Singers, Nagaland

Two to tango: The Tetseo sisters, Mercy (left) and Kuvelu | Salil Bera

MERCY TETSEO cannot remember a time when there was no music in her life, or when she was not singing. A childhood spent in Kohima meant music all around—in the church, in school and at home. “Our parents soon felt that we must also learn to sing the songs of our tribe (Chakhesang) in our own dialect, Chokri,” said Mercy. That was the genesis of the famous Tetseo sisters, who have single-handedly taken Naga lyrics all over the world, and made them popular in clubs across the country.

Mercy, the eldest of the siblings, started her musical career with an extra curricular activity in school that required them to sing and dance. Her mother taught her a Chokri song, which she sang with her friends. In the early 1990s, Doordarshan had just come to Kohima, and before she knew it, they were singing on television. Eventually, as the girls grew up, the friends dropped away, to be replaced by her siblings, and the Tetseo quartet became famous. “We turned professional in 2007, getting a manager and branding,” she recalls. At present, they are managed by their brother, so the business is entirely within the family. “We like to present a bit of Nagaland at every performance. We sing in Chokri, and though music transcends language barriers, we always like to tell the story behind the songs before we sing,” says Mercy. Also, the sisters—Mercy, Azine, Kuvelu and Alune—always dress in Naga costume for their performances.

For the Tetseo sisters, Delhi is their second home. They are fluent in Hindi and rather tolerant of people considering them different. “I do not think it is as much hostility as it is curiosity,” she says. “There was a time I used to get irritated, like when I was studying in Delhi University and a teacher made the outrageous comment that Manipuris dress in banana leaves. I got up and said that was not true and guess what... the entire class was actually laughing at me, instead.” Over the years, they have learnt to handle the ignorance and curiosity, explaining whatever they can about the northeast. “We cannot blame people for this ignorance, Indian students are not even taught history of the northeast in school. Even our national anthem does not mention us,” she says.