The poet Khwairakpam Chaoba Singh (1895-1950) produced nine books in print during his life time, none of them was a play. Consequently, nobody had given cognizance of the fact that Chaoba was a playwright also. Among his unpublished manuscripts we come across a title Naba-Malika. But the nature of the book had not been indicated specially. A fresh aspect of the poet has now come out in the course of renowned research in connection with the poet’s centennial celebrations. A new vista is now opened to us of a long neglected aside of the poet as a playwright and the contributions Chaoba gave to Manipuri dramatic literature have come to light. The new finding has amply proved that Chaoba is a fine pioneering playwright in Manipuri literature.
After a close study of the extant but incomplete MS and also after talking in person with those actors still alive who took part in the production of Chaoba’s plays, it has now become apparent that he wrote four plays and all of them had been presented in his lifetime. The plays are the following-(a) Labanga-Lata: It had been dramatised from a novel of the same by the poet. The MS available consists of 41 pages only. the play was staged in Roxy Theatre, Uripok during the pre-war days. (the Second World War or rather popularly known as the Japanese War in Manipur.) (b) Madhu -Malati: It consists of 16 pages only. It was performed in Roxy Theatre, Uripok after the War. (c) Naba-Malika: It is incomplete and consists of 30 pages. The date is given as
28.9.45. It was performed in the Manipur Dramatic Union (M.D.U.) after the War. Later, the title was changed into Japan Lan and the play was staged at the same place. (d) One-Act Play: The title is not certain; but the play is about the arrest of Bir Tikendrajit as well as the Battle of Khongjom. It was staged in the Johnstone School Hall by the students of D.M. College during 1946-47.
But the MS of the two plays Nityaipa-gi Shorat and Birendra-Kumari supposed to have been written by Chaoba cannot be traced. Actor who took part in the play have confirmed that Nityaipa-gi Shorat was staged in the M.D.U. On the other hand, the following persons, Shri. S Bhuban Singh, Shri Khaidem Bihari Singh and Shri Chandam Gopal Singh expressed the possibility that play might have been written by late Oja Khumanthem Madhumangal Singh (1887-1962) vide Interview with the persons named. In this context, Shri Chandam Gopal Singh says: I think the writer of Nityaipa-gi Shorat was none other than Oja Khumanthem Madhumangal. As far as my recollection goes-Oja himself came during the rehearsal of the play. I myself took part a minor role in that play. In all probability it had been staged before 1954, for I first joined Roopmahal (the Roopmahal Theatre in Imphal) that year. And the play had been presented as I joined Roopmahal, that is say. when I was still in the M.D.U. It means that the play had definitely been presented after Chaoba’s death in 1950. (We have not come across conclusive record in the M.D.U. Archives; if it had been available the matter could have been resolved). First of all, the play is comic in nature as it is an ironical refrain on the episodes of Nityaipa (the father of Nityai) being forced to embrace sannyas on his death bed and the shradha ceremony being observed accordingly. On the other hand, the writer Khumanthem Madhumangal Singh was a known comic playwright. A play by him – Bokachaoba (staged in Roopmahal Theatre on 27.6.1951) had been very much acclaimed as popular comedy in the strict sense of fun and laughter. About those actors who took part in the play Nityaipa-gi Shorat oja Khaidem Bihari Singh said – “Lairenbam Ibohal Singh took the role of Nityaipa: 1 played a singer and Kh. Manglem was the maiba” (local physician-from Interview).
The MS of the play Birendra-Kumari is still not traced and we find no record of this play having been staged at any time. Hence, I cannot suppose it had been written by Khwairakpam Chaoba. One possibility that induces Smt. Nungsitombi Devi, the late poet’s daughter to ascribe Birendra-Kumari to Chaoba could be that the play Madhu-Malati MS, which is extant (the MS does not make mention of the title of the play and that it should be said that the play must have been guessed from the story and the characters) portrays a female character named Kumari; as it is, the employment of the character Kumari had led her to believe that the extant MS is that of Birendra-Kumari. However, the fact is that when a close study of Madhu-Malati and Kumari were found not two, but to be different names of one person. Malati took the garb of a Sannyas in order to avenge the death of her innocent husband. It shows us that the two plays Nityaipa-gi Shorat and Birendra-Kumari are not Chaoba’s works.
Most of the literary pioneers of the 20th century Manipur invariably took part in the development of Manipuri theatre. Automatically, Chaoba too joined the movement for its development during the pre and postwar periods, but not to the extent Mahakavi Anganghal and Jananeta Irabot dedicated their souls to it. All the same, he could not escape the forceful swirls of the movement for developing the Manipuri theatre. The literary environs as well as conditions in those days made Chaoba a playwright and consequently, a few plays by him had been presented. But, to jump to the conclusion that due to this Chaoba became a successful and significant playwright will be a wrong judgement on our part. If at all an estimate should be given of Chaoba as a playwright, it is imperative that his plays are first carefully studied. Unfortunately, such an opportunity is lost to us. The incomplete manuscripts of Chaoba, as they are scanty will cause injustice to him if they should be considered fit sources of valuation. However, the truth is that Chaoba contributed what he could to the development of Manipuri literary history.
There had already been a few theatres in the Uripok area before the War and they continued to exist for a few years after War, too. One such theatre used to be Shri Tomchou Sharma’s mandapa (temple) where Chaoba’s play Labunga-Iata had been staged. Another theatre, Roxy, produced Madhu/-Malati of the same writer. The authenticity had been verified from talks with aged artists, still alive today who took part in those plays.
