The Central Australian Aboriginal Women’s Choir Naina Sen.
I felt a strange kinship, a sense of belonging, a familiarity that I had never experienced before in Australia. I loved my life and work in Melbourne but I felt a surreal connection while working on the five-day workshop for the Koori Aboriginal people in 2006. I think that’s when it dawned on me that I knew nothing of the vast history of this land and its people,” says filmmaker Naina Sen, while talking about the conceptualisation of the documentary, The Song Keepers, which takes us into the world of The Central Australian Aboriginal Women’s Choir (TCAAWC).
The filmmaker moved to Darwin in 2007, but the experience of the workshop stayed with her. Soon, she was introduced to TCAAWC, while she was on a flight from Alice Springs to Melbourne. “The lady sitting next to me told me about this fabulous all women’s choir. It was an anomaly to me, because till that moment I had only been exposed to aboriginal music as deeply ceremonial, traditional and within the parameters of folk, reggae and country music. I Googled them and here was this 140-year-old musical tradition that was continuing,” adds Sen, who graduated from St Stephen’s College in Delhi. She traces the popularity of choir groups and choral singing in central Australia to the early 19th century, when Lutheran missionaries arrived in the region. The missionaries departed but the aboriginals continued to sing their music and hymns, while making them their own.
The 84-minute documentary , which took Sen about four years to make, released in theaters in Australia earlier this year. The Songkeepers begins with a scene of the choir practicing in a tiny church in Alice Springs. Pastor Stuart informs the 32-member group that they will soon travel to Bavaria to perform the very hymns that were taught to them by Lutheran missionaries. “I had many lengthy conversations with Morris Stuart, the choir master, who told me that the women want to share their story with the world but don’t know how. The choir was preparing for the Boomerang tour, where they would travel to Bavaria and Germany and sing the hymns that they were taught but in their own language and style. The meanings and the forms of the songs have evolved. The tour had a seminal significance,” says Sen, who first moved to Australia in 2001 to pursue her Masters at La Trobe University, Melbourne.
Sen travelled with the choir to Germany in 2015, and even made projections for their various shows. Over time, she became part of the crew. While the film documents the journey of this choir and its members, who encompass four generations of women, it doesn’t reduce itself to just a linear story. Poignant backstories of the members, their struggles, their lives, give a larger insight into the varied aboriginal culture. “It is very powerful and moving to watch this group of women together — the way they nurture each other, care for each other. They are hilarious and have this innate cheekiness. The film is a microcosm of my relationship with them. It was a joyous journey. It took four years for me to make this film, and during that period our relationship evolved. The film wouldn’t have been possible without their acceptance of me. I instantly fell in love with Daphne Puntjina — the boss lady of the choir. My bond with her helped me come closer to the rest of the group,” says Sen, adding that the choir comprises members from varied communities in the region — from Areyonga to Kaltukatjara, Titjikala, Mutitjulu, Ntaria and Alice Springs.
The film is also a subtle commentary on the impact of colonisation on their people. “These women are also cultural custodians, they conduct ceremonies and carry forward their traditions, but they are also devouts — the sheer adeptness with which they straddle the two worlds is amazing,” says Sen. She adds, “The film also showcases that not all missionaries were the same. The women are aware of the atrocities that were carried out on the aboriginals, but they assert that they and their community had a very different experience. Also, they don’t want to lump the colonisers and the missionaries together. They are making a distinction, and rearranging the furniture in the process.”
The movie, which premiered at the Melbourne International Film Festival last year, has received rave reviews across the world, though Sen admits that she is a tad nervous about the reception in India. “This is home turf. I am nervous,” she says.
The film will be screened at The Stein Auditorium, India Habitat Centre,
today, at 7 pm