Overcoming Dissonance: Choral and Congregational Songs in Mizoram

in Article
Published on: 06 June 2019

Joanna Heath

Joanna Heath has been researching congregational singing in Mizoram since 2011, during which time she also completed her postgraduate studies in Ethnomusicology from Durham University, where she focused on the bereavement context. She contributed a chapter to the recent Routledge Companion to the Study of Local Musicking (2018). Her work has been presented widely in the UK and internationally, and she has been an active participant at conferences in India. She currently resides in Mizoram.

Ever since the Shillong Chamber Choir won India’s Got Talent in 2010, Northeast India has garnered a deserved reputation as a region rich in choral singing. This reputation can, in part, be traced back to the nineteenth century when Welsh missionaries working in various parts of the Northeast brought with them an enthusiasm for the community singing of hymns.

Katie Hughes (1889­–1963) is credited with establishing the choral tradition in Mizoram. After she brought a Mizo choir to perform at the General Assembly of the Church of North India in Sylhet in 1929, the choir was invited to perform on a tour of north India, which included a broadcast on Calcutta Radio. Since then, Mizoram has continued to produce numerous choirs, which have gone on to garner national and international recognition. The Mizo Cardinal Choir notably dominated the Asia-Pacific Choir Games in Sri Lanka in October 2017. Over the past century, countless choirs from Mizoram have been invited by Christian organisations to perform at international conferences and on tours.

Although choirs perform on special occasions, they are not a part of weekly church services. Instead, the congregational singing of hymns takes place regularly. The most common hymn book in Mizoram is the Kristian Hla Bu (Christian Song Book), containing 600 hymns.[i] Many are translations of nineteenth-century evangelical hymns, but there are also a large number of Mizo compositions. Despite the rise in popularity of more contemporary styles of Christian music, this hymn book has remained the mainstay of church worship in Mizoram. Almost all of the hymns are printed in an SATB (sheet music for soprano, alto, tenor, and bass) arrangement notated in tonic solfa (technique of teaching pitch and sight-singing using the syllables do, re, mi, fa, so, la, ti). This forms the basis of the choral repertoire. Tonic solfa notation is introduced at the school level itself, and members of church congregations are often competent enough to sight-read the harmonies. Thus, congregational singing can often take on a choral homophony.

However, this is not the case when it comes to the indigenous repertoire of lêngkhâwm zai[ii] (a singing tradition in Mizo Christianity). Comprising songs composed by Mizo Christians in the first half of the twentieth century, lêngkhâwm zai dominates the Christmas and Easter seasons, as well as periods of mourning and informal gatherings known as zaikhâwm. These songs are sung in a distinct monophonic tune and are accompanied by drums. Some of the songs of this tradition are included in the hymn book and are sung in church on a weekly basis.

Although compared as two ‘musicking’[iii] events, a choir performance and a lêngkhâwm zai session are poles apart. In a choir performance, the participants are hand-picked and have rehearsed together. They perform in at least four parts and exhibit high levels of vocal control and precision. A choir performs for and in front of an audience, and the interaction takes place in a public space. Videos of the performance may also be circulated on social media. In this way, it reinforces Byron Dueck’s[iv] concept of the ‘imaginary’ social formation of Mizo identity. When performances are distributed through mass media and viewed by a wider audience, there is a sense (or imagination) that the choir is performing for society in general, rather than for an audience at a particular event.

By contrast, the songs of lêngkhâwm zai are monophonic and unrehearsed. Unlike a choir performance, lêngkhâwm zai is a participant event without an audience, in which all attendees are welcome to take part in the singing. This creates a temporary level of face-to-face intimacy, even among those who choose not to sing. These performances often occur in the private space of a person’s home. Even if the session takes place in a public area, or a video is circulated online, the intimacy of participation negates the public nature of the event. Whereas choir performances participate in the ‘imaginary’ social formation, lêngkhâwm zai mediates more subtly between Dueck’s ‘imaginary’ and ‘intimacy’ social formations, achieving what he describes as the ‘civil twilight’ between the two. This is because it creates intimacy (through face-to-face musical performance and participation) among a group of people who would otherwise have little in common. These people are representatives of the ‘imagined’ society, drawn from different churches, families and backgrounds.