Let us put the question why did Chaoba dramatize his historical romance Labanga-Lata? I had already mentioned the existent of the manuscript of Laballga-Lata in play form. Next, the question arises – where was it first presented? It had been a mystery for so long, but not any longer. With a bit of luck, I had the opportunity to interview three octogenarians along with the poet Shri Biren. These persons are 1. Shri Achom Maipak Singh (Uripok Achorn Lcikai, 83 years), 2. Shri Khoirom Mangol Singh (Uripok Khumanthem Leikai, 83 years), and Shri Wahengabam Ibomcha Singh (Uripok Yambem Leikai, 80 years). They have now clarified that Labanga-Lata was presented in Tomchou Sharma’s mandapa before the War. Shri Wahengbam Ibomcha Singh (also known as Bilaji Ibomcha) who himself played Labanga says “… Labanga-Lata was staged in Agya Tomchou Sharma’s mandapa. I was already a fully grown youth and my age at that time must be 20 or 21. I took the part of Labanga. There was one Oja Ningthemjao. He taught us the play, he arranged for everything. We were lined up and he selected who would play whom. He brought tile volume (manuscript of the play) also. We were given copies of our dialogues. My own was ‘with me for a long time but it had disappeared in the confusion of shifting house… most probably it had been staged before the Nupi-Lal (Women War) … I think Lata was played by one Amumacaha, or it could have been one Radhe who took the role… it was told Khwairakpam Chaoba had written it.” (Report on Interview).
Among the MS of Chaoba that we find today, the Labanga-Lata MS is the most complete one comparatively. Even then, the remaining 41 pages of it covered only half the story in the novel –in fact, it dealt with episodes before “Shanongba’s Attack”. Chaoba made alternations in the sequence of events also in the process of dramatisation. For instance, the scene opens with a conversation between Labanga and Lata in Khwairakpa’s homestead. A few songs have been inserted, too. Nevertheless, the main story and episode in the novel are left unchanged. Evidently, the MS is proof enough that ChaQba could write plays meant for the stage.
There is some uncertainty regarding the play’s authorship. Is the late Gurumayum Prahlad Sharma’s Madhu–Malati published in 1957 the same with Chaoba’s Madhu-Malati that was presented in the Roxy, or are these two different plays? It was clearly stated by Prahlad Sharma in the introduction to his play that his play had been founded on a story by the poet Chaoba – “The play Madhu-Malati was based upon the story of ‘Madhu-Malati’ included in late Khwairakpmn Clwoba’s book Fidam published around 1935-37 (the year of publication is, in fact, 1927) and I started writing the play borrowing from the story such scenes as Malati’s taking shelter in the Moran tribal village, a dialogue between. Madhu and Malati at that place; and Malati’s leading the Meetei troup to the village when they did not find access to it by singing while husking paddy using a wooden mortar-and pestle. II Prahlad Sharma’s Madlnt-Malati had been presented not only by Paradise in Wangkhei but also by Aryan and Roopmahal Theatres.
Prahlad’s Madhu-Malati is written with the second half first and the first episodes last. The second half of the story, having been taken up first, closely adheres to Chaoba’s line of story as it had been inspired in toto by the story in the book, Fidam. On the other hand, the second half of the play is not based upon anything that had been encountered in Fidam; it is a product of Prahlad Sharma’s own imagination. (The story as it is found in Fidam starts with Bhagyachandra’s invasion of the Moran village. Madhu and Malati had already taken refuge in the Moran village. The story did not depict their lives before the episode.)
Chaoba’s Madhu-Malati of which only 16 pages remain deals with the first three scenes of the first Act I Sc.I described-Manipur Palace, Raj Durbar, Bhagyachandra with his Noblemen. This scene describes commercial relationship between Bhagyachandra, king of Manipur and the East India Company. The second scene tells us about a widow, Kumari whose husband had been murdered. She plots to kill and take revenge upon Malati’s father, the Khumbong Major who had murdered not only Kumari’s husband but also Madhu’s father. Scene the third shows us Kumari talking with a female companion in the Mahabali woods. Kumari, the youngest concubine and widow of the murdered noble of Moirang clan employes Madhu to become the instrument for avenging her husband’s death as well as his father’s. She also arranges to join together the hands of Madhu and Malati in marriage. The MS ends at this point.
The study given above clearly shows that there is a great difference between Prahlad Sharma’s opening scene and Chaoba’s early part of the story in the play. Besides, the names of Madhu’s and Malati’s parents are different in these two plays. Chaoba’s Kumari is the leading character in the play whereas Prahlad Sharma introduced other characters such as Leipaklei. It is quite evident that Chaoba’s Madhu-Malati and Prahlad’s play of the same name are not one and the same play.
That the play Madhu-Malati written by Kavi Chaoba was presented in the Roxy Theatre, Uripok had been conclusively verified by the late Thiyam Narendra Singh, Shri Khongbantabam Tolhan Singh and Smt. Leimaton Devi who herself took the role of Malati. Another witness to the veracity of the matter is Shri Wahengbam Nodiya whose house was next to the Roxy Theatre and who used to take part in some of the plays. He, too, subscribed to the same opinion with Shri Khongbantabam Tolhan Singh who had been associated early with the Roxy Theatre and whose Theatre was established around 1945. Oja Chaoba’s Modhu-Malati was presented in this theatre. The script bore his name. Madhu-Malati was shown at least twice or thrice. The role of Malati was played by Leimaton and that of Madhu, by her husband, the late Shyamkishor. (Report on Interview)
(From the volume Confluence: Essays on Manipuri Literature and Culture complied and edited by B.S. Rajkumar.)
To be continued next week
The writer is a noted columnist and critic of Manipuri literature