Down memory lane: An autobiography of MK Priyobarta

Retd Lt Col M Ranjit Singh *

R.K. Priyobarta - Chief Minister of Manipur  - 14 August 1947 till 15 October 1949
R.K. Priyobarta - Chief Minister of Manipur - 14 August 1947 till 15 October 1949

Recently I came to know the existence of an Autobiography of Maharaj Kumar Priyobarta, surprisingly, via London that is through Dr Irengbam Mohendro Singh's one email to me. I met MK Priyobrata sometimes in 1986 at his residence at Palace Compound in Imphal. I was then posted at 4th Assam Rifles and had gone to look for the book "Imphal".

I didn't find the book, but I had a fruitful meeting with him for about an hour and I was mighty impressed with his vast knowledge of Manipur during Second World War. That was the only time I met him. I am, therefore, the least qualified person to attempt this book review of his autobiography "Down Memory Lane".

At the same time, my admiration cum respectful impression of PB, makes me no less than others to write this book review! PB, as we all know, is the second son of Maharaj Churachand and first Chief Minister of Manipur.

His autobiography, unluckily for all Manipuris, covers only the period till 1948. We all would have loved to hear the story of accession of Manipur to India from the horse's mouth. The book is divided into two parts; Part one is his actual autobiography and Part two comprises of his letters, articles, and many memoranda he wrote. The book has been published in October 2017 by Manipur Cultural Integration Conference, Palace Compound, Thangapat Mapan, Imphal.

PB doesn't use any flowery and descriptive language in the entire book and it is a book one can read without an Encyclopedia and a Dictionary on hand. While reading the book I felt as if he is sitting across a table sipping tea and narrating powerfully his life to me touching upon numerous specific points and stages of his personal and professional life with historical references to ground me in the time period. One cannot but admire the affection, earnestness, energy, lessons, and messages, and what not in the entire book of PB's autobiography.

The book as he narrates is about his childhood, education, service in Manipur State Service, Army days, and his second tenure in State service. He did his schooling at Raipur and graduation at Allahabad. He while at school at Raipur visited England and stayed there for 6 months.

He went as representative of Manipur in 1932 to present a memorandum of the Manipur State Enquiry Committee to the President of Simon Commission at Calcutta. Many Manipuris think that Manipur did not forward their viewpoint to Simon Commission.

Later he joined as an Ordinary Member of the Manipur State Darbar in February 1936 looking after Police, PWD, and Arts & Crafts. He joined IMA, Dehradun during Second World War on March 4, 1942 for training to become an Emergency Commissioned Army Officer. He was commissioned in 2 Assam Regiment, then a new Regiment having been raised during the beginning of Second World War.

He is the first Meitei to join Indian Army as an officer. The first Manipuri to join Indian Army was Major Bob Khathing from Ukhrul. PB left Army in August 1946 and became Chief Minister of Manipur on August 14, 1947.

Many incidents he narrated in the book will be interesting to all. The incident of Meragi Ichao of Imphal in 1916 has been covered in an exhaustive detail. His experience with Bhadra, the first renowned painter of Manipur and later with famed Khalendra Subedar of Anglo Manipur War 1891 at Cachar makes interesting reading.

He quoted an interesting remark made on Bhadra by an English officer that "Had Bhadra not been detained in the State Jail for a number of days for a brawl at a gambling place, we would not have seen the series of painting of his, depicting the lives of the legendary romantic pair: Khamba and Thoibi".

The paintings of Bhadra are available in the original book of "The Meitheis" by Thomas Callan Hodson. On Kuki Rebellion, he gave unheard story of Chingakham Sanajaoba, the so called leader of Kuki Rebellion (as per British records). Sanajaoba as per rumor in those days was believed to be a possessor of spiritual power who could increase the size of his ears on the floor so as to himself lie on one; with the other ear covering himself, and go to sleep.

The readers must note that on conclusion of Kuki Rebellion, thirteen leaders were detained at Tezpur/Dibrugarh Jail. All the rebel leaders were released before the end of their detention period except Sanajaoba and Ngulkhukhai. Sanajaoba was blamed for the Kuki Rebellion by all the detained Kuki leaders.

PB likes to meet all people of hill areas and extensively toured all hill areas of Manipur. The flying of Union Jack at Assam Rifles post at Ukhrul inspired PB to the creation of Manipur Flag utilized during Maharaj Churachand's reign. PB, being in charge of Police, was at the helm of affairs during Nupi Lan of 1939.

He gave many unknown eye witness account of all the happenings during Nupi Lal in detail in this book. The hobby of visiting hill areas of Manipur was continued even after his retirement from public life. He while on active service in Army and during his leave visited many places of Naga Hills including Melomi then inhabited by totally naked Rengmas.

He met Rani Gaidinliu during his visit to Naga Hills at a Sangtam village of Yamrup. He while posted at Assam Regimental Centre succeeded in recruiting the first Abhor to Assam Regiment by visiting the Abhor village of Balek. The trip to Balek was not on official duty rather he made the trip by utilizing his personal leave.

The reason for Bob Khathing's joining Army was not given in his biography by Col Bhubhon. PB in this book explained the reason for Bob Khathing's joining the Army before him. Six Manipuri youths approached him while he was in the Army at Shillong for recruitment in the Army.

He in turn requested Col G.F.X. Bullfiend, his CO and earlier Commandant of 4 Assam Rifles. The reply given by CO in lighter vein was "Meitei Thoraimacha Chelle" (Meitei deserts after recruitment). Meiteis were not recruited even to Assam Rifles as late as 1942 due to high rate of desertion.

PB never got married in his life. In his autobiography he narrated two incidents which one can presume that he was interested on these two girls. The first incident took place while he was on board "Egypt" in April 1922 on way to England. The girl he saw on board the ship was described as very beautiful.

That girl most probably would be Ila Devi, elder sister of Maharani Gayatri Devi. Ila Devi later got married to Maharaja of Tripura and she is the late mother in law of Moon Moon Sen, a famous Bollywood actress.

The second incident happened at Moreh in 1949 where he met this second extraordinarily beautiful Burmese woman who was constantly trying to entice him. The above wild presumptions are my own and not that of PB.

Many English writers like Lt General Sir Geoffrey Charles Evans & Antony Bret James (Joint authors of Imphal), Frank Kingdon-Wart (Plant Hunters in Manipur), Faubion Boers (The Dance in India) etc gave lot of credits to PB for helping them in writing their books. But PB never mentions the names of these English writers in his autobiography.

This book in the end strengthened my respect for this great man. The printing standard of this book is good but the reproduction of photographs needs much improvement. I am sure publisher will do the needful in the next edition of the book to improve the qualities of all photographs. If you enjoy reading about happenings of Manipur from early to middle of Twentieth century in very good English, I would recommend "The writer is also the president of Manipur Equestrian Association.".

* Retd Lt Col M Ranjit Singh wrote this article for The Sangai Express
The writer is also the president of Manipur Equestrian Association.
This article was posted on April 13 , 2018.

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