We’ve all gazed longingly at pictures of the floating national park on Loktak Lake, a grazing rhino in Kaziranga, the transfixing pose of a Naga dancer, or the serene view of the Kanchenjunga peaks. One or the other destination in the Northeast is definitely on our wanderlust wish-list. It is perhaps the multitude of cultures that also makes them attractive travel destinations for people from the rest of India. When you think about the eight states of Northeast India, it is hard to not equate their nature to a kaleidoscope of culture. And nothing reveals their unique stories like the unique festivals that each of these states celebrate.
Festivals Take a New Meaning
For our grandparents and to some extent, our own parents, ‘festivals’ pin-pointed to religious and regional markers. To us, and generations onward, festivals have come to acquire an added layer of meaning. One where it doesn’t just involve returning to familiar territory – home, a native village or town – but often to unknown, strange lands in search of a new experience, or an interest that you may pursue deeply – be it music, art and craft, textile, or food!
What our predecessors identified as fairs meant for tribes, farmers, and artisans from far flung areas to congregate for trade, have become melting pots of interactions with, and learning grounds from native cultures. Just as Diwali and NH7 Weekender come to mind when we discuss festivals, the Northeast region of India has its own bevy of festivals that they celebrate with aplomb. Like everywhere else in India, the 200+ tribes of Northeast celebrate their share of festivals pertaining to local religious beliefs (Buddhism and Christianity are widely practiced in the region), the various regional calendar New Year’s, and the change of seasons and milestones in farming cycles.
Spreading The Word
The people of the region have been celebrating these festivals for decades but some festivals have been specially curated in the past few years for the exploring traveller. More recently, the youth of the region have evolved with the times to start something special whilst celebrating the cultural markers of the respective states. There are a growing number of public and private initiatives that are coming into the limelight, especially to spread the word about the festivals and their attractions.
Take for example, the State page for Mizoram on Instagram. Apart from the various customs, rituals and traditions native to the State, the page also puts out information about upcoming events and festivals from time to time. Little wonder, that the page has an ardent following of over 19,500 followers, many of whom live outside the State and not necessarily native. Another great example of popularising a local festival on digital media is the Facebook page for the Hornbill Festival. The festival held during the first ten days of December each year gathers so much visual material – both pictures and videos – from the line-ups that they have highlights to showcase throughout the year, right up to the next edition. They also curate crowd-sourced images and media stories about the festival.
There are other noteworthy fests that also find media mention frequently now. Film festivals like the Brahmaputra Valley Film Festival organised annually in Guwahati brings a variety of audiences from across the region and country. The Ziro Festival of Music in the quaint Apatani valley in Arunachal Pradesh gives participants not just an experience of music and food but it exposes them to the tribes and their unique heritage. The Sangai festival that takes place in November of every year in Manipur is a visual treat to the eyes and speaks to the heart of every art lover. The Garia Puja dance at the end of the seven-day Puja in Tripura brings alive the tribal tradition and Pang Lhabsol festival in Sikkim that involves worshipping the Mount Kanchendzonga and celebrates the brotherhood between Lepchas and Bhutias is an exhilarating experience. Last but not the least is Shillong’s own Bob Dylan festival every May that brings his fans from across the world to Meghalaya.
Music Beats in Every Heart
With digital TV and social media, mainstream companies are also organising and promoting the region’s innate creativity in musical genres as diverse as folk, hip-hop, indie, rock, and punk. Since there’s a clear commercial agenda, organisers invest heavily into marketing the events. One look at the line-up and it makes you gawk in wonder – a Kashmiri band from Bengaluru (Parvaaz) and a folk band whose lyrics are inspired by the politics of the nation’s rivers (Indian Ocean), and a popular Indian composer’s attempt to bring together musical influences from across India (Shankar Mahadevan’s My Country My Music), international band Poets of the Fall, and Shillong’s (also dubbed the Rock Capital of India!) own Dewdrops all in one place!
The commencement of the annual NH7 Weekender in recent years has brought to fore the region’s own rich pool of talent, and also unearthed the discerning ear for independent, rock, jazz, and also local folk music among the people of Northeast. The biggest names on the Indian indie music scene such as Papon, Tipriti Kharbangar of Soulmate, and Lou Majow have performed across India and overseas – all progenies of the Northeast. Music festivals are trending, and online ticketing portals become the official gateways by default. Such initiatives themselves promote local festivals, offering music fans a destination within one’s own country to discover beyond just landscape, flora, and fauna of this unexplored paradise.
Feed The Economy
Considered to be India’s most distinguished region with its arresting natural beauty, and as we’ve now established, also some of the most breath-taking talent and culture, the Northeast is spread over an expanse of approximately 2,65,000 sq. km. Festivals spell economic drivers for several of these areas and are indicative of the enormous potential for tourism in the region. Festivals are an occasion for people to flaunt their culture. If the youth is encouraged to celebrate the local culture with their own contemporary lilt, these festivals would present an opportunity for the people from across tribes, as well as from outside the region to gain a deeper understanding about it and forge deep and lasting friendships. The delicious food, vibrant costumes, remarkable music, and warm hospitality are enough to pull anyone to become part of the festivity in the Northeast.
A menagerie of colours, textures, sights, sounds, tastes and whiffs of ethnicities with their diverse language and culture, the Northeast is intricately connected by infinite gems in the form of misty hills and meadows, waterfalls and lakes, monasteries and monuments, wildlife, forests, and so much more. Inspired by all of these elements and what the locals toil so hard to cultivate and breed, are the festivals that celebrate the culture, seasons, and agricultural cycles of the region. To remain just a bystander to such an uplifting extravaganza would be limiting, and so folks, it is time that we too join in the festivities!
By Bhairavi Jani, Chairperson, IEF Entrepreneurship Foundation
This piece was first published in Eclectic Northeast January 2019 issue