TODAY -

Open Letter to V Shanmuganathan (Governor of Manipur) on the Definition of Culture
- Part 1 -

Kshetri Prem *

V. Shanmuganathan : Governor of Manipur
V. Shanmuganathan : Governor of Manipur :: Pix - DIPR



An Open Letter to His Excellency, Shri V. Shanmuganathanji,
Governor of Manipur and Meghalaya
on the Definition of Culture


Your Excellency

I do not know if I could qualify as one of the possible candidates for the 'hundred words challenge' on defining culture posed to the audience of the 12th August gathering by Your Excellency because I was not present in the inaugural function of the Manipur University of Culture and the Manipur State Film and Television Institute. I am afraid that this open letter would turn out to be what we understand as 'chhoti muh badi baat' because in that august gathering where you asked to write an essay on culture there were at least two Padmashrees (an internationally acclaimed film maker, and the other an international figure in Manipuri culture).

Those present in that crowd were 'living heritage(s)', Sahitya Academy awardees, cultural activists, theatre and film personalities, kritan gurus, Manipuri dance gurus, academicians, one Vice-Chancellor ... Yet, I could not stop myself from trying to claim your 'once-in-a-lifetime tea (Chinese drink brought to India/Bharat by the British) with the Governor' offer by writing this essay for your kind perusal (14th century English lexical borrowed from Latin which the British made us use along with phrases like 'I beg to state'). I also beg to state that hundred words will not be enough to define culture, so kindly allow me to exceed the hundred word limit and discuss why culture cannot be explained in hundred words.

I still remember a joke cracked by a very good friend (A Bengali born in Bihar presently teaching in Africa) when we were at Hindu College, Delhi University. The joke goes something like this; "Why there is no culture in North India?" asked one South Indian to a North Indian. The North Indian replied, "While we were constantly fighting foreign invaders and defending India (Bharat) you had all the time and pleasure to play mridangam and do Bharatnatyam." I was not aware of the hegemonic overtones that run through that joke which is primarily designed to stimulate laughter and please our senses momentarily or otherwise. However, I understood the cultural contestation being played out (in and around the joke) and the shallowness with which we have received and perceived the notion of culture in this part of the world.

Your Excellency would recall the statement made by the RSS Chief Shri Mohan Bhagawatji on 1st January, 2013 at Silchar, Assam in which he spoke about the difference between Bharat and India. The ensuing debate on India vs Bharat and rapes in India (not in Bharat) gave India some sound-bites. My focus is on the underlying meaning of 'India as opposed to Bharat'. 'Jaha nei Bharate, taha nei Bharate' is a Bengali proverb. It means, 'what is not mentioned or not there in Mahabharata is not to be found in Bharat'.

By extension, it means that the values and ideals depicted in Mahabharata (and Ramayana) should be every Indian's way of life. Those who do not adopt these values and ideals are Indians (as opposed to Bharatiyas) and, hence, do not conform to the Bharatiya way of life. These are dangerous propositions for a young country like India.

'Jaha nei Bharate, taha nei Bharate' is much more than a proverb. It is an idea which led to the linking of many kingdoms in the Northeast to Mahabharata. Manipur was no exception. Vaishnavite missionaries flouted the 'Chitrangada theory' for Manipuris. According to this theory, Chitrangada, Chitrabhanu's only child (Chitrabhanu being Ananta Naga's great grandson), married Arjuna of the Mahabharata. They begot a son called Babhrubahana. Babhrubahana's son is called Yavistha. Yavistha Deva's other name is Nongda Lairen Pakhangba (33- AD) who is identified by original Meitei chronicle called Cheitharon Kumpapa as the first king of Manipur [1]. This constructed history of Manipur linking the Meiteis to the epics and the puranas immediately denounced traditional belief systems, associated rites and rituals, rites of passage, Manipuri script and literary tradition, etc. The same goes for the other two kingdoms in the Northeastern side of Bharat (Assamese as descended from Bhim, and Tripuris from Yudhistir). Your Excellency has, yet again with this challenge, put us in India, not in Bharat.

