“For everyone in Nagaland, Christmas is the biggest occasion,” said Mütsevelü “Mercy” Tetseo, the oldest of four vivacious Kohima-based siblings who perform as the Tetseo Sisters. Along with their brother Mhaseve, “Mercy”, Azine/Azi, Kuvelü/Kuku and Alüne/Lulu are amongst the most uniquely compelling acts of our times, with an appeal extending well beyond the subcontinent.
Like so many other musicians from the millennial generation, their performances build on layers of influences from around the world, but with two unshakeable pillars: (Chakhesang) Naga cultural roots, and gospel music from the American Baptist tradition. These are the twin poles of contemporary identity in Nagaland.
Nagaland is by far the most Baptist state in the world: at 75% of the population, its adherents to that Protestant denomination far outweigh their co-religionists in Alabama and Mississippi (the two closest contenders). But there are also lots of Catholics and others.
This is because, in just over a century, the Nagas have overwhelmingly chosen to convert, with an especially decisive wave right after 1947. “Someone may tell us that Nagas are Christians following a foreign religion,” said Naga nationalist leader Angami Zapu Phizo four years later. “The Indians publicly say this. We do not take Christianity as foreign religion any more than we consider the light of the sun as foreign origin from outer world.”
It’s an extraordinary phenomenon, with an astonishingly rich cultural output to match. Even while most of India isn’t paying attention, the Naga tryst with modernity continues to develop very rapidly, inherent with significant global implications.
An impressive balancing act
I had first become hooked on the Tetseo Sisters when their 2015 cover of Charlie Puth’s hit Marvin Gaye came to my attention. To be entirely honest, I couldn’t quite believe my eyes and ears: such attractive, soulful singers from an entirely unfamiliar setting, who made this very American song all their own.
Upon investigation, I realised there was much more of the same evolving at breakneck speed in Nagaland – and went there on assignment to find out more – eventually learning that the state is unstoppably bubbling over with creative talent that manages an impressive balancing act between age-old community values and 21st century aspirations.
Coming from the west coast of India, home to some of the earliest Christian and Muslim communities in the world, where both religions peacefully established themselves very soon after being founded, the sheer newness of Naga Christianity offers hints of what might have occurred many generations ago in my own family.
Mercy Tetseo said that her mother became Christian as a teenager but her paternal grandparents were amongst the few early converts in their native village, so her dad grew up in a Christian home. “My maternal grandmother converted in old age,” she said.
In Naga parlance, becoming a Christian means giving up consuming/making rice beer for good, and since grandma brewed her own – and that was one thing she never wanted to compromise on – she took her time to convert.
“Whether we acknowledge it or not, the Naga Christian is a hybrid of sorts, and our celebrations also have traditional Naga elements,” Mercy Tetseo said. “It always surprised us that our parent’s generation left behind so many of our cultural practices after accepting Christianity, but as we grew up, we have learnt to discover more and once again accept our older cultural ways. For example, there was a time when folk tunes were not allowed to be performed in church, but now we sing them with gospel lyrics. The cultural part getting rejected was a misunderstanding and overzealousness I believe.”
This is how Jelle J. P. Wouters described the state in Religion, Politics and the Problem of Secularism among the Upland Nagas:
“Imagine a land where politicians build churches, work as missionaries in their spare time, or sponsor members of their electoral constituencies to study theology in Bible colleges near and far. A place where a formally (state salaried) appointed state chaplain inaugurates political meetings and events with prayer and closes them with a benediction, where politicians regularly preach from pulpits on Sundays, proclaim to be doing ‘God’s work’ when they propose legislation and publicly attribute their electoral success to divine provenance.
“Also, a place where politicians now and then put aside their personal and party differences to celebrate Christian fellowship together. We are in…a theocracy? The sacerdotal state of Vatican City? A medieval kingdom led by religious fanatics? Actually, none of these. We are in present-day Nagaland.”
The first foreign missionaries in what are now referred to as India’s northeastern states arrived in the Province of Assam in 1835. Less than a decade earlier, the region had been annexed by the British after their first war with the Burmese. Tea had been recently discovered. Reversing longstanding policies against Christian proselytisation, the colonial authorities invited missionaries to help “pacify” the fiercely defended hills that rise in dark green waves from the Brahmaputra Valley. By the 1880s, there were resident American evangelists amongst the Ao, Lotha and Angami peoples. These were the first sprouts of Christianity amongst the Nagas.
