Wednesday, April 11, 2012

An Analysis of Popular Mizo Culture through Vincy Chhangte's 'Aizawl' - Vanlalveni Pachuau

The simplest and most obvious way to define popular culture is as simply the culture that is widely favoured or well liked by many people. Culture here refers not just to a particular way of life, but also to intellectual and artistic works and practices, such as literature, music, art, films, etc. By this definition of culture, popular cultural forms are those that are commercially produced and therefore, are easily accessible and also understandable by the masses. Popular culture has often been defined as a culture of the people by the people. Since it is the culture that is mass produced to suit the tastes of a general audience, it is regarded by some as being an inferior type of culture.

There have been many critics who have drawn distinctive lines between “high” culture and popular culture. According to them, ‘high’ culture consists of ideas and practices which have been created out of intense study. It appeals to a select audience, that is, those who have the intellectual capacity to appreciate it, whereas popular culture caters to a general audience, one which is less discriminating, and so, it would be less intellectually significant. As a result, ‘high’ culture deserves a serious and intense response, whereas popular culture deserves only a fleeting study since it would have very little to offer. However, popular culture has the potential to offer more insight into the study of culture than what is initially apparent.

For this paper, Vincy Chhangte’s¹ “Aizawl” has been chosen so as to show how popular musical forms can and do give an insightful critique of society. Vincy’s “Aizawl” is a satirical rap-song in which the rapper elucidates the various qualities of the youths in Mizoram’s capital, Aizawl, to an outsider while actually highlighting the posturing and the hypocrisy of its inhabitants. The song starts off with praising Aizawl, extolling its virtues such as its perfect weather and its beautiful women. He tells the outsider that they are approaching Dawrpui, the market centre, where most of the city’s shops are located and where, therefore, the youths proliferate:

“Dawrpui i rawn thleng phei tep;
Angel hawlhthlak hlir maw i hmuh.
Mahse neih chhuantur i neihloh chuan
Bem ringawt suh”

(You’re almost at Dawrpui now;
Are those angels descended upon us you see?
But unless you have something worth boasting about
Don’t presume to court their favours)

The irony here lies in the usage of the phrase “angel hawlhthlak” . While the phrase has often been employed to describe physical beauty, the term “angel” nevertheless points towards the less angelic qualities of the women whose favours could only be courted by those with material wealth. Vincy here gives us the first glimpse into the materialistic attitudes of Aizawl youths. The first verse continues to provide the listener with Aizawl’s youth culture

Chhas bem huai nan Stag i peg alaw?
Khumsenin a khung ang che, fimkhur rawh

(A peg of Stag for courage to make a move on a girl?
Careful, the Redcaps will put you in the slammer)

Here, we are again shown one of the many hypocrisies of Mizo society. Around 85% of Mizoram’s population are Christians who subscribe to the belief that liquor consumption is a sin. Neverthless, the church and the government felt the need to introduce the MLTP (Mizoram Liquor Total Prohibition) Act, which was implemented in February 20th, 1997. This Act called for the total prohibition of liquor in Mizoram. However, critics are of the opinion that this Act has totally failed and has only proliferated bootlegging of poor quality liquor, resulting in fatalities and increased prices of smuggled liquor. The former chief secretary M. Lalmanzuala has said, "If a law fails, it is either to be lifted or amended. We have experimented with the Liquor Ban Act for more than ten years, and witnessed that it has failed to stop what it is meant to stop. It only made Mizoram the wettest dry state. One can find plenty of liquor, only the prices are extraordinarily high".

Locally produced liquor is still readily available, as are IMFL (Indian Made Foreign Liquor), albeit at exorbitantly expensive prices. The table below gives the statistics of liquor seizures in the years 2008-2009 and 2009-2010. Smuggled or bootlegged liquor is seized, those who are found in possession of it, or manufacturing it are arrested. Yet The bottomline is that, despite the raids carried out by the Excise Department and various NGOs, liquor is still readily obtainable. One needs only to be careful of the Redcaps or the police working under the Excise Department.

Fortified by alcohol, Vincy invites the listener to sample the many entertainments that Aizawl has to offer:
Party naah I kal chak a nih chuan
Zantin party chu a awm alawm

Mahse I lam anga lam kan awmlo (zak suh!)
Mi nuih kan chinglo
Hlet I siam ve thovang.

(If you want to party
There’s a party every night.

But no one here dances like that (don’t be embarrased!)
We don’t laugh at others.
Im sure you’ll still make an impression)

One of the things that has often been said about Aizawl youths is their great sense of belonging to the capital city. There are those who tend to regard those from other towns with a certain degree of condescension. Vincy patronizingly tells his friend that his way of dancing do not conform to Aizawl standards but that he should not feel embarrassed by it because Aizawl youths are kind enough to not laugh at others. Implicit in this is the disdain felt by the city-dwellers for outsiders, whom they feel are not quite as “cool” as they are.

