(From left) Robert Millis, Gilles Aubry and Moushumi Bhowmik present their project, Listening at the Border: Travelling Archives, at Sudio21. Picture by Chanchal Ghosh
The lives of border folks, their music and culture; tales of past and present; the politics of the present - all that and more came alive through a couple of audio recordings by an American, a Swiss and an Indian following their two-week collaboration.
Robert Millis, an American sound artist and musician, Gilles Aubry, a Swiss sound artist and researcher, and Moushumi Bhowmik, a singer and writer, presented their project - Listening at the Border: Travelling Archives - before an overwhelmed audience at Studio21 recently. Sukanta Majumdar, also an artiste, was associated with the project as well.
From sounds recorded in the border areas of the Northeast to tales and songs by Khasi locals interspersed with titbits of history that highlight both the liberating and the limiting effect of a border, the unique project showed how beautiful subtle storytelling can be.
The programme began with the playing of a droning sound captured in Shella, the India-Bangladesh border near East Khasi hills. The audience was asked to guess what the sound was and many hazarded guesses, but the correct answer came as a surprise. "It is a 17km-long conveyor belt that carries limestone from Meghalaya to Sylhet. While the fence there cuts off mobility, the conveyor belt carrying tonnes and tonnes of limestone ensures that trade and exchange continue," said Moushumi, who also narrated some travel tales.
"Sukanta and I wanted to look at border in the context of freedom. Borders entrap people as well as liberate them. We wanted to capture both," she said, adding how teaming up with Robert and Gilles and spending four days with them at Shella opened up a gamut of experiences.
Moushumi went on to share how the group spilt up and stayed in the inspection bungalow and the Border Security Force (BSF) guest house. "The BSF personnel did not ask us any questions. But they said there would be a man with us all the time. That's when we knew we were being shadowed," she laughed.
From convincing security personnel to allow them to record otherwise-ubiquitous sounds to going on adventures, it all made for an engrossing storytelling session.
The second recording was that of movement across a suspension bridge. "The hanging wooden and metal bridge takes villagers to the marketplace. I wish I was allowed to photograph it. It would have added drama to the click-clack sound," Robert said.
"The sound of movement over the bridge is almost like music," chipped in an amazed guest. Robert could not agree more.
There were also recordings of villagers singing and talking about their past. "We learnt that there is a railway station nearby, built during the British era, and we went in search of that," Moushumi said. The hunt took them to Sohbar village, near Cherrapunji. "The village was picture perfect, complete with neat houses, traditional music flowing out from them and a Taj Mahal-like monument. The Khasi village is trying to revive its roots and age-old traditions. There is also a Ramakrishna Mission school running there," Moushumi said.
The railway tracks were an attempt in the past to connect Cherrapunji with Sylhet. "Now the tracks are kept in the local chief's office," shared Moushumi.
Robert also spoke about the traditional music they got to hear, the amplifiers being homemade and one instrument resembling the dotara.
Music was the most beautiful segment of the programme. The artistes concluded with a performance piece that combined recorded music and verses in different languages as Moushumi sang along in Bengali.
"We hope to take our performance to Mumbai and hope to collaborate and take our project further," Gilles signed off.