The traditions of choral-singing and hymn-singing have both flourished in Mizoram, despite their differences in musical style and aesthetic. In fact, on their first tour of north India, the choir not only sang excerpts from George Frideric Handel’s Messiah, but also performed examples of lêngkhâwm zai, complete with the accompaniment of a drum.[v] Thus, lêngkhâwm zai showed its versatility when taken away from its normal participatory context and placed in a performer-audience situation. Similarly, All India Radio has also broadcast recordings of lêngkhâwm zai within Mizoram on some occasions. These remain in its archives under the slight misnomer of ‘Mizo folk songs’.

This openness towards promoting both forms of music as important parts of Mizo culture is continued by the Young Mizo Association (YMA), of which Katie Hughes was a founding member. Today, the YMA is one of the most prominent non-governmental organisations in Mizoram. Not only do they organise their own choirs but they are also extremely active in promoting traditional Mizo practices, festivals and music. Lêngkhâwm zai ‘competitions’ have even been held by the YMA, with the aim of ensuring that younger generations continue to understand the importance of this form of music.


History of Christian Music in Mizoram

Superficially, the influence of Western missionaries is much more apparent in choir performances than in lêngkhâwm zai settings. The latter, though, is readily accepted as an expression of Mizo identity and a unique Mizo contribution to Christian congregational singing. However, it has an often-forgotten connection with missionary hymns that has informed its style almost as much as traditional Mizo singing. Its musical roots lie equally in its divergence from the Western repertoire as in its overt assertion of Mizo musical features. Therefore, an understanding of this tradition depends on an awareness of the history of Christian music in Mizoram.

At the turn of the twentieth century, there were very few converts to Christianity in Wales, although missionary efforts regarding education and healthcare had been welcomed and appreciated. In 1904, a phenomenon known as the Welsh Revival led to mass conversions to evangelical Christianity. This triggered a fresh enthusiasm for conversions in places like Northeast India, where Welsh missionaries worked. This ‘revival’, leading to mass conversions, often independent of missionary efforts, came in a series of waves in Mizoram from 1906 to the 1930s.[vi]

Initially, the new converts only had hymns that were translated by the missionaries. The Presbyterian and Baptist churches published their first official joint hymn book in 1903. This early collection was very limited in scope and style. Moreover, the converts were discouraged from participating in traditional Mizo events, which were considered contrary to Christian practices (such as the singing sessions accompanied by heavy drinking). The people who converted initially did not have a rich store of music available to them. The first efforts towards building an indigenous repertoire came from early literate Christians such as Liangkhaia (1884–1979), an influential church leader, who composed several original hymns that are sung by congregations even today. However, these efforts followed the four-part hymnal style of the translated hymns and were produced as a result of training in tonic solfa. Meanwhile, cynical and humorous parodies of hymns (known as kaihlek) gained popularity among non-Christians.[vii] One indigenous tune known as ‘Puma Zai’ even initiated a counter-Christian revival, spreading renewed enthusiasm for local Mizo musical practices. So, while the missionary hymn style was taking deep root in Mizo society, appreciation for its traditional musical styles continued to persist. 

In the years leading up to 1919 (which marked the beginning of the third wave of revivals), church congregations started to modify hymns to suit a singing style that came naturally to Mizo singers. Rather than following the tonic solfa parts, only the melody line was sung and certain pitch modifications were made, essentially reducing the diatonic melodies (using major and minor scales) to pentatonic ones (using a five-note scale). The disjunct melodic leaps characteristic of the hymns, which made them difficult to sing, were smoothened while the mediant tone (the third note of the scale) was made neutral—neither major nor minor.[viii] Some of these modified songs are still performed today.[ix]

