NEW DELHI: When the Tetseo Sisters began their career in the 1990s, they had the choice of singing in English, but it soon became clear to them that music, a universal language, could serve a greater purpose than fame by helping to save Chokri, their dying mother tongue.
Chokri, a Sino-Tibetan language, is one of more than a dozen spoken in Nagaland, a state in northeast India with a population of around 2.2 million. It is estimated to have between 20,000 and 25,000 native speakers and is among the world’s languages on the brink of extinction.
Initially, the Tetseo Sisters and their Chokri songs found an audience at local events and among regional broadcasters, but the quartet quickly gained fame, and now their YouTube channel has over 10 million subscribers in India and abroad.
“We create curiosity for the language through our songs. This curiosity leads people to inquire about the theme of the song and some ask what is this language and then they want to know more about us,” Mercy Tetseo, one of the members, told Arab News.
“Music is the means by which you can keep the language alive.”
Over the past decade, the group has performed at folk festivals across India, Thailand, South Korea, the United States and the United Kingdom, bringing attention to their community of origin – also at home.
“A lot of people in traditional India don’t know where Nagaland is, who we are,” Mercy said. “When you sing in the local language and people hear it, they get curious what language the song is sung in. That way people know what the Naga community is, where we come from.
Bordered by the Indian states of Arunachal Pradesh to the north, Assam to the west, Manipur to the south and Myanmar’s Sagaing region to the east, Nagaland is one of the smallest states in the India, with a complex ethnicity and a variety of cultural traditions.
“My music forces people to think differently about Nagaland and its people. It also tells people that there are different tribes and languages in Nagaland,” Mercy said.
“The beauty of our country is that all the different layers and all the distinctive things and aspects of people coming together make this beautiful country as colorful and vibrant as it is.”
India’s constitution recognizes 22 official languages, but in the country of more than 1.4 billion people, at least 450 are spoken, along with thousands of dialects. Like Chokri, many are classified as vulnerable or endangered.
When most have lost their native scripts, the languages are transmitted orally from generation to generation.
“Music is part of the oral tradition,” Professor Hari Madhab Ray, a linguist from Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, told Arab News. “It’s a good way to document the language for future generations.”
Kokborok, another northeast Indian language, is spoken in the state of Tripura, which borders Nagaland.
Although linguists estimate that Kokborok is spoken by around 695,000 people in India and Bangladesh, the number of native speakers, especially among young people, is thought to be much lower.
That’s why Koloma, a folk fusion group from Tripura, is trying to save it.
“There is no script to preserve it. Currently, Kokborok is written in Roman characters. So, we thought of immortalizing the language that gave us our first words through songs and music,” the band’s singer, Rumio Debbarma, told Arab News.
“When a language is preserved, traditions and customs live on in hearts and minds.”
For the band’s drummer, Shimul Debbarma, it’s also a question of identity.
“Kokborok is our mother tongue, and no other language would allow us to express ourselves as much as we would like,” he said. “Using it was another way to save a fading language.”
The group plays traditional instruments, mixes genres ranging from pop and rock to reggae and folk, and since its formation in 2014 has also reached audiences in other states of India.
“It really amazes us to find out how we are able to reach listeners even outside of our home state,” Shimul said. “It really proves that music has no boundaries or barriers.”