Indian Work Music

Indian Work Music

Two travellers journey across the country in an attempt to make a film out of the sounds of everyday life.

It was on a cliff in the Spiti valley,over two thousand kilometres from their hometown in Chennai,that Anushka Meenakshi and Ishwar Srikumar discovered “work music”. From their high vantage point,they saw a group of 15 farmers,swinging shovels in perfect unison — they sang while they worked,and worked while they sang. There were snatches of laughter in between,as the group continued to till the land for barley seeds. Weeks later,in the hills of Nagaland,they noticed something similar. “This time,the farmers were harvesting paddy,with music and rhythm pervading their every agricultural task,” says Meenakshi.

In February 2011,Meenakshi,a documentary filmmaker,and Srikumar,a theatre actor,in a spur-of-the-moment decision,decided to travel around the country. “The frustrations of house-hunting in Chennai and a long-cherished dream,sponsored by our house deposit money,set us off on this journey,” says Meenakshi. The idea was to travel around the country for six months,filming whatever they saw,but a mail they shot off to their friends and family made it longer. “We asked for contributions,which started coming almost immediately,with a few hundred emails wishing us luck,” recollects Srikumar.

As they journeyed across the deserts of Rajasthan to the Valley of Flowers in Uttarakhand,to the quiet beauty of the North East,the duo,who was particularly interested in meeting “performers”,somehow stumbled upon work music — music that accompanies or is closely associated with various kinds of work. It’s part of the life of a variety of people in India,including (but not limited to) farmers,weavers,fishermen,boat makers,fortune tellers and cattle herders.

“In the larger project,we also narrate stories of individual performers and musicians. But even here,we’ve tried to look at the everyday stories related to their music,” says Meenakshi,illustrating her point through the example of a group of farmers they met in Nagaland’s Phek village. “As they meet up in the meeting after a day of harvesting,she explains,“every now and then,one person would get up and scream at the top of his voice. They believe that it makes those who are already fast asleep feel safe.” A snatch of a scream,titters of laughter,songs sung by them during the day or the sounds of the night — the filmmakers have strung these sounds together along with the visuals of physical movements that accompany the music.


Uramili,which means “song of our people” in Naga,would materialise into a 100-minute documentary by 2014 since the duo plans to film for two more years. There will be no dialogue,no narration and no identification of the locations or performers (except in the end credits). Uramili is a crowd-funded project through,a virtual space for socially relevant creative projects. Since it’s running on donations,the filmmakers

have come up with the concept

of “Friday release” where they share a small story by posting a two-minute video on their website,and invite feedback.

Apart from the musicians they met by happenstance during their journey,they fondly remember Raju,a 11-year-old boy,a powerful singer from a family of puppeteers in Jaisalmer. “It was a doe-eyed little girl who led us to Raju’s house in Jaisalmer. Soon,the entire family joined us and before we knew,it became a baithak of sorts. All this time,this little girl just kept screaming ‘Hello,hello!’,while no one paid attention. Then she would come and sit right next to the person who was talking and just stare at them,” reminisces Meenakshi. She never said goodbye when they left.