Mizoram’s well-loved song-writer and composer Vankhama, in the title to one of his songs, had long christened his native land as ‘Rimawi Ram’, the land of music. Yes, it was not so long ago that the hills of Mizoram were serenaded at all hours with the sounds of birds and insects and the virgin land filled with flora and fauna. Many of these are however, sadly approaching extinction due to our destructive ways, but thanks to the timely and laudable efforts at wild-life conservation and environmental awareness of the State Government and a few well-meaning individuals, the scenario appears to have now changed for the better.
The unique quality that appears to set the Mizo community apart from others is our inborn love for music and song, and the fact that we have a friendly disposition and are therefore easy to befriend.
From the early days, song and dance were the chief means of fellowship within the community. The Christian missionaries took note of this and introduced some wonderful devotional songs, and thanks to lady missionaries such as Pi Sandy and Pi Zaii who taught solfa singing, the existing native musical talent was much enriched. My father Vankhama too, had the happy fortune of receiving his music lessons from them and which enabled him later, to win his musical trophies. This must have greatly enthused him for, during his student days at Calcutta and Shillong, he developed a deep love for classical music and on his return home, had mastered the violin.
During this period, that is, prior to the years before 1930, the exposure to songs from Hollywood and the rest of the world had begun, thanks to the entrance of the gramophone into their world, as well as songs brought home by the native Mizo recruits of World War I on their return from France. Often, they would compose their own lyrics to the tune of these songs besides translating many of them. I recall my father telling me that prior to 1935 he used to do the same but that after 1935 he began his own original composition of both tune and lyrics.
With the passing of time, towards the end of World War II, many Mizos who had joined the army and closely interacted with their counterparts from England and elsewhere, would come home on leave, and befriending them, Vankhama and his circle of friends would get together with them and have singing sessions of both Mizo and English songs. We could thus say that Mizos were no strangers to western music for the past many decades.
We Mizos were introduced to silent movies through ‘Krishna Talkies’, a movie hall opened around 1950 at Aijal by a non-Mizo named Bomraj. This helped popularise such names as Mario Lanza, Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Perry Como, Doris Day, and their numerous hit songs, which were in turn sung with flair and élan by our fathers. They emulated not only the songs of the West, but their dress-code as well, which we are told, proved to be a source of endless irritation to the missionaries from the West!
Again, thanks to ‘Krishna Talkies’, Mizos at this time became exposed to Hindi film songs and dances, and names like Mohamed Rafi, Lata Mangeshkar, Asha Bhosle and Geeta Dutt were familiar names even to the younger generation like us who could sing many of their songs picked up from the cinema hall as well as the gramophone.
The singing lessons received at Sunday school, the church choir singing sessions, teachers armed with knowledge of solfa music attached to various schools – all of these were great contributing factors to the fine-tuning of the musical talent of the Mizo. Many places other than Aijal and Lunglei town, such as Serkawn and Theiriat in South Mizoram, could boast of talented singers amongst their youth, though of not such a tender age as we are prone to see these days.
Due to my father’s keen interest in music and drama, he along with his brother and friends, would devote much of their spare time to such artistic pursuits, as borne witness by the many photographs of such activities, still with us today. My father also formed a musical group along with his close friends such as Ngila, K.L.Hnuna, Lalsangliana, Lalthianghlima, Vanbuka and many others, who would entertain visitors from outside Mizoram, with their musical talents. Besides these, there were others too like Laizuia, Zaihanga, Thangdela, Rozuala, Vanrami and sibling, Lalliani, Khumi, Remsiami, Chawngpari and sibling and Chhingteii, all of whom would get together for singing sessions on occasions like Christmas, New Year, Good Friday, and organise fund-raising campaigns for the Salvation Army orphanage with the singing of their own song compositions. Such occasions and activities have provided the likes of us with many childhood memories.
The ‘Durtlang Zaihlim Party’, literally meaning ‘Durtlang happy songsters’, would perform their annual round of carol singing during the Christmas season and my father would invariably request them to reserve their last visit for our house. He would then slaughter a goat for them and make them stay back for at least one additional day and night. During such times, they rarely included love songs in their repertoire. Also, they did not fund-raise except for the orphanage.
Prior to 1950, my father also formed a wide circle of friends around Dawrpui area consisting of Neihthangi, Biakliani, Chawnglianchhungi, Thangliani and many others. The reason for mentioning all this is to emphasise just how much of the life of the Mizo was preoccupied with the world of singing, even at this point in time.
In 1950, at the age of 4, I made my first public singing debut at a Political rally accompanied by my father and his violin. I have, by the grace of God, been singing ever since. It was said that some children aspired to sing and perform like me, and even pulled at the skin of their throat from the outside in their attempts to toss their voice, but this succeeded only in amusing the crowd!
