In the far northeast of India, cut off from the rest of the country except via a narrow land bridge, perhaps the only way to make yourself heard is loud, really loud, rock music.
For White Fire’s drummer Elangbam Kumar, that explains why their cover version of the Guns N’Roses song Welcome to the Jungle has become an anthem for the band and a big hit with their fans in the remote state of Manipur.
The state, which is 1,700km from the capital New Delhi, borders on Myanmar and has struggled for decades with separatist violence, a society divided among competing tribes and grinding poverty.
It is also an unlikely hub for rock and heavy metal music, boasting a burgeoning festival scene and local stars who have defied social and cultural boundaries to pursue their music.
“All my pain and angst found an outlet in this genre of music. It is the attitude and the lyrics which are the biggest draw for us,” said 32-year-old Kumar, his tattooed biceps bulging out of a tight T-shirt.
Kumar first started playing music at college in Bangalore, where he watched MTV and hung out with students from across India who were into the “head-banging” style of the West.
“There is something raw, rebellious and pure about rock. You can express yourself freely,” he said, adjusting drums in his makeshift practice room decorated with posters of US heavy metal bands Coal Chamber and Slipknot. “Life here is so frustrating with all the restrictions on us. The entire system makes me angry. The army can stop you on any pretext, unemployment is so high and we lag behind other states in every way.”
Kumar’s passion reflects the feelings of many young Manipuris, who often leave to go to bigger cities for higher education and jobs, but then tend to drift back to their home state.
For them, rock music is a statement against India’s mainstream culture, which seems alien and imposed by national authorities. The backstreets of the state capital Imphal are packed with small recording studios and music shops.
Many Manipuris feel that the concept of being “of India” in any meaningful sense is one they find difficult to entertain with a sense of isolation that is not just geographical, but also ethnic, linguistic, economic and political.
Such alienation is common in a number of the “Seven Sisters” — the group of northeastern states encircled by four other countries and connected to the rest of India by a sliver of land that arches over Bangladesh.
The earliest rock influences arrived in Manipur via Thailand and the rest of southeast Asia over the border into India from Myanmar, known as Burma before 1989.
“Back in the early 1980s, the gateway to the world lay to the east,” says Vivek Konsam, who runs Riverboat, an event-management company in Imphal. “Second-hand copies of Rolling Stone magazine, a few tapes of boot-legged concert videos and pirated audio cassettes made their way in through Myanmar.”
Alvina Gonson, a tribal Christian and one of the rock pioneers of the state, said she had to fight against officialdom to get her singing career on track.
“There are two parallel governments in Manipur — the Indian government and the rebels. We are caught in between,” said the 30-year-old, whose talent and blond good looks have made her a local star, defying cultural barriers.
“There are a lot of restrictions on women here. People don’t appreciate women stepping out of their homes and mingling with the opposite sex. Singing rock is not considered lady-like,” she said. “It is not safe for women to hang around alone after dusk.”