely to serve us well in all circumstances but, at the same time, we should not assume that tradition has little to contribute to the solving of today’s problems. We must find fresh combinations of old and new. And we should recognize the challenge the all-too-common notion that modernization necessarily brings secularization.
Music and Mynah in Gramercy Park
Swami Vivekananda’s life has been well-studied, but details about some of the things he did continue to surprise us. Can you picture him conversing in English with a hill mynah in the middle of New York City—or singing in Norwegian?
One of Swamiji’s very devoted friends and supporters in New York was Emma Cecilia Thursby (1845–1931). She was a classically trained singer, and she had a very successful career as a concert soloist during the 1870s and 1880s, traveling throughout Europe and North America. She had an incredible three octave range and she could sing difficult arias by Mozart such as “Der höllerache” and “Ma che vi fece, o stelle” with ease. After her London debut in 1879 The Times wrote:
“Her voice, a high soprano, is sympathetic, and her method singularly free from all mannerisms… the production of the voice, especially in the higher registers, is remarkable for its ease and absolute purity of intonation.” 1
During the winter of 1895 Miss Thursby and her close friend Sara Chapman Bull (1850–1911) arranged several lectures for Swamiji in New York City. It was an intensely busy period for him, teaching classes in the morning and giving lectures in the evening. It was also a busy and fruitful period for Miss Thursby, as her biographer noted:
“The Vedanta philosophy of Vivekananda had, indeed, aided her in at last reaching a strong conviction in her usefulness. She would henceforth devote her life to teaching of that art of singing in which her achievements had been so brilliant; to that art of friendly intercourse in the spirit of which her “Fridays” had already been established; and to that art of kindness and compassion and sacrifice to which so much of her life had already been dedicated.” 2
Miss Thursby formerly sang at the Broadway Tabernacle, a large church close to Swamiji’s rented rooms at 54 West 33rd Street. In later years, between 1905 and 1911, she was a professor of music at the Institute of Musical Art (now Juilliard School) in New York. 3
On Monday 28 January Swamiji gave a talk in Miss Thursby’s drawing room. She lived at 34 Gramercy Park East. Gramercy Park was the first planned residential development on Manhattan, begun in the 1830s. It resembles the green squares of London where elegant terraced houses surround a small park bound by a wrought iron fence. Gramercy Park is Manhattan’s only private, gated park. The neighborhood has long been popular with actors and performers. No. 34 still stands at the corner of East 20th Street and Gramercy Park East, and its distinctive facade remains original. Built in 1883, it was New York’s first co-op apartment house with its own Otis elevator. The original elevator, the one that Swamiji would have used, was replaced in 1995.
The Brooklyn Daily Eagle featured Miss Thursby and her most famous student, Geraldine Farrar, in an article on 27 July 1924. It described her concert career, her voice, and the cultured life in her Gramercy Park salon:
In her home in Gramercy Park, one of the few remaining spots in Manhattan that retain the charm of old New York, Miss Thursby holds a salon, which is said to represent more truly than any other in the whole country the salon of the Beau Monde, Paris. In a spacious, low-ceilinged drawing room that is filled with art treasures, souvenirs, gifts from all over the world, Miss Thursby and her sister, Miss Ina Thursby, receive on Fridays in January. At one end of this big room hangs a life size portrait of Miss Thursby by George P. A. Healy, an American painter who received important recognition in Paris. At these at homes one meets a cosmopolitan company, among whom are stars of the opera and the theater, authors, painters, sculptors, scholars, diplomats, statesmen, social leaders and persons of distinction in different activities from all over the world…
Also among the guests from the Far East were Tagore, Das Gupta, Suami Viva Kananda[sic], the Begum of Janpira and her sister, the Princess, who are thoroughly familiar with Hindu music, in which Miss Thursby also takes a keen interest. One of her most diverting experiences, musically, was in teaching Viva Kananda to sing the songs of Grieg with the quality of voice in which he recites his Sanscrit[sic] chants, which, she says, is rarely beautiful. 4
Lillian Edgerton, the journalist who interviewed Miss Thursby, wrote of Swamiji in the present tense, as if he were still alive in 1924. It is quite possible that Miss Thursby gave her that impression, and it indicates that Swamiji remained a living presence in her life.
