Cross-cultural safekeeping

Updated: Jan 08, 2019, 15:08 IST | Snigdha Hasan | Mumbai

A documentary tells the story of an Aboriginal women's choir and its unique music that preserves German hymns sung in indigenous languages

A still from the film featuring the choir in performance in Germany
A still from the film featuring the choir in performance in Germany

In the obscure churches that dot the arid outback of Central Australia, a legacy handed down the generations is one of a thriving 140-year-old choral music tradition. Its uniqueness may have worn off for the women artistes who have sung in it for decades, but left Naina Sen — and the viewers of her subsequent film — awestruck when her co-passenger on a flight told her about the Central Australian Aboriginal Women's Choir.

"Here was a group of women who had kept alive German hymns set to baroque music, given to their great-grandparents by German missionaries. And they sang these hymns in Aboriginal languages that are 40,000 years old!" says Sen, an Australia-based documentary filmmaker and video installation artist, as she recalls the flight she took in early 2014 to Alice Springs in Northern Territory. Having worked with indigenous communities since 2009, the idea of Aboriginal choral music still seemed like an anomaly to her — she had only heard music that was deeply ceremonial or at times, folk in nature.

Cross-cultural safekeepingSenior song woman Daphne Puntjina

The choir and its gritty song women became the subject of Sen’s award-winning feature documentary, The Song Keepers (2017), which had a 12-week national theatrical release across Australia, making it one of the most successful Australian documentaries in recent years. Sen is in India for a series of screenings, including one in her hometown of Delhi. This Thursday, she is bringing the film to Mumbai, where she will engage in a Q&A after a screening presented by The Australian Consulate General in Mumbai.

Going back to the making of the documentary, Sen tells us how Googling the choir didn't throw up much information, barring a few video clips. "So, I wrote a long mail to the choir’s conductor, expressing my desire to do some projections for their performance, weaving in the vibrant palette of the desert landscape of Central Australia.” The conductor agreed, informing her how the projections would come in handy for an upcoming show — the choir was planning to embark on a historic tour to Germany to take back the hymns, in the way they had nurtured them in their own languages, Western Arrarnta and Pitjantjatjara. “It was such a full-circle moment! It had to be documented," says Sen.

So, after an exchange of a few mails, she found herself sitting in one of the rehearsals in a small church in Alice Springs. "Watching generations of women perform together is commanding. They have an extraordinary dual identity; they are serious custodians of [ancient] culture and devout practioners of modern faith all at once,” she says, adding, “The YouTube videos had done no justice to their music. Forget the rest of the story, the musicianship was so high. Having grown up in India, we are used to appreciating music in languages we don’t know."

Sen filmed the documentary over four years and travelled with the choir to Germany for the show. "To begin with, the Germans were gobsmacked, and then, the audience turned overwhelmingly emotional," she shares. "As we get more and more modernised, we are moving away from our traditions. But with this show, a lot of these songs that had been lost in Europe were just right there.

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