This is how it happened. During a visit to the Musical Instrument Museum (“the MIM”) in Phoenix, Arizona, I noticed an instrument from India called the tuila, which looks remarkably like the kse diev, the Cambodian one-stringed instrument that I play. All the elements were there: one string stretched along a narrow round frame, the string tied to a decorated end-piece, and a hollow gourd used for the sounding box.
So, I contacted Colin Pearson, the MIM’s Asia Curator and an acquaintance I had worked with a few years back, to see if he knew anything about the tuila. He suggested I contact Carol Babiracki, a professor at Syracuse University and the researcher who had acquired the tuila for the MIM. I found Carol’s contact information on Syracuse’s website, sent her a message out of the blue, and received a warm and detailed response. Her article on the tuila in the New Grove Dictionary of Musical Instruments was a helpful beginning, her words (“If you could establish a connection between the tuila and the kse diev, that would be most interesting”) were encouraging, but her personal contacts were most valuable.
I don’t speak Hindi yet, so I first tried Mukund Nayak, Carol’s English-speaking friend and long-time research assistant. After a number of tries, I connected with him on his cell phone, and since I have arrived in Ranchi, the capital of Jharkhand state, he has been an invaluable guide and the friendliest of hosts. Finally, Mukund connected me with Lalu Shankar and Kali Shankar Mahli, two brothers who are the only living tuila musicians. And so, on my second night in Ranchi, after one no-show the previous night, Lalu arrived at Mukund’s house and I began my study of the tuila.
Since then, I have learned much more than just the tuila—for example, I am attempting the mandar drum in the above photograph—and I have come to see that traveling to Jharkhand has been like entering a different country. When we first met, Mukund detailed for me his state’s five major tribal and linguistic groups and its four regional groups. In all, there are 32-33 tribal groups plus the four regional groups in Jharkhand. The multiple ethnicities produce a multiplicity of cultures, and through Mukund I have come to learn much about the tribal dance, drumming, singing, and music.
This art—and even Mukund himself—were key to Jharkhand’s history and the movement toward an independent state. He is a talented singer and a passionate performer, and in the 1990s Mukund composed songs of tribal identity and independence. They became rallying cries for the people and helped fuel the movement for Jharkhand’s creation out of Bihar state, to which it previously belonged. Since 2000, Jharkhand has been an autonomous Indian state.
Music does not exist in a vacuum, and thanks to Mukund, my education in Ranchi has included Jharkhand’s cultural context in addition to the music lessons spent practicing the performance technique of one extremely rare instrument. To me, much more than being the land of hills, forests, and jungles that the term Jharkhand signifies, it is a land of the indigenous.
In the next few posts, I will explore aspects of that indigenous culture and how Mukund, his family, and his network of artists has convinced me that tribal culture is at the heart of Jharkhand.