If the mast-head of this newspaper was long enough, or if the type it uses was smaller, this column could have carried the title: ‘MEETING A MAESTRO ON A MISTY MORNING IN MANIPUR’.
Over the past decade, the little and beautiful state of Manipur has replaced the larger and even more beautiful state of Nagaland as the second most troubled part of India (the Kashmir Valley, of course, being the first). Other insurgencies in modern India have been, for the most part, a straight contest—between the insurgents and the Indian state. True, the rebels have had their factions, but these are all united by the dream, or fantasy, of taking their territory out of India to construct a new, sovereign, nation. In Manipur, on the other hand, there are three distinct insurgencies in simultaneous operation.
The first insurgency is led and staffed by the Meiteis of the Imphal Valley. This seeks to make the whole of Manipur, as it now stands, into an independent nation-state. The second insurgency is promoted by Thangkul Nagas who wish to merge their districts into a Greater Nagaland, or Nagalim, this to likewise exist outside the framework of the Indian Constitution. The third insurgency is the handiwork of the Kukis, another group of hill tribes who are less than satisfied with what they see as domination by the Meiteis. The Kuki radicals hold out not for complete independence but rather for a new state of their own within the Union of India.
As in Kashmir, or in past times in Punjab, these rebels are divided among themselves. Each major insurgency has several major factions, each identified by a long acronym, each claiming to speak most authentically for the community (or nation) in the making. By one count there are ten armed groups operating in Manipur; by another count, fourteen. As in other parts of the north-east, these militants fund themselves from exactions from the public and, on occasion, from the state.
In a recent visit to Manipur I did not meet a single insurgent. But I did hear a great deal of their doings. Their exactions were resented; but so, too, was the massive and at times overbearing presence of the Army. My host, a professor of economics, took me one morning to the Kangla Fort, an enclosed campus in the heart of the city. Until very recently this had been the headquarters of the Assam Rifles, which, of all armed groups in the region, must be the most disliked. It was outside Kangla that, in July 2004, a group of Meitei women protested in the most spectacular fashion, by covering their naked bodies with a piece of cloth reading: ‘INDIAN ARMY, TAKE OUR FLESH!’ (a photograph capturing this protest was reproduced in The Telegraph ).
The Indian Prime Minister, Dr Manmohan Singh, visited Imphal shortly after this incident. At his initiative, the Assam Rifles were made to leave Kangla; the place was now being redone as a heritage park. The gesture was appreciated; it touched the Manipuris in that most sensitive place, the heart. But in their daily lives they continue to be subject to the Armed Forces Special Forces Act (AFSPA), under which the Army has the right to stop, search, harass and imprison civilians while being exempt from judicial or executive scrunity themselves. The professor of economics told me that while freeing Kangla from the troops the Prime Minister should have withdrawn AFSPA as well. Good governance did not admit of half-measures: as the professor put it, ‘If you love someone, love them whole-heartedly’.
The Meiteis take a deep pride in their history and traditions (doubtless the various Naga and Kuki groups do, too). Two thousand years of (a sometimes interrupted) state-hood have promoted a fabulously rich cultural life. One evening in Imphal I was treated to a superb performance of tribal and Meitei dance, where the quality of dancing and singing was world-class. I was told—I cannot say on what authority—that it was Rabindranath Tagore who first brought Manipuri dance to wider attention. Apparently he saw a troupe performing in the court of the King of Tripura, and brought them over to Santiniketan. Soon their art was being showcased in other parts of India.
The Meiteis have an ambivalent relationship with Bengal. Vaishnavism came here in the late medieval period, and after a Meitei king embraced the new faith in the early 17th century, many commoners did so as well. The ancient Mayek script gave way to Bengali lettering. However, the people (and their rulers) continued to follow customs and rituals from the pre-Hindu past. A revivalist movement has gained strength in recent decades. Among its successes has been the official replacement of the Bengali script by the one that preceded it. Among its pyrrhic victories was the burning of the state central library where the teachers and scholars of modern Manipur had learnt to expand their minds. An estimated 145, 000 books went up in the flames.
One reason that Kangla is so precious to the Meiteis is that it was here that the first Manipuri king is said to have been coronated in 33 A. D. The place has a spare, almost desolate, beauty. When I went there, the troops had vacated, but the heritage park was still being prepared. Shrines and palaces were in various stages of restoration. About the only human we saw and spoke to was a priest, lovingly tending a plant.
As we came out of the Fort I heard my host speak a few words to the driver—among them ‘Ratan Thiyam’. I thought then that our next port of call was some other historic place sited near Manipur’s most distinguished contemporary landmark. In fact, we were going to meet the landmark himself.
The approach to Ratan Thiyam’s theatre is very modest indeed. We skirted an open field, and then drove along a dirt road. On the right ran a canal flanked by bamboo; on the left, low houses with matted fences. We stopped outside one such house and got out of the car. We entered a narrow passage lined with posters and cards of performances by Thiyam’s troupe, the Chorus Repertory, which he founded in 1976. The corridor opened out into a broad, well-lit room, where hung a map of the world marking the places where the repertory had performed (these distributed across thirty countries).
We turned out of the building into an open walkway flanked by hedges and shrubs. This path, the length of a cricket pitch, led to a flight of stairs atop which stood a mural depicting different strands of Manipuri culture. Above this mural was another painting, linking the local to the global via scenes drawn from Hindu, Buddhist, and Islamic art. The paintings rested on a wall behind which lay a theatre, built to world-class specifications, where the Chorus Repertory practiced and performed.
As we entered the walkway, Ratan Thiyam approached us from the other side. He is a large, impressive man with a very soft step and an even softer voice. He told us how he built the place, inch by inch, plant by plant. The three acre campus was peppered with small, delicate, buildings, one of them a children’s museum. As he spoke, birds chirped away, and raindrops fell. In the middle distance the hills of Manipur loomed.
Ratan Thiyam spoke to us of how modern man was so wholly disconnected from the earth which sustained him. He took Valentine’s Day as an example. Its votaries bought flowers wrapped in plastic from a vendor, not knowing (or caring to know) where they came from or where they would finally end. Our global civilization, he said, was committing ‘ecological suicide’; it was as doomed as Mohenjodaro or the Incas.
His own presence and example inspires a less despairing reading. That he could conceive and nurture this work of beauty amidst the cross-currents of violence compels not merely admiration but also optimism. So long as the human spirit can give rise to such marvels as Ratan Thiyam and the Chorus Repertory, there is hope for Manipur, for India, and for the world.