The soft power of the region has given its new cultural entrepreneurs an increased presence in food, music and fashion
Nagaland’s Tetseo Sisters are daintily pretty in their traditional chi pi khwu, the shawl of merit. We are sitting in an elegantly designed Naga-themed restaurant, Dzükou, relaunched in Hauz Khas market (earlier it was a small Hauz Khas village fixture). The large hall, soothingly lit, resembles a traditional Naga hut, complete with bamboo and cane carvings. This Friday evening, it is buzzing with a hundred odd well-heeled diners who are cooling off with a mix of cocktails and pork chops; very few are from the Northeast. Most are here to listen to The Tetseo Sisters, a quartet of folk musicians hailing from the state’s Chakhesang tribe. They sing the ‘Li’, the traditional song of their tribe, in their dialect, Chokri, combining words with grunts and sighs to produce strong- throated vocalisations. Ancient legends and myths, stories of star-crossed lovers, the joys and sorrows of farmers, the hopes and aspirations of the Naga people: all form an integral part of their songs. “Raja mirchi and pork momos are the best in our state,” says Mercy Tetseo, one of the band’s four singers, on their break. People plead with the sisters to get back on for an encore, and they return to showtime. Their Facebook page, which has registered more than one lakh likes, represents their numerous performances across India and abroad, showcased on their website. Christine Manfield, celebrated Australian chef and food writer, is among the audience; she is moving around the kitchen, taking down notes as she learns the Naga way of cooking in Dzükou’s kitchen.
The beginning of change has been brewing steadily for some time. The cultural ambassadors of Northeast India are gradually connecting with urban spenders in major metropolitan cities over the sheer breadth of local flavours the region offers; especially with respect to food, fashion, design, music and tourism. Importantly, they are replacing the public narrative of insurgency, displacement, violent conflict and environmental disasters that have so far been perceived as newsworthy.
At the forefront is what Sanjoy Hazarika, Director of the Centre for North East Studies at the Jamia Millia Islamia University, calls the soft power of Northeast India. “Writings from the Northeast, both original and in translation, are becoming part of the curriculum in literary studies in major universities of India. Also, there is a huge surge in the media industry of the region.” Young entrepreneurs from the region have become culturally assertive, making the unfamiliar valuable in a society where the culture of consumerism is growing. While researchers agree there has been an upward trend in the demand for fabrics, motifs, food and folk music from the region, this demand is limited to a small set of people in cities: the elite. The trend is driven by the restless metropolitan class, who are in search of the unknown and the unexplored: exoticism at its commercial best.
It is well known that people from the Northeast have to endure endless racial slurs and deal with thoughtlessly inane and offensive appellations on a day-to- day basis. The lynching and subsequent killing of 20-year-old Nido Taniam from Arunachal Pradesh last year was a chilling reminder of a country stuck in a dangerous time warp, as do recent incidents of violence. However, even though the status quo may seem to remain much the same, people are now also talking about the fashion designers from the region as trendsetters in the fashion industry. Most broadsheets now report on Northeastern culture regularly; the interest has definitely transcended the realm of academic-anthropological obsession.
There are five major restaurants in New Delhi dedicated to exclusively serving Northeastern cuisine: Rosang Cafe, Dzükou and Nagaland Kitchen, in addition to Bamboo Hut and Gharua Exaj, which are still marginal players. Governmental establishments like the stalls in Dilli Haat and the state bhavans are more popular, and smaller eateries are on the increase. Other metros like Bangalore, Chennai and Kolkata have also witnessed an upsurge in the demand for food from the Northeast; including Zingron and The Naga Kitchen in Bangalore and Naga Reju in Chennai. Raw materials are sourced from hometowns to retain the distinct local flavor for homesick students and working people who popularise them, as much as the informed gourmands who have started to join them in upscale outlets in big numbers.
Nagaland Kitchen is considered a pioneer in introducing Naga cuisine into the fine dining format, opening in 2010 and struggling for a year before it made a mark in the culinary landscape of Delhi. Chubamanen Longkumer, who co-owns the restaurant with his two sisters, has introduced exciting cocktails like Raja Mirchi with Bloody Mary which is supposed to crawl over your senses with a slow, snail-like effect compared to Raja Mirchi Vodka Shot which, the owner warns, is for the more daring. The Naga Wild Apple Vodka Shot is another drink Longkumer highly recommends.
Rosang Café’s Mary Lalboi is a former school teacher from Manipur. She migrated to Delhi with her family so that her children could have access to better education. The presence of a large number of students and working professionals from the Northeast prompted her to open a small outlet in 2003 to cater to their homesick taste-buds. “Our clients then were mostly people from the Northeast, unlike now. Seventy per cent of our customers today are non-Northeasterners,” says Muan Tonshing, her husband and co- owner. Rosang is perhaps the only restaurant in Delhi which serves food from all the eight Northeastern states under one roof. Lalboi believes in the power of food diplomacy. “I honestly believe that food and culture will bridge the gap between Northeast and mainland India. We are promoting the face of Northeast via our unique venture in a very positive way. In the past, people had only heard about the food from the region. People are actually getting the real taste of our food now.” Since Rosang Cafe opened in Green Park this January, it has already garnered an unprecedented level of popularity.
Karen Yepthomi, Dzükou’s co-owner, has always wanted combine her love for cooking with her enterprising spirit. She glamourised Naga food through her décor and hired Khublei, a cultural consultancy firm, for public relations. Launching her project in the modish Hauz Khas Village was a smart decision, as a wide demography of people, including innumerable foreign tourists, came to visit. “Customers were surprised the food from Nagaland does not rely on oil. If a house in Nagaland buys a litre of oil, it can last up to 6 months easily,” says Yepthomi.
