Imphal Review of Arts and Politics

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G.C. Tongbra, a towering playwright and satirist who enriched Manipuri literature immensely

The World of G.C. Tongbra – Part 1

From the volume “Confluence: Essays on Manipuri Literature and Culture” complied and edited by B.S. Rajkumar.


Tongbra has a unique individual world. Most people hardly understand this private world of his. So they misconceive him, misinterpret him and misrepresent him in different ways. Some say Tongbra is simply only a man of humour. Some speak on Tongbra as a social critic, reformer (in his words he calls himself a ‘dhovi writer’ (a washerman writer). Some chide him -Tongbra simply imitates CB Shaw, his plays are based on current issues, they will not last long. Older people get angry with him – his plays make no sense. They are not worth to enjoy. His plays are so light. So on and many more. All these remarks possess some truth in them because they know Tongbra only partially. None could discover the real Tongbra still today. In truth, it is not an easy matter to know Tongbra. Because, we find the great influence of western literature. Again we find in his views and literary stance a resultant in him new outcome of a tussle between old and modern traditions. His writing style shows new expressions as well as concepts far advanced than our times. Above all these things, there is in Tongbra a peculiarity that may best be called Tongbraesque. Because Tongbra is a multi-faceted gem. He is a person who knows his times quite well, a writer who is ahead of his time. Therefore it is a great challenge for us to try to decode Tongbra. Still today we are unable to define the affinity we have with Tongbra’s world and the factors that make up this relationship possible. The critic Breton writers, “There is a continent submerged below the surface of language. That constitutes the real recognition of man.” We are, at present still pursuing the voyage of searching for the hidden continent of Tongbra, his real world.

Tongbra appeared as a comet in the world of Manipuri drama. Not only did he introduce realistic social play in Manipuri drama but also widened the definition of drama to change its boundary as we assumed it to be. He stopped writing on traditional themes like history, mythology, legend and heroism to start writing on present day social problems as we face them, as themes of his plays, for instance in Mani-Mamou, Imphal Thoibi, Matric Pass, Yaoshang Kangou, Taibang Gaitrang, Hingminnaba, Lamja Parsuram, Chengni Khujai, HIngbatai Karigumba Pambei, Mani Thiba, Tapta, Ngabongkhao etc. He not only presented problems but also presented threadbare discussions on them thereby making the dramatic platform a venue of discussions. We may cite such examples in the following plays like Chengni Khujai where a debate was conducted on democracy and the party system, in Hingminnaba the families, as well as two neighbourhoods go on quarrelling with each other regarding religion and custom, they analyse the process of development, in Yaoshang Kangou the merits and demerits of observing the Yaoshang (holi festival) etc. Besides these –by introducing strange, new, plausible or implausible things to the stage he changed its definition as well as their perspectives. He could effect a big change in the diction of his plays, with the use of good arguments, great wit, meaningful humour he exalted Manipuri dramatic diction to a high literary level. With the coming of Tongbra the universe of Manipuri drama suddenly expanded.

What are the problems that Tongbra deals with in his plays? Contemporary society and life, the present society supplies him with his themes. Tongbra writes: “As the Sadhu (Trilinga Swami) sees everything as Vishnu, to my eyes the world looks like extracting oil at the cost of the disadvantaged. All the paths, drains, fences, edible items, rice and pulses, tradesman, contractors, farmers, workers, students, teachers, politics, MLA, officers, people, voters, hotels, market, shopkeeper, bus, rickshaw, paper, textbook, temple, rituals, schools, colleges, electricity, lamps, pipe water, even the sugar, all of them appear to me as the begging bowl holding Vishnu’s incarnations. What should I write before pleasing all these Vishnu’s encircling me on all sides? ……. In Manipur where land snails spread everywhere today corruption, atrocities, terrorisation of common people are increasing daily. Acts of betrayal, ingratitude, insensitivity to justice for the sake of aggrandisement only are on the increase nonstop debasing human value.” So, the problems Tongbra writes about in his plays concern contemporary hot issues in politics, sociology, economics and on rampant corruption, exploitation of man by man, family life, misuse of power, morality, outdated customary system etc. These constitute the subjects of his plays.”Now we write of what is happening before us. We don’t write of the future generations”, Tongbra says. Society and human life are very much close to Tongbra’s pen.

