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Romancing The Tribal Culture Via Modern Theatre ‘”An Experience With Khenjonglang At Sandang Shenba Maring Khun

It was the first ever Maring modern play in its true sense of the term. A play, based on Maring cultural life that the audience witnessed on the evening of 2nd October, 2010 at the village of Sandang Shenba Maring Khun, a picturesque village, perched on the famous Nongmaiching ranges, to the east of Imphal. Imagine a Maring play in the modern sense of the proscenium theatre’”dramatization of a popular folk tale of the Maring tribe, being enacted by local performers (Maring artists) and designed so as to suit the taste of the unsophisticated audience of a typical tribal village, with plenty of Maring cultural artifacts used on the stage as props.

It was indeed a great experience for this writer to be there to witness the play ‘Khalteba’, after having enjoyed memorable speeches of the dignitaries on the dais, at the closing function of the 45-day Theatre Workshop cum Production on Maring Traditional Culture, an ambitious venture of the Khenjonglang, a theatrical unit based in Imphal, in collaboration with the Karyemkhu Kanthouna Cultural Repertoire of Sandang Shenba Maring Khun, under the extension program of the National School of Drama, New Delhi. The workshop director Dr Thanil Leima is a well-known theatre practitioner who leads Khenjonglang. She is the first lady in Manipur, graduating from the prestigious NSD, New Delhi. An MA in Linguistics, she received her PhD degree from the Manipur University for her thesis on contemporary Manipuri theatre.

This was the second time that Dr Thanil Leima of ‘˜Khenjonglang’ did such a theatre workshop on tribal culture under the aegis of the NSD. The first one was in respect of Tangkhul culture, organized successfully with the earnest co-operation of the villagers of Tongou (Ukhrul District), sometime during May-June in 2009.

The closing function of the workshop I attended on the 2nd of October, 2010, was evidently a culminating point of the foregoing programs of the one and a half month workshop. I could easily assess the overall achievement of the workshop, not only by attending the function but also by talking to the participants and the villagers. Above all by watching the play which was the workshop production. Along with a few invitees from Imphal I had to spend my evening in the Maring village, enjoying the hospitality of the local people and discussing the outcome of the workshop with my company and the villagers as well.

Ever since the Tongou experience I have been deeply impressed with the innovative idea and thoughtful options entertained by Thanil Leima. Her honest feeling about the dying cultural practices of the tribals, her belief in the power  of theatre in preserving the rich cultural heritage of the tribals, her emphasis  on launching a distinctive theatre movement among the tribals of Manipur, without which the modern Manipuri theatre would be incomplete, and her passionate dream of integrating tribal artists with the mainland theatre  artists and activists – were indeed, as I believed, the driving forces behind the success story of the Tongou experience in Ukhrul last year. Following the newspaper reports of the Tongou experience, the intellectuals of Manipur could also see an interesting offshoot of her unique venture in the prospect of promoting emotional integration and communal harmony amongst the diverse ethnic groups of Manipur, especially between the hills and the valley.

It is true that even a man can’t work with a homely feeling in the hills for days and weeks, unless he is dedicated and strong-willed and above all he shakes off his superiority complex and sophisticated airs to come down virtually to the level of the villagers both in attitude and aptitude so as to allow himself to mingle with them freely, sharing with them every moment of joy and sorrow, trials and triumphs. Happily Ma’m Thanil Leima (as the tribals lovingly call her) fits the bill. She is down to earth in her approach to the simple tribal folks. And there is no affectations at all in her demeanor’”no improvised acting so to say. How can a lady from the capital town of Imphal manage so effortlessly to mingle with the tribals and live with them for nearly two months as one of their members? This is a vital part of her personality even a man would envy.

It was really enlivening to watch her work with  the  tribals, making herself acclimatized to the strange environment’”dining together with them, teaching them and practicing with them, interacting and debating open-mindedly with them on various issues other than theatre during leisure hours, since understanding the theatre requires understanding life itself in its totality.

