When Margaret Shishak left her home in the US to start a new life with her academician husband Tuisem A Shishak and son Wungram in Nagaland, all that she brought with her were a few family pictures and her music. Today, after almost four decades, Margaret has become a synonym for music in the wild east of India.
The American music teacher with the help of music lovers in Nagaland is all set to give Northeast India its first classical western and ethno-music school in December. Besides western classical, the Margaret Shishak School of Music (the music institute has been named after Margaret) will also work towards reviving the ethno-music treasure trove of the region that is facing a huge threat from popular western and Bollywood music.
A unique musical concept
Margaret is joined by her youngest son Zingrin and former colleague Vivee Peseye. Peseye, who has done her PhD in music from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Texas, will also play the role of a dean in Margaret Shishak School of Music. The school is an extension of Margaret's desire to help turn Naga talent into professional musicians.
"When I came to Nagaland, I came across many talented musicians. They have a great understanding of music, but are not trained. So, I came up with the idea to impart music lessons in my husband's college and he supported me," says Margaret, an accomplished pipe organ player and pianist.
A musical journey from US to Nagaland
Margaret and her Naga husband decided to leave their peaceful life in Buffalo, US, when Tuisem announced his decision to shape his dream of giving a college to his hometown into reality. The couple came to India in Sept 1973 and soon started working for Tuisem's pet project --- Patkai Christian College ---- in Chumukedima, around 14 km from Dimapur.
"I've been teaching music and trained several students in Patkai college in the past 38 years. And now I can't wait any longer to start teaching from my own school, an institution exclusively for music." The institute will function from the Patkai Christian College campus, spread across 1000 acre of land. Margaret taught Fundamentals of Music in Patkai College since 1974. Later on, a full-fledged music department was started in the college to help students take up music as an elective subject. She worked as the music director of the department for more than 30 years before taking retirement a few years back. In the due course, Margaret introduced voice lessons and choral music as an important part of the music training at Patkai. Many young Naga musicians who are doing music in one way or the other in the state have also been a part of Patkai's choral groups such as the "Chorale" or a singing ensemble.
Also, ethnomusicology is a course that the music students take in their last semester. They are taught research methodology on how to go about in researching and documenting tribal music in their own communities. "Although still in its nascent stage, whatever documents were collected by way of CD recordings are quite encouraging," says Peseye, who has also been teaching music at Patkai Christian College. She says their main aim is to provide professional courses to students in classical western music, which is very rare in the entire region.
"Music has always been a popular form of expression for the youth of northeast. If you see, young men and women have a great sense of music and are very talented. However, there are very few institutes providing professional courses of international standard. We want the students to turn professionals after passing out from our school," says Peseye.
However, she says, the school's main thrust will be preservation and development of folk and tribal music from across the region.
"We've already started collecting folk instruments played across the region to be taught in the school of music. Folk artistes will be a part of the institute's faculty who will teach the nuances of traditional music and instruments to the students," adds Peseye.
Like in western countries, the bachelor degree (music) in the institute will be a four-year course. The institute will also impart diploma course in music, covering a period of three years. In the coming years, they plan to start a master degree (music) course.
But Margaret and Peseye know it well that they have a difficult task at hand. "Life in Nagaland is not so easy as you know. Ask any music lover in Nagaland, they will tell you that it's our love for music that has helped survive the never-ending political turmoil."
According to Margaret, who fell prey to clinical depression some years ago owing to the conflict situation in the state, music plays an integral part in the lives of Nagas.
"Margaret's case is just a reflection of the suffering of entire Naga community. Definitely, the long-drawn struggle of Nagaland has affected the psychological health of the people. Wounds of Naga people run deep and need proper healing," says her doting husband.
The octogenarian firmly believes that had it not been for music, Margaret would not have been able to fight her depression.
"Now, she is doing much better. In recent times, she had lost a lot of weight. Along with regular medical therapy and counselling sessions, it is her love for music that has helped her fight the battle," adds Tuisem, the founder of Patkai Christian College.
A Tangkhul Naga from Ukhrul district of Manipur, Tuisem had gone to the US in 1958 to pursue higher studies. After completing his master of theology (ThM) from Eastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, he worked as assistant pastor of the First Baptist Church in Rome, New York and later joined the staff of international students, Inc. (ISI) becoming their director in Western New York, stationed at the State University of New York (SUNY) in Buffalo.
This is where he met Margaret and after courting her for some time, they tied the knot.
Tuisem always wanted to work for the growth and development of Naga people and education. He feels it is the right tool to achieve the goal. In 1973, he along with his wife and child left the US to fulfil his dream back home.
"Since then, Nagaland has become my home. Now, it's close to 40 years and I am enjoying every bit of my stay with our extended family and friends. I love the place and its people. Their resilience in the face of adversity is their biggest asset. Moreover, Naga people are very friendly and hospitable," says Margaret. No wonder, she hit the right notes with the locals who equally love their music and their teacher!
Music: A healer for Nagas
In more than six decades of conflict following the fight for a separate Nagalim, Naga people have managed to stand out with their music. The ever-growing bunch of music bands are a testimony to that. The two distinct genres of music that exist in Nagaland are choral/church/Christian and rock/popular. Most of them are apt in both gospel and popular music as they enjoy trying their hands in both forms. Alongside modern forms, folk music also holds great importance in their lives.
Naga folk songs are mostly romantic. The age-old tradition of folk songs is also used to narrate various episodes in the history of Nagaland.
"Folk music and songs are mostly theme based. Through folk songs, Nagas generally eulogise their ancestors, brave deeds of the warriors and traditional heroes. Love songs are very poetic and mostly based on immortal tragic love stories of Nagaland," says Peseye.
"Naga people's love for music has helped them lead a dignified life in the trouble-torn state. Love for music--especially western popular music--among Naga youths is a well-known fact. It is so integral to the community," says Margaret.
"It won't be wrong to say that everyone in Nagaland has got a great sense of music. Most of the Naga people, especially youngsters, either sing or play some instrument. However, very few are trained. Now, it is time to tap the talent and channelise them," says Kohima-based musician and entrepreneur Theja Meru.
Meru believes that effort by senior artistes like Margaret would go a long way in changing the lives of youngsters by turning them into a professional music artistes.
Peace activist Niketu Iralu feels that a society that has witnessed so much of violence and destruction needs some succour and what better than music. "In Nagaland, there is nothing much for the people to indulge in. People go to their schools, colleges and offices and come back home." Be it home or any public space, one can easily see people sitting around the fireplace strumming the guitar and singing songs.