Irawat the Legend
- Part 1 -

Joyshree Usham *

117th Birth Anniversary of Lamyanba Hijam Irabot at Palace Compound and at Lamyanba Shanglen :: September 30 2013
117th Birth Anniversary of Lamyanba Hijam Irabot on September 30 2013 :: Pix - Deepak Oinam

"Beyond the hills of Ang-go,
On the outskirts of the twin village
Tangbo and Shwedo
There stands a memorial stone,
And on it eternally inscribed,

DIED ON 26TH SEPT. 1951"

The above excerpt is from the Freedom Fighters Records in the Manipur State Archives, Govt of Manipur, 1986. Yes, our beloved leader, the Son of the Soil, Hijam Irawat Singh, has left us a long long time ago but his legend has continued to inspire and mesmerise us even today. I am reminded of him in the midst of the present social turmoil of Manipur: a clear indication of the lack of a true and selfless leader like him.

Hijam Irawat Singh was born to Hijam Ibungohal and Chongtham Chanu Thambalngambi on Wednesday, the 30th of September, 1896 at Pishumthong, Oinam Leikai in Imphal, Manipur. He lost his father while he was still a little child and his mother had to shift to Moirangkhom Sougaijam Leikai and took shelter there with her only little boy. He studied up to class VII (1913) at Johnstone School (present Johnstone Hr Sec. School). From there on he accompanied his cousin and went to Dacca (in Bangladesh) to stay with his well-off relatives. There he did manual labour to earn and support his education and studied upto class IX. He could not finish his matriculation though owing to his extremely poor financial condition. Irawat unfortunately lost his mother around this time (1915) and became an orphan at the young age of 19. He gave up his studies and went to stay at Tripura with some of his relatives. After some time, he returned to Manipur and stayed at a former classmate and friend's house whose father's name was Maibam Shamdem at Wangkhei Pukhri Mapan.

Though he became an orphan at an age when many of our youths today are still dependent on their parents for their daily needs, Irawat did not stray or become emotionally downtrodden. He was a brave young man who had a charming personality. He was always soft-spoken, modest, helpful and ever smiling with a limitless fund of humour as recalled by one of his colleague artiste. Had such a child been born today into a poor family, raised by a single mother and orphaned at a young age, we would have predicted that he will be emotionally disturbed and lost.

But Irawat's life - the person that he grew up to be, the personality that he carried and the leadership style with which he swayed the people proves beyond doubt what the humanistic psychologists have emphasised - that we are all born with free will and it is up to us to decide to be the best person we can be and that we all have this choice no matter what the external or internal forces or circumstances might be.

Irawat's life has a big message for our youth today - to make the best choice in life and not to be disheartened by the unfavourable circumstances of life but to soar like an eagle and live for the people. Unlike our present society where youths have only one-sided development, Irawat spent his youthful days in the pursuit of games and sports, dance, drama, music and in writing. He played Kang, a traditional Manipuri game, and was said to be one of the best player of Wangkhei Kangkhut (Wangkhei Kang Club). He also played football, hockey and cricket. He was also very skilled at Sarit-Sarak (Manipuri Martial Arts). He was one of the founder of Town club which emphasized on sports in 1922.

He also started Sahitya Sanmelan, Manipur Dramatic Union and Manipuri SahityaParishad in 1932 along with his distinguished colleague Khawirakpam Chaoba who became the convenor. Upon my research on Irawat, I came to know that he had contributed a lot to Manipuri literature too. He was, in fact, one of the pioneers of the Manipuri literature and journalism. He edited the first Manipuri journal, 'Meitei Chanu' in 1922. He also contributed to the journal 'Yakairol' and other published in the 1930's. He published a handwritten and cyclostyled weekly called 'Anouba Yug' which was edited by himself.

He was also a close associate of Manipuri poets during the Renaissance of Manipuri Literature. He composed a collection of 23 poems known as 'Sheidam Sheireng' dealing with nature, morals, stories from the Ramayana such as killing of Jatayu by Ravana, Rama's waiting when Ravana abducted Sita and questions of right and wrong. This was used as a textbook of class VII during 1940s. He wrote a biography 'Lokmanya Tilak' of Bal Gangadhar Tilak, the freedom fighter from Maharastra.

