It is indeed a great pleasure to get such an opportunity to talk to Ichemma. Ichemma, could you kindly tell us when you started singing? And how did you start grooming your talent?
I started singing at the age of six following my elder sister Smt. Asem Bimala Devi who was already in the limelight of singing profession. I spent my early days of learning music and dance in Bhatkhande College of Hindusthani Music at Lucknow where I got Nritya Visharad in Kathak and Sangeet Visharad. From AIR, Ahmedebad I passed Hindusthani Sugam Sangeet. Later I had the opportunities of learning special music lessons from Pandit Ratan Jhankar, J.N. Natu, Sidesweri Devi, Dr. K.G. Ginde, Pandit Jasraj and dance from Vikram Singjee at Lucknow.
You really had such a good exposure with many of the great artists of India. But was there any problem when you chose this line of profession in your early days? And how did you manage to come such a long way successfully?
No. There was no problem as such. But I think in those days people didn't like women to go out for drama/plays and other singing programs. So in some way that was partly a reason for me to follow the classical Hindusthani. Hard work and sincere devotion-to-work pays.
What could be the most turning point in your career? Who influenced you the most?
While I was in Lucknow as a Visharad student, I got 1st Class 1st and I happened to be first person to get a 1st Division after many years. That was a moment where I felt that I had potential to achieve something. My mother and sister brought me up with complete support and later my husband had given me a lot of freedom to pursue my career and to fulfil my wishes.
Your first performance in public must still be very vivid in your mind. Can you share that with us like, when was your first performance and with what song?
In 1969, as a student I participated the All India Music Conference organised by All India Radio, Ahmedebad. And it was a very happy moment as the crowd really enjoyed my songs and cheered me up. I think they didn't quite expect me much of singing a Hindi song. Perhaps, I could be the first person to sing in Hindi by a Manipuri in an All India Radio programme.
Nowadays, there has been a lot of influx of Bollywood singers in Manipuri Films like Udit Narayan or Alka Yagnic singing a Meiteilon number. What do you say about this? How far it has helped the singing as a profession or culture in Manipur?
It's okay to make Bollywood singers to sing a Manipuri film song. The singers also get the opportunity of tuning into the Meiteilon. But ultimately it is the Producer who is going to make money out of it. That's fine as it is his business. But for singing profession in Manipur as such is not very helpful. One must not forget the abundant talents we have in Manipur. Well, I believe, it's just the case of 'the grass on the other side of the fence is green'. Of course, one can make use of it as a connection if some talented ones want to expose himself/herself to outside world.
It can also be the other way like Ichemma singing Hindi Film Songs. How did you come to Bombay and how long you have been performing here in Mumbai? Also please tell about your personal experience as a playback singer in other Non-Manipuri Films?
(smiles) Though I came to Bombay as early as in the early seventies, I never really got settled down. If I had done, I would be able to achieve something by now. I first came to Mumbai to record a song for Umangi Mee (Karam Manimohan was the financier) where Dara Sing- Padma Sana did the leading roles. And then I gave a live TV program. I think people really liked the program as I had to give one more program in folk song. I am talking of my first part in Mumbai in the early seventies. India Book House, the famous producers of many children comic books including the Amar Chitra Katha, also produced two cassettes sung by me. In my second part I came to learn many gharanas (different style of classical singings) of Pandits like Jasraj and Jhankar. I also did a playback song of the film 'Dillawar' with Suresh Wadeker. I had done in quite a few non-Manipuri languages like Hindi, Bengali, Assamese, Bhojpuri, Sinhalese (Sri Lankan).
Is it difficult for a singer from Manipur or NE India to succeed in Indian cities like Mumbai, I mean, in terms of difference in race, language and accent? How has the audience reacted so far?
Though language has been a problem in communicating people when you come from a different region, music has certainly no barrier. Of course, some years before people even in the big metropolitan cities like Mumbai, had the perception that the North-Easterner are the mere rhythm singers with some guitar and all. So once when I gave an AIR concert, the staff people asked me if some guitar would do. Then I said to give me the best instruments and artists. Certainly they had a tough time to look for appropriate artists when I started with a few lines. They were completely astonished to see a non-Hindusthani face singing a Hindusthani Sangeet.
