A glance into the Protest Culture shaping the imagination of Manipur


TNT Y! | By Radhika Goswami | Feb 11, 2019

ABOUT THE WRITER: Radhika pursued her MA in Social Anthropology from SOAS, London. She works closely with Foundation for Social Transformation, Guwahati, Assam. Her work entailed developing a Manual on Theatre Techniques in Conflict Transformation in Adolescents in Guwahati, Assam. Her area of focus is working with indigenous performance arts and how they relate/ can be related to social function within a community. This piece is an excerpt from her research.

A quaint café in a narrow alleyway in Guwahati, Assam, India, sets the mood for an informal musical performance. This was the first time, I saw Akhu Chingangbam perform live. Before this, his had been a name frequently associated with resistance and music of the people of Manipur in contemporary times within the music circuit. On this occasion, Akhu performed an acoustic set of the songs he usually plays as part of the band 'Imphal Talkies and the Howlers'. His performance was a blend of storytelling and music, echoing his intense passion that surfaces every time he sings about his strife-torn homeland, which resonates with his audience.

The people of Manipur have been exposed to violence for over three generations now. Manipur's merger with India in 1949 triggered ethnic tensions between the Kukis and Nagas of the hills and the Meitei of the valley, leading to the declaration of a state of emergency followed by the imposition of the infamous AFSPA. The consequences of this long-term exposure to violence cannot be fathomed as part of the population has accepted violence as a social norm.


In Manipur, the notion of a protest culture can be seen throughout in the years of exploitation by the politically powerful. The ideas of resistance and discord with the centre have now seeped into the everyday lives of people thereby provoking the amalgamation of the lived cultures, signifying practices and cultural texts within the context of counter-state violence or protest. The 'culture of violence'thus dictate a culture of resistance which can be named 'protest culture' implying the intersection of popular culture and protest culture.

In the backdrop of the resurgence of Meitei identity in the 1960s, which was seen an attempt to reverse this history of assimilation into a homogenous Hindu identity, the sense of alienation highlighted through the rejection of symbols of mainland India such as the Hindi language has allowed for Manipur to produce more cultural texts and materials which reflect the region's ideology. Today in the Manipuri performance spaces, the remnants of memory and history can be found in the form of fusion performances. This is also a result of the increasing effect of globalization in post-modern times. Bands such as 'The Koi' or 'Imphal Talkies and the Howlers' are just some examples of this trend towards fusion. Most of their lyrics are in Manipuri and the tunes comprise of traditional folk music of Manipur intersected with western-rock elements. Similarly, RatanThiyam, a reputed theatre personality in Manipur and India, uses elements of NataSankirtana[1] and Thangta[2] in many of his plays.


A major factor that impacts the cultural space in Manipur is the continuous violence, be it the paramilitary presence, insurgency or ethnic tensions. The imagery associated with violence is affected by both history and memory and embedded in the everyday lives of people.  It thus, can be viewed from the perspective of the oppressor (who wields the power to write history) versus the oppressed (who wields the power of memory). The oppressed then finds different mediums to counter history using a nostalgic lens which result in a heightened sense of resistance in all activities of society. This is reflected in many performances by artistes who have come out of Manipur. JayantaLoukrakpam, popularly known as 'Tapta', a celebrated regional singer- songwriter in Manipur highlights the issues of the violence-torn state while expressing his love for his Motherland (Manipur). Others such as Kanhailal and his threatre group and the band 'Imphal Talkies and the Howlers' too reflect this ideology of resistance. Thus, the cultural space in Manipur is a stratified space shaped by memory inducing a sense of resistance in the hope for a violence-free, peaceful society where justice prevails.


