Of guns and guitars


The Northeast region of India has a strong culture of music, starting from legends like Lou Majaw and Zubeen Garg, to myriad bands like Cleave. But the sound of their music is often lost in the brutal cacophony of armed conflicts. Assamese filmmaker Bidyut Kotoky recently travelled across the eight Northeast states to film the region’s musical legacy, and unearthed many and often poignant vignettes, while also re-connecting with his roots. Youngsters here are truly using music to change the canvas of despair and anguish, into one of hope and peace, he writes.

The idea for my film Guns and Guitars came to me on a casual monsoon morning in Mumbai, while I was accompanying Lou Majaw, legendary rock artiste of Northeast India, to a shop selling musical instruments. The shop owner happened to mention that a very large percentage of his customers belong to the music loving Northeast region of the country. This set me thinking and I wondered aloud to Lou about this paradox – while the choicest of alcoholic beverages are easily available in the neighborhood wine shop in the Northeast, for something as basic as guitar strings, the large number of musicians are dependent on music shops from outside the region! Maybe there’s another story hidden here, but that is for another time.

Lou Majaw – a musical force majeure

For the past 40 odd years now, Lou has been organising an annual concert on May 24, Bob Dylan’s birthday, and now this has become somewhat of an occasion in itself. During our drive back, as we were discussing the music scenario in the Northeast region, I asked Lou about this concert and his thoughts behind this unique way of paying respect to his idol. He said that one day, way back in the 1970s, he felt a strong urge to thank Mr. Dylan for the way his songs had touched Lou’s life, and rather than writing him a postcard, thought of thanking him with a birthday concert. Since the concert was very popular with the local audience, he was requested to repeat it the next year and the year after and the trend continues till date, and in 2011, he celebrated Dylan’s birthday by inviting a rock group from each of the eight Northeast states to play with him in the concert.

The need to document Northeast music

More often than not, the Northeast finds a mention in the national media for all the wrong reasons – when there is a bomb blast, an ambush, an economic blockade, a drug haul and so on. With no mention or focus on the positive energies in the region, the default focus has been on the negative energies. For years, I have been troubled by this and have tried to bring out various, lesser known and more positive side of the region through my films. The above mentioned discussion with Lou, the upcoming concert, and the unusual proliferation of music and bands in the region triggered a thought process in me, and Guns and Guitars was born.

With this film, we travelled through all the eight Northeast states, in an attempt to understand the land and her people. This journey gave us an excuse to look at what gave shape to the voice and music of the land, its cultural and socio- political milieu, while talking to the kid singing in the local pub and the budding rock bands from in and around, catching up with the man on the street, sharing a few thoughts with music fans young and old, and trying to understand how times have changed or not at all!

Travelling through the states

In Mizoram, meeting with my father’s old driver was an emotional moment. Mr. Lalhmingliana, whom we fondly address as Kapu (uncle, in Mizo language) was almost like our family member. And as an ex-rebel of Mizo National Front, he does have an interesting past. When we interviewed him for our film, he recollected how in the late 1960s, they used to fight the Indian army during the day and used to sing Jim Reeve’s This world is not my home once back in their hideout!

Manipur has the dubious distinction of having the highest number of insurgent groups in the Northeast. I was once told that the government employees – including the police – often have to pay ‘tax’ to 29 different extremist organisations when they get their salaries. Amidst this, we met the rock band from Imphal, Cleave, for our film. We found them jamming with a popular Bollywood number. “But isn’t Hindi supposed to be banned in Manipur?” we asked them. “Yes, it is”, they replied. So what will happen if an insurgent group finds out that they are playing a Hindi number? “Well, we could be shot”, was their matter of fact reply!

Cleave is a ‘death metal’ group. In a place where you ‘get’ electricity for an average of three hours on a good day, how do they manage to practice with all their plugged in instruments? This is a problem, they agreed. For practice, they have to depend on generators. And in a state where ‘economic blockade’ is a way of life (often they are cut off from the rest of the country for months due to the blockade of the connecting highways by different groups of the neighboring state on one or the other pretext – and of course, till date there is no railway connectivity to the state!), getting a regular supply of fuel is also a challenge. Often petrol and diesel is sold in the black market at four times the price prevalent in the rest of the country. The group members of Cleave told me that many a time they have stood all night in a queue just for that one or two litres of fuel, which they use to start the generator, so that they can play their music!

The unique Music Task Force

‘Every Naga can use a gun and everyone can also use a guitar’, says Dr. Nicky Kire, elected representative and advisor to Nagaland’s Music Task Force, when he was talking to us during our sojourn in this beautiful state of Nagaland. Paradoxical although he may have sounded, he was speaking the truth. After all, we were in the land which has witnessed one of the oldest unsolved insurgency problems in the world. And it is also the only state of the country to have a wing of a ministry dedicated to music – viz., Music Task Force. In a place where it is not uncommon to find youngsters lured by the gun for an alternative form of income and livelihood due to the absence of proper infrastructure to earn an honest living, the thought of dedicating a ministry to develop the music industry to provide that very alternative is quite a revolutionary idea indeed! And they do have an abundance of local talent to make that idea a roaring success. For example, the examiners from the United Kingdom, who visited Dimapur’s music school Hope Centre for Excellence (affiliated to the Royal school of England), had observed that the Centre is producing results which can be matched by only two music schools of London!

Make music instead of war

In Assam, the biggest music super star of the region and a dear friend, Zubeen Garg (yes, of the hit song Ya Ali fame), shared with us how the news of separatist organisation United Liberation Front of Assam’s bomb blast during the Independence Day celebrations in 2004 in Dhemaji town, which killed 18 school kids, shook him. He composed a song overnight, flew to Guwahati (from Mumbai) next morning, and led a protest with that song decrying the horrific incident.

On another occasion, the young kids playing in the Assamese band D’luzion confided in us, “Everybody seems to have a reason…even the people responsible for the bomb blasts claim to have a reason, we don’t really understand all this, we just feel bad. This can’t be the way to achieve something!” They continued, “The things that we can’t express in words, we try to express with our music…”

The journey with Guns and Guitars has indeed been an eye opening and an enriching experience; whether to learn about the rare and shocking instance in our history when India air bombed her own citizens (the 1966 Indian Air Force bombing of Aizawl, Mizoram) or visiting the home of the legendary folk singer Menchuka – in the last Indian town on the Indo-China border in north Arunachal Pradesh – and hear her sing of plaintive tales in a voice that quivers like the cold wind that blows against the mountain, or visiting the village in the midst of nowhere in Meghalaya that practices the wonderful custom of dedicating an individual ‘tune’ to every child instead of giving them a pet name…yes, certain things in life can’t be described adequately in words, you need to experience it.

Hopefully, you will agree with me when you get the chance to experience the same through our film, Guns and Guitars – a musical travelogue.


Bidyut Kotoky

The writer is a film-maker and a reluctant writer, whose sole objective for writing is to get his readers curious to watch his films. His documentary Bhraimoman Theatre – where Othello sails with Titanic won a special mention in the 53rd National Film Awards. For his debut feature film in Assamese, Ekhon Nedekha Nadir Xipare (As the River Flows) he won the ‘best script award’ for the period 2010-2012 at the Assam State Film Awards. The film also won awards at the 2013 Washington DC South-Asian Film Festival and the 2014 North Carolina South Asian Film Festival. Since the last 3 years he has been busy with his feature length documentary Guns and Guitars – a musical travelogue, which is in its final stage of post production. Made with self-raised funds, the film will be ready for release next year..