MK Binodini's centenary celebration to highlight oral literature
- one on one conversation with L. Somi Roy -

James Khangenbam *

 Maharaj Kumari Binodini Devi
Maharaj Kumari Binodini Devi :: Pix - TSE

Imasi: The Maharaj Kumari Binodini Devi Foundation is going to celebrate MK Binodini Devi's Birth Centenary celebration from 6th Feb to 9th Feb 2023 at Chorus Repertory Theatre, Imphal. UNESCO, Central Institute of Indian Language (CIIL), Sangeet Natak Akademi, Chorus Repertory Theatre, and Manipur University are the collaborative partners of the upcoming festival called The Listener, Festival of Orality. Eminent theatre personality Ratan Thiyam is the Chairman of the Festival.

In a one on one conversation with L. Somi Roy who is the director of the festival and founder of Imasi Foundation, spoke about The Listener, its theme of orality, oral literature, and its significance in Northeast India. and the events that are going to make the Centenary commemoration come out alive.

This is one festival where one should attend to explore and witness the bountiful literary works of orality of Manipur, its neighbouring states and beyond.

Q: Tell me something about the Imasi Foundation and the Centenary celebration of MK Binodini .
Ans: Maharaj Kumari Binodini Devi was born on 6th Feb, 1922. A committee for the celebration of MK Binodini's Centenary was instituted by Najma Heptula, the then Governor of Manipur. We could not celebrate in 2022, because of the Pandemic. Imasi Foundation's The Listener is a festival of orality, in literature, music and culture. We have received a great deal of interest and support.

The festival is going to be celebrated at Chorus Repertory for four days, 6th February being the opening day. The festival is open to the public for free. The Imasi Foundation began with the mission of preserving the literature and legacy of MK Binodini. The foundation also works in the larger field of cultural conservation. Earlier we organized the Myanmar Manipur Cultural Conservation Conference. We are now planning for the festival called The Listener.

This is the first festival of its kind in the world. It is the festival of listening, not reading; a literature festival without books. It is a new concept. There will be a lot of songs and musical performances. We are looking at the content of the songs, their lyrics – where are they coming from, what is the inspiration, what is the source.

We are supporting and valorizing our tribal heritage, the modern songs by Guru Rewben Mashangva of Manipur and Tiameren Aier of Nagaland, as well as non-tribal oral heritage for example Khongjom Parva.

Ratan Thiyam is the Chairman of the Festival, I am the festival director, Imasi Foundation is the producer. Manipur University and Central Institute of Indian Languages are the Academic Partners of the festival, UNESCO, Sangeet Natak Akademi and Chorus Repertory are the collaborative partners.

MK Binodini was very fond of tribal culture. For Instance, she adored Komlathabi, and wrote a famous essay about Tamenglong. The festival is commemorating her birth centenary with this tribute to tribal literature and heritage.

Q: What inspires you to celebrate the Oral literature festival for the first time in the world ?
Ans: In the case of all forms of literature, oral literature precedes written forms of literature. Manipuri literature flourished before the traditional manuscript Puya evolved. We are trying to valourise, support and give recognition to pre-text and non-text (without script) literature. Others may not accept that they are literature but for us, they are our literature.

This is the thrust our foundation is organizing the upcoming festival or orality. Oral literature is performative; a performance is needed or how else how we listen to it? A grandmother telling stories to her grandchildren is a performance. Children never get tired of listening to stories. That is the beauty of performance. Kids will persist with their grandmother to retell over and over the stories they had just heard days before.

Kids also love to watch their favourite Disney cartoons repeatedly. But for Disney, every time it is watched everything is the same as they have a standardized form. They have been made into movies. This is not in the case of oral storytelling by a grandmother. She may add or make changes according to her mood. Without performance there is no passing down oral forms from generation to generation. This is the concept that excites me. We have been working on it for four years now.