In Christian Conversion, The Rise of Naga National Consciousness, and Naga Nationalist Politics, her incisive contribution to the invaluable 2017 compilation Nagas in the 21st century (edited by Jelle JP Wouters and Michael Heneise), Shonreiphy Longvah writes, “Christianity integrated the otherwise independently existing Naga tribes and gave political meaning to their realisation of a common identity. Influenced by the common idiom Christianity offered them, the Nagas for the first time replaced their village identity with a wider Naga national identity. Based on the Christian values of love, mercy and forgiveness, the Nagas shed their ‘head-hunting’ culture and forged a relationship of brotherhood which contributed significantly to the rise of Naga nationalism.”
Longvah describes how “religious conversions to Christianity resonated with changes in the political and socio-economic sentiments of Nagas”. This is why actions against their sovereignty at Independence tipped the balance, and massive waves of conversion followed.
Sixty-year-old Monalisa Changkija, the outspoken poet and journalist (she publishes the Nagaland Page daily newspaper), said that by the time I was born, almost all her relatives were Christian. She is directly descended from Godhula, the early Ahom convert credited with being the first evangelist to enter the Naga territories.
Changkija pointed me to an especially poignant prose-poem she had written, which she said is a kind of imagery of women rooted to village cultures and traditions but who dared to question – something very discouraged in our patriarchal society.”
In Storm-Lilies Dance, she writes with palpable intensity, “Now you want to know who answered your prayers. Was it the Crucified Christ or the spirits of long-gone ancestors? And you answer your own question. You know that you have had to live with both. You can now say, let them be because you can now say let me just be. And you are you – alive and living – because you stood your ground to find answers to your prayers. The answers were all around you. And you found out that nobody can help you just be except yourself.”
Before visiting Nagaland to see for myself, the usual prevalent cliches crowded my perception: insurgency and violence, weird food habits, primitive exotica. But no one prepared me for the style, sophistication and savoir faire which bowled me over and charmed me anew every single day. I fell hard for everything I saw and experienced, and now – over months of lockdown – I have found myself having strong Khonoma and Kohima dreams, and cannot wait to return with my sons. It will surely be one of our primary post-pandemic priorities. In anticipation, we have been listening to lots of music from Nagaland, and this holiday season found much more of it emerging in an unprecedented flood, in many languages as well as English
Over the past few years, many of my most meaningful insights into the rich tangle of contemporary Naga culture have come from the great Easterine Kire, whose many books are the best possible introduction to her homeland. So I wrote to the author – she lives part of the year above the Arctic Circle in Norway – to ask how the Nagas have managed to switch and adapt to Christianity without the kind of rupturing the process has tended to cause in other parts of the world.
“I grew up in Kohima in the ’60s,” Kire recalled. “There were quite a few relatives on either side of the family who were not baptised. The amazing thing was that both Christians and non-Christians tried very hard to live in harmony with each other. For example, when the non-Christians, who were called ‘Tsana’ (meaning those who follow the religion of the ancestors) observed ritual taboo days where no one was allowed to work, the Christian population would also refrain from working, out of respect. I thought that was such a beautiful and humane expression of the new religion.”
Thinking over costs and benefits, Kire said, “A new religion brought a new lifestyle and ushered in a sea-change. An inevitable westernisation was the price we paid for the access to education, modern medicine and technology. On one hand, I am grateful, but it is saddening to see the negative side of modernisation infringe into homes by way of excessive screen time, superficiality and selfishness replacing old values.”
What is more, “education was the next best thing that benefited us, the first being the opening of the Naga warrior’s heart to receive the gospel of forgiveness in the place of the gospel of vendetta and revenge. It ushered in the environment of peace needed for the blessings of education to manifest. Christianity and education were almost synonymous for Nagas.”
When I asked her about how the Nagas navigated faith practices so seamlessly, I found Kire’s answer rather moving. “It is easy for a Naga Christian to accept the existence of a spirit world; the spirit beliefs of our ancestors still yield meaning for us in the form of dream-interpretation, and prophecy,” she said. “Christians allow themselves to be guided by dreams, and accept that God can guide them with the same symbols that their non-Christian ancestors were guided by. Prophecy occupied an important position in the non-Christian world, and continues to do so in the Christian world. The balance [between the spirit world of the ancestors and Christianity] is achieved because of the great sense of respect of the otherworldly which is such an integral part of the Naga world-view.”
Vivek Menezes is a photographer, writer and co-founder and co-curator of the Goa Arts + Literature Festival.