Is language a hurdle for Manipuris to sing in Hindi or other major Indian languages? Since Manipur market is small, won't it be wise for our singers to learn to sing in other languages in addition to Manipuri? Which Indian language is most suitable for a Manipuri Singer (Hindi or another language) other than his/her mother tongue?
As I said language has certainly no a barrier at all. All the great singers have sung in all kinds of languages. So if one really grooms his/her talent than nobody can deny him/her a place. Manipuris should be able to face the world outside Manipur. There is no point of remaining the no 1 in a small place. One has to move around and face all the challenges in life. Personally though I had sung in a number of languages as I mentioned earlier, Hindi has been my favourite language other than Manipuri. It depends on the individuals, but Hindi, Assamese, Bengali, Bhojpuri are comfortable ones.
Did you get any encouragement from Indian listeners and singers or do you face hostility in terms of real politics in the Music world?
Yes, there has been a lot of encouragement from the Indian listeners and I think they really like my songs for there have been recordings specially for the Indian communities residing in different parts of the World. Very soon, another album in Gujarati is going to come out for the Gujaratis in US. Yes, among the artists there are jealousy feelings and copyright violations, but this is everywhere in every field.
Of late, we observe that there has been a trend of new albums the kind of Hindi-pops that have been floating the market. In Manipur also, people -new singers as well as old singers- have produced so many albums with a music concert. Is there any basic difference between singing for an album and singing playback for a movie?
Quality carries everything. If there is quality, albums do come out as well. But there are differences between singing for Filmi song and album ones. The first basic difference is a playback song is always associated with the story in a movie, while a song in an album has to stand at its own. The director has the option to choose the singers suitable to the song and if you get to sing it is believed to be well fitting to your voice and style. Whereas in an album, you have to make your own things that will match the lyrics. Of course, nowadays there has a lot of visual effects in the albums too.
How is your contribution to All India Radio and Doordarshan? Singing in their studios must be different from the ones in a live concert. How do you enjoy and distinguish these two?
I have been giving programs in both the media centres. As for the AIR, I first gave a program in 1969 at AIR, Ahmedebad while for the DD, I did in Bombay in 1973. Both the AIR and DD are equally equipped with good infrastructure. Since DD has the public audience, one has to put up facial expressions. For me, I used some of the dance techniques to give a good visual expression. (laughs)
You have sung in so many styles of music, Sastriya Sangeet, Gazaals, light music etc. Which style of singing is your favourite?
Sastriya Sangeet has been my favourite, but it has limited place.
And any favourite lyrics that you felt heart-content to sing?
"Nungshiba Tambiba Lakpara, Kainaba Meisha Langbar, ...." of M. Medha in Manipuri and "Mei Na Jeeyung Bina Ram Janani,...." of Tulsi Das in Hindi.
Your contribution in putting up a music institution is quite a contribution to music lovers and aspiring singers of Manipur. How did you start it? What exactly does it offer?
When I passed out from Lucknow, I felt that our people have a lot of talents but lack the necessary exposure to the formal learning. Then I set up this institute which is affiliated to the Lucknow College with a great support from my husband. So far it's reasonably doing well with a regular no. of students passing out with Visharad degrees. The institution also offers monthly scholarships to a few students.
Now turning to our own Manipuri AdhuniK and Music Concerts, I am sure you must also have performed in several nights and concerts from the early seventies. It would be interesting to know the condition of the adhunik and popular concerts (like our typical chak channaraga ishie toubi) prevailing in those days when you started singing in the public. What do you say of the present days vis-a-vis those days, say the quality of lyrics, style and influences of the songs?
Yes, there were music concerts as there are now. But there used to be many good lyricists who wrote many good lyrics. Good lyrics and songs can lead people's way of thinking. I am sure some of the 'spoilt' kids can be cleaned through music. In those days, music concerts and nights were much more seriously attended as not many people did not own music systems, TV and like. Also music was not very commercially marketable as there are now. Some of the good singers during those days are Bimola, Jaminikanata, Pahari, Tombisana. You know in those days, the lyrics were the most important criteria. There were good meaningful and more poetic lyrics. Now there seems to be only for rhythm not for sur as people also go more for pop kind of music. Not many meaningful songs. Now listen to these songs, you will see the difference.