Q:UNESCO, CIIL and Sangeet Natak Akademi are partners in the Listener's Festival of Orality.
Ans: UNESCO takes keen interest in preservation of language that is why they are collaborative partners. Old Manipuri language as in the songs sung along by Pena balladeers is an endangered language, so we will do a program about it in the festival. The question and challenge of how do we develop digital resources is taken up at a panel organized by CIIL, with the participation of UNESCO.

Our partner Tantha is videotaping the entire festival and we will send these documents files to the University of North Texas where we already have a collection of Imasi Foundation documents. All these performances and discussions need to be preserved for future generations and for universal scholarship. That is why UNESCO is taking interest in The Listener.

CIIL is taking the initiative of bringing Prof. Shobhana Chelliah and Mary Burke from University of North Texas and Indiana University. They will help discuss: How does one record a language for preservation? What kind of access do we give people and then who does tribal heritage belong to? Whose heritage is it, anyway? If it is not for the tribes they would not have been preserved; they have been the custodians. So we are going to have a discussion about that as a part of the festival program.

Q : You are giving a focus in North East India, any reason ?
Ans : Particularly in North East India where there is a huge tribal population, but also all over the world, the preservation and continuation of tribal heritage is a big concern. There might be differences in performance but the common and shared concern is how to preserve them. Every week a language dies, every week one language disappears. Each language represents a unique perspective and view of the world.

That is every language has words that are untranslatable into other languages. When we lose a language, one window to reality, one point of view of one culture dies, and the window closes. So what is going to happen to our languages? Everything is globalizing, every signboard in Imphal is written in English.

With globalization and homogenization of culture through Disney, through the Pizza Hut we now have in Moirangkhom, what do we lose? As a curator starting with my exhibitions in the US, I have always been focusing on the role and future of local and regional cultures in the age of interconnected globalization. And we share so much!

For instance, David Peterson is coming to the Listener to deliver a talk on Wonder Child. It is a story of a child whose father was killed and his sons when they are on a mission of revenge. In some versions, the mother delivers the son while in other versions, a sister delivers a child while they are away. The boy has superpowers and he takes revenge for his slain father and brothers.

This particular story is told in many Kuki chin languages according to David, and there are different versions of the story from South Western Tibet to South East Asia including Thadou and Manipuri. The Wonder Child version in Manipuri is called Lai Pangganba. How did this story travel ? How the variations happen ? It is because of the fact that the story was not written or printed. That is the beauty of languages and orality.

Q: So the festival is about Oral literature ?
A: Sometimes people consider a community without a script to be less developed. Or that they do not have literature. I say, not so fast; how dare they ! Without knowing a language or understanding its expressions, how can anyone declare that what is oral and tribal is not literature ? Song writer Bob Dylan won the Nobel Prize for Literature.

It is still in question whether the song lyrics could be considered as literature. The answer Bob Dylan gave when asked on this point was–it is and it is not. What an answer. So we are also going to be questioning and extending ideas. Are Tangkhul lyrics written by Ngachonmi Chamroy for Rewben Mashangva poetry - is it literature? If Gulzar's song can be literature why not Chamroy's ?

Just because you happen to know Urdu, or Hindi and he is famous cannot be the parameter. I am yet to understand the quality of the lyrics of Rewben's songs. Just because we do not know the lyrics, we cannot claim that it is not literature. This is a question I am asking. I am pushing the envelope; we are going to push the envelope of definitions of category.

Q: Tell me something about MK Binodini's work in connection to Oral Literature ?
Ans : Song lyrics are written to be heard. The words become complete when music is added and then it becomes a song. It is not written to be read, but heard. Roop Raag, which she dearly loved and was housed in her own residence in Yaiskul, will be performing some of the songs written by MK Binodini at the opening of The Listener to start the process of questioning and discussion. Language is first spoken.

Writing comes later. Tangkhul, Mizo or Ao, their stories will come alive with performances even if not written in a book format. Coming up with a script is itself a technology. Printing is also a technology. Starting in the 1920s with the birth of radio transmission, came the form called the radio plays.