All the above ratings of Thanil Leima as a theatre worker with extraordinary caliber that had been visible at Tongou were found still validated at the Sandang Shenba Maring village this time. A villager sincerely told me: ‘˜Ma’m is so good. She has opened our eyes. She has aroused a new consciousness in us. We love her so much as she loves us boundlessly’.

Later on Thanil Leima narrated to me when I met her one evening at the Iboyaima Sumang Leela Shanglen at the inaugural function of a workshop cum seminar on Sumang Leela there: ‘˜The villagers were crying like small children when I left them for Imphal. Crying aloud, uncontrollably.’ With these few words she stopped short. Remained silent. But her silence was so much eloquent to me. It mused inside me’”culture has something unique, something mysterious that binds people that rejects the temporal biases and conquers mutual hatred in human hearts! That is what her silence revealed to me. I visualized her students’”the workshop participants’”crying aloud like children, embracing her tightly, unable to say good bye to her at the time of parting.

Surely she returned home, not empty handed. At least with a heart, filled with genuine and priceless love. Let that seed of love sprout into magnificent flowers some day! May God bless this courageous lady and fulfill her dream one day, for she has chosen to take the unbeaten track.

The first sight inside the pandal that caught my attention was that of Thanil Leima, being attired in Maring traditional dress. Obviously, it was symbolic of her honest love for tribal culture. That was also exactly what she had done in Tongou last year’”then getting attired in Tangkhul traditional dress, thereby giving an optical illusion to the viewers, intriguing them to mistake her for a Tangkhul damsel in the crowd. The same ‘˜special’ effect was captured this time too at the Maring village amongst the Maring girls.

When our party reached Sandang Shenba Maring Khun, it was nearly 2 p.m. The closing function of the workshop was clubbed with a Literary Meet of the village youths. When we got there, a Quiz Contest was on as a part of the Meet. As we took our seats, I guessed in a minute that the queries of the contest were about Maring traditional culture (even though the propram was conducted in Maring dialect). From the performances of the contestants it was clear that modern day tribal youths are also largely carried away by the sweeping tide of modernization and westernization to the extent that they are today scarcely conversant with their own traditional customs and cultural modes, just as we find in many youngsters elsewhere.

Following a solemn prayer conducted by Khulpu Modar, pastor, seeking the holy blessings of Jesus, the Merciful Savior for the success of the subsequent program, Mr. Merang Morung, an academician of the village formally welcomed the august gathering on behalf of the organizers on this happy occasion. Next Mr. Khulpu Korung, Ex-Village Chairman addressed the gathering as an invitee. He expressed his happiness that today the Meiteis are enthusiastically coming forward to help the backward tribals in some or other respects. He stated that the hill people and the valley people have been living like a family since long, though intermingling between the two was disrupted for a brief span in the course of history. He proudly recalled that during the reign of Maharajah Bodhachandra, there was a Maring who had been rewarded with ‘˜Khamenchatpa’, a highly revered royal honor in recognition of one’s outstanding service to the kingdom. ‘˜Khamenchatpa’ is an especially designed dhoti, the recipient of which is generally held in high esteem in the traditional Manipuri society. The use of Khamenchatpa is specific, subject to some well-defined rules.

Dr. Thanil Leima, the workshop director expressed in her key-note address her profound gratitude to the National School of Drama, New Delhi for its patronizing gesture to her endeavor and her thankfulness to the people of Sandang Shenba Maring Khun for their co-operation for the success of this 45-day workshop. She also expressed her deep concern that due to communication gap such a rich culture as that of the Maring tribe cannot be properly taken care of and much remains to be done to preserve and promote it against the onslaught of modernization. It was evident from her speech that she is willing to do something substantial in this regard within the ambit of her capacity as a theatre worker. The main purpose of this workshop is, she added, to create an awareness, to give the participants a glimpse of the interrelationship between theatre and one’s traditional culture and to show the local people the avenues of possibility for the cause of their own culture.  Thanil Leima also announced in high spirit that she would try to stage the play ‘˜Khalteba’ in Delhi, just as she had done with the Tangkhul play ‘˜Ashang eina Aton’. This is one way theatre can do to showcase our tribal cultures, with the help of the media, to lure the outside world and make them feel the worth of such less known cultures.