Emma Thursby and Sara Bull were bonded not only as friends but also as artists. They were like musical sisters. In the early 1870s Miss Thursby and Norwegian violinist Ole Bull had performed in concerts together. Ole’s young wife, Sara, would have accompanied them on the piano, perhaps not on the stage, but certainly they spent many hours making music together in rehearsal and at home. Swamiji was frequently a guest at Sara Bull’s home in Cambridge, Massachusetts. In that pre-electronic era the piano played a fundamental role in middle-class homes. It was as important as the hearth. Although Swamiji sometimes complained of “thumping” on the piano when he stayed with people who merely played pop songs, the music that filled the homes of Mrs. Bull and Miss Thursby was artistry of the highest order.
It is fascinating to contemplate the musical exchange between Swamiji and Miss Thursby. He taught her the theory of Indian music, and she taught Swamiji to sing some songs by the Norwegian composer, Edvard Grieg. Ole Bull had mentored Grieg when he was a teenager. After Ole’s death, Sara Bull kept in touch with his Norwegian compatriots and fellow artists. By 1895 Grieg had established a high reputation as Norway’s leading composer. His style was Romantic and Nationalistic—probably a very good musical choice for Swamiji. There is no mention of which songs Swamiji may have practiced, but the dignified, meditative “En Svane” is a good example to listen to. Swamiji’s voice, according to written descriptions, was rich and deep—probably in the baritone range.
It stands to reason that Swamiji visited 34 Gramercy Park East many times. And during his visits there he must have met Mynah because “Mynah ruled the household.” 5
Mynah was a remarkable bird and personality. “He spoke grammatically and often with disconcerting fluency in five languages:” English, French, German, Malay and Chinese.6 He could sing songs, mimic the banjo, and play melodies on the piano by stepping on the keys. “This Mina (sic) was loquacious, weirdly knowing, vain and snobbish.” 7 Mynah had his own room and was treated more like a child than a pet. Swamiji especially liked animals, and I can imagine him conversing with Mynah like he was an old friend. Thursby had adopted him in Ems, Germany about 1887. The German ambassador to China, who had acquired the bird in India, gave him to Miss Thursby and instructed the bird to stay with her.8 Henceforth, Mynah called Miss Thursby “Mamma.”
Mynah travelled wherever Miss Thursby went. She would let him fly free when they went to places like Green Acre, Maine. Sarah J. Farmer was very fond of Mynah, and she wrote a letter praising the bird. 9 It is possible that Swamiji first met Mynah at Green Acre in 1894, as did Swami Abhedananda in 1898. Mynah was surely welcome at Sara Bull’s houses at Green Acre and in Cambridge. Mynah loved to play in Gramercy Park. He would watch the children from the window and would beg, “Mamma, mamma, I want to get out! I’ll come right back.” This, however, Miss Thursby seldom allowed because Mynah had once been stolen from Gramercy Park, and she had had a terrible time getting him back.
An article in the Washington D.C. Evening Times stated that both Swami Vivekananda and Swami Abhedananda admired Mynah.
“It is a marvel,” said they; “a fit bird to perch upon the sacred finger of Lal Rao. Peace be unto it.”10
While it is good to have confirmation in print that Swamiji appreciated Mynah, it is bizarre to think of him reverencing a deity called Lal Rao. Either the journalist misunderstood whatever he was told or clearly fabricated this “sacred finger of Lal Rao” business. Who was Lal Rao? In the 1890s the only Lal Rao known to Americans was a fictional character, the Indian butler in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s second Sherlock Holmes mystery, The Sign of the Four. Although this journalist got his facts scrambled, I think it can be assumed that on separate occasions Swamiji and Swami Abhedananda said nice things about Mynah.
On 1 December 1898 Mynah made a celebrity appearance at the New York Ornithological Society show, delighting the crowds. Later, at home, he gave his last interview to a journalist from the New York Herald who declared him the “Smartest Bird in the World.”11 On 30 December, he entertained a group of underprivileged children.12 Shortly after that, Mynah, who was about fifteen years old, became ill and died 27 January 1899, pitifully crying in French “au revoir.”
