Akhu Chingangbam is a poet, singer, song-writer who has come to be known as the face of the folk-rock band from Imphal, aptly called Imphal Talkies, formed in 2008. Since its inception, Akhu has been regularly performing in and out of Delhi, placing the band and him in a prominent spot on the Indian music scene. The intensity of his lyrics conveys the angst of an existence trapped in the turmoil of violence rampant in the state of Manipur, ironically referred to as the Jewel of India. These are often interestingly juxtaposed with music that has a hint of nostalgia and the fragrance of memory, symbolic of a deep attachment to cultural roots and identity. Songs like “AFSPA”, “India, I See Blood in Your Hands”, “Eche”, “Qutub Minar: Tale of a Dream”, “Lullaby”, among others, are reflective of the socio-political context of Manipur, weaving together tales of extreme violence and violation as well as modes of resistance (fictional and non-fictional) devised to fight them. In all, the songs produced by the group can be said to fall under the umbrella term of ‘Protest Music’.
Akhu also appeared on the second season of The Dewarists following his collaboration with the Asian Dub Foundation. His endeavour, the Imphal Music Project, seeks to further collaboration between musicians across the world, making their passion for music a point of contact between them. The first chapter of the Project included Rahul Ram from Indian Ocean and Guru Rewben Mashangwa, known for his role in the development of ‘Naga Folk Blues’. As revealed on its Facebook page, the second episode of the Project involves guitarist/singer Summit Attempt (Sumit Bhattacharya) based in Mumbai, with Sunil on drums, Shankar handling Bass and Devadutta providing Vocals.
Deepti Razdan: What led to the formation of the band in 2008?
Akhu Chingangbam: There was nothing much behind the formation of the band. All I had was a couple of songs which I wanted to record. Most of the songs happened to be political.
DR: Who thought of the name and how?
AC: I thought of the name. Imphal Talkies is the name of a movie hall, located in the heart of Imphal, which is defunct now. This is the hall where we used to go for movies when we were growing up. When I looked back at my school days I admired those innocent days and musically, I wanted my music to represent Imphal and the issues that surround the town.
DR: How has the group evolved since its inception?
AC: We evolved in many ways. Personally I have become more political, which means the band’s music is getting more political. Musically, I try to be minimal in terms of instrumentation.
DR: Are the lyrics written collaboratively?
AC: I write the lyrics and tune them. Sachin, my band mate edits as I often use a lot of harsh words. Only when we hit the studio do we have a whole band. Sometimes, we also hire artists to play a precise instrument that the song demands.
DR: How do you work as a team? Is there a division of responsibilities at some level, or does everyone do everything?
AC: I write and compose the melody. And when we record, Sachin, the guitarist, arranges the track.
DR: The lyrics of the songs seem to contrast the soothing, melodious music. Is that done consciously?
AC: The idea of music being soothing and melodious all the time doesn’t work for me. To me, music as a form of art must be honest. And I try my best to relate music with my surroundings. If the atmosphere I live in is violent, then my music will have a bit of it.
I write the lyrics and tune them. Sachin, my band mate edits as I often use a lot of harsh words. Only when we hit the studio do we have a whole band. Sometimes, we also hire artists to play a precise instrument that the song demands.
DR: With the different kinds of violence and oppression that Manipur has been trapped in for decades now, what is your idea of freedom in the state?
AC: Manipur was an independent kingdom. Now it has been with India for almost six decades. And I believe we don’t have anything in common with India. We look different, we eat different food. India should respect that and stop the oppression of people here. At the same time, I don’t believe in the isolation of a particular tribe or community. Nowadays, with internet and globalisation, even borders and boundaries don’t make sense. It is all about respecting each other and their freedom.
DR: What, according to you, is the best way for the youth to overcome the consequences of stunted modernity in the state and work towards bringing a change creatively?
AC: I have no idea. I sometimes doubt if I am doing anything. The only modernity we see here is the upgrades in the arms the army uses. There is nothing modern about our way of life.
DR: What are the challenges you face as a band? How do you overcome them?
AC: No one wants to pay a band or artists but still I keep making music and perform everywhere possible. That’s the challenge. I am stubborn and I believe in living the life I love.
DR: Tell us about the achievements that you are particularly proud of.
AC: I don’t know what the band has achieved so far. We were chosen as one of the thirty three bands for the Album of the Revolution out of thirty three countries. We also have a couple of gigs coming up abroad.
DR: Who have you been inspired by the most, both in terms of creativity and artistic purpose?
AC: Manipuri Poets Thangjam Ibopishak and Yumlembam Ibomcha have inspired me a lot in terms of writing my lyrics. Their works have taught me to find my own voice about everything that happens around me.
DR: What are your milestones for the band in the near future?
AC: I hope to travel around the world with the music I write.