There is no subject his pen has not touched concerning social issues that related with our lives in the society. The origin of all problems Tongbra takes up in his plays stems from human freedom and a life of equal opportunities in life. He is very eager for human liberty and desires to set up a society of impartiality where each man in society throughout the world would live close to one another. But he does not stand out as a reformer to achieve what he targets in society. His aim is only to bring out the nuances within the objective he has set for the world to achieve universal equality and liberty. What he wants to make people understand is that all these things were created by our political system. Man’s stupidity and orthodox thinking are at the root of these problems. These certainly are wrongful and defective ways with this society. The problems we are facing now are caused by all of these. Then Tongbra continuously brings out in his plays the conflict between the social systems and the inherent good qualities of man. In his play Tapta to be honest, to become good person of one’s own volition are the preambles he has laid down before describing Baba’s fight against the concept of external happiness and a meaningless aping of western culture and this Baba is the same person who everyone had considered to be a mad man. In Upu Bakshi the protagonist Senjeng wages war against the forces of lies, treachery and falsity that have encircled people on all four sides, Senjeng says:“Don’t you know, what I am upto now is meant for the welfare of the people. I am on to a new movement, a new path of welfare.” In the play Matric Pass also Pratap who is a failure in the Matriculation Examination but a successful man in other ways satirises and confronts false value system of society. He throws in the Matriculation certificate at his wife Thariktha and moves on. The piece of paper that was the Matriculation Certificate thrown at his wife is not actually thrown at her. It is thrown against the Thariktha who had been embracing sincerely outdated customs, defective systems, against the Meitei society of which Thariktha was used as a symbol. About this play Tongbra says: “In the play ‘Matric Pass” Thariktha received a certficate whereas her husband Pratap eloped ‘with Miss Manipur. In which year was Hemingway’s ‘Old MalI And the Sea’ written? Did he write it after seeing ‘Matric Pass’ ? How similar the two results are the old mnn caught the big fish, but when he reached home there remained only the skeleton? When Pratap asked Thariktha to wait was it not Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot?” Most of his plays (especially Imphal Thoibi, Chengni Khujai, Keku Lotpi, Kao Phabi, Hingminnaba, Matric Pass, Lamja Parsuram, Memthoibi, Leishabi Chithikhela, Ngahongkhao etc.) were written challenging social customs, out dated beliefs and morality. He then comes up with a new set of values. He is happy to annihilate such issues as social customs, injustices, beliefs, religion, point of view and thoughts without forgiveness that will obstruct freedom and progress in the creation of a new better society. He scythes through, bitterly invects, satirises and is vehemently sarcastic about such evils and weakness. We come to know at such contexts how sharp is Tongbra’s pen. (Some examples are: Mani Thiba a stone is erected in the form of the King when none was found to become, in Chengni Khujai Ganadevi is worshipped with incense offering, in Tapta they try to straight a dog’s tail, in Rasgula Mantri an ex-Minister has been pitied, in Hingminnaba extravagant expenditure in marriages is berated etc.