Mynah’s strange existence soon got even stranger. Postmortem, the bird was autopsied by three physicians—none of whom were veterinarians or ornithologists. They determined that Mynah died of spinal meningitis and that his brain and vocal chords were unusually large. Then Mynah was stuffed by a taxidermist and he was exhibited under a bell jar in Miss Thursby’s apartment. In time, she apparently relinquished her attachment to Mynah’s feathered form. When she was interviewed in 1924, she said that Mynah was buried under a willow tree in Gramercy Park.13
The story of Mynah’s death was reported in newspapers all over the country. It gained a lot of attention in Hawaii. South Asian mynahs were introduced to Hawaii in 1865 to control an infestation of army worms. This worked as a temporary measure, but as the birds thrived, the environmental balance was upset—as often happens with the introduction of non-native species. By 1899 Hawaiians were agitated because mynahs were accused of spreading another invasive species, lantana, by eating and excreting its fruit. The mynahs of Hawaii were common mynahs (Acridotherestrististristis). It is believed that Miss Thursby’s Mynah was a hill mynah (Gracula religiosa), a bird that is currently endangered in Meghalaya, India.14
Problems of conserving wildlife now confront every country on the planet. In Swamiji’s day, bird populations in America were being decimated to provide feathers for the fashion industry. During the mid-1890s ladies hats were often decorated with entire birds. Such ostentatious display was everywhere that Swamiji went. Even Mynah must have noticed it. Especially hard hit by this greedy slaughter for feathers were the Florida snowy egrets, members of the same family of birds that inspired Ramakrishna’s first samadhi as a boy. Little Gadadhar went into ecstasy when he saw a flock of beautiful shadabak flying freely against dark rain clouds. So much depends upon the beauty of birds!
In February 1896 two Boston women organized the Massachusetts Audubon Society to stop the killing of egrets for hat decoration.15 (One of the Vice-presidents was Mrs. Louis Agassiz who had helped arrange Swamiji’s lecture at Radcliffe College.) Protective laws such as the Lacey Act of 1900 began to change the exploitative mindset of the culture. The sale of wild bird plumes was outlawed in 1910. Eventually, women—aided by the apocalypse of World War I—ended the fashion for feathered hats.
Worldwide, the hill mynah is not considered threatened, but locally there is cause for concern. They are “virtually extinct in Bangladesh due to habitat destruction and overexploitation for the pet trade.” This scarcity has now spread to Northeastern India. Hill mynahs live and breed in the upper forest canopy. They are very difficult to breed in captivity. If hill mynahs were easily bred in captivity, then there would be no incentive to capture them from the wild. Therefore current suppliers to the pet trade need to abide by sustainable practices or there will be no future for them.
The extinction of the passenger pigeon is a cautionary tale. Native to North America, it was once the most abundant bird population in the world. The birds traveled in flocks so large that they blotted out the sun when they flew overhead. People killed them by the thousands—partly to eat, but mostly just for “sport”. They did not believe that such a plentiful creature could disappear from the earth. Yet a population counted in the hundreds of millions in 1871 had shrunk to just dozens by 1895. The last passenger pigeon died in 1914. When Swamiji was at the World’s Fair in Chicago, Americans shocked by their own wastefulness were trying to explain to themselves the near extinction of the buffalo.
Miss Thursby’s pet Mynah was beloved, but in one important respect he had a lonely existence. Mynah never had any relationship with his own kind, and that is the fate of most birds sold into the pet trade.
In memory of H Kerios Wahlang
Meghalaya, the picturesque and bountiful land surrounded with green hills, magnificent dales, gushing waterfalls, meandering streams, along with its colourful and vibrant people presents a vivid spectrum like the colours of rainbow. This pristine land is not only home to a rich and abundance of flora and fauna but also an abode of culture, festival and lifestyle of the people inhabiting the land. Since time immemorial this land had a unique tradition and culture that has stood the test of time and over the years, despite the onslaught of westernisation and modernisation the ethos and values of the land continues to add to its ethnicity and vibrancy. This has been particularly possible because of untiring services of many of its people and their love for their land and culture. Among all the people, there are a few however who have always played a gigantic role in upholding the rich and vibrant culture and tradition. One such luminary that stands tall in the midst of all in relentlessly progressing, propagating and proliferating the enriching original folk tunes and singing style of the Khasis is H Kerios Wahlang.
Known as the face and the voice of Khasi folk music, H Kerios Wahlang’s passion for music began since his early childhood years. He lived a simple life that came full circle in more than one way. Music was his elixir of life and for as long as he survived, he practised and propagated it with passion and enthusiasm.
H Kerios Wahlang briefly educated himself under the care of Ramakrishna Mission, Sohra and during those early years he nurtured his love for football and also occasionally engaged himself in singing in various local functions. He however could not complete his schooling and initially became a bus driver. He later engaged in coal trade with late K M Diengdoh, a renowned local entrepreneur. He married early and occupied himself with transportation and trading on market days all over the Khasi Jaintia territories. Despite his obligation as a family man, he always kept himself engaged with his passion for music. Later when he settled at Mawngap, Kerios Wahlang was fascinated with theatre and some of his songs even featured in the drama performances. It was in 1978-79 that he ventured into a professional singing career through the platform of All India Radio, Shillong and later even in Doordarshan Shillong. Almost all of his songs were based on nature and culture of the people, though he also composed a few love songs and philosophical compositions as well. It was also since his school days that he had composed and sung his own songs. His soulful singing style endeared him to many and soon he was invited to perform on many prestigious events outside the state. Kerios Wahlang also pickedup the skill of playing the Duitara, a two stringed musical instrument which he henceforth always played while singing. He was known to have made his own musical instruments including the Duitara, Marynthing and other accompanying folk instruments. Expressing his love for instruments he once stated ‘I made the instruments and performed them my way, because I am not educated in music and I do not acquaint with other folk musicians’.
