Manipuri Literature: A Brief Survey

By L. Joychandra Singh

A rich literary tradition existed in Manipur in the earliest times. Works written with religious tone may be taken as the predominant form of literary expression available in early Manipuri literature. Here poetry was the dominant literary genre. Prose literature came later on. Address to the objects of Nature formed the main theme. Augri and Numit Kappa, both addressed to the sun god, are considered today as the oldest specimens of early Manipuri poetry. Ancient Manipuri poets had a great respect for things spiritual. They pined for permanent values in life and had little concern for things mundane. Khoiju Lamok, another religious poem, expressed the soul’s yearning for God. These poems formed a cluster of early Manipuri literature.

Early Manipuri literature had the good fortune to see also the development of narrative verses on various topics. Ancient Manipuri poets had the habit of attributing human feelings to the objects of Nature. Their minds became one with them, could share joy and sorrow with them, and embraced them like a near and dear ones. This human approach was very common in early literature. The glaring example was Hijan Hirao, a long narrative verse. The king’s men selected a very tall tree on the hillside out of which to make a royal boat. The next day it would be cut down. Necessary rituals were performed. What could the helpless tree do? It was the dark night. The whole world was absorbed in sleep. Pain and agony seized the heart of the mother-tree. She could not have a moment’s sleep. Her grown-up son would be seen no more as the day dawned. The helpless mother broke into wails filling the whole hillside with deep pain and grief. This picture of a wailing mother-tree whose ‘son’ would be snatched away from her bosom forever was described by the poet in best lyrics bestowing human sentiment and emotion. This is a rare specimen of poetry which could match any other good poetry.

Besides these, there were numerous songs known as khulang ishei, naosum ishei, louta ishei, pousu ishei, kumdam ishei, etc. composed by rustic bards and sung by the common people from all walks of life. They reflected the essence of Manipuri life in a musical garb. There are also marriage songs, harvest songs, season songs and other species of folk songs. These lyrics and poetry, which are so felicitous in the excellence of its poetic imagery and content, are a class by themselves. If we probe behind symbols or metaphor of these writings, we shall discover a noble philosophy which will guide us through the mysteries of life and destiny. Some reflect in symbolic language the inner philosophy of the spirit, while others are epigrammatic expressions of the mundane. They impress a reader like a song of cicada singing in the darkness or hidden depth of a man’s own being. Riddle, allegory, symbol, euphemism, veiled words are the techniques used by Manipuri bards in expressing deep human emotion and feeling.

The early Manipuri literature also saw the growth of narrative poetry in the shape of the ballads. These ballads form the basis of Manipuri romantic literature. Romanticism was recognized as one of the dominating trends in ancient Manipuri literature and most of our poets were entangled in its cobweb. Most of these ballads were of the same pattern featuring a poor orphan boy falling in love with the daughter of a king or a high official or a villain in the person of a rich noble and a clown who accompanies him, and a few more nobles, etc., and highlighting the conflict between the wishes of the father and the daughter.

The region of Moirang where the magnificent Loktak lake is situated is well-known for its beautiful landscape and its people had a luxuriant literary and cultural tradition. They had a special regard for human values and celebrated ideal love. Accordingly, a number of bards took birth among them and sung in exuberance of the lives of great lovers, their great exploits, passions and heartbreaks, longings and separations. The stories provide the essence of the ancient Manipuri world of love and chivalry, a world dominated by haunting agony, separation and rare fulfilment. Of the numerous stories that were sung, the stories of shayon, a cluster of stories based on love, which offer, more or less similar style, pattern and theme, are most popular. They include: Akongjamba–Phouoibi, Henjunaha–Lairoulembi, Khuyol Haoba–Yaithing Konu Thangjahanba–Thonu Laijinglembi, Khubomba–Pidonnu, Wanglei Pungdingheiba –Satpa Chanu Shilheibi, Khamba–Thoibi. There are also other stories which do not fall into the category of shayon but give, more or less, similar pattern and thematic content like the stories of shayon. They include: Chothe Thangwai Pakhangba–Leima Shunulembi, Nungban Ponbi Luwaoba–Koubru Namoinu, Haorang Leishang Saphabi–Loya Naha Saphaba, Nura Snanthalembi–Meidingol Thongnaongamba. There are again stories which deal with legends of love between gods and mortals, like Konthoujam Nongaron, Soubon Lairema Loutaron, Phouibi Waron, etc.

