Singing paeans of familial ties

In times of harsh borders and divisiveness, read the heartening story of Piyush Goswami and Akshatha Shetty who have started The Forgotten Songs Collective, writes BHUMIKA K

ETHNIC Bonda tribals of Odisha.

Piyush Goswami and Akshatha Shetty are living the utopian gypsy life many of us aspire to. They have been on the road for years together having given up their corporate jobs, home, and belongings in Bengaluru. The only difference is that they are making an impact, and changing others’ lives on their path. Now, home is where they are. The people they meet on their journeys and who embrace them have become their family. And that’s how they started their initiative ‘Rest Of My Family’.

“The seed for Rest Of My Family was sown in 2010 when we decided to dedicate our lives to art and philosophy and find ways to bring both disciplines together to do socially relevant work,” says Akshatha. And off they went to live a life on the road and dedicate themselves to that single idea. Between 2010 and 2013 Piyush worked on various independent photography, fiction and non-fiction films; Akshatha explored her writing as a journalist. “But over time we were convinced that writing/documenting alone seldom results in a constructive impact on the individuals and communities that are being written about. We knew we had to do more,” says Piyush.

​ Devadasi culture in Karnataka. ​
Devadasi culture in Karnataka.
 

 

Honest human connection

Their seamless interactions with people on their journeys convinced them that “all social and cultural walls and structures that separate man from another man, one family from another family, one culture from another culture are a human construct and don’t really exist.” While it’s difficult for many of us who just travel for pleasure to understand this, Piyush and Akshatha talk of how the people whom they met along the way in rural India became family. “Their problems became our problems and we wanted to try our best to find a solution to these challenges with all our resources, ideas and limitations. Else, we continue
to be a part of the problem and not the solution,” argues Akshatha. “And, this is what we have gained over the years: honest human connection.”

Piyush and Akshatha
Piyush and Akshatha

 

No agenda

In February 2016, they in fact embarked on a non-stop one-year drive, dubbed #DriveForChange, through rural and tribal India, with the backing of a crowd-funding campaign. Since then, they have documented and lived with numerous rural and tribal communities across the country. One year turned into three, and the couple returned to Bengaluru only last month. “When we started three years ago, we knew that we wanted to cover the Eastern belt of India, and we had a general idea of the issues we wanted to address and understand more about. We don’t approach communities or people as a means to get our work done. The most fundamental and important aspect of our process is to honestly connect to the people on a personal level. Neither do we approach the community with a set agenda. We are foremost interested in relationships and expanding our circle of belonging, giving ourselves and the community time to understand and
accept each other as our own. Everything else that follows is built on trust, a sense of mutual welfare that we respect.”

The whole slow life approach again is a bit vexing for our generation in a hurry! Throughout the drive, they documented various communities and issues across six states: farmer issues in drought-hit regions of Karnataka and Maharashtra, the situation of Devadasis in Koppal (Karnataka), social issues faced by the Lambani community in Chincholi (Karnataka), the situation of adivasis and the Naxal-state conflict in Bastar, Chhattisgarh, issues faced by the Bonda tribe in Orissa, human trafficking and other challenges near India-Bangladesh border in West Bengal and the current situation of the Biate community in Assam.
Across these communities they have initiated several social ventures — sponsoring education for over 400 underprivileged children, providing a community bus for remote settlements, initiating a regular rural healthcare programme, introducing biogas to a tribe, providing drinking water access in arsenic contaminated areas, forming an organic farmers company that is able to get fair price for their produce.

Beautiful Assam. PHOTOS BY Piyush Goswami and Akshatha Shetty
Beautiful Assam. PHOTOS BY Piyush Goswami and Akshatha Shetty

 

Songs collective

While these social initiatives were being implemented, Piyush and Akshatha also turned their attention to the art. Something that led them to start another off-shoot initiative — The Forgotten Songs Collective (TFSC).
“We have constantly felt that folk and tribal music of India has been largely ignored and under-represented. These obscure music forms and songs have such unique imprints of history, culture, identity and life struggles of their respective communities. Another reason for us to start TFSC is because such music is often overshadowed by Indian classical or Bollywood music,” says Piyush.

The idea for the collective began taking real shape during their first stay with the Biate tribe in Dima Hasao, Assam in 2017, where they met an old man named Epa Lallura in a remote village called Jahai in Dima Hasao.
“He is part of the last generation of the Biate tribe that remember their folk songs, stories and rituals. After their conversion to Christianity and with increasing exposure to the modern world, a lot of these have been
forgotten. His pain seeing his culture fade away caught our attention. He genuinely wants to keep Biate music, and history alive,” explains Akshatha.

TFSC has now taken the shape of a multi-media art collective initiated by Rest Of My Family ‘Artist Connect’ programme — The Biate project alone has seen over five urban artistes collaborate.

“Collaboration just seemed like the way to go forward. Such collaborative efforts will generate interest in the younger generation of tribals and make them believe that all that is old is not outdated and meaningless and that it can be, and should be, celebrated in modern times as well,” stresses Akshatha. “We are currently gearing up to execute and document the second phase of the Biate story. We hope to release fusion songs inspired by Biate songs and also share original Biate songs,” says Piyush. They also want to host
performances where tribal musicians can come to the cities and perform with urban musicians. A feature-length documentary film, photo stories, releasing tribal-electronic-fusion EP/albums are the other things in the offing. 

Since folk tradition is almost completely oral, they are recording the older folk singing these songs, getting them to write them down with the stories behind them, so that future generations have documentation to fall back on. So far, a good chunk of the project has been funded by Kara Foundation, run by the Dubai-based couple Gautam Kulkarni and Kanchan Kulkarni, who have also funded their community development projects over the years. “We haven’t received any grants for the project as yet. We are currently in the process of talking to a few organisations who might be interested in collaborating with us for TFSC,” says Akshatha.

Saving a dying language

By preserving the music of the Biates, they are also helping preserve their spoken language too. “Epa Lallura and his generation are the last generation of Biate elders who can speak their original language. The youngsters cannot really understand the original language spoken by their ancestors. By keeping their music alive, it is one of the ways to ensure that their language does not die,” believes Piyush.
In the next phase, TFSC will work with the Bonda tribe and Gond tribe.

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Singing paeans of familial ties

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