Was Sanskritisation of the Meiteis a boon or a bane? I do not have a definite answer. But, reading comments like the following make me think how different communities in the Northeast region of the present day India were imagined and opinions about them were generated and formulated by the so called mainland Indians. Highly subjective observations of one bhadralok named Kshirodachandra Raychaudhuri appeared in 1886 in an article called "Banglar Borbor Jati" ("Bengal's Barbaric Races") in a journal called Nabya Bharat regarding the races in the region. It read:

In the north east, near Manipur, there are many uncivilised races ... the uncivilised people of Chittagong can be divided into two sampradays: Nadiputra and Giriputra. Others included the Jumia and the Chakma Mogs. The Jumias reside in different villages and in each there is a sardar/roaja [village leader] . . . the Chakmas are uncivilised because their marriage customs, dress, and death ceremonies are entirely different from those of the Bengalis. For example, in their samaj men and women meet and dance together . . . they often do naat worship; they are very cruel and do not believe in certain codes of civilised etiquette; they do not respect kings and pradhans. Common civilised forms of greeting by folding hands, or being grateful are alien in their conduct . . . Some sampradays are worse than others. For instance, the Riyangs are the most uncivilised, and the Kiratas are infamous for their lying. [2]

I fail to understand how the Manipuris were excluded from this 'uncivilised' club. It was probably because we were already sanskritised (a term coined by M. N. Srinivas explaining the phenomenon of an upward movement of a low caste to a higher caste, see, Social Change in Modern India) Is it a stray comment? Even if we were excluded, Manipuri etiquettes are different from that of Bengali etiquettes or, for that matter, from the rest of India. Manipuri male and female meet and dance together. Manipuris even celebrate a fertility rite called Lai Haraoba. They do not say Namaste and greet with folded hands when they meet others. The Manipuri food culture, dress, rites of passage, etc. are entirely different from those of the 'others'.

Quite often, like any dynamic society, the people of Manipur revolted against the kings and the ruling class. And, it is common knowledge that we humans have mastered the art of lying. The only race, be it fact or fiction, which do not say the "thing which is not" is the Houyhnhnms only. Such a highly opinionated and, rather, ill informed and colonialist/imperialist observation by the Bengali commentator reminds me of a passage from an essay by Joseph Addison when he warns us, "... we are all guilty in some measure of the narrow way of thinking, ... when we fancy the customs, dresses, and manners of other countries are ridiculous and extravagant, if they do not resemble those of our own." [4]

This takes us to the notion of Bharat or Aryan race. Let's try to define what Aryan is or who is an Aryan.

Caste Hindus were Aryans and Aryans were indigenous to India. Non-Hindus were foreign and these were the Muslims, Christians, Parsis and the Communists as well. All these were aliens since India was neither the land of their birth pitrabhumi nor the place where their religion originated punyabhumi. [5]

However idiosyncratic the definition of an Aryan is in the above statement, the political existence of this region came only after the signing of the Treaty of Yandaboo on 24 February, 1826. So, there cannot be a debate on India being Manipur's pitrabhumi or punyabhumi. The kingdom of Manipur has had a very long history. Cheitharon Kumpapa, the royal chronicle of Manipuri kings, records Nongda Lairen Pakhangba who ascended the throne in 33 AD as the first king of Manipur and Meiteingu Bodhachandra as the last sovereign head of Manipur in 1955. When the authenticity of its historicity before 1485 AD is still under academic scrutiny, however, the accuracy of the royal chronicle after 1485 has been established. Writing in the Manipuri script commenced 'at the close of the 12th century but not later than the 15th century'.

Manipuri, as a language, has a rich oral tradition. And, Manipuri, as a people, are very rich in culture. Like any evolving society, Manipur has seen many changes in the past. From a land of different principalities Manipur emerged as a composite kingdom in the 17th century. Many theories are there linking us to the culture of India from an early stage.

But the real contact, though remotely, began in the 15th century when 'Visnu worship was patronized by the king of Manipur'. It was only in the 17th century that Manipuris came into a long and direct contact with Indian culture and religion. The kingdom changed its religion from Sanamahi Worship to Vaishnavism during the reign of Pamheiba (who his master calls Garibaniwaj) in early 1700s. The British invaded Manipur in 1891. Manipur got independence from the British on 14 August, 1947. Manipur was annexed through 'merger agreement' in October, 1949. So, Manipur carried along with it some 2000 years of history, language, literature, culture when the annexation happened in 1949.

To be continued.....


* Kshetri Prem wrote this article for e-pao.net
The writer is Assistant Professor, Dept. of English, Tripura University and can be reached at kshprem(AT)gmail(DOT)com
This article was posted on August 16, 2016.


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