Imphal Review of Arts and Politics

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Thoidingjam Tombi Singh who is credited with bringing modern art of painting to Manipur

Th. Tombi Singh: The Gifted Artist Committed to His Vocation – Part 3

After leaving Baroda he again started workin as a lecturer in Imphal College and also as a part-time teacher in the Imphal Art College. He worked for four years in the college during which time he imparted his skill and knowledge he acquired form Baroda to the students. Afterwards he became its Principal too for five years (1977-81).

By the 1960’s Manipuri literature saw the search for root and many writers started working on this consciousness. This wave also started penetrating in other fields such as theatre etc. But this movement was not prominently noticed in the realm of arts in those days. But not all the artists were silent in this front. Th. Tombi felt the need of the hour and he directed his conscience along this line with great gusto. He also gave his time and mind in promoting arts. During his tenure as the General Secretary of the Cultural Forum Manipur, Imphal (1971-73), a prestigious cultural organisation in Manipur he initiated organisation of Children’s Painting Exhibitions right fron1 1973 till 1992. This opened up a new area for the exploration of art movement from the grass root levels in the state.

Again, he became the brain in establishing the Arts Society, Manipur in 1972 to strengthen the movement of arts in Manipur. Many art lovers joined hands and today the result is visible as it has produced and promoted a new generation of artists in the state. For a few years he worked for both the Cultural Forum, Manipur and the Arts Society, Manipur. After the completion of his term as the General Secretary of the Cultural Forum, Manipur, he paid full attention to his beloved Arts Society, Manipur. He worked as Secretary of this society for twenty years (1981-2003) during which period he could organise many seminars and art workshops, study circles, receptions, memorial lectures, art exhibitions (both state & national levels) etc. By the 1980’s the activities of the society were recognised far and wide which attracted the attention of the national Lalit Kala Akademi, New Delhi to recognise the society as the national level art organisation. He \Vas a 1ne1nber of the General Council, LKA, N.D. for the terms during 1973-78, 1979-88. Presently he is a member of the General Council as a nominee of the Government of India (2003-08). He also invited many famous artists from outside Manipur and gave the young and aspiring artists from Manipur the opportunity of acquainting as well as working with then. He may be said to be the chief architect in shaping contemporary art movement in Manipur and the Arts Society, Manipur also gave him this golden opportunity.

The Singapore exhibition is one memorable event in Th. Tornbi’s life. One Joshua Paul from Singapore, an art promoter telephoned to him one morning seeking an appointment. Consequently, he came to Tombi’s house after a few days. It seems he had seen the artist’s painting earlier in various places. Mr. Paul invited Tombi to join a painting exhibition in Singapore in which nine contemporary artists from India are to participate. It was an electrifying moment for the artist. The exhibition was organised by the ‘Walk-in Gallery’ of Singapore. Tombi left Imphal in August, 1991. The other participants are – Laxman Pai, G.S. Adiverekar, K.M. Adimoolam, Rekha Rao, Alphonso A. Dass, P.N. Chotyal, Sunil Das, Sethi Deven. The Exhibition was held from 22 to 25 August, 1991. It was inaugurated by the Mayor of this ultra modern city nan1ely Singapore. lt was really a great event – people from other countries also came especially to see the exhibition. The artists also had the chance of visiting important places of Singapore adding to their experience. Here Tombi became aware of the value of paintings which do not necessarily belong to the ultra modern group. Singapore itself has a strong modernistic movement in arts and there is no dearth of experiments in this area.

In contrast the Indian works gave a subtle quality coupled with traditional values and ethos. It had a soporific effect an ability to pacify tensions in the mind. T.K. Sabopathy, an eminent art critic has this to say about Tombi’s painting which were shown in Singapore: “In compositions such as ‘Man and Chair’, these are protest pictures whose contents have been largely shaped by Socio-political experience and ‘levels of actuality’.”


“Painting for me is a representation of my feelings and ideas about what is happening around me. I cannot avoid this since I am a part and parcel of my environment. My fluid feelings and emotions are connected with and always generated by nature, fellow beings, pressures and power-politics which are generally categorised into social, economic and political phenomena. Occurrences in these fields keep the complex society palables, surging and ever shifting. My process is a continuous trial and experimentation with the continuum of contemporary consciousness conditioned by the medium of paint and brush I use.”

It is true, his paintings are very concerned with what and how is Manipur at present. For many years this land has been an open battle field – such battle where there is no rule, no amnesty, no justice. Only the dead remains real. This uncompromising truth has not escaped the attention of every artist in this part of India with varying degrees. Tombi, the artist has captured this socio-political experience and difficult human relations along with the cultural roots and aesthetics of this land to express a psychological state combined with inner feelings. But when he vents his anger, displeasure and suffering they do not preponderate over his usual subtlety and characteristic understatement. His painting becomes a poetry in colour and form in themselves and the had done away with the need for realism. The angst in his heart is expressed in suggestive gestures – in other word they like Manipuri dance possesses the quality of subdued eloquence.’

Tombi feels pain to see ongoing movernent of regionalism, anti-Vaishavism and anti-mainstream culture. The gradual destruction of the beautiful Vaishnavite tradition of Manipur breaks his heart. Some of his works also bear testimony to this kind of feeling. Such suffering has proved too much for everybody and for Tombi the artist does not exaggerate when he starts finding an outlet to the realm of peace. He yearns for peace, for God and harmony. His present mood is progressing in this line. For instance, such paintings as, -‘Man and Chair’ (2001); and ‘Man From The Chair’ (2001); ‘Peaceful Co-existence’ series (2001); ‘Messenger of Peace’ (2001); ’18 June, 2001′ (2001); ‘The Activities’ (Meira Paibi (2001); ‘Maibi, the Spiritually Possessed’ (2001); ‘War and Peace’ (2002); ‘Black and White’ (2002); (2002); ‘Woman offering Prayer’ (2002) etc. reflect the unbearable and calamitous violent instances in Manipur. They strive to achieve peace and show his search of God. Let there be peace – it has become his prayer.

Th. Tombi, a multifaceted personality – a teacher, a painter, art teacher and art activist has been awarded by many institutions. Some of them are – ‘Manipur State Kala Akademi Award’ (1974, 1976), ‘Gold Medal’ by the Manipuri Sahitya Parishad, Imphal (1983), National Lalit Kala Akademi Award, New Delhi (1988), Honoured by AIFACS, New Delhi, 1999; and ‘Pranab Barua Art Award, Guwahati, 2007. He is presently member of many prestigious art and literary institutions both inside and outside Manipur and has been performing yeoman’s service in this field. It should be no exaggeration to say that he as artist ushered in a movement of contemporary art and its consciousness in Manipur. He has also published many articles written on art. Among thein twenty nine are in Manipuri and eighteen in English. These have been published in many highly regarded magazines and journals of India. Two monographs by him – H. Shyamo Sharma (1917-79) and R.K. Yumjaosana Singh (1870-1954) are liked very much by the readers.

To conclude we may put a question – what is the uniqueness of Shri Th. Tombi Singh in terms of social reality not only in this region but also elsewhere and what is his response to the unpleasant, unwanted happenings in the present day society? It is not out of point to deny that there is dislocation in the peaceful co-existence among the people. A fear psychosis has pervaded every heart people’s 1nouth are muffled. The common man is forced to bear the brunt without the courage to protest. But Tombi the artist speaks out what others cannot through his brush and paint. They remain his persistent compassions and they move, compose and flash the message that God has made men equally and they should love each other. Such is the uniqueness of this sort spoken, silence-loving artist who tries to fend the meaning of peaceful co-existence and harmony in our society.


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