In the second verse, Vincy gives a list of various music artists, both belonging to the Gospel and the non-gospel genres. Mizos are known for their great love of singing, and there is a huge proliferation of singers. This distinction between Gospel and non-Gospel singers is an important one within the Mizo context. The question of whether a Christian should sing Gospel songs or Love songs has been an ongoing debate for a long time. There are those who feel that Christians have a moral obligation to give back to God for bestowing upon them the talent of singing, and this should be done through the production of Gospel music. However, Vincy renders this moral debate into a travesty when he declares:

“Zai lama lar I duh chuan
C.Dina tlawn rawh”

(If you want fame as a musician
You should suck up to C.Dina)

C.Dina is the owner of Lelte Weekly, a fortnightly newspaper dedicated to musicians. By virtue of his being the only noteworthy musical journal in Mizoram, C.Dina is probably the biggest musical promoter in Mizoram. A mention in his newspaper brought much fame to musicians since the paper is widely circulated within Mizoram. Vincy implies that commercial success lay not with God but with the bestowing of C.Dina’s favours. This brings into question the musical integrity of the artists and of the Mizo community itself. He continues

Rimawi Kutpui a awm thin Vanapa Hall-ah
Zaimite kan fuankhawm
Kan style a dang, kan hmel pawh a dang
Studio hrang hrang a tam
J JER, SS, Zaiawi-
Ka sawi senglo

(We have Musical Festivals at Vanapa Hall
We musicians abound
Our styles vary, our faces vary.
There are so many studios around.
JER, SS, Zaiawi-
I can’t name them all)

Despite having such a huge proliferation of musicians with varying ‘styles and faces’, Aizawl, for all its appreciation of music, is unable to provide a sufficient platform for these artistes to showcase their talent. The biggest event for them is Rimawi Kutpui, and the occasional concert. The many music studios are a testament to the flourishing of budding artistes; however, the only ones who profit from the music industry within Aizawl are the owners of the studios- the artists get little exposure and are paid only a trifle. Yet, the studios never run out of the patronage of artistes who are willing to try their luck, whether their aims be religious or materialistic.

After listing the various entertainments afforded by Aizawl and its flourishing musical trade, Vincy declares the pride that he feels his hometown. But characteristic of the materialism prevalent in Aizawl, the pride he feels lie in that fact that Aizawl is home to International clothing brands:

Thawmhnaw duhzawng a kim,
duhloh zawng pawh a kim,
(Khawiah maw?)
Adidas, Nike, Reebok showroom-ah

(All the clothes you want
And the ones you don’t, they’re here
At Adidas, Nike and Reebok Showrooms)

The fashion-consciousness of Aizawl youths is hinted at in these lines with their reference to International Sports Fashion brands. When one takes into account that 22.5% of the population in Mizoram declare themselves as living below the poverty line, it comes as a surprise that the biggest concern among youths is fashion. This is particularly true in Aizawl, where brand-consciousness is especially prevalent. Branded clothes are seen as a sign of class and quality, and presumably after they have outfitted themselves in those, Vincy declares 

I changkang ta hle mai
Engzat motor nge I hmuh?
Aizawl motor tam zia hi!
Mak ti duh suh.
Saw saw a va mawi e,
Thlir vung vung suh!
Ava chhelo e,
Hawi huhu suh!

(You are now a person of class.
How many vehicles do you see?
There are so many vehicles in Aizawl!
Don’t be impressed.
That one’s a beauty.
Stop staring!
That one’s not bad.
Stop gawking!)

These lines are in the form of a dialogue between Vincy and his listener. After having introduced him to the higher standards of living in Aizawl, as exemplified by the parties and the branded clothes, Vincy declares that his friend is now a person of class, and therefore, befits the Aizawl standards. However, his friend is nevertheless impressed by the many vehicles and the sights and sounds around him, all of which causes Vincy to admonish him. The true Aizawlian is accustomed to these sights and sounds and is no longer impressed by them. To stare and gawk would give away that one is not from the city, and so, one should act nonchalant even if one is impressed. 

Finally, Vincy declares
Sappui nun kan ngailo, ramdang nun kan ngailo
Kan hmel a tha, chhe deuhte chu lo awm mah se…

(We don’t yearn for the Western way of living
We are beautiful people, though some are not quite so…)

Again, the irony implicit in these lines comes from his declaration that he does not yearn for a Western way of living because it is exactly the western fashion that Aizawl youths are trying to imitate- with their parties, lifestyles and fashion. The last line, “Kan hmel a tha” is reminiscient of one of our more popular Mizo folk song, which declares

“Mizo kan ni, kan hmel a tha
Kan tum a sang bawk si”

(We are Mizos, we are beautiful
And our ambitions are lofty)

This folk song praises the Mizo perseverance and determination, qualities which made the Mizo people beautiful. Yet when Vincy declares, “Kan hmel a tha”, he seems to mock these very ideals that the folk song talks about. Our beauty no longer lies in our noble and lofty aims, but it is rather commercially generated through Western influenced fashions. Thus, while Vincy seems to be extolling the virtues of Aizawl, he is actually exposing its hypocrisies and its vanities. Its angelic women are available only at a price, its laws are carelessly broken, its Christian values are subverted, its prized singers are mere puppets to commercial success, and its beauty is clothed in high priced branded clothes. 

Earlier in the paper, we have mentioned the distinction that has often been made between what is regarded as ‘high’ culture and popular culture. Cultural purists might regard Vincy’s “Aizawl” as belonging to a lower form of culture in that he uses everyday Mizo language to convey everyday elements. He shuns the literary and linguistic devices employed in traditional Mizo song s and poetry. He also departs from the traditional Mizo tunes to employ the use of rap music. As such, his style is different from what is traditionally considered as the artistic form of Mizo writing. However, it cannot be denied that what he has done is to depict, in the common vernacular, a picture of modern Mizo youth culture. Through the use of irony and satire, Vincy reveals much more than is initially apparent and the song is worthy of a more detailed scrutiny that this paper has been able to achieve. The song touches upon the twin holds of materialism and religiosity implicit within Mizo culture, and specifically upon Aizawl culture, and these two aspects will always come be a point of debate in any study regarding Mizo culture. 

¹A popular Mizo rap-singer who writes his own songs.

Vanlalveni Pachuau is presently working on her Ph.D. in the department of English at Mizoram University. This seminal study on contemporary Mizo pop culture was presented at a seminar in March 2012 at Govt. Aizawl College.