The story of Khamba and Thoibi needs to be mentioned here separately. Although the principal locale is the principality of Moirang by the side of the Loktak, literally its geography extends over the whole of Manipur. The story depicts two things: man’s eternal pursuit of beauty and all-consuming love. Nongban’s pursuit of princess Thoibi who is beauty-embodied is like chasing the foot of the rainbow. It goes on beyond death when Nongban’s soul reincarnates as the Pee-Thadoi who finds fulfillment in singing Thadoi (as the princess is affectionately called) on the leafy branch of the poplar tree. On the other hand, Thoibi’s love for Khamba, the hero, of peerless strength is an all-consuming fire which burns everything that comes in its way and finally even the object of love itself.

A new kind of folk poetry came into prominence also in early Manipuri literature. It was the ballad of war and chivalry, a kind of Manipuri heroic poetry. Love plays an important role in these verses. Naothingkhong Phamban Kaba and Chainarol are works of great quality in the early Manipuri literature. Tharon, the lore of the months, was again an important book explaining how the Manipuri months were named. The poets of ancient Manipur were also lovers of the tragic and elegiac aspect of life and they wrote several poems surcharged with meditative and contemplative mood. Early Manipuri balladeers would always add a special chapter in their songs to hint at the beauty, warmth and sensuous nature of young love. Lovers would often be compared to flowers and the songs of flowers called ‘Leirol’ would find a special place in their songs. These songs include histories of the beautiful flowers, incidents of their flowering, their origin, the description of their beauty, their aesthetic imprint and their emotional associations. The similarity of the flowers with the young maidens would thus be added as a separate sequence in the lyrics. ‘Leirol’ is simply the exuberant response of the poet in love with Nature in all its beauty and in love with Love itself. And underlying all, however, is the sense of the transitoriness of life, and the fading away of all things beautiful except the glory a person leaves behind.

Langlon, another work in prose, is also a book of great merit. Human life is a series of and surrounded by pitfalls and snares. A wrong step may land him into difficulty. In Langlon, the poet warns the readers to be wary of the snares if they want to be successful in life. Panthoibi Khongoon, a work glorifying goddess Panthoibi, Leithak Leikharon, a book describing the creation of the Earth, Haosi Namoinu, the tragic tale of a girl, are all works of great beauty and charm which may attract a reader by the dexterity of their language and narration.

Successive waves of Hinduism entered Manipur from the beginning of the 15th century onwards. It initiated a new course in Manipuri literature. During these periods, the Hindu scriptures and classics were made available to the Manipuris in translation. The Ramayana, the Mahabharata, puranas and other semi-religious works were also translated into Manipuri either in complete form or in detached episodes. During the reign of Maharaja Bhagyachandra in the later part of the 18th century Gaudya Vaishnavism became the creed of the Manipuri Hindus. This brought them into contact with Bengali Vaishnava literature. But the indigenous Manipuri literature was not neglected too. Several books giving the accounts of military exploits were also produced during the period. The account of Maharaja Bhagyachandra’s pilgrimage to Nabadwip in West Bengal was brought out in a popular book called Chingthangkhomba Maharaja Ganga Chatpa. This book, along with Poireiton Khunthokpa and Chandrakriti Jila Changba, formed a cluster of Manipuri travel-writing.

The dawn of Modern period in Manipuri literature came after 1891 at the beginning of the 20th century after the British conquest of Manipur. Many pioneer writers like Hijam Anganghal, Khwairakpam Chaoba, Hijam Irabot, Hawaibam Nabadwipchandra, Lamabam Kamal, Ashangbam Minaketan, Arambam Dorendrajit, Rajkumar Shitaljit, were born one after another after this event. They heralded a new re-awakening in Manipuri literature. Many scholars termed Manipur of that time as ‘a nest of singing birds’. The dominant literary trend was that of Romanticism. Kamal remains ever fresh in our memory for his novel, Madhabi. Chaoba depicts tells the romantic tale of two lovers in his historical novel, Labanga-Lata. Anganghal too carved a new style of romantic tradition through his novel, Jahera. Such romantic exuberance and idealization of life are to be seen in the poetry of the period too. Kamal’s Lei-Pareng, Chaoba’s Thainagi Leirang, Anganghal’s compilation of Khamba-Thoibi story into an epic form and his narrative verse Shingen Indu fascinated Manipuri literary world. This note of romanticism was discernible in the writing of other younger writers of the following generation. Guno Singh took up the romantic tradition in his novels, short stories and later on in narrative verse. Tokpam Ibomcha took up the romantic strain through his novels and poems. Thoibi Devi, a lady novelist, described love without sound and fury in her novels. Ram Singh, another novelist, uses his pen for reformation in the traditional society with romantic setting on the background.

