Filmmaker Anushka Meenakshi and actor Iswar Srikumar discovered a ‘magical form of Li’ during a week-long visit to Phek Village in 2011, which will form part of a larger exercise concerned with understanding the relationship between agricultural labour and music in farming communities across India. Soon after their arrival, they were spellbound by men, women and children whose wordless vocalisations in the fields – a sigh, a grunt or signal to a co-worker – stacked together to form melodious sounds. The activities of winnowing, reaping and thrashing lent a visceral texture to this music, pulling the filmmakers further into its hypnotic spell.
Practiced in rural locations, Li music is part of a historical tradition of work songs whose existence is under threat due to the mechanisation of farm labour. In many cases, Li songs have become extinct. However, in villages such as Phek, where much of the farm work is still manual, work songs are far from being remnants of the past and continue to thrive as part of routine life. The hilly topography of Phek makes mechanisation difficult, and is by default primarily responsible for the vibrancy of Li here.
Anushka and Iswar were extended an invitation to a local screening of work songs organised at the beginning of their stay to introduce villagers to the project. The scenes observed at 1200 metres above sea level included workers standing in choreographed formation before moving and singing to the beat of a group leader, female and male vocals composed out of wails, grunts, sighs of pain and endurance intermingling to form complex harmonies. The primary question to come out of their observations will be – why do the people of Phek sing in the course of working and what is the nature of their relationship to work and song? Through filming on location and interviews, they will explore the varied, multiple functions of work songs – from time-keeping and memory aids to filters for powerful emotions – and its variety of musical forms encompassing multi-layered harmonies, monosyllabic chants, group sets and solos. Why, for example, did workers choose to make music while carrying 60-kilo rice filled sacks up steep inclines instead of conserving lung power for the physical demands of an uphill climb? Similarly, who were they singing for? The research will attempt to ask if the structure of the music changed with the type of farming being performed. The research will indicate that the music needs to be seen as much as heard.
In addition to understanding musical form and the role of work songs in community life, the researchers will try and understand how community members relate to the music and movements they perform. Even prior to the filmmakers communicating their interest, farmers were seen to be recording their own songs on mobile devices. This observation prompted the gifting of a camera to the villagers, enhancing their ability to document their music and performance. The team shall explore the research through their film practice and will produce a series of short, theatrically powerful films to bring their investigation into compelling representation. The locating of post production in Phek Village, and involving members of the community in this exercise, will form the ethical framework through which the function of work songs and the performers’ own set of reflections on this topic will be represented. One of the longer term aims of this project will be that of overseeing the community’s continued documentation of its work songs and the potential tie-up with the Archive and Research Centre for Ethnomusicology (ARCE).