Curious whistles and chirrups echo through the jungle around Kongthong, a remote Indian village, but this is no birdsong. It’s people calling out to each other in music – an amazing tradition that may even be unique.
Here in the hills of the northeastern state of Meghalaya, mothers from Kongthong – where the Khasi people live – make up a special melody for their child. Everyone in the village of then addresses the person with this individual little tune – for the rest of their lives. They have “real” names, too, but they are rarely used.
To walk down the main road of this village of wooden huts with tin roofs, hidden away on a ridge far from anywhere, is to walk through an orchestra of hoots and toots.
On one side, a mother calls out to her son to come home for supper. Elsewhere, children play and at the other end friends mess about – all in an unusual, musical language of their own.
“The composition of the melody comes from the bottom of my heart,” mother-of-three Pyndaplin Shabong said.
“It expresses my joy and love for my baby,” the 31-year-old said, her youngest daughter, two and a half years old, on her knee.
“But if my son has done something wrong, if I’m angry with him, he broke my heart, at that moment I will call him by his actual name”, rather than singing lovingly, said Rothell Khongsit, a community leader.
Kongthong has long been cut off from the rest of the world, several hours of tough trek from the nearest town. Electricity only arrived in 2000, and the dirt road in 2013.
Days are spent searching the jungle for broom grass – which the Khasi people collect and sell to make a living – leaving the village all but deserted, except for a few kids.
To call out to each other while in the forest, the villagers use a long form, lasting around 30 seconds, of each other’s musical “name”, inspired by the sounds of nature all around. “We live in far-flung villages, surrounded by the thick forest, by the hills. So we are in touch with nature, we are in touch with all the gracious living things that God has created,” says Khongsit. “Creatures have their own identity. The birds, so many animals, they have ways of calling each other.”
The custom is known as “jingrwai lawbei”, meaning “song of the clan’s first woman”, a reference to the Khasi people’s mythical original mother. And unusually for India, this is a matrilineal society. This means property and land are passed down from mother to daughter, while a husband moves in with his wife and takes her name.
The goddess of the family
“We consider the mother the goddess of the family. A mother looks after a family, after the inheritance we get from our ancestors,” Khongsit said.
But according to anthropologist Tiplut Nongbri, a professor at Jamia Millia Islamia university in Delhi, it is something of a “disguised patriarchy”. Women “don’t have decision-making powers. They can’t take part in politics”, she said. “Taking care of the children, that’s the women’s responsibility. Statecraft and all that is [a] male job.”
No one knows how “jingrwai lawbei” began, but locals think it is as old as the village, which has existed for as long as five centuries.
The tradition may not last much longer, though, as the modern world creeps into Kongthong in the shape of televisions and mobile phones. Some of the newer melodic names are taken from Bollywood songs.
And youngsters are less interested in singing out their friends’ names, preferring instead to phone them.