Filmmaker couple Iswar Srikumar and Anushka Meenakshi have been travelling across India since 2011 to rediscover the work music of different communities
There’s something common to the chant of the farmers egging on their yaks and ploughing barley in Spiti’s fields, the low, melodious hum of the mask makers in Majuli island, Assam and the fast, frenzied cadence of the ship builders’ voices at Mandvi, Kachchh, as they pull gargantuan ships from the ocean. Their labour draws energy and rhythm from the tunes they weave into everyday work. Now, theatre actor Iswar Srikumar and documentary filmmaker Anushka Meenakshi are out to document work songs, both vanishing and thriving.
Weavers in Thanjavore sing songs while weaving and (below) Anushka Meenakshi and Iswar Srikumar.
In March 2011, the couple were house-hunting in Chennai when Meenakshi whimsically suggested that the couple travel the country for six months. “We set out with a camera and no agenda. On the road, we were drawn to folk musicians and began filming them,” says Srikumar.
It was an evening in Spiti, Himachal Pradesh which gave rise to the idea of Uramili. Meenakshi remembers that they were filming a local musician who plays the cockco and the pyang, when they heard a resonant twang of voices from the fields nearby. “We saw a group of women ploughing barley and singing.
One group sang in sync with the motion of the ploughs, and another to egg on the yaks. That’s when we realised how inseparable work songs are from the lives of communities in India. For millions around India, these ‘performances’ are part of everyday life,” feels Srikumar. The duo says they were fascinated with the sense of focus, energy and cohesion in work songs in successive trips to Mizoram, Nagaland and Kachchh, and decided to document them as part of Uramili, which means ‘songs of the people.’
Uramili is partly crowdfunded and partly works on grants. The duo’s travels will culminate into a 75-minute-long documentary on work songs across countries, which will be released in 2016. Meanwhile, the duo puts up short films about their journey on their website, www.uramili.in.
Through Uramili, Srikumar and Meenakshi say they want to explore how music affects work. For Meenakshi, the most transformative experience was watching the ship workers at Mandvi. “They sang only snatches of the original work songs, because the younger lot didn’t know the lyrics the workers sang when ships were entirely made by hand. They had songs for every process, but now, machines abound — which eventually affects the work song.
They sing a song when the ship is being pulled into the ocean, and we could see how work transforms into this exchange of energies,” says Meenakshi. “It also enhances their safety as they sing when they lift a heavy load and everybody is in sync with the help of the music.”
Srikumar says the project also looks at how work songs are changing over time, and are not necessarily traditional in nature. “Some work songs have been lost over time, but, say, amid self-employed workers, they continue to thrive. Daily workers are unlikely to break into traditional songs because a changing work environment isn’t conducive to rhythm and music. In fact, some communities come together to work just to maintain the rhythm they are so used to. In Phek, Nagaland, many locals who have day jobs farm together in the evening just because they like to work together and poetry is what fuels their work songs.”
The way work songs have changed over the years, is also a part of Uramili. “Environmental issues, migration, electricity and music on mobile phones are greatly changing communities’ work songs. In Kachchh, fisherman Jummabhai Wagher’s community sang old fishing songs for decades. But today, he takes out his harmonium and sings of how the SEZs are changing the face of the coast. That’s a protest song,” marvels Srikumar.
It was the duo’s latest shoot in Kolkata which proved most amusing. They heard that women from Murshidabad and Purulia were in Serampore to reconstruct the roof of a Danish Church, and sang melodious work songs. “What we found instead, were women from Andhra Pradesh crooning Bollywood numbers!” laughs Srikumar.