Over the decades Kerios Wahlang had composed hundreds of songs and few of them were featured in certain films by some reputed filmmakers. In-fact almost sixty lyrics were also found from his hand written manuscripts. H Kerios Wahlang was one of the respected elders of the organisation called ‘Seng Khasi’ a socio-cultural organisation of the Khasis. H Kerios Wahlang was a great nature lover and this love was so strong that it permeated his very existence. Till a few years ago he would be found roaming around the Mawphlang sacred grove and even walked upto the summit of Sohpetbneng peak during the annual pilgrimage festival.
For his remarkable contribution to Khasi folk music and the cultural upkeep of the land, he was felicitated by a number of organisations and institutions including the Raj Bhavan Shillong, Doordarshan Shillong, traditional institutions such as the Seng Khasi, Seng Kmie, National Institute of Technology Meghalaya, Riti Academy of Visual Arts etc.
Despite his frail health H Kerios Wahlang never failed in upholding his passion for singing about his land and its cultural ethos. Though we lost this great legend on 11th January, 2020 at the ripe old age of 94, he has left behind a legacy to cherish through generations. He is survived by four children comprising two sons and two daughters and blessed by sixteen grandchildren.
It is said that the highest tribute that we can pay to those gone away to another world is not grief but gratitude. H Kerios Wahlang’s husky, muffled and melodious voice will be forever etched in every mind and resonate sweet music in every ear. Though in his passing away, the deep sense of loss to the cultural ethos of this land is palpable; we are sure that his tremendous contribution to the folk music of this land will be gratefully remembered for generations to come and hopefully in the years ahead his footsteps will also be emulated by the true music lovers of this land and people.
Ka Jingshai pays its humble tribute to this benevolent legend. May his soul rest eternally in peace.
Presently an Administrator of Women’s College Higher Secondary Shillong. Has been a Radio Jockey in All India Radio and a News Reader and Moderator of Doordarshan Shillong for over 25 years. Also the Co-Convener of Indian National Trust of Art and Cultural Heritage INTACH, Meghalaya Chapter.
RAPHAEL WARJRI: Born on 14th March 1961, has been painting and filmmaking since 1983. Founder of Riti Academy of Visual Arts in 1991. Curator, THOH-SHUN Art Camp: an annual art event, and in 2007 held at Dhaka under the aegis of the Indian High Commission, Dhaka. Participated various art camps all over India. Founding Member, North East Film & TV Producer – Directors’ Association, Meghalaya Film Makers’ Guild, MTDF (tourism sector), and Meghalaya People Environmental Rights Forum. Life Member, INTACH (Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage), Meghalaya Adventure Association, Khasi Authors’ Society, East Khasi Hills District Art and Culture Society and Advisory Member, Indian Council for Cultural Relations (ICCR). Directed several films with two nominations at Film South Asia 97- Katmandu, Nepal and 6th International Short Film Festival 98 – Dhaka, Bangladesh, Pacific Asia Tourism Fair 1996 – Singapore, National Tourism Festival – New Delhi 1995. Theatre Playwright – nominated at the 1st International Indigenous Theatre Festival Dhaka 2015. Founder, television news channel Media Plus, Writer and favourite past time is adventure. The Thoh Shun and Thwet Art camps have generated a platform for exposition of the art that originated from the region. He started the MAD Gallery in the heart of the city and within a short span of time it has helped to throw colour, created an impact and caters to the taste of the people. Even as MAD is an abbreviation for Make-A-Difference, it has an in-built and integrated idea of a taste, which in the Khasi language is MAD; liberal and free-wheeling interpretation and usage may ascribe a certain lunacy, a classically held belief of “a touch of the gods” to the gallery – that would also be appreciably tolerated! This metaphor is an apt name for a confluence, an ensemble, a matrix of creativity brought together through a conflation of passion and art…
Artist, Writer and film-maker. Founder of Riti Academy of Visual Arts and television news channel Media Plus. Life Member of Indian National Trust for Arts and Cultural Heritage (INTACH), Advisory Member, Indian Council for Cultural Relations (ICCR).