Sangbannabi, eigi Sangbannabi
Khummu wa ngang’u – eingonda yeng’u
Mai haigatlose, eingonda yeng’u…
… So sang Aheibam Shyam the lyrics of Manipuri writer MK Binodini Devi (1922-2011) that he set to music. Sangbannabi, a shade of green. Sangbannabi, a woman’s Manipuri name my mother loved, like she loved the color green. The color of the trees in her garden and the forests of her beloved Manipur, the color of the hills of the Yoma that the state nestles in. Our color is green, a shade of green.
How do we keep this region of the northeast, the Yoma of India, green? How do we keep our air breathable, our rivers clean, our lake waters clear, and our forests verdant so they continue to offer nesting to our birds and shade to man and beast? MK Binodini Devi, who signed her works simply as Binodini and was known as Imasi to her many sons and daughters, loved nature. Her stories and essays flower profusely with the native orchids of pageantry, the fragrant patchouli in our herbal hairwash, and the humble lantana that hedge our homes. I like to think she would have asked the same questions we ask today. For she did ask them during her lifetime, igniting environmental awareness in Manipur with her words on page, stage, and screen.
MK Binodini Devi saw the destruction of the sangai’s unique habitat in Loktak Lake at the hand of human beings in the name of progress. She was mortified by what we humans do in the name of development: I felt ashamed to ride in the presence of the animals. I got off and walked down the hill. The car followed me, stupidly. This quote is from her heartfelt 1973 essay titled Thoibidu Warouhou’i (The Pique of the Doe), written after her visit to Keibul Lamjao to see this rare and endangered brow-antlered deer of Manipur. It is now taught in the schools of Manipur. Tracing her thinking, activism, and her art that sprang from her love of wildlife and nature – in words, dance, and film – we see today that the sangai has been branded into the consciousness of the Manipuri people, ubiquitous in their naming of tourism festivals, newspapers, and restaurants. As Professor Nahakpam Aruna remarked trenchantly, ‘It is a testament to the power of literature.’ And, really, where but in performative Manipur would literature and performance together play such a seminal role in creating public awareness?
So we ask, with MK Binodini Devi’s thoughts and actions as our heartbeat: What do we do with this public awareness that is her legacy? Where do we go from here? With Sangbannabi, a series of explorations, engagements, and expressions Imasi Foundation embarks upon this centenary year of MK Binodini Devi, we ask: How do we keep our shade of green? What role will development, investors, and entrepreneurs play today and in the foreseeable future? What kind of development, what kind of investment and enterprises does the Yoma of India need, tagged distantly to the northeast corner of the country? We are defined by these yoma mountain ranges, these fingers of majestic hills cascading southward down to the Bay of Bengal after having pushed north tectonically eons ago to meet the Eastern Himalaya. Our geography is our definition, and our legacy our destiny.
The Yoma of India is the size of the Iberian Peninsula. Manipur itself is merely the size of Israel. The Tibeto-Burman people and cultures of the Yoma are but one-hundredth of the population of the country. There are few roads and railway lines, and more forests and rivers. We missed out on the Industrial Revolution, yet I write this on my laptop by the light of an LED bulb – products of that seismic transformation we had nothing to do with but which changed the course of human civilization, and with it, our lives. We are too small and powerless to drive the course of global and national development and progress. We are only the very tip of the tail end, the recipient and the consumer of progress, and, yes, sometimes the victim. But like all regional and local cultures around the world facing gray-out with globalization, we know that change is inevitable and certainly desirable. For we are poor. We are weak, isolated. We are different.
So what? Why not use our lack of industrialization, our isolation, and celebrate our difference? Perhaps we can even find some advantages here, some comparative advantage. We are not and cannot be Mumbai. By the same token, Mumbai is not and cannot be Manipur. We are not the engine of national progress nor have the power and resources to lead global advancement. But what we can do is say what kind of advancement suits us here. We can say what kind of progress is in harmony with our tribes and communities, our linguistic and genetic diversity, our forests, our wetlands and our hills, fitting with our lifestyle and values. We can choose. That much we can do. We can choose what is appropriate for us, proportionate to our size, and responsible to our children. We can choose a shade of green. And by doing so, can we not leap-frog over the encumbrances of industry that we do not have – quite like our tiny film industry jumped ahead to become the first video-based industry of India, as Ghana also did in Africa? Do we not owe this to our children and our children’s children who will bear the consequences of our actions, the scorching and inundations of global warming? For what worth is legacy if it is not for those who come after us?
