By Amos Teo
My friend quite enjoyed the whole event, which his colleague in Melbourne had described last year as ‘better than National Geographic’, which makes me laugh a little. Sadly, in this post I won’t be waxing lyrical about the festival, but would like to point out a few things that made me quite unhappy and in the process, perhaps raise a few questions about the future of the festival.
Looking at the photo below, you might notice the big black stage that was set up right next to the performance area, taking up a large chunk of what was previously audience space. This stage was used for the opening and closing ceremonies of the festival, on the 1st and 7th of December respectively. In between those two days, it seems that the stage was not used at all.
As far as I could see, additional seating had not been provided (apart from some reserved seats for soldiers and their families), even though a third of the previous years’ seating was now taken up by a stage that was largely non-functional for the majority of the festival. And when it was used, the sight lines were so bad because of the large speakers, that many people sitting in the audience area (myself included) weren’t able to see the actual performance onstage and had to resort to watching a small screen at the back of the stage. It seems the only people with a proper view of the stage were the people in the VIP area.
This non-consideration of general audience members was apparent during all the cultural performances too. While some performances were geared to the audience, most of them, especially the song items were not oriented to the general seating area, but to the VIP booth.
If I now asked: “Who is the festival really for?”, the answer would be rather straightforward. Not Nagas from all over the state. Not tourists, domestic and foreign. It’s the small group of people that the organisers have deemed ‘very important’.
I’m sorry, but people didn’t come all this way to see performers’ behinds while they perform. (Okay, maybe some people did, but only to take photos of them in costume.)
I was particularly disappointed at the closing ceremony – it didn’t help that I could barely see the stage. At one point, the performers from the various cultural troupes had to get up and form the usual lines to welcome the Chief Guest who, as custom dictates, arrived late. In the middle of their chanting and singing, the ‘pre-entertainment’ started on the opposite side of the performance area, where singers on the big black stage started their renditions of ABBA and Bruce Springstein, while Bebop dancers popped and locked to Michael Jackson and the Black-eyed Peas. Given the much louder competition from the stage, many of the cultural troupes eventually stopped their own singing to watch the concert, as it was unclear when Neiphiu Rio was actually going to turn up.
What could have been ‘cultural fusion’ had turned into ‘cultural confusion’, with modern pop music drowning out the traditional (or rather, the acceptable version of ‘traditional’).
Once the Chief Guest arrived, the audience was treated to a concert, but it eventually took two hours for the large bonfire to be lit. During the concert, audience members were encouraged to come and dance, and many did, even though my friends and I thought it would have been much better to finish the formalities, like lighting the fire before asking people to jump in and let loose. I felt quite sorry for many of the cultural troupes, especially villagers from the eastern parts of Nagaland who looked cold as they shivered through the concert. A large bonfire while the concert was going on would have much more comfortable.
The question here I posed was: “Who is the concert for?” Maybe it was to expose the villagers, especially from the eastern regions to modern culture? It didn’t look like many of them enjoyed it though. Maybe it was for the tourists, to show people them that ‘Nagas are modern’. But after 2 hours of listening to Adele, Celine Dion, Psy and ABBA, my friends and I were saying, “Yes, we get it: Nagas are modern. Just light the damn fire already!”
Perhaps it was most obvious, when in the middle of the show, there was a request made to the Chief Minister to let the youth ‘party a little bit more’. What could have been interpreted previously as an act of education, I now simply viewed as an act of self-indulgence, at the expense of all other audience members. Of course, even before the fire was lit, many younger audience members had already left, presumably to the Hornbill Rock Festival at the IG Stadium on the other side of Kohima.
In a number of ways, I think this year’s festival truly reflected Nagaland in its current state. You could see the over-privileging of a small elite, the over-indulgence of youth consumerist culture, and the general struggle for a sense of cultural identity in today’s world.
I don’t think there’s an easy way to address any of these issues. However, before I encourage other friends to come attend this festival (which itself was a creation of the government), I think the organisers need to sit down and reflect on who the festival is really for: Nagas (and which ones in particular), tourists (domestic or foreign) or just the VIPs?