Darmasius Rani had gone down to the field, which is some 20 minutes’ walk from his house. When a guest arrived and needed to talk to him, his family sent him a message. Did they send a messenger? No, they simply cooed a tune. The tune reverberated all across the valley, its strains echoing in the remote gorges of the East Khasi Hills in Meghalaya. Rani heard it and came hurrying to meet his guest.
In an age where cell phones are to be found everywhere, the inhabitants of Kongthong, a small village about 65 kilometers from Shillong, still uphold the tradition of calling out to each other with tunes that are composed by their mothers after their birth. In fact, every inhabitant of the tiny village — comprising 108 families according to the last census — has his or her own unique calling tune. They do have official names, but when it comes to hailing each other, the members of the tribe coo the tunes rather than call them by their names.
When a child is born in Kongthong, the mother or the aunt composes a tune — they call it sur — for the child. Sometimes other members of the family may also suggest these “caller” tunes that are roughly one minute long. But the mother has the final say in selecting the tune.
When the children grow up, they are free to make a sur for themselves if they do not like the tunes set by their mothers. “The surs have no lyrics and thus have no meaning. They sound very similar to bird calls,” says Alan West, a media and documentation consultant who has been working closely with the tribe members of Kongthong. In fact, a stranger would find it difficult to distinguish between a man-made sur and the whistling of a bird.
The practice of cooing to each other instead of using words may seem primitive. But in Kongthong, it really makes a lot of practical sense. The sound of a name may get diffused when shouted out over hills and dales. A distinctive tune, on the other hand, travels much better and reaches a person in no time at all. “In the hills, sound reverberates and travels far and wide. Out here mobile phones rarely work because of poor network connections. So it is best to call one another by the surs,” says Rani, the village advisor.
Of course, Kongthong is not the only village in the district of East Khasi Hills where tunes double as names of tribespeople. “This tradition is practised in the entire khadashnong since time immemorial,” reveals Rani. Khadashnong means a collection of 12 villages. These 12 villages have now been split into more villages and the practice is more or less prevalent in all of them.
No one knows when or how the practice of cooing to each other instead of calling out to each other by name began in this area. But West says that maybe it has its roots in ancient times when lovers, who may have resided on neighbouring hills, cooed to communicate with each other.
An outsider may wonder if the people of Kongthong do not get confused with so many tunes or what happens if people end up with the same calling tune. But the villagers insist that no two tunes are ever the same. Says Rani, “We never repeat a tune. Even when a person dies, the tune which was used to call him is not given to anybody else. And though they may seem similar, we can always distinguish one tune from another.”
Like many tribes in Meghalaya, Kongthong — where the main source of livelihood is growing plants from which broomsticks are derived — has a matrilineal social structure. The children take the surname of the mother and the groom goes and stays in the bride’s village. Even if the older daughters go and stay with their husbands, usually on a plot of land gifted by their mother, the youngest daughter has to remain in her mother’s house to take care of her parents.
“In such a society, female infanticide is rare and women are well respected. Moreover, these people are educated and every child is literate. In fact, many people have managed to finish their graduation despite hardships and have moved out of the village in search of jobs,” says West.
Villagers say that the practice of cooing and calling to each other was declining somewhat in recent years. “A few years ago only half of these villages followed this tradition,” says Rani. “It might even have become extinct had it not been for its simple usefulness. Also, the interest of people like West and other foreign scholars has once again focused attention on the practice and revived it amongst the tribespeople.”
What remains unanswered, however, is how villagers can remember all these tunes when there are no written records of them and how they manage to compose so many different and unique melodies. Perhaps the answer lies in the fact that they are so much at one with nature and its sounds. As Rani asserts, “We’ll never fall short of tunes. Our natural resources are abundant and we will be able to compose new tunes every time.”