Autumn: Sentiment, Sensibilities and the 'Maangang'
Thoughts on a recent Maangang performance on 6th April 2022 by the Kongpal Nupi Ishei Marup

Dr Rekha Konsam *

 Maangang (Soyyon) performance on 6th April 2022 by the Kongpal Nupi Ishei Marup
Maangang (Soyyon) performance on 6th April 2022 by Kongpal Nupi Ishei Marup :: Pix - TSE

Universally we recognize four seasons: spring, summer, autumn and winter; but then, recognition of seasons varies across cultures as also the worldviews it comes to be associated with.

In Manipuri culture, spring is yenningtha, the season of new sprouts; it is symbolical of new beginnings, new hopes and dreams while summer is kalen, the hot season that is followed closely by the rainy monsoon.

The latter is symbolical of maturity, of romance in its full bloom. Autumn, meanwhile, is nakentha, the season of shedding leaves; it is a time when the trees shed leaves in preparation for the coming cold winter and to prepare to turn over a new leaf in the coming spring that follows the cold dry winter.

Much has been said about spring or yenningtha as the season of re-awakening, a harbinger of hopefully good times and associated with positive energy. The effervescent youthful spirit of spring is qualitatively different from the calm of autumn.

Unlike the 'fall' season elsewhere when colourful foliage paints the landscape vibrant with its colours, autumn in Manipur is rather placid. Like the trees shed their leaves, it is a time to turn inward. It is a period of resting, reminiscing while replenishing oneself in preparation for what lies ahead and that spring would come again.

Autumn with its sober calm tone, is a time when the mera-wayungba is ceremonially observed with the lighting of a lamp atop a bamboo pole in the front courtyard every night of the lunar month of Mera until the day of mera-waphukpa when the pole is taken down.

Story has it that the lighting of this lamp is associated with the distant memory of two brothers-one of who remained in the hills and the other travels down to the valley to settle and the light was a way of communication between the two brothers across the distance and across time.

Long after the brothers were gone, this was carried on by the descendants of the valley-settler and it is believed that the customary observance of lighting a lamp is anchored in it.

The mood of reminiscing in the autumn month of Mera can be seen echoed in the colour symbolism of Ratan Thiyam's play Ritu Samhara where the moon is a luminescent cream-yellow during the summer season but is a cool hue of purple in autumn.

The passion roused in spring and its fruiting in summer has now calmed down. The murky waters of summer rains have also settled down and the water is clear. The mood is somber: Autumn is a time to reflect.

During this somber season, Manipuri Vaishnavism observes the Hari Sayyan (Soyon). It lasts for several days and refers to a period of Hari's absence when the devotees pray for his return. Sayyan Sheishak is an expression of this sentiment. Mythological reference for this observance is anchored in the story of Vamana, the fifth incarnation of Vishnu.

Vishnu in the form of Vamana, a Brahmin dwarf, visits the Asura king Maha Bali, who now rules heaven and earth having defeated the Gods. He asks for bheeksha saying that he needed nothing more than the land covered with his three strides.

The king readily grants his wish. The dwarf then takes a gigantic form as Trivikarma and with his first step he covers the earth and heaven with the second. He then asked where he should place his third step as he had covered all the land that the king ruled over in two steps. Bali offers his head and Vamana steps on it, sending him down to Patallok.

Bali, the grandson of the devout Prahlad, was himself a devotee of Vishnu and was a virtuous benevolent king. Pleased with Bali's conduct, Vamana grants him a boon. As his boon, Bali asked for the Lord to be in front of him day and night so that he could worship him. His boon was granted and Vishnu stayed on in Patal, joined by Lakshmi, for a period of time until they re-emerged once again from the netherworld.

As per the Meitei lunar calendar, the full moon of Mera marks the day when Vishnu descends to Patal and he begins ascent on the 12th of Hiyangei (Hari Uthan) to finally re-join on the following full moon. It is during this period of absence that devotees pray fervently asking him to not abandon them.

The nights of Mera were customarily lit by the soft yellowing glow of oil lamps atop the bamboo pole at the courtyard with the sounds of soyyon reverberating in the background from somewhere in the neighbourhood in the pleasant climes of receding summer and approaching cold. And to the musically uninitiated, the sounds of soyyon are the sounds of a specific cymbal called 'maangang'.

Music is central to the practice of Manipuri Vaishnavism. It is an important way in which devotion is expressed as much as it is experienced. In as much as music is formulated in accordance with religious philosophy, musical instruments are also accorded with particularities in such a way that an instrument has a time, place, occasion, sentiment, mood and garb that it comes to be associated with.

Maangang is generally associated with the rath (kang) festival in its more celebratory aspect and with Sayyon in its somber aspect. It is also used at specific times during mortuary rites. As such, the sounds of the maangang are often associated with an ominous ring to it; but this sense of the ominous is also a sweet beckon, rather than fear per se.

Perhaps, dread plays out well in the context of soyyon where the underlying sentiment is a fear of abandonment and hence a prayer not to be forsaken. The dress code for the women performers emphasize this point as they are dressed in peach or pungou phanek.

Even for a novice, it is hard not to appreciate some of the distinct differences between performances, particularly when they are held one after the other. Fortunately for me, the event organized by the Kongpal Nupi Ishei Marup on the 6th of April 2022, gave me an opportunity to witness both the Maangang (Soyyon) and the Basak (Utkantha) performances.

The sober humility of the peach attire gave way to the rich red stripes of mayek-naibi complete with associated accessories; the somberness changed to a colourful mood of excitement and longing to meet the dearly beloved. The songs of Basak can be said to be sung with gaiety and fanfare in comparison to the maangang.

It is interesting that at one time such devotional music was not confined to professionals but much more widespread. The existence of ishei marup, at one point of time, stands as testimony to it.

These groups were typically composed of people in the residential area and were not necessarily trained singers and they usually performed within their own locality.

Such groups have all but ceased to exist and along with it, musical traditions such as maangang and basak also seem to be losing ground on the one hand while on the other hand devotional music has come to be even more 'professionalized' if one may say so.

In that respect, the efforts of the women of Kongpal Nupi Ishei Marup in keeping alive a tradition passed on to the present generation from the earlier generations is laudable. Their sustained effort to organize an annual event to present a performance goes a long way in encouraging the learning process and inculcating younger members which is no easy feat.

The journey is long; but every journey starts with a step at a time.

* Dr Rekha Konsam wrote this article for The Sangai Express
This article was webcasted on April 24 2022.

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