Tourism in the Northeast is also witnessing change. The Ministry of Tourism reports state that Nagaland has experienced an upsurge of over 40 per cent in domestic tourist arrivals, with Arunachal Pradesh just behind it; up by a lakh or so in each case, from 2011 to 2012. These numbers are only increasing, trends suggest. Hoinu Hauzel, a Manipuri ex-journalist and author of the only existing comprehensive guide on the region’s cuisine, The Essential Northeast Cookbook, began a unique initiative in 2010 by launching a travel website, NortheastOdyssey.com, which is a one-stop directory for hotels, restaurants and homestays spread across all eight states of Northeast India, carefully selected to ensure credibility and comfort. It serves as an up-to-date guide on the best deals and offers, leading tour operators and destination managers, along with nifty bits of historical and cultural trivia that feature more substantially in Hauzel’s e-magazine, NEtravelandlife. com. Hauzel believes the concerted promotional efforts of the Central Government have combined with personal interest to get more people there. “Just giving money won’t help,” she also contends. “For tourism infrastructure to improve in the region, there has to be greater centre-state coordination and more accountability.”
The region is experiencing a very slow but steady revival of folk and indigenously- inspired music through popular folk-fusion acts of artistes like Rewben Mashangva and Papon (Angaraag Mahanta). Nagaland’s government-mandated Music Task Force (MTF) has brought to the forefront local musicians and singers. The number of performance venues in the Northeast is otherwise woefully inadequate, and local artistes find it hard to acquire sponsorship or proper promotional avenues. Three years ago, Anup Kutty started the Ziro Festival of Music in Ziro, one of the oldest towns in Arunachal Pradesh. With every subsequent edition of the festival hosted in the scenic valley, the number of music enthusiasts attending from around the world has only grown. “We curate the festival in a way that there is a lot of bonding between the local and the visiting bands,” says Kutty. The upcoming edition of Ziro in September will be spread across four days, and will feature a dedicated slot for folk musicians from the Northeast.
Alobo Naga & the Band is one of the region’s prominent rocks bands. Their debut EP, ‘Painted Dreams’, was released in December 2011 and the song soon scaled music charts to figure fourth in VH1’s International Top 10. The band’s frontman, Alobo Naga, has tremendous pride in the musical tradition of his hometown. “In fact there are few of these folk, fusion and indigenous artistes who are doing better than contemporary or secular musicians both at the national and international festival circuit. Abiogenesis was nominated twice for the Grammy’s,” he excitedly points out. Naga was his own manager and promoter when he started out. The band recorded ‘Painted Dreams’ in a friend’s bedroom, and Naga did his vocals inside a Godrej almirah, in the height of summer. Things may have gotten bigger since those bohemian days, but it’s not so easy to escape the box. “Even people in metropolitan cities don’t know about Northeasterners. A few days back, a boy in Mumbai asked me if I was from China. When I said am an Indian and from Nagaland, he again asked if Nagaland is in China or Nepal. I studied in Delhi and I know how it feels to be like an outsider even in my own country.”
Parallel to these tracks, the Northeast has made steady inroads into the world of fashion and design through stalwarts like Atsu Sekhose and stylist Edward Lalrempuia. In a sign of renewed cultural pride, fashion designers and stylists from the region who are influenced by a predominantly Western aesthetic are using local fabrics and motifs with a contemporary twist.
Designer Daniel Syiem, who has been featured in Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar, is on his way to becoming a name to reckon with in the fashion industry. His spring/ summer collection was launched at the Couture Fashion Week in New York this February. He is currently working on a collection which will be exhibited at the Terra Madre and Salone del Gusto food conferences this October in Turin. Largely self-taught, Syiem’s life took an about-turn when he realised he could use Meghalaya’s ryndia (a rare, versatile heritage fabric) to promote the rich weaving traditions of his home state. “I think Northeastern chic is already a genre,” says Syiem. “People have a unique style here and street fashion is uber chic and trendy. Fashion is a huge part of our lifestyles. I feel, there is also a positive shift in the way people perceive Northeast Indians.”
Thirty-year-old Jenjum Gadi, another promising fashion designer from Arunachal Pradesh, has trailed quite a journey from a remote village called Tirbin to a sleek fashion studio in Lado Sarai. His breakthrough moment arrived when he was offered a job by Rohit Bal, who was taken with his college grduation ceremony showcase. Today, some of Gadi’s high profile clients include actresses Sonakshi Sinha and Neha Dhupia. Gadi is deeply influenced by the remarkable colours and beads of his native tribe, Gallong. He has showcased his collections in a number of prominent national and international fashion events. “People are really tired of the regulation chanderi silk and malmal,” he says.
Researchers are cautious when they talk about change; perceptions have been misguided for so long, optimism always seem presumptuous. The question is not about the level of participation of Northeasterners in the mainstream, rather the respect and place they occupy in these industries. They ask why the mother of all soft powers—Bollywood— is not visible in this ostensible counter- narrative. Celebrating strangeness is not the same as accepting and making one’s own, they believe. That is why one often comes across media stories of harassments in these very cities that seem to know the Northeast. Although Bollywood has failed to embrace those from the Northeast with open arms, the advertising industry has begun featuring people from the region in socially relevant ads, as was indicative in McCann Erickson India’s Nestle ad about adoption, released three months ago, apart from utensil detergent Vim showing Mizoram’s largest family, in January this year.
The increase in visibility is what is heartening and indicative of change, however slow this change might be in coming. Yepthomi is amongst many who still has to encounter surprised reactions once in a while when her fellow passengers in public vehicles learn she is from India. She, however, is not unduly affected by these bizarre episodes. “A certain level of hostility is experienced by all migrants in big cities,” she says. “I developed a thick skin long time back. Otherwise I wouldn’t have been where I am today.”