(She put on the music system and played an old collection of great singers. Meanwhile we continue our conversation with the beautiful songs in the background. I think the cassette was a collection of some live concert of the past greats. Believe me, one really get hypnotised by these great numbers. Some of them are ....
Jaminikanta: "Tanikle Thammoi Ngasigi Ahingse, Thaja Punima Anigi Kumhmeida,......."
Aheibam Budhachandra: "Eigei Punsi Nangga, Kari Thoknei Eiga, Hundokke Ngamde Puba Ware..."
Asem Bimola: "Chakliba Lammei Athappa Chingda, Mutchakhini Mathannata,...."
Pahari: "Eidi Eishei Shaklaroi Khallui Yade, haaa, Loiba Leite, Leppa Naide Eishe...."
Kamala: "Wa Amatta Hangjage Lakpani, Kuiroi Supnatagi Amatangni..."
Laishram Birendrakumar: "Kaonanasiko Nungsibi, Punima Thajagum, Bidaigi Matam Oirakpada Mitlu Napom Mariksingna...."
Phurailatpam Iboyaima: "Thabal Pharaba Ahingda, Shaminnakhiba Nungshi Wari Karam Haina Kaorasige,..."
Shyam Sharma: "Thaja Mabu Pamjaruba Nongin Magi Maralni, Nuja Mabu Nungshiruba, Pakhang Eigee Iralni,.."
Elangbam Eken: "Eini Twenty First
Ki Romeo, Julietti Phangdare, Oigee Lamba Thingdare, Eina Leibada,,..."
It's a wonderful feeling to listen to all these golden songs -'old is gold'. Ichemma, how do you see the present Manipuri adhunik or the current feature of the singing culture?
There was a bit of Bengali style in the early days of Manipuri adhunik, and then there was a stage where a bit tinge of classical style was quite popular. And during last decade, there have been evidences of mingling the western style and make a pop style.
Anything Ichemma had taken up in the near past? What is coming up in the near future?
A couple of albums have been finished recording. Now, it's for the financiers to look for a company to market them. I have also been transalationg a radio serial from Hindo to Manipuri on consumer awareness as an AIR project. The serial is played and recorded at Mumbai. It is currently transmitted at AIR, Imphal, with more than 90 episodes already telecasted.
Any future ambition yet to be fulfilled?
A Place for a Manipuri singer in the Indian Classical. We have a very rich resource of compositions in our folk songs. My wish is to exploit this resource and bring out a different kind of classical as well as light compositions that can be the new attraction in the Indian classical scene.
You have been living in Mumbai for the past few years. How do you like living in Mumbai so far?
Living in Mumbai has been so far good for me. Besides giving public programs of Gazals, Sastriya Sangeet, Bhajan, I get opportunity of being among the eminent artists in many cultural programs. Mumbai is a good place for music as it gives place for every kind of music. And my life is music -without music I can't live. In Manipur, music market is very small, and the types of singing never go beyond the kind of saying "Sumang or Mangol Da Khara Shakpa Haibaduni ...". It was the kind of thing I feared most, fduring my young days.
Is there anything you would like to convey to Manipuris living out of Manipur? What should our aspiring singers develop or follow to succeed outside Manipur in the Music or Entertainment world?
They should work hard and shouldn't necessarily go for money, strive for qualities. The talented ones should come from the state and face the real world like Dingko. The world should not be confined to a small place. They should be able to book places in Sastriya Sangeet.
Any suggestion to the Government of the State?
Well, the government obviously has certain roles to play. They should encourage people to groom the talents in music and talents. For dance something has already been there. But for vocal and instrumental music steps should be taken up to be able to challenge the rest of India like giving fellowship to students and sending them to renown colleges and institutions, and conferences like All India Music Conferences. The government can also set up research institutes in music.
Ichemma, thank you so much for sharing your experience and your views on the music as a whole. We wish you all the best for your future endeavour.
It's my pleasure and thanks for the wishes.