India 2008: He’s Not There

Even after four decades of a life in rock and roll, 61-year-old Lou Majaw manages to retain an air of mystery about him. No one seems to know much about his family or personal life or exactly what he’s got stashed in the little satchel that’s always dangling by his waist when he’s onstage. The only thing certain about the silver-maned Majaw, it seems, is what he’ll be doing on May 24 next year. It will be the same thing he’s done on that date every year since 1972: celebrating Bob Dylan’s birthday by pulling on denim hot pants and performing a concert of his hero’s songs in Shillong, the capital of the state of Meghalaya, in northeastern India.

Dylan “has opened all the doors to my dreams, to my music,” Majaw said between sets at this year’s tribute, held in the parish hall of an Anglican church. “I’m doing this to thank him for what he’s given to the world—and to me.”

A simple white banner above the stage informed the audience of around 50 what they were in for—Bob Dylan’s birthday #67, a celebration of poetry and song. Majaw kicked things off with a swinging version of “Simple Twist of Fate,” backed by musicians he’s known for more than three decades. Like Dylan’s early compositions, the afternoon bubbled along unhurriedly and unpredictably. Between performances by Majaw, a nervous man took the stage to read a poem he’d written, called “Amazing Dylan.” Then a quartet of kids in maroon school blazers sang an impassioned version of “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door.” It’s a melody that’s especially loved here in Shillong. In fact, last October 1,730 guitarists gathered at the city’s largest stadium to play the Dylan tune in unison in an attempt to break the record for the largest guitar ensemble.

Though their feat has yet to be certified by Guinness World Records (the top spot is still credited to the 1,721 guitarists in Kansas City who strummed out Deep Purple’s “Smoke on the Water” in June 2007), the attempt was an indication of the passion that rock music inspires in India’s northeastern states, a mostly mountainous wedge between Bangladesh and Myanmar with China and Bhutan to the north. Classic rock and country blares from radios in vehicles and stores, and it’s a proud boast in these parts that every home has a guitar.

Thanks to India’s colonial past, Western music has long been familiar in the farthest reaches of the Subcontinent. But the rock-and-roll explosion in this region has its origins at least partly in the Church. Three of the seven northeastern states are predominantly Christian, and the hymns introduced by American Baptists, Welsh Presbyterians, and Catholics from Goa made rock and roll seem familiar when it made its way to the hills in the fifties. Elvis Presley, after all, was essentially doing sped-up church songs.

Today Shillong bills itself as the rock capital of India. On the same day Majaw was performing his Dylan tribute, several hundred spectators gathered across town to attend the Roots Festival tour, a caravan of Israeli, British, and Indian acts performing across the region. Among them was Rewben Mashangva, who plays “Naga folk blues” using traditional instruments such as a tingtelia fiddle.

“There is more original material now,” says Senti Toy, a musician from nearby Nagaland who is studying for a Ph.D. in ethnomusicology at New York University. (Her debut album, How Many Stories Do You Read on My Face, was picked by The Wall Street Journal as one of the top records of 2007.) “It’s an exciting time,” Toy adds, “as youths are sparked by their own creativity, unwilling to just mimic” Western musicians.

It’s a trend Majaw and his band, Great Society, started in the eighties. Even his annual concerts, Majaw noted, aren’t about imitating Dylan—a no-show again this year—but “to sing his songs as I hear them, from my heart.”

Naresh Fernandes is the editor in chief of Time Out magazine in Mumbai, Delhi, and Bangalore.