And Tongbra is out and out a socialist, also a true realist and strong rationalist as well. Howsover it might be, his socialism is not based on any philosophy and has not been founded on any definite theory and ideology. Neither did he follow it because he liked the idea of class struggle as envisaged in Marxist ideology nor because he is a follower of G.B. Shaw’s Fabian socialism. His writing evolved from simply a fulcrum of social equality envisioned through the lofty vision of a writer broadly regarding socialism. Thus Tongbra says: “A play cannot readily put on the grinder the soiled clothes of society). Plays can only inspire us, instil our hearts with pleasure A play can only increase the appetite of our hearts, it does not aim at bettering one’s family wealth.” And to a question regarding socialism and Manipuri society Tongbra once replied “…..This society, our society is not heading towards socialism, it das remained far behind or at best, going towards Dimapur it had remained at the diversion at Kangpokpi towards Tamenglong when will it meet with accident of powerism, that is what we are worried about. If we have to measure the degree of socialism, then we may think that if a common man should work for 3/4 hours a day and gets fed and clothed with his earning then we may think that it is certainly near, then again when a person gets no work the whole day though he gets it his stomach remains half-filled only, then the vision of socialism is useless, it is a waste of time to discuss about it and it will bring us hunger on1y at the end. Leave Manipur aside where public distribution is not there, far developed India is dreaming of socialism and talking about it they are thinking that food stuffs will fall down from the sky for them. Manipur is the field property of India, we have seen it from practice, I have not copied it from others.” In short, Tongbra wants social justice and social equality in society. But he did not take it lightly when he came to think and show these problems. He is all seriousness in doing this. So, Tongbra declares constantly: “It is my curse when my listeners laugh at hearing my words when I weep and cry from a bitter mind in declaring them. ” There is no room for doubt at Tongbra’s agenda which he had taken up under a clear idea. He firmly believes in it: “I will go on showing what I believe it to be the best for social and human upliftment whether there is an audience or no audience, whether I earn or lose from it, though the world does not want it, it is my desire.” This statement constitutes of the innermost slogan of Tongbra, a very well thought out conclusion and a cool reason on his side.

Tongbra analysed his ideas neither as an idealist nor a romanticist. His approach is different. One of his choice themes is the exploitation of the poor and weak by wealthy and men in power. At the hands of romanticists and sentimentalist we find such a theme treated with excessive imagination making people feel like crying and going soft. But when Tongbra takes up the same thing we find him giving expression to another form. Because Tongbra does not want to show the external realities of man in his life as it is, he goes into the innermost source of the problem to picturise its form, essence and composition only. What he is trying to show in the play Ngabong Khao is not the character of the harlot Sanajaobi as much as the idea that is in her inner being. In the words of the writer: ” We may call Sanajaobi as the representational statue of the goddess who holds a sack bag, she might not be a common woman Sanajaobi might not be a human being, she may represent the principle of covetousness perhaps … ‘Ngabongkhao’ is the symbol of something that can be made possible only with coercion when cajoling fails ‘Ngabong Khao’ has been written as a satire of corruption those who understand it may find it most enjoyable. When Tomalo in the play suffered to become free it shows the irony of human behaviour. What I want to show in the play ‘Mani Mamou’ is not the humour of the quarrel between the husband and the wife i.e. between her son and daughter-in-Iaw. When the quarrel stopped feel the quietness that reigned over the household that is heavenly, ever heard of the echoes of a quarrel in a house?” These words confirm how the writer brings out the essence of the problems in his plays. What the writer says is the real truth. In his new play “Changyeng Manja” (The Probation Husband) he is not making jokes at the cost of Kunti and Tara in the Mahabharata and the Ramayana. He is simply showing the age old well known character in the epics analysing, comparing and of showing the difference between the morality and the moral laws of a bygone era with that of present lives and state of freedom. The inner idea in Malli Thiba is – man cannot be trusted with power and that wherever they are in power they start missing it. Tongbra plays is not concerned with imitating the external truth alone and it is not satisfied with showing it. He is most concerned with the hidden inner truth of human morality and the essence of living and life itself.

We need to study further how does Tongbra desire the essence of these problems and in which way. Hence the importance of his form and style are of significance. Tongbra’s drama belong to the genre of ‘drama of ideas’ of G.B. Shaw or also called problem play; Most of his plays follow the traditional plot construction style. Like the absurdists he does away with plot, theme, character etc. (Though he had penned a couple of absurd type plays like Eikhoi Bazi (Our Father). As usual with problem plays he introduces the problem first. It is followed by the result and lastly he leaves it after asking many relevant questions. As he is most interested in discussions and ideas he gives most emphasis upon dialogue sometimes it happen to override all other dramatic components. Therefore conflict in his plays is not about the character – it is a conflict of ideas. Therefore we do not come across protagonists, either male or female, or in other words hero and villain with all clearness. (Once during a premier show at Rupmahal Theatre he declared a cash reward to any person who could name the hero of the play?)

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