Creativity in the “New Normal”: An Insight into Guru Rewben Mashangva
There’s no doubt that COVID-19 pandemic has changed the way we go about with our lives. Earlier, we were all so consumed with our goals that we hardly realized what we were missing out, like going to college, hanging out with friends on campus, spending time with family, and indulging in different hobbies; all that appears to be hollow now. But I feel that it is never too late to realize what we have missed out in the race to fulfill our goals. Although most public places have opened up in different parts of the world for economical reasons, the “normalcy” we felt in our pre-pandemic days, is missing.
Like Pablo Neruda in his poem “Keeping Quiet” said, “What I want should not be confused with total inactivity. / Life is what it is about…” Just because everything around me outside the house is empty or busy, doesn’t mean that there’s no life. I can still feel the presence of life through the chirping of birds and lights of different apartments switched on during night time. This just proves that even if I feel the stillness, life is still going on. I don’t see anyone being inactive, even looking at your phone is an activity too.
While I was thinking about all this, I came across this interview about Guru Rewben Mashangva. What piqued my curiosity was its headline, “Social distancing fuels creativity”. It made me wonder, “Who is he?” Just listening to some of his songs, especially “Empty Streets” made me respect his artistry.
In this new piece, we’ll introduce you to an artist whose creativity was positively impacted by this pandemic: Guru Rewben Mashangva.
Born on 21 June 1961 in Choithar, a remote village in Ukhrul district of Imphal, Manipur, Guru Rewben is part of the Tangkhul Naga tribe, an ethnic group living near the Indo-Burma border. He initially fell in love with music through church where his family went for prayer every Sunday. Back in 2012, when he performed in Ranchi at a tribal festival, in an interview with Times of India, he said, “I was weak in studies, so dropped out of school and joined my father full time. As a child, we used to go to his church every Sunday and sing some songs. So, I would say that music became my passion thereafter. After becoming enamoured by music, I switched to making handicrafts as carpentry involves more hard work and I needed more time to work on my music.”
His carpentry skills have helped his career as a musician when it comes to experimentation. In this year’s interview with The Hindu, he said that when composing music on the guitar, he thinks about the different sounds the songs need, and he makes different musical parts and instruments to create the exact sound he wants. For example, he made a slide ring (also known as guitar slide used for making blues music) from spare car parts to create the sound he needed on his guitar.
Guru Rewben hasn’t had any formal training in music. He was first introduced to the guitar by his friend who studied outside Manipur. His love affair with the instrument started at that time. He got his first guitar from one of the buffalo traders from Burma in the 1970s. But he realised that he didn’t know how to play music or sing English songs, so he decided to play music on his guitar in his own style—Naga Folk blues music.
His musical journey began when he composed a folk song with his brother in 1987. In 1992, a meeting organised by Naga Students Association was to be held where Guru Rewben wanted to perform a song appropriate for the event. But there was a problem: he didn’t know how to write English lyrics, so he got the lyrics of Bob Dylan’s “Trust Yourself” and fitted it to the tune of a Tangkhul Naga folk song. This was the turning point of his music journey.
Apart from being a musician, he’s also a researcher of folk music of tribes of Northeast India, a Director and Guru at Naga Folk Music Academy, and a manufacturer of traditional folk musical instruments of the Naga. He’s hailed as the “father of the Naga folk blues” and the “Bob Dylan of the Nagas” for his contribution to Naga folk music and has two albums to his credit: Tantivy and Creation.
Guru Rewben who prefers unrehearsed jams with other musicians and has an improvisatory approach to folk music, in an interview with The Hindu this year he said that periods of self-quarantine are, “Useful for artists to fuel their creativity.” His music may flow in the tunes of folk, but it also sways with the times.
According to him, “The mind is fleeting all the time, our thoughts change each day, each moment. Even if I perform the same song another day, it will have different influences. It’s a different song each day.” How we feel every day is never the same, especially in this strange time it keeps on changing and we are always on the lookout for other media to express ourselves. Some people let it out by making art, writing social media posts, writing poems, playing instruments, journaling, and so on.
Reading about Guru Rewben’s life as an improvisatory folk musician made me realise the importance of his method of making music by tuning himself into the moment and shutting everything and everyone out. If we try to follow him we can make our present situation worthwhile by just being in the moment and trying to do something constructive.
But, I know that it is easier said than done for everyone during this pandemic. Fighting with ourselves and everyone to stay sane is exhausting but it’s all worth it, and even if we lose, deep down we’ll have the satisfaction of having tried our best and fought well. But it is a challenge to convince ourselves to live with isolation since, we are conditioned to believe that without society, we are nothing.
Whether we’ll make it out of this situation or not is uncertain, but Guru Rewben’s song, which he composed in February, reassures us that this will pass.
“On the empty streets of Wuhan,
Fear and despair roam,
Wearing the face of
Heartache and pain, we’ve been through before,
Heartache and pain, you’ve been through before.”