He also wrote 'Mandalay Khongpham'- a travelogue based on his Mandalay visit and other essays as well. His first novel 'Muhini' was serialised in the journal 'Yakairol' in 1931. He also wrote a play, 'Gomati' and translated Bankim chandra's 'Krishna Kanta's Will" into Manipuri. He had also written a number of poems while in jail but these didn't see the light of the day while he was alive. They were published only in 1987 by Irabat Lairik Phongba Lup, Imphal under the title, 'Imagi Pujah'.

Irawat was also a lyricist. He had a deep faith in the revolutionary potential of the toiling masses and his ideas affected the thoughts and feelings of every progressive Manipuri of the time. His poems and songs called on the people to unite, to free the country from colonial yoke. He also translated into Manipuri 08 Irabot Day Observance 2016 Irabot Day Observance 2016 09 songs like 'Thangol Adu Maya Thangu Thouna, Hey Lou- uba' and 'Houro Awaba Ahingi' which were originally composed in Bengali by his artiste colleague Hemango Biswas whom he met in Sylhet jail.

Irawat also acted in Bengali plays (1915-20) and played the role of 'Kumud' in the first historical play in Manipuri, 'Nara Singh', in the year 1925. His participation in modern Manipuri theatre as an artiste both in male and female roles was highly appreciated. Another memorable role that he played was that of Chandra Singh in the social play of S. Lalit Singh, 'Areppa Marup' (inseparable friend). In the Manipuri version of the play, 'Devala Devi', he played the role of Baladeva. Besides these, he acted in other plays like Sati Khongnaang, Birmangal, etc. It is said that he identified himself with the character so completely with superb acting that the audience would forget it was a play and get deeply engrossed. Such was his charisma as an artiste! The true reflections of his internal feeling was manifested for the first time in the symbol of 'Manipur Dramatic Union'-'two ploughs kept across' which was innovated by himself.

As recalled by Hemango Biswas, in 1944 District Kisan Sabha Conference, Irawat was in the presidential chair. There was a cultural programme at the end of the conference wherein the tea labourers of 'Atharatila' were presenting a Jhumur dance. He recalled that at the peak of the dance, Irawat left the presidential chair and joined the dancers, making no mistakes in step and rhythm and continued till the end. Indeed, it is no wonder that later in life he was actively involved in the movement of Indians' Peoples Theatre Association (IPTA) in many parts in Assam and Tripura.

Irawat's versatile personality and his growing popularity caught the attention of the royal family of Manipur. He was given Rajkumari Khomdonsana Devi, the daughter of Chandrahas, the elder brother of Maharajah Churachand in a pompous wedding. He was appointed to the post of a member of the then Sadar Panchayat, the highest criminal court of the time, by the Maharaja and gave him some land and other facilities. In 1924, he attended a meeting in Calcutta just after Mahatma's release which maybe said to be his first contact with the national movement. He pledged himself to work for and serve his people. Remembering his hard days in school as a youth, he devoted to the spread of education in Manipur.

Primary schools sprang up all over the hills despite the unsympathetic attitude of the state officials. He worked hard to learn the laws and was always anxious to reform them so that the inequalities might be eliminated. Though holding a high post as a member of the Panchayat, he mingled around with the common people and started getting acquainted with the malpractices and exploitations under the feudal system.

He was unhappy with some serious practices of those days like the practice of holy and unholy ( amang asheng), unbearable taxes levied upon the common man like Chandon Senkhai ( tax on applying chandan), Khewa, Matu and other oppressive practices such as Peon Chakthak (feeding of petty officials without compensation), Dolaising ( palanquin carrying duty ), Yarek Sentry, Patsen Mashul (catching fishes in the fields and lakes without the permission of the middlemen or the contractors), taxes on crossing bridges,etc.

To be continued....

* Joyshree Usham (M. Sc. Applied Psychology, B. Ed.) wrote this article for a booklet publication of Irabot Day Observance Committee Delhi 2016
This article was posted on October 04, 2016.

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