Prof N Tombi Singh, the eminent theatre critic and scholar of modern Manipuri literature, in his speech as a special invitee expressed his pleasure that his former student Thanil Leima comes forward with a challenging task today, having chosen to work among the tribals in the remote areas where transport and communication are in bad shape, while other facilities are also practically minimal in there. He proudly recalled that Maring tribe has a rich cultural heritage’”their excellent craftsmanship in bamboo and cane works is proverbial in Manipur, while their expertise in occult science and witchcraft was also widely known in the past. Their art of weaving, singing and dancing, especially war-dancing which is widely acclaimed, are all clear testimonies of their rich cultural heritage, he stated. While commenting on the age-long relationship between the Maring and the Meitei, Prof Singh delighted the audience by reciting the popular saying of the Meitei, ‘˜Maringi Yenba Khonglakle’ and also the famous Manipuri proverb ‘˜Maringna Shaba Sangbaibu Nama Hangba Hounabra?’

Prof N Tombi also vehemently appealed to the audience, especially to the Maring youths, not to compromise their own cultural heritage while they try to keep pace with modernization and westernization, lest the precious legacy of their forefathers would be lost into oblivion. He assured that the Meitei culture workers are always ready to help and guide the backward communities like the Maring, who have been in fact a part of the Manipuri history since long’”before the coming of Christianity and Hinduism into the territory of this land. He pointed out that development of Manipur obviously means the comprehensive development of the whole state and the welfare of its inhabitants including those in the remote hilly areas. Hence the need of this kind of workshop as a fillip in the realm of cultural pursuits in the State.

He further elaborated the concept of holistic participation in projecting our national identity by pointing out that the so-called Indian literature, and for that matter Indian theatre or Indian culture, cannot be solely identified with the literature, the theatre and the culture of the mainland India alone. By this he meant to say that the diverse forms of dialectal literatures, regional theatres and ethnic cultures are the components of what we call Indian literature, Indian theatre and Indian culture. To conclude his speech, Prof Singh stressed the intrinsic power of cultural activities that can bind people of different backgrounds together, that can bring about emotional integration and communal harmony in a pluralistic society like ours. ‘˜Therefore let’s meet often, converse face to face and discuss things to improve the quality of our life unitedly’, he said in earnest appeal.

Shri Vedeshwar Sharma, Assistant Secretary of Manipur State Kala Akademi in his address as the Guest-of-honor, first dwelt upon the changing mindset and radical outlook of the present generation in their world view vis-a -vis enhancement of the quality of life. He observed that caste-based discrimination has become today outdated, thereby enabling our youth to march forward with progressive ideas and mutual co-operations between themselves, proving themselves worthy of the spirit of the modern age. After all history is dynamic, not static. Sharma further stimulated the audience with his unbiased attitude and frank expression as he pointed to himself as a standing proof of the secular mindset of the new generation. Though a Brahmin by birth (considered to be of the highest caste in the hierarchy of orthodox Hindu social system), he freely mixes with and dines with anybody belonging to any caste, creed or religion, he informed.

Referring to the intrinsic potentiality of art and culture in forging one’s character and attitude, particularly that of the youth, he said that it is high time the notion of ‘˜theatre in education’ was put into practice by getting it incorporated in the educational curriculum of schools and colleges. He also earnestly appealed to the tribal artists and cultural activists to remain alert and well-informed by all possible means such as consulting with their Meitei counterparts who are their sympathizers in the field, visiting concerned offices now and then etc so that they could properly reap the benefits offered to them by the Government.

Shri Suman Kumar, faculty member of the NSD, New Delhi, in his address as the second Guest-of-honor briefly recounted the NSD’s role in trying to revive and rejuvenate the endangered cultures of the minorities (the tribals etc) mainly through theatrical enterprises. He happily acknowledged that local artists of the Sandang Shenba Maring village have lots of potential in them as performing artists that have been awaiting proper grooming and guidance till this day. He sincerely thanked the villagers for their enthusiastic response in organizing this workshop which had been a wonderful experience for him.