These modifications became very popular and paved the way for a new generation of composers who explicitly diverged from the Western compositional style and produced songs intended purely for this new style of singing. The first of these songs were composed from 1919 onwards by poets such as Patea (1894–1950) and Saihnûna (1896–1949). With the introduction of drums to accompany the singing in church, lêngkhâwm zai as a form of Christian congregational singing was born. Thus, lêngkhâwm zai is not a repertoire that has existed in isolation, with origins purely in traditional Mizo music. Rather, it was born of a collective desire to modify Western tunes and sing in a way that was more expressive of Mizo musical sentiment. A close melodic and rhythmic analysis of lêngkhâwm zai today reveals that elements of Western hymns still inform its compositional structure.[x]

However, at the same time, numerous Mizo composers were still composing songs harmonised for SATB according to the tonic solfa education they had received. These composers continued to make significant contributions to what had become a vast repertoire of Mizo choir music. Although translated choruses by George Frideric Handel remain popular, a large number of songs performed by choirs today are not only in the Mizo language but are original Mizo compositions. Some of the most famous songs are those composed by the poet Rokunga (1914–1969), who broadened the scope of choir music to include Mizo nationalist songs. These songs proved to be highly influential, especially during the struggle for independence that lasted from 1966 to 1986. Employing poetic expressions of nostalgia and combining them with Christian vocabulary, Rokunga gave a voice to the new type of patriotism that emerged in those decades. His hymn calling for God to lead the people, ‘Aw nang, kan Lal, kan Pathian’, was not only included in the Kristian Hla Bu, but was also adopted as the Mizo national anthem. The continued promotion of choirs by non-church organisations such as the YMA has enabled choirs to continue singing these songs, even though they diverge from those composed for worship settings. Thus, despite the superficially Western nature of their musical form, choirs play a role in expressing Mizo identity that extends beyond the settings of Christian worship.

Whereas hymn-singing and choir-singing are almost universally recognised as generic forms of singing in a group, in Mizo terminology the description of ‘singing together’ is reserved only for the indigenous forms of Christian singing, namely lêngkhâwm zai (‘gathering-together singing’) and zaikhâwm (‘singing together’). Both choir singing and lêngkhâwm zai emphasise different aspects of local identity and community.


The Significance of Locality

Choirs in Mizoram are usually drawn from and named after the locality to which they belong. With the exception of choirs formed for specific non-denominational organisations, such as the BESY Choir or the Leprosy Mission Choir, there is a hierarchy of choirs that directly mirrors the hierarchy of the administration of whichever church denomination they belong to.

Mizo cities, towns and villages are divided into smaller neighbourhoods called vengs. The veng is important for administrative purposes. All local community activities are organised by the veng. Unless the veng is large enough to contain more than one church, each neighbourhood will have one church congregation for every denomination that is represented among its members. The congregations (or ‘units’) are usually named after the veng to which they belong. These units are then formed into larger groups called bials. One pastor is appointed to take care of all the units within one bial. In rural areas, one bial may be large enough to include a group of villages, but larger cities use administrative units called ‘areas’, which group several bials together.

Every church congregation in the veng aspires to have at least one choir, comprising their most talented young people.[xi] They practise every week and perform on special occasions. The best singers from these choirs are invited to join the bial choir. The best bial-level singers might then get a chance to perform with the most prestigious choirs of their church denomination, whether at the area, region or state-level. The organisation of choirs in Mizo churches therefore reflects the organisation of local communities. At bial-level combined fellowships, every choir from that bial is usually invited to perform. Similarly, every choir from the region is invited to larger state-level gatherings. In this way, the choirs are the representatives of their respective localities and communities, and are used to symbolically greet the gathered congregation through their performances.[xii]

The significance of the veng as a marker of locality is just as important to lêngkhâwm zai, if not more so, especially at times of bereavement. While choirs affirm their locality or region by their name and selected members, a gathering of neighbours to sing at the house of bereavement affirms the locality of the veng. In contrast to the organisation of choirs, bereavement practices in Mizoram are non-denominational. From the day of death until about the third day, community gatherings at the house of bereavement are organised by the YMA, for which every veng has a unit. Older members of the community gather every day and evening to sing khawhar zai, a collection of songs belonging to the lêngkhâwm zai repertoire that are particularly pertinent to times of bereavement. Later in the evening and at night, younger members of the locality also gather and join in the singing. This is sustained in the home of the deceased for several days and is an essential part of the community bereavement process.

