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In Tripura, a musician’s bid to preserve the language of the tribes

A young Tripura band’s resolve to preserve Kokborok in a regimen where the language is facing silent hits.

Written by Sanskrita Bharadwaj | Guwahati | Updated: May 22, 2018 12:16:47 pm
Tripura band, Koloma, Tripura Kokborok band Agartala-based band Koloma performs in Kokborok, the language of the indigenous population of Tripura.

For many youngsters in the Northeast, who go to various Indian cities to study and work, the move back home, if it happens at all, is usually a period of rediscovery. The winter Rumio Debbarma, 33, returned to his hometown Agartala, he learnt that his mother would write poems in Kokborok — their native tongue, also the language spoken by the indigenous population of Tripura.

Today, mother and son collaborate to write lyrics for Koloma—a five-membered contemporary folk fusion band founded by Rumio. Koloma performs in Kokborok. “We want to preserve our language and the way our folk artists sing,” says Rumio.

The young vocalist’s music becomes increasingly relevant in a scenario where many fear Kokborok, the second official language of the state (Bengali being the first), is fading into oblivion. The language has always been a bone of contention between the tribal and the Bengali population of the state — with the former fighting a long battle for it to get official language recognition.

More recently, the issue resurfaced when in the first week of May, the BJP-Indigenous People’s Front of Tripura (BJP-IPFT) proposed to introduce Hindi as a medium of news on all local channels instead of Kokborok. The proposal received severe criticism from several political parties in Tripura and the indigenous people of the state.

“Hindi is important too but it shouldn’t be used as a tool to replace Kokborok,” Rumio says, “You express yourself best in your mother tongue — no other language can take its place.”

So is Kokborok really losing relevance?

Kokborok was declared an official language of Tripura in 1979. According to the 2011 census, it serves as the mother tongue for 9 lakh people (spread across different dialects and 9 tribes: Debbarma, Tripura, Murasing, Jamatia, Noatia, Reang(Bru), Koloi, Uchui, and Rupini) which accounts for almost 24% of the state’s population. The tribal parties of the state have had a long-standing demand to include Kokborok in the 8th schedule of the Constitution, which if granted would mean that Kokborok would be recognized as an official language of India. Over the years, political parties have tried to woo tribal votes — the most recent being BJP in the lead up to the 2018 Assembly elections —  with the promise of reviving of Kokborok but the language still has no official script. The former script Koloma (for which Rumio’s band is named) is not in popular use anymore. Today, Kokborok is written using either the Bengali or the Roman script — even that is a manifestation of the deep rooted Bengali versus tribal divide of the state.

“We have been forced to write Kokborok in Bengali script but it is not suitable and the Roman script is easier for us,” says linguist Binoy Debbarma of the Tripura Tribal Areas Autonomous District Council (TTAADC). According to him, the Government school textbooks up to Class 12 use Bengali script for Kokborok but at the university level, students never write in Bengali because the Kokborok alphabet of the Roman script is easier to write in.

Calling out the BJP-IPFT proposal as discriminatory, Anthony Debbarma, Secretary General of the Borok People’s Human Rights Organization, says: “The language has been spoken since the time of our ancestors. Who are they to destroy it? We’ve been demanding a Roman script since our earlier script Koloma is lost, and now through this new proposal, the government is trying to suppress the culture of the indigenous people.”

Among the younger generation, people like Rumio feel that Kokborok is indeed losing relevance, “We are moving away from it,” he says, “Even in music, there is a larger prevalence of Bollywood and Bengali.” It was this that led him to the launch of his band Koloma in 2014.

Koloma — through their music — tells tales of love, life and strife in Tripura.

The genesis of Koloma

In 2013, Rumio came back to Agartala from Bengaluru after seven years. Around the same time, so did his guitarist friend Bhaskar J. Debbarma from Chennai. Back then, family and friends often listened to their compositions, and coaxed them to start a band. In 2014, after inducting a few other boys, Koloma was launched. “I decided to name our band Koloma so even if it were in a small way, people would remember through us the Kokborok script that once existed,” says Rumio, who uses the Roman script to write lyrics. In 2015, they brought out their first album, Mwrwi Mwrwi.

The band uses elements of other genres—such as blues and rock fused with folk tunes of Tripura— to tell tales of love, life and strife in Tripura. The five-membered band — all of whom belong to the Debbarma Tripuri clan — play the flute, the guitar and traditional folk instruments such as the sarinda (similar to a violin), and the chongpreng (a string instrument). “In our compositions we primarily use Uttar Ragini and Dakhin Ragini which are slightly similar to Hindustani Raga Sarang and Raga Desh,” Rumio says.

Staying alive

According to Rumio, there is no “nightlife” so to speak in Agartala — offers to play gigs in town are sparse, and it’s not easy to keep a band together. “The problem with other bands is that they are not very consistent. But Koloma’s lyrics strike a chord with the people. They’re getting quite popular here,” said Holong Debbarma, 28, a young resident of Agartala.

The popularity can be attributed to the unique nature of Koloma’s music — at least for a state like Tripura and a language like Kokborok. “There are other musicians who perform in Kokborok but we’re the only folk fusion band that I know of,” Rumio says.

After its inception, Koloma has gone on to perform at the Ziro Festival of Music in Arunachal Pradesh in 2016 and 2017 and at the Songs and Dance of Northeast festival in Delhi, 2015, and Mumbai, 2016. Earlier this year in February, they were also part of British Council’s music project ‘Mix the city’ in the Northeastern states of India to bring talented musicians from the region under one platform. Besides that, recently they also recorded the background score for a forthcoming Kokborok film Kwtham Kothoma based on a folk tale.

The band is doing its bit to keep the interest alive. One of their videos, Jaduni Sumui, is shot in black and white has 105, 582 views on YouTube — all the members are dressed in similar outfits and are reminiscent of a rock and roll band from the late 60s. Yet what hits home — and probably the reason for their popularity — is a sense of commitment to their people and community, evident the moment Rumio starts singing in Kokborok.

The author is a Guwahati-based freelance journalist. She tweets at @without_sans.

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