As he sat around a fire, deep in the forests that cover the hills of Dima Hasao in Assam, a shadow of sadness came into the eyes of Lallura Darnei. Now in his seventies, Darnei is one of the oldest members of the Biate community, an ancient hill tribe living in north-east India. The songs he sang around the flames that night five years ago, speaking of great floods and the birds that flap their wings at sunset, dated back so many generations the tribe said they were as old as time.
But, said Darnei, when he died these songs would probably die with him, and with it the history, the knowledge, culture of the Biate, would be gone for ever. The younger generation of the tribe had fallen in love with guitar music and K-pop and had not learned the traditional songs. They could not pick up the ancient melodies and he was the last of the Biate who knew how to play and make the siranda, the tribe’s traditional violin crafted from wood and the dried skin of an iguana.
Sitting across from Darnei as he shared his grief over his disappearing culture were two people who did not belong to the tribe. Piyush Goswami and Akshatha Shetty, a married couple from Bengaluru, had stumbled upon the Biate in a long journey they were taking across India, documenting and living with marginalised and tribal communities and finding ways to bring them greater prosperity.
An aerial view of Finagpui in Assam, north-east India, the area that is the home of the Biate hill tribe
“This was not the first time we realised that these Indigenous cultures are fading away,” said Goswami. “All over, we had seen that these cultures which had thrived and sustained themselves for hundreds, sometimes thousands, of years are now facing extinction. What we stand to lose is staggering.”
Shetty described how for tribes such as the Biate “music is a way of life”. “This is not merely just lost songs and dances but the loss of whole cultures and cultural identity,” she said. “It’s how they recorded their observations and their history and was their way of preserving their ancestral knowledge and memories of their ancestors.”
She added: “Also we wanted to ensure Lallura dies a happy man. That he is heard and these beautiful Biate songs are enjoyed by the rest of the world.”
It was a realisation that would form the basis of the Forgotten Songs Collective, a project by Goswami and Shetty to help communities such as the Biate tribe document and revive their Indigenous cultures in India to ensure that, in the face of modernity, technology and religious conversion, they are not erased without a trace.