The thinking behind Sangbannabi, inspired by the words and vision of MK Binodini Devi, is that we need to make smart choices, smarter choices, based on a deeper knowledge of who we are and what is of value to us. As MK Binodini Devi once said to her filmmaker friend Aribam Syam Sharma, ‘Culture and education are two different things. Culture is more important,’ adding drily, ‘It is best if you have both.’ It is that culture she spoke of, that knowledge, appreciation, and love of one’s forbears and heritage that made her dismiss the easy adoption of other people’s ideas and the charade of superficial patriotism. She once wrote in an essay about her cousin Prince Bhasker Manisana, about her visit with Tomiyo Sasaki and Ernest Gusella, two video artists from New York she had brought back to Manipur in 1992: One day, taking advantage of my age, I asked the Japanese woman, Tomiyo, to make some tea for me. She obliged. When the tea was ready to be served, she suddenly went down on her knees and holding the tea cup in both her hands, respectfully handed it over to me. I was bewildered, but touched to the core as well. How beautiful, I thought. Well, our own traditions are not any less.
MK Binodini Devi celebrated beauty in our culture and in our lands. She wrote with awe about the humbling magnificence of the Kanchenjunga in her essay Darjeeling Chat’ngeida (Visiting Darjeeling); the mighty, rolling Brahmaputra of Assam and the susurration of the pine trees of Shillong in her memoir essays; the pristine, brooding forests of mountainous Tamenglong in her essay Ahong Yumna Hairi (The Old Homestead Says to Us). She was non-polemical to her core in her literature, but as a citizen of letters, she derided the lack of vision and leadership that she saw in Manipur. She wrote in a tribute to Nirad C. Chaudhuri’s famous jibe ‘the survival of the unfittest’: In today’s world, the fit, the honest, the diligent, and the hard-working are more often than not pushed to the sidelines by the horde of unfits whose only competence is in collaborating with other unfits who run the show. She had little patience with smooth operators who work for easy glory and personal gain in the name of the social good, but accomplish little of relevance and worth. So, I ask: What is to be done? For something has to be done, she said, calling for the preservation of the homeless Manipuri Pony in 2008. How hard can it be in such a small land? How long must this go on, one may ask. It is such an easy thing. No one is thinking about them, no one is paying them any attention. Let us make them see. Let us make a demand. Let us make everyone know. We must not remain silent and do nothing.
She is right. We cannot do nothing. For something has to be done, as she said. Maybe we can do little in the larger national and global scheme of things. We may not be able to lead the way, but we can participate in national progress and contribute in our small way with ideas from the wellspring of our local heritage and culture. Big things come from small ideas, and change starts from the periphery as I once heard the Nobel laureate writer Mo Yan remark. With Sangbannabi, we dream in a shade of green. We ask today, can the Yoma be a green zone of India? Is it possible to make developmental choices dreaming this dream in our shade of green? Can Manipur be the garden of India and the Yoma the clear, uncongested lungs of India like the Maidan is for the city of Kolkata or Central Park for New York City? Can we keep the Yoma green and multi-hued as MK Binodini Devi’s garden was?
Talk to me – look at me,
Come, lift your face,
Look at me…
Come, get up,
Let us go for a stroll
Along the Nambul River,
Let us walk along the riverbank,
Come, lift your face
And look at me.
Here, let us sit, let us just sit
Let us watch the butterflies flit
And the mustard flower,
Come, let us let ourselves go
Just let us lose ourselves
You – me, me – you.
Please lift your face,
Come on please,
Look at me
My Shade of Green…
The writer is a cultural conservationist, curator, writer, publisher, and translator of the works of his mother MK Binodini Devi. He is the Founder and Chair of Imasi: The Maharaj Kumari Binodini Devi Foundation. Sangbannabi was written for the Business Excellence Group’s annual general body meeting publication of 2022.