Not only novelists but playwrights and short story writers also explore the theme of love in their writings. M.K. Binodini Devi could be mentioned here prominently. After her successful debut in play-writing and short stories, she brings out a historical novel Bor Saheb Ongbi Sanatombi which was received by the reading public heartily. In most of her writings, Binodini gives the nostalgic yearnings about the tragedies of the aristocratic society with an unfailing touch of feminine grace and charm. Kunjamohan Singh and Rajanikanta described in their short stories a new world and society, sometimes full of innocence and sweetness, and very often full of frustrations and helplessness. The traditional romantic and sentimental poetry also found its votaries in the writings of Ibohal Singh, Surendrajit Singh, Minaketan Singh and Nilbir Shastry. The Romantic trend, however, seems to deflect its course with the appearance of G.C. Tongbra whose socio-political plays are a class by themselves. With his brilliant wit and humour and witty dialogues, he exposes the shams of society pitilessly. Another playwright of importance who emerged in the firmament was Arambam Somorendra whose drawing-room comedies kept the readers spell-bound.

The later sixties witnessed a change in the outlook and creative style on the Manipuri literary scene. Pacha, a young writer, who penned seriously about love, suddenly gives in his novels the ugly facets of Modern Manipuri society. But the cry of the existentialist despair and loneliness comes from the writings of Shri Biren whose plays, short stories and poems expose a disillusioned society. Older literary practitioners like Prakash Singh, Sonamani Singh, Padmakumar Singh, Dinamani Singh, Jayantakumar Sharma, Chitreshwor Sharma, Jhalajit Singh, produced their works in conformity with the changing times in a style, idiom and mood befitting the contemporary Manipuri society. Some, however, loved to delineate the traditional patterns of life and values, but on the whole, they contribute their might to the development of Manipuri literature in their own way and style.

The modernist trend, however, could be discernible more clearly in the poetry of the period. It is no more flowers and bees but despair, spiritual paralysis, confusion and loss of faith that find reflected in their poetry. The poets who belong to this group are many and varied. But a few names could be mentioned here as an illustration like Nilakanta, Somorendro, Shri Biren, Madhubir, Sri Lekhak, Ibopishak, Ibomcha, Lanchenba, Bhubansana, Birendrajit, Saratchand, Nando, Bihari, Kunjo, Birmangol, Jugeshwar, Tomba, Raghu, Hakim, Prahlada, Netrajit, Bhanumanti, Memchoubi, Borkanya, Ibemhal, Shantibala, Subadani. Fiction writers like Biren, Nabakishore, Kshetri Bira, B.M. Maisnamba, Nabakumar, Kengba, Sunita, Nee Devi had made their presence felt in this period with their unique style. The appearance of writers like Viramani, Premchand, Priyokumar, Sudhir have accelerated the pace of Manipuri literature tremendously. The period also saw the growth of other forms of literature like creative essay, translation and travel writing. Today, Manipuri travel writing and translation have established themselves as important genres. There are several writers also who have contributed immensely to the growth of Manipuri literature from Assam, Tripura and even Bangladesh. They make Manipuri literary scene vibrant with their unique style and technique during this period.

Manipuri literature today has entered a nebulous era and stands on the fringe of post-modernism. Many young writers, both male and female, have made their presence felt also toward the close of the 20th century and the beginning of this new era with their gripping style of production. Our writers have occupied a pride of place among other Indian writers. No big literary programme in the country is complete without the participation of Manipuri writers. To achieve this, Manipuri writers have struggled for years and their valuable efforts do not go in vain.


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