For MK Binodini, more than the novels, more than song lyrics, more than the short stories she is famous for, MK Binodini's favorite literary genre was the radio plays, as filmmaker and artistic collaborator Aribam Syam Sharma once said to me. That may be the reason why her dialogues are marvellous and seen in her film screenplays. Imagi Ningthem and Asangba Nongjabi are radio plays. They were made into films later.

The radio play is a magical form. Each listener's imagination while listening to a particular radio play differs from other listeners' and that is the beauty of this form. There are a lot of special techniques when writing a radio play. It is written for a listening audience. Some say the radio play is not the form of oral literature. But this festival we are going to celebrate is not an academic conference.

I am not an academic, so I am free to explore. Even song lyrics are a point of discussion. Some hold that any writing with an author is not oral literature. They consider folk to be the same as oral literature.

Maybe yes, maybe no. Maybe there is oral literature with an author. Can we say that MK Binodini's song lyric does not come under oral literature because it has an author ? Film screenplays are also written for filming not for reading purposes. So it will be interesting to discuss these points at the festival.

Q: I heard that MK Binodini's novel 'The Princess and Political Agent' is included in Modern Classics by Penguin ?
Ans : Yes, my translation of MK Binodini's Boro Saheb Ongbi Sanatombi is published as a Penguin Modern Classic, the first of its kind from North East India. So it is placed among famous writers of India in the Penguin classic series such as Rabindranath Tagore, Raja Rao etc. The Princess and Political Agent has also been chosen as one of 35 books by Penguin to celebrate 35 years in India.

The special collector's edition was published last November and we are doing a book launch during the festival. Penguin is also bringing out an audio book of my reading of my translation "The Princess and Political Agent" by MK Binodini. It will be available at Amazon's It is going to be Manipur's first audio book.

So I am a performer now as I read the audio book ? Amusing. While recording, I read over 8 days from 10 am to 3 pm. The entire audiobook of the novel will be 9 hours long.

Q: Oral Literature comes with technology in modern times ?
Ans: Yes, I think technology also impacts upon orality. How can audio books come about without digital technology? Or the podcast. Like, you need a radio to have the radioplay.

Q: Khongjom Parva is a rich oral tradition ?
Ans: There will be a Khongjom Parba performance by Sundari in the festival. Dhobi Leinou's interpretation of Khongjom War, as an eye witness, or Sundari's interpretation, is a point of view of the vanquished. We take pride in the story that our soldiers put up a fight against the British. Dhobi Leinou's writing and MK Binodini's writing on the Khongjom War are different in form as one is a song, the other is a historical novel.

We Manipuris remember the Khongjom War by song. It is not remembered by visual arts or photography. Manipur does not have a strong culture of painting and sculpture. Not every culture has distinguished in every art form. The big ones have, but the English do not have classical dance; they have great poetry. The dance of the Royal English Ballet comes from France. For Manipur, dance and music are world class.

Q: What would be the takeaway from the festival by the public?
Ans: A Collaborative scholarship workshop by CIIL is featured. A culture can begin to understand itself only by comparison and juxtaposition with other cultures. We need collaborative study with the outside world or else North East culture will be repeatedly discussed internally; we would be studying only what we already know.

But if we compare our manuscripts to Hindu manuscripts or Egyptian manuscripts, we will better know what manuscript traditions are about. Knowledge has to be collaborative especially for small cultures like ours in North East India.

Q: Any plans for Imasi Foundation in the future for the MK Binodini Devi Centenary ?
Ans:– India's famous artist Ramkinkar Baij's original paintings of Binodini will be displayed in Manipur later this year. It will also be mounted in Delhi, Bombay, Bangalore, Chennai and Kolkata. The Ministry of Culture is supporting this initiative of the Imasi Foundation.

Our desire is to place Binodini on the National and international stage. Here, her writings are presently studied in Manipur University. I am firmly convinced that she is a great writer. It is good literature, world literature. The Princess and the Political Agent will also be translated into many Indian languages by Sahitya Akademi. The dances she wrote will also be revived by the Sangeet Natak Akademi.

* James Khangenbam wrote this article for The Sangai Express
This article was webcasted on February 15 2023.

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