By Olivia Lyngdoh Mawlong & Heather Cecilia Phanwar
She is among the greatest female singers in Khasi-Jaintia Hills. In the sixties and seventies, her songs were regularly played on AIR Shillong. She was also a renowned composer. More than four decades after, not many people remember Leomon Warbah.
A search for the elderly singer and her two sisters, Bettymon and Itymon, also singers, in Mawprem would have ended in futility had it not been for an old resident of the locality who informed that the Warbah sisters had moved out of their old house four years ago.
Leomon, now 84, was initially reluctant to speak to the media but finally agreed and was happy to meet. Her new address is Lumparing where she stays with her children and grandchildren.
When we reached her residence at the agreed time, Leomon was ready to welcome her guests. Dressed in a navy blue jainsem with floral prints, she looked elegant and beautiful even at her age.
Leomon, who learnt music from her father, started singing in the sixties. “I was very enthusiastic and passionate about music. I also composed many songs and sang them all,” said the octogenarian as she sat down for a long chat. She was a top grade artiste at All India Radio (AIR) and Doordarshan.
Her recorded songs were sent to Delhi, along with the songs of Skendrowel Syiemlieh and Helen Giri, for audition and they were selected for AIR.
The veteran singer, who is the granddaughter of U Soso Tham, has composed more than 100 songs. She also performed songs composed by (late) HD Pariat and N E Wankhar.
“I used to pray before I composed any song. And I made the lyric according to the need of time,” she said, adding that the sisters would perform together at concerts.
Leomon stopped the conversation and asked her granddaughter to bring her notebook of lyrics. “Among my favourites are Katno ka don ka dor (How valuable), Rympei I Mei I Pa, Ka Rong Jingieid (colour of love), Shijur ki puri Blei (a pair of fairy gods — this song is about her parents), Ksai jingieid (thread of love — a love song composed for her husband) and Pha Lah Jah Rngai (you have disappeared — it is about Iale Falls,” she continued as she turned the pages of the old notebook preserved with love and care.
“I am sad that I have misplaced many of my works. I regret it. They were handwritten on pieces of paper,” she added.
But the singer lamented that her songs are not played on radio today and people are forgetting her melodies. “It’s strange or rather sad that AIR does not play old songs anymore. I wonder why it is not playing them now. Is it because they are lazy to search the old songs? I think the programme director or whoever is in charge should take the effort of going through old records and should play them once in a while. Today, songs are repeated. Sometimes I am tired of listening to the radio. Even DD does not telecast my songs anymore,” said Leomon, who spends most of her time listening to radio.
Leomon informed that she never made any cassette and all her songs were recorded and are with AIR. “I do not have any of my songs. I would love to hear my songs on radio again. It’s been years that I have heard them,” she sighed.
Money, said the singer, was never her priority because she loved music. And whenever she was paid by AIR, she would share the money with the musicians and other members of her team.
Talking about today’s songs and singers, Leomon said some of the songs have degrading and meaningless lyrics and some mock others. “Bad songs with bad lyrics not only define individuals (in this case singers) but also show the culture and tradition of a particular community in bad light. Sometimes the name doesn’t go with the song. We should uplift the society, tradition and culture through our songs. Only then we will be able to make a race survive,” she asserted.
At the same time, she said there are some good songs sung by young artistes, especially female singers.
Leomon, who loves dancing and “strumming a guitar casually”, has also performed duets with Headingson Ryntathiang. Despite an elaborate career in music, the singer never got any recognition or award. “I don’t know why artistes are not appreciated in our state. When I go to Guwahati or somewhere else and tell people that I am a singer, people show respect.”
To a query, Leomon nodded and said her songs are forgotten.
‘Popular’ on AIR
According to AIR Shillong, Khasi songs are very popular and many requests come from Khasi and Jaintia Hills for both old and new songs. “We are very proud that we have a good collection of this great treasure and we have a number of slots in a day earmarked only for Khasi songs. Besides AIR Shillong, Khasi songs are also aired on AIR FM Jongphi (103.6),” said an official, adding, “We have request programmes earmarked only for Khasi songs four times a week and we get lots of requests… and many a time we cannot accommodate all the requests. The same goes for AIR FM Jongphi.”