Mr. M.I. Dominic Kansouwa, Executive Member, ADC, Sadar Hills Kangpokpi, in his speech as the third Guest-of-Honor, recounted the rich cultural heritage of the Maring. Mr. Dominique regretted for the present state of Maring traditional culture, which is suffering under the impact of modernization, like any other tribal culture or otherwise. This issue entails due attention from all quarters ‘“ the Government, the public, the NGOs, the scholars and the intellectuals, he observed. He told the audience that they are also thinking about opening a cultural museum of their own just as Prof. Tombi has suggested in his speech. Mr. Dominic also narrated that there was initially an apprehension among the village youths (participants of the workshop) whether a profession in art and culture could provide them livelihood. But ‘˜madam’ Thanil Leima had assured them that it could, provided one is truly dedicated and firm-footed, he remembered.

Shri G. Gourkishwar Sharma, Padmashri, the noted guru of Manipuri martial arts, in his address as the Chief Guest, enlightened and entertained the audience with his well-founded knowledge about the cultural history of Manipur. He recapitulated the forgoing deliberations and briefly supplemented the points as the Chief Guest. Referring to the cultural relationship between the Meitei and the Maring he remarked that the ‘˜tolok’ (linen headgear) of the Maring which is very much unique among the tribes of Manipur has patterns and colors derived from ‘˜Pakhangba’ the god of the Meiteis, who usually takes the form of a snake. About the linguistic affinity also he gave examples by uttering a few Maring words which were not only synonymous but also homophonous. Shri Sharma earnestly appealed to all culture lovers of the State to work dedicated for culture without any mercenary motive. He encouraged them by assuring that government is to come to their aid with adequate financial support provided they work with genuine interest.

In a jovial mood the septuagenarian grand master of martial arts said, ‘˜We have a very soft corner for the Chingmee. Please don’t pretend not seeing it.’ To end his speech he recited a Maring folk-song of romantic theme giving its meaning in Meiteilon line by line to the applause of the audience. I could not but admire the high literary quality of the verse. Perhaps with this speech of the Chief Guest, the ongoing scene of the ceremonial function reached its climax.

Dr. K. Sobita Devi, the functional president also added new insights to the ongoing discourse while supplementing the various points having so far presented by the speakers on the dais. As the Director of the department of Art and Culture, Government of Manipur, she also assured the villagers of the Maring Khun of financial assistance to their culture workers, provided they duly apply for it.

Regarding the social and cultural relationship of the Maring and the Meitei she even recounted an historical fact which would be of paramount interest to the students of Manipuri culture. The festival of ‘˜Mera Houchongba’, she pointed out, can start customarily only when a particular species of flower is ceremonially offered by the Maring tribe to the Meitei king. This single fact speaks volume of the cultural interrelationship between the Maring and the Meitei. After all it was not without reason that the brave Marings who were excellent in archery were known as ‘˜Nongpok Thongakpa’ (Eastern Sentry), which exemplifies the undisputed role of the Marings in the polity of Manipur during the monarchic rule. She also recalled the proud story of one Maring subject having been honored by the king of Manipur in the past. In any case, honoring an individual of a distinct tribe can be viewed as a symbolic gesture of honoring the tribe itself, since it recognizes the indigenous quality of the tribe which is inherently manifest in the individual concerned. To conclude her speech she reminded that preservation and promotion of tribal culture could be made possible only when the public gives full support to the Government machinery.

A vote of thanks was proposed by Mr. Koning Medar. Every single breath of his resounded the profound gratitude of the villagers to everybody concerned for enlightening them on an aspect of culture during the workshop. Of course there was also, as I could perceive an unmistakable anxiety in them for future course of progress in case they were left alone in the field. That point is not to be taken lightly.

*The article is written by BC Khuman.

(Courtesy: The Sangai Express)

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