Joy L.K. Pachuau has commented that these community gatherings at times of bereavement are one of the key ways in which Mizo communities affirm their sense of locality.[xiii] Research into the musical aspect of these gatherings has shown that each veng tends to exhibit musical styles and practices that are particular to that neighbourhood. These nuanced details that distinguish one veng from another may include a range of aspects, including the instruments used and the songs sung.[xiv] By gathering and singing the khawhar zai in the particular way that the veng considers correct, a sense of locality is emphasised.



Both lêngkhâwm zai and traditional choir singing have proven to be important forms of ‘singing together’ for Mizo Christians, enabling them to express their identity (locality and community) through performance. Although they seem stylistically incompatible, they both have deep connections to Mizoram’s Christian and musical history. The obvious indigenous features of lêngkhâwm zai are counter-balanced by its divergence from its roots in Western hymns. Meanwhile, the Western form of choir singing has gained status in Mizoram as a vehicle for expressing Mizo nationalism, and has been accepted as an important part of Mizo culture that extends beyond the church. The apparent dissonance between the two musical practices has been overcome not just through tolerant coexistence, but in the recognition that both forms of music-making perform different, but equally significant, functions within Mizo communities.



[i] The edition currently in use by the Presbyterian and Baptist churches is Kristian Hla Bu: Tonic Solfa Edition. 18th ed. Aizawl: Synod Literature and Publication Board, 2005.

[ii] There is an ongoing debate in Mizo scholarly circles over the use of the term ‘lêngkhâwm zai’ and its more grammatically precise form, spelt ‘lenkhâwm zai’. The present study chooses to retain what continues to be the more widespread spelling.

[iii] Musicking is a term coined by author and musician Christopher Small to highlight his belief that music is a process and not an object. In his words, ‘To music is to take part, in any capacity, in a musical performance, whether by performing, by listening, by rehearsing or practising, by providing material for performance (what is called composing), or by dancing.’ See Small, Musicking, 9.

[iv] Dueck, Musical Intimacies and Indigenous Imaginaries.

[v] Katie Hughes’ example was later followed by Gwen Rees Roberts; in 1978, she took a Mizo choir to North America, where they also performed a varied repertoire of English and Mizo songs. She presented a recording of the choir singing an example of lêngkhâwm zai when interviewed on British radio about her missionary work. A recording of the interview is held in the National Library of Wales.

[vi] For a comprehensive account of the revivals in Mizoram, see Lalsawma, Revivals: The Mizo Way.

[vii] Accounts of such songs are found in Thanmawia, Mizo Poetry, 102, and Thangliana, Mizo Nun Hlui Hlate, 238.

[viii] See the author’s doctoral thesis for a study of these and other aspects of lêngkhâwm zai, focusing especially on the bereavement context.

[ix] Contemporary descriptions of the melodic and vocal style which remains characteristic of lêngkhâwm zai can be found in several sources. Observations made by the missionary Kitty Lewis in 1924–1926, and those of her parents who visited her are kept in the Aizawl Theological College archives and at the National Library of Wales, Aberystwyth. The National Library of Wales also contains scraps of notation and musical observations made by the missionary G.M. Mendus in her attempt to comprehend the unfamiliar style. A non-missionary source is found in the notes from a ‘walking trip’ into the Lushai (now Mizo) Hills made by the British officer J.D. Willis in 1948. He made several comments about the singing he heard while spending Christmas in remote Mizo villages. His notes are held in the British Library, London.

[x] See Heath, ‘Khawhar Zai’.

[xi] ‘Young people’ usually refers to men and unmarried women aged eighteen to forty. Sometimes other choirs are formed from the children’s groups or from groups of older men and women.

[xii] At the valedictory service of the Academy of Integrated Christian Studies (the Baptist theological college in Aizawl) in April 2018, the college principal specifically mentioned that the choirs from Lunglei and Aizawl had been invited for the purpose of greeting the special guests and singing on behalf of the Baptist Church of Mizoram.

[xiii] Pachuau, Being Mizo.

[xiv] See Heath, ‘Khawar Zai’.



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