Formedin 2008, 'Imphal Talkies and the Howlers' is a four-piece band comprising of RikiChingangbam (Vocals), AkhuRonidChingangbam(Guitars and Vocals), SachidanandaAngom (Guitars) and RajuAthokpam (Bass).A folk-rock band from Manipur which has been called the "voice of North-East"(id.), it has constantly strived to create awareness about the social andpolitical issues of the state. The band has released three albums whileactively engaging with issues of politics,insurgency, human rights, racial attacks, and environmentwith special emphasisagainst the draconian AFSPA. They have several tracks which express profoundanguish and rage over these issues. Over the years 'Imphal Talkies andthe Howlers' have produced influential music that has unapologetically shonelight on the situation in Manipur. "Political commentary is where Imphal Talkiesexcel". One of their most powerful politically charged albums came out in 2014in the form of 'When the Home isBurning'; it was a journey into the past comprising of six songs. The album can be read as a sense of resistance againstinjustice across this country in general and Manipur in particular. Apart fromthe band, Akhu also runs a project called 'ANative Tongue called Peace' (2015). It is a music project under thesponsorship of Guwahati based NGO- Foundation for Social Transformation (FST) whichusesmusic as a tool for peacebuilding and therapy. It works with orphaned andabandoned children to promote peace and harmony between the ethnictribes/communities of Manipur. 

The late HeisnamKanhailal (1941-2016) was a prominent figure in the cultural space in Manipur (Appendix 2.3) as the Founder and director of Kalakshetra Manipur (KKM) (1969), a theatre group. For 40 years, Oja[3]Kanhailal along with his wife, Sabitri Devi, dedicated himself to theatre in the state.Based out of Imphal, the KKM was established in 1969 and it has since endeavored to continue the idea of "'renewal of ancestral tradition' for a contemporary cultural expression as the progeny of an ethno-socio tradition of Manipur". His work has mainly concentrated on the question of identity and socio-political issues surrounding the Manipuris. His thoughts and representations of communities in his plays, especially the Meitei, force one to identify and recognize the state and ethnic violence that blankets everyday life in Manipur. 


The common thread that runs through the works of Akhu and Kanhailal is the violence they have witnessed despite being from different points of time in the history of their State. Each in their own field has voiced opinions about the socio-political issues in Manipur in relation to the contemporary events unfolding in their time. Both have a strong voice against the State violence and imposition of AFSPA.  Be it Kanhailal'sDraupadi or When the Home is Burning, or India I See Blood on Your Hands by Imphal Talkies, both depict the atrocities committed against the common people of Manipur. Their works also delve deep into the overall alienation that Manipur feels not only from mainland India but also among the different ethnic communities within Manipur. Pebet becomes a prime example in this regard. Imphal Talkies' QutubMinartoo confronts the feeling of alienation and abandonment that is deeply entrenched in the community. In relating to the resistance movement, both Akhu and Kanhailal advocate against the violence in the state through their respective performances. Many of their performances are an effort towards the peacebuilding process and are meant to provoke a reaction from the audience be it Draupadi or India I See Blood on Your Hands.Through their art, they strive to instil belief in greater participation of the community in order to bridge class and ethnic differences which are both a cause and effect of the structural violence in the state. Their efforts to include the Manipuri community at large are also prominent in their local initiatives and cultural expeditions in the form of a music festival, community project 'A Native tongue Called Peace' or the two large-scale community performances- NupiLan and 'Sanjennaha (Cowherd)'.


However,this space cannot function on its own. While the space does not lackcreativity, what it lacks is the organizational support and mobility of theresources to sustain this cultural space. It has become increasingly clear that'imposition of unity from above' must be countered with persistent efforts of'cultures from below' highlighting a dire need for the government to regardculture as not merely an "adjunct to political power but rather as a vitalconcern linked to the necessities of education, health and environment".Through the works of the two protagonists, it can be said that the culturalspace is dominated by imagery of past memories of violence. However, at thesame time, it also holds the power to create new memories by re-negotiatingthis violence within the present if rather than normalizing violence, itchooses to work against the notion of a "culture of violence".

[1] Enactment of the traditional story of the Hindu god, Krishnadancing with Radha and his other consorts in the form of a dance-drama.

[2] a traditional Meitei Martial arts dance form

[3] Term of respect while addressing elders in Manipuri (Meitei), also denotes teacher (Admin, 2014)

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