Remote Indian state of Manipur becomes rock music hub

In the remote Indian state cut off from the rest of the country except via a narrow land bridge, the only way to make yourself heard is loud rock music.

Jianngam Kamei, a popular local music director, plays his guitar in a room in Imphal, the capital of the north eastern Indian state of Manipur.
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IMPHAL // In the far north-east of India, cut off from the rest of the country except via a narrow land bridge, perhaps the only way to make yourself heard is loud, really loud, rock music.

For White Fire's drummer Elangbam Kumar, that explains why their cover version of the Guns N'Roses song Welcome To The Jungle has become an anthem for the band and a big hit with their fans in the remote state of Manipur.

The state, which is 1,700 kilometres from the capital New Delhi, borders on Myanmar and has struggled for decades with separatist violence, a society divided among competing tribes and grinding poverty.

It is also an unlikely hub for rock and heavy metal music, boasting a burgeoning festival scene and local stars who have defied social and cultural boundaries to pursue their music.

"All my pain and angst found an outlet in this genre of music. It is the attitude and the lyrics which are the biggest draw for us," said 32-year-old Kumar, his tattooed biceps bulging out of a tight T-shirt.

Kumar first started playing music at college in the city of Bangalore, where he watched MTV and hung out with students from across India who were into the "headbanging" style of the West.

"There is something raw, rebellious and pure about rock. You can express yourself freely," he explains, adjusting drums in his makeshift practice room decorated with posters of US heavy metal bands Coal Chamber and Slipknot.

"Life here is so frustrating with all the restrictions on us. The entire system makes me angry. The army can stop you on any pretext, unemployment is so high, and we lag behind other states in every way."

Kumar's passion reflects the feelings of many young Manipuris, who often leave to go to bigger cities for higher education and jobs but then tend to drift back to their home state.

For them, rock music is a statement against India's mainstream culture which seems alien and imposed by national authorities. The backstreets of the state capital Imphal are packed with small recording studios and music shops.

Many Manipuris feel that the concept of being "of India" in any meaningful sense is one they find difficult to entertain with a sense of isolation that is not just geographical, but also ethnic, linguistic, economic and political.

Such alienation is common in a number of the "Seven Sisters" - the group of northeastern states encircled by four other countries and connected to the rest of India by a sliver of land that arches over Bangladesh.

The earliest rock influences arrived in Manipur via Thailand and the rest of southeast Asia over the border into India from Myanmar, known as Burma before 1989.

"Back in the early 1980s, the gateway to the world lay to the east," remembers Vivek Konsam, who runs Riverboat, an event-management company in Imphal.

"Second-hand copies of The Rolling Stone magazine, a few tapes of bootlegged concert videos and pirated audio cassettes made their way in through Myanmar," he says.

Youngsters, often unemployed and idle, easily related to the hard-hitting lyrics and ear-splitting sounds.

"It struck an instant chord with them and that got passed on to the next generation. Music is in our blood now," says Konsam, who has converted an outhouse of his bungalow into a smart session space available to rent.

Konsam has been organising rock festivals in Imphal and has seen their popularity grow with each edition.

"When we started out a couple of years ago, there were just two or three local bands. Now that number has swelled to about 20. Attendance at these concerts has also been growing to several hundred," he says.

But it is not easy in a city like Imphal, which closes down by 7pm every evening and has just a handful of cinemas showing old Manipuri films due to threats by separatist rebels to attack screenings of Bollywood movies.

Alvina Gonson, a tribal Christian and one of the rock pioneers of the state, said she had to fight against officialdom to get her singing career on track.

"There are two parallel governments in Manipur - the Indian government and the rebels. We are caught in between," said the 30-year-old, whose talent and blonde good looks have made her a local star, defying cultural barriers.

"There are a lot of restrictions on women here. People don't appreciate women stepping out of their homes and mingling with the opposite sex. Singing rock is not considered ladylike," she said.

"It is not safe for women to hang around alone after dusk."

Manipur's situation is complicated by the fact that myriad rebel groups are largely formed on tribal or ethnic lines with rival agendas that regularly erupt into bloody internecine disputes.

Ms Gonson, who was brought up by her single mother and writes and composes her own songs in English, says she refuses to fear anyone. "I can stop them but they can't stop me."

She began by performing for close friends and family. Word soon spread and she was invited by schools and colleges to perform for their functions.

Then, in 2006, she was asked by rebels to give a performance at their jungle hideout.

"I was scared at first but decided to go. I took my mom with me. The rebels loved my performances, they danced with guns in their hands and kept asking for more.

"No rebel group has tried to harm me ever since," said Ms Gonson, adding that she also performs for soldiers in army barracks.

"I understand the feelings of both sides," she said. "I pray for eternal peace for my motherland."