Telling stories in rustic tunes

By Donboklang Ryntathiang

Born on March 1, 1945, Skendrowell Syiemlieh was the first son (Khun Phrangsngi) of Plentimai Syiemlieh and Romuel Ryntathiang. He grew up in his native village at Umthied Bynther in West Khasi Hills. At the age of eight he started to mesmerize the village folks with the melodious sound of his duitara and his soul searching singing. In 1967-68 he was given an opportunity to sing in an All India Radio programme. After that Syiemlieh became a regular artiste in All India Radio Shillong and his songs were appreciated and loved by many.

Folklore in his songs

In numerous songs, Syiemlieh would begin by saying: “Ha sngap ho para ngan iathuh khana” (Listen oh my brothers and sisters I will tell you a story”. Indeed his songs were stories told not only to entertain, but more importantly to teach and admonish. Like a story teller of old he would sing the stories. The duitara, the guitar and the violin were accompaniments that gripped his audience as he would retell stories about his own people, the Khasis, and in particular the rural folk.
In his songs he would retell the Khasis’ sacred tales (in the song Ki Khanatang), the story of Tirot Sing in prison (in the song Iing Byndi), the origin-myth of his own clan and the awe-inspiring story of the ancestral father of his clan, U Lohryndi, the tragic tale of U Manik Raitong, the story of Ka Suna. Creation and origin-myths of the Khasis, ancient sacred tales, history, tragic tales of fallible Khasi heroes and tragic romances of the Khasi folk form the subject of his art.


For Syiemlieh, story-telling and singing were one and the same. The accompanying musical instruments like the duitara (a four-stringed Khasi musical instrument), the guitar and the violin help to enhance the union between the stories and his music.
Though his songs are tales of yore, Syiemlieh’s unique way of representing them reveal different perspectives of the same tales.
In the song Iing Byndi, the artiste does not sing about the battles and heroism of U Tirot Sing Syiemlieh. Rather, he chooses to sing about the anguish and bafflement in Tirot Sing’s own family after his arrest.
In another song called U Lohryndi, he tells us about U Lohryndi the Thawlang or the ancestral father of the Syiem Sutnga and Syiemlieh clan. While many have only sung about the Iawbei or ancestral mother of the clan, Ka Lidohkha, Skendrowell chooses to show us another perspective of the same folktale wherein we see Lohryndi as the protagonist of his song.
He does not only sing and retell the tales of his ancestors but also weaves his own story to teach us about the evil born out of envy, jealousy and betrayal.
In the song Ka Mahadei, he tells his own story about how the Syiem (traditional Khasi chief) had asked his myntri (nobles) to fetch a poor woman for a wife, especially someone who is a khun khatduh of a poor family. The Syiem hopes to marry a humble and self-sacrificing woman who knows how to keep her house and serve him and her family too. There is one such woman but her elder sister is envious of her. She lies and gets married to the Syiem claiming that she is the khun khatduh who is taking care of her parents. The younger one has no idea about it. She marries a baker. But as justice would have it, the Mahadei (the Syiem’s wife) gives birth to abnormal children who do not live long. The Syiem understands that there is something the Mahadei is hiding from him. She confesses and the Syiem imprisons her. The Syiem then orders his nobles to fetch another wife for him. They come back with the Mahadei’s youngest sister whose husband, the baker, dies before fathering any children. They find her to be the best match for him.
Skendrowell sings: “Ko jingpihuin ko jingbishni phin lah shan slem oh katno sngi? La phi leh bein ha sla pyrthei ia rangli ki juki, Ka jinglanot kan wan ha phi, Khatduh ym slem kan thad lyngkrang ia phi (Oh envy, oh jealousy! For how long would you last? You may have ill treated the poor, but suffering will come to you and in the end you will be shamed and laid bare).”
A unique way of starting some of his songs is that without singing and in the absence of music he would just tell a story to give a moral lesson. He would do this in many of his songs and then proceeds to sing when the music begins.