All India Radio along with Baweja and escorted by P.S.Chongthu, visited Aijal in 1957. Though I was still very young, they wanted to record my voice, so they brought their recording instruments from the Circuit House in the evening to our home to get their job done. The others who recorded their voice were Lalthangdula Sailo, Dartuahkunga and party from Venghlui, and Thanthuami who sang to the beat of her drum. All India Radio again came in 1958, during which I recorded two devotional songs for the Naga English Service, namely, ‘O Jesus, I have promised’ and ‘Lead me gently home’. In 1959, AIR once again came to Aijal escorted by Lalrenga Sailo, and this time set up shop at the Boys’ M.E.School. Those who recorded this time were Thantluangi, Sapi of Dawrpui Vengthar, and my father and his party who played instrumental music and recorded ‘Rimawi Ram’ as well as some other songs. My father also sang and recorded one of his songs, ‘A Hlimthla’.
As for me, though still very young, I was often invited to sing at various places which irked me very much and I would sometimes shed tears due to shyness and frustration.
I was admitted to Seventh Day Adventist School in 1957. The Principal Mrs. Helen Lowry took charge of my singing and taught me many songs. During my public performances, my father would accompany me with his violin while she did so with either the organ or piano. Amongst the songs that she taught me, ‘The Love of God’ still remains an all-time favourite till today with many of my audiences both in America and India.
As time passed, English, Hindi and Mizo songs all continued to be popular until the outbreak of the MNF underground movement in early 1966. After this, only English and Mizo songs continued to make their mark in the Mizo society.
The number of radio artistes had by now increased to a respectable number. Besides Aijal, singers like Saidenga and Zosangliana from Lunglei made their mark with notable original song compositions of their own. It was in 1961 that we rocked at Lunglei, to ‘Laichhuat remnuam’ composed by P.S.Chongthu. My father forbade me from singing love songs till I came of age, but could not prevent the recording of my first love song at age 16 with ‘Lungrunpuii’ composed by Zosangliana, as well as ‘Damtakin aw Chhaktiang Chhawkhlei Pari’ composed by Lalzova.
The music and song movement amongst the Mizos was also making its mark at Shillong with the appearance of singing groups like Sensiari Boys, Lalkhawliana and party, and Liansailova and party. With the help of better and more updated musical instruments and composition, hit songs sung with extraordinary talent such as ‘Sensiari’ by Laikunga, ‘Ngaihzuali’ by Lalkhawliana and ‘Lalngo Chungchhawrthlapui’ by Engruali captured the hearts of music lovers. Meanwhile, bands like Chuailopari Boys headed by my elder brother Vanremthanga was becoming popular at Aijal. The Mizo music scene appeared to be making headway all over. Finally, music lovers organized a Musical Conference in October 1963 at Aijal. Competition was held for various musical instruments including traditional instruments like the Mizo ‘tumphit’ and Mizo guitar. I won the 2nd prize for the singing competition while Laikunga took the 1st prize.
The birth of the Dramatic Society in 1964 marked an important step in the progress of the music and song movement of the Mizos. R. Lalruata, Lalthanhawla and Thanglianchhunga are the names that deserve mention here. For the first time, organizing of Variety Shows received a touch of professionalism. Attention was paid not only to the programme, but to the artistes as well who, for the first time were being given a decent renumeration for their efforts, dinner and get-togethers often arranged and so on. All this contributed not only to encourage the artistes but helped them develop professionalism to a great extent. Had it not been for the upheaval caused by the underground movement of 1966, the progress made in this field would have been remarkable.
During the period just before the outbreak of the underground movement, the years 1964, 1965 and early 1966 witnessed a spate of talented musicians and singing artistes chief amongst which one may mention groups like The Beginners, The Propellers, The Flamingoes, The Hurricanes, The Torpedos, The Beatniks, The Little Chirpers (consisting of Vanlalruati and her two brothers Taua and Vanchhinga), Laltana and party, Saikhuma (Sai tingtanga) F.Lallura and so on. Amongst the female singers of this period, we had Thantluangi, Liannemi and myself. The songs popularly sung by these groups and artistes were those belonging to The Beatles, Johnny Tillotson, Franky Avelon, Elvis Presley, Cliff Richard, Ricky Nelson, Frank Ifield, Jim Reeves and Buck Owens. I mostly sang songs of Connie Francis such as ‘He thinks I still care’, ‘Frankie’, ‘The Wedding’, and Mizo numbers such as ‘Thalengi’ and ‘Zantlai nemah’. Thantluangi had her hit song ‘Awmkhua a har suihlung a leng’ while Liannemin sang ‘Aw, Pathian samsuih ni thei ila’ Zoliana Sailo used to sing ‘Famkhua’ while Joseph Zokunga made his hits with the Italian song ‘Aldila’ and ‘I need your love tonight’ from Elvis. He was indeed a class apart with these songs.
It should be remembered that the first real music promoters for Mizo artistes were the ones who came onto the scene during this time – promoters such as Robert Liantluanga, Lalthanhawla, Thanglianchhunga and his brother Rosangliana. Rosangliana continued his good work at Shillong despite the MNF Movement, and founded and promoted the highly successful band called The Agents, of which I was a soloist. He invested much of his time as well as money into this group.