Romanticism in his songs

Syiemlieh’s songs were inspired by the beauty and serenity of nature in the rural areas. In one song after another he would sing about the four seasons (like in the song saw aiom ki por) and his village. The various elements of nature, animals and plants alike, serve to suggest the many facets of man’s existence and qualities of a person.
In the song Ah Moina he sings: “Ah Moina! Ah Moina! Bu chong cha ri bujngei (Oh Mynah! Oh Mynah! That lives in a faraway land”) and in the song U Sohkhia the image of the Mynah reappears.
The bird Mynah or Moina is a recurrent image that symbolically suggests a love that is lost and has flown away. In innumerable songs of his, plants, especially flowers, like U Tiewlyngksiar, U Tiewlyngskaw, U Tiewdohmaw (all wild orchids) are nature’s symbolic suggestions of the innumerable manners and qualities of human beings.
In the song Khublei Khublei, Skendrowell sings about how he is regarded as an honourable and well-mannered gentleman in his village but when in town he is regarded as being ill-mannered and a rustic. The flowers U Tiewlyngksiar and U Tiewlyngskaw are used to describe this. He is U Tiewlyngksiar (an orchid symbolising an honourable gentleman) in his village but when in town he is forced to apologise to others since to the elite urban folk he is just U Tiewlyngskaw (a flower symbolising the rustic). In the midst of this drama he mentions how U Tiewdohmaw (a flower symbolising a wise person) would listen to the songs sung by U Tiewlyngksiar who is but U Tiewlyngskaw to the urban elite.
The rural landscape inspired and fuelled up his singing prowess. In Ah Moina, Skendrowell sings of a life led in the soothing embrace of nature, a life filled with the simple joys felt when catching a bird or a mountain rat, when ploughing the field, when playing the duitara and when eating u sohphlang.
Singing in the Mawiang dialect (one of the many Khasi dialects spoken in West Khasi Hills), he begins the song with these words: “Chi bu duk bu toi/Set synduk ia ka loi loi (We who are poor, we lock up the nothing we have in a box).”
The empty box is symbolical of poverty as well as the meaninglessness of material possessions. This box which is seemingly empty to the urban folk is in fact a treasure box containing the most precious experiences of rural life. For him these rural experiences must be carefully locked up in a box, a box that the urban rich sees as having nothing or loi loi. This is a proof of his unwavering belief in the serenity and freedom of rural life. This serenity and freedom helped him sing even in the midst of poverty.
In the midst of a difficult village life, his songs still talk about ka Tip Kur Tip Kha, ka Tip Briew Tip Blei, and ka Kamai ia ka Hok (To know one’s maternal and paternal relations — the sacred principle that defines family relations; to know man and know God — the sacrosanct value that defines human relations and our relationship with God; to earn righteousness — the ideal and belief that one must work one’s righteousness out).
These are the Khasi ideals, ethics that have been engendered in him since childhood as he would sit around the hearth with his village folks and family members. His love for the rural and the natural, however, is unlike Wordsworth’s pantheistic ideology, unlike Keats’ worship of beauty and it indicates nothing of Shelley’s escapist desire. But like a true son of his village and like an integral part of the rural folk he sang his songs. A villager singing his songs.
His songs are a magical description of the intoxicating, inspirational and soul-soothing rural life of which he has been part of. He has not waited for a Wordsworth to describe his life. Skendrowell’s songs are not poems about a Yarrow Unvisited (a poem of Wordsworth) but he is part of his own Yarrow meaning the Khasi rural landscape.

Singing his own songs

Skendrowell was a folk member singing his own songs. His love for his village is mirrored in his song Shnong ba nga ieij (The village I love). He ends the song by submitting himself to the call of nature. If WB Yeats could not help but arise and go to Innisfree where he hoped to find peace and a quiet life, Skendrowell gave in to the call of his hut in the village, a call that Mother Nature (ka Mei Mariang) commissioned (Ban khot noh ia nga, Ba phah ka Mei Mariang).
Like a true Khasi, he sees nature as a Mother (Mei meaning mother – Mei Mariang or Mother Nature).
His songs, however, are not descriptions of a utopian Khasi world. He was not blind to the loss of values among Khasis and with an honest eye he saw the moral decadence in his own society. In the song Akor Khasi, he mourns the loss of good Khasi manners and values. “Akor Khasi pat la ha niamra (good Khasi manners and values are now in dark caves).

Raising questions

His songs were not just meant to entertain and tell stories but also to teach and reflect on human nature.
His search for meaning in life starts with questions that dig deep into the deepest pits and chaotic labyrinths of human nature. Questions abound aplenty in many of his songs. Balei? or why?, he would question. In the song ‘Balei jinglong briew?’ or ‘Why is human nature such?’, Skendrowell sings: “Balei jinglong briew kum ka sla halor um kaba shu per? (Why is human nature like a leaf that floats on the water surface?).”
This suggests his understanding that humans are simply drifters and wavering like leaves on the water surface.
In the same song he continues to sing: “Balei jinglong briew ka shu lum Dorbar khlem nongbishar? (Why do humans gather a Dorbar when there’s no proper judge or righteousness?)”. This suggests corrupt practices in the traditional Khasi Dorbar.
“Balei jinglong briew ba shu kwah ban her sha ka ri ki khlem kam tang shyntur suda? (Why do humans want to escape to a land where people don’t work but only talk?)”. This suggests tall talks but no action taken.
“Balei jinglong briew ba shu kwah ban her shaba sting u ba met ba khia u stait? (Why do humans want to escape to where the edible part of the rice-grain is light and the husk is heavy?)”.
The part of the rice grain that is edible should have been described as being heavy since we toil and labour for our food.
But Skendrowell turns this upside down. The edible portion is light but the husk which is unnecessary is heavy. This suggests a chaotic and absurd world where there is a total inversion of values as opposed to the world of his village where the simple joys of life in the midst of nature is soul-soothing and where everything is in order.

However, like Pablo Neruda in his collection, ‘The Book of questions’, Skendrowell does not provide solutions to the human predicament. He sees his own people as being caught in a dilemma (Ka Dum Dngiem) and he firmly believes that it is but the greed of man and the loss of the old Khasi value of ‘Ka Kamai ia ka Hok’ that the Khasi world is now absurdly chaotic and seemingly irredeemable.

Subaltern art of a Nongkyndong

His inability to sing in English made him a not-so-sought-after singer by the urban elite. However, he has remained “the singing story teller” for many in the villages and small Khasi towns that till date are considered ‘Nongkyndong’ (a derogatory term used by the urban elite to paint the village folks as village idiots).
Even the posthumous Padma Shri in 2008 did not help to raise his image among the Khasi urban elite. His songs have remained the subaltern art of a subaltern rural narrative. But despite this his courage to sing about himself as a son of the village bore him great success when without any inhibition he sang ‘Ah Moina’ in the Mawiang dialect.
The Mawiang dialect comes along with the rural, rustic life that he held dearly till his last days. Nobody ever imagined that a song sung in one of the West Khasi Hills dialects would ever be appreciated. Till date, ‘Ah Moina’ remains one of the most popular Khasi songs. He had brought fame not only to himself but to the whole of West Khasi Hills.
Skendrowell is not a pure folk singer. Though much of his music is fusion music yet it enhances the folktales and it only helps our generation to automatically relate to the tales as many of us have been tuned to the sounds and beats of a western drum or guitar. Thus the duitara has found a new companion to help in the retelling of the tales to a new generation. He had found a way to connect our generation to our roots and folklore.
With him the oral story-telling tradition becomes a singing tradition. The ancient folktales are given a new life and are now sung out to our generation and much of what his forefathers have told him are now immortalised in his songs.
The old has given way to the new but the folktales of ancient times is part of our cultural memory and his songs too have contributed much to the retelling of these ancient Khasi tales. In immortalising these tales in songs he has immortalised himself.
Thanks to Skendrowell Syiemlieh many of the Khasi folktales have now become flesh and blood in songs. Let us all tell our own stories in songs and maybe we too will live forever.

(The author is the bassist and songwriter at Snow White and teaches at Seng Khasi College)

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