1965 and early 1966 were wonderful years for us singers in Mizoram, also partly due to the fact that we were totally unaware of the developments leading to the outbreak of the MNF underground movement. I was often invited to sing since 1964, at the political rallies of Laldenga. I used to notice that even when his speech extended to almost three hours, his audience showed no boredom! Vanlalruati and her brothers during this time, had their hits from the Everly Brothers such as ‘Dream’, ‘Devoted to you’ and ‘The Lightning Express’, and ‘Counting Colours in the Rainbow’ from Nina and Frederick. Ruati at this time also had her Mizo hit song called ‘Virthlileng’. All of my brothers and we sisters were, during this time, involved actively in the world of music.
Zopianga Tochhawng and his siblings visited Aijal in 1965 along with the group called The Vanguards from Shillong. One can still recall Zopianga’s excellent rendition of songs from Johnny Horton such as ‘Whispering Pines’ and ‘All for the love of a girl’, and when the Vanguards performed their hit number ‘One, two, three, Fire!’ their female fans would shout at the top of their lungs!
Then like a bad dream, March 1966 forced all of us to suddenly scatter. While some of us parted ways to meet again, many of us failed to be reunited.
The traumatic underground movement however, failed to check the progress of the Mizo world of music. While in Shillong, we continued to hold the banner high while our counterparts in Aizawl, despite the constraints, continued to organize the occasional musical concerts. New singing talents emerged such as Siampuii Sailo, Vanlalruati and Lalsangzuali Sailo whose contributions to the world of music still continue to be acknowledged till today. During this time, great strides were made not only in singing but in the composing of many songs as well. Progress was to be seen in the singing of western songs as well, besides the fact that Mizo bands were improving in their handling of instruments such as the drum and guitar. Parallel to this, traditional songs of bereavement and lamentation sung with feeling and deep emotion, became very popular with the public as it contributed to assuaging and soothing the nostalgia, loneliness and sad depression brought on by the trouble of 1966, to many a parent and family.
Although the trouble gradually subsided, there were occasional incidents of violence and murder. The year 1970 saw me return to Aizawl after my studies, soon after which I got married. 1975 witnessed the brutal murders of three police officers which served to plunge the people of Mizoram yet again, into a renewed state of fear, uncertainty and depression.
In order to counter the tense atmosphere of the period and to help lift the drooping spirits of the Mizo public, the Department of Information and Public Relations in collaboration with the AIR, would relay through public address systems placed at various strategic points of the town, the songs of popular singers of the time. Their efforts succeeded to a great extent and the credit for this definitely goes to names like R.LThanzawna and his colleagues Denghnuna, L.R.Sailo and others. While keeping a close watch on the pulse of the Mizo public, they continued to search for ways and means to create a conducive atmosphere for the entry of peace in the land. In this capacity, they may even be considered effective peace emissaries of the time.
It may be said that their efforts culminated in the organising of the popular Mizoram Beat Contest for the Lt Governor Trophy. All this began under the patronage of the late Shri Surendra Nath, I.A.S. who was posted to Mizoram as Chief Secretary. I too, participated in the competitions along with my siblings, under the banner of our group called The Vans. I shall always remember the look of happiness and enthusiasm writ large on the faces of the excited audience. The Mizos now once again, were able to look forward to their future with some degree of hope. Army officers were invited from all over Mizoram, and the occasion enabled them to view Mizos with a different eye and mindset, that the land and its people were not to be despised as trouble-makers in a troubled land, but rather to be seen as a community with great potential and talent. Such efforts also enthused and encouraged Civil officers of the U.T. Administration to work positively with their army counterparts.
In 1977, Lt.General Jacob of the Eastern Command collaborated with Surendra Nath and R.L.Thanzawna, in organizing a trip to Fort William at Calcutta for The Vans and the Cultural Club of the Mizoram Home Guards. Our performances were aimed at bridging the great divide with the army, and to help improve relations with them. Besides this, we also performed at some well-known hotels of the city. This experience was indeed a laudable effort of the government and department concerned.
One can imagine the change of scene and progress made in the music world of Mizoram post 1986 and the signing of the Peace Treaty with the underground MNF. Progress and development took place and continue to take at all fronts in infrastructure and road constructions as well in the field of sports and Information Technology. We can now boast of visitors not only from the rest of India, but from all over the world, who come to experience our music and peaceful land, especially during the Chapchar Kut Festival.
The Mizo community on its part, has now begun to make inroads with their presence in such countries as the U.S.A., Europe and the South Asian countries, either taking up jobs or going on singing assignments, whether professional or through Church assignments. I too have been fortunate and given singing performances both at the U.S. and Europe.
To conclude, I wish to reiterate that Peace is a precious and valuable treasure that has been earned by the Mizos at great price and that we should take care not to endanger it in any way whatsoever.
Long Live Mizoram!