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

The World of G.C. Tongbra – Part 2

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


Tongbra’s plays are constructed in a topsy-turvy fashion following Ibsen and G.B. Shaw to some extent. And he has particular fondness for this kind of technique. Ibsen’s photo negative method and Shaw’s ‘topsy-turvy’ dramatic method are his favourite. The episodes and the characters shown on the platform are not the actual reality – these are like photo negatives. Behind the things shown thus a truth, a beauty lies hidden. Nicoll writes of Shaw: “Mr. Shaw loves to show that other side in order that he may point a moral.” Shaw likes to point out the useful on one hand, Tongbra also says about his plays: “As I disliked the old truth in my effort to make it seem the truth many untruths I have added, he makes it likely to be most truthful, …. To make the untruth look more truthful is the secret charm of comedy.” So Tongbra in his plays and at the time of staging it more especially “adding many untruths”: “making the untruthfuls look more truthful” he is looking for a more truthful meaning of life among these untruthfuls. Photograph of a thing only shows the external nearby but he wants to enter into that thing and shows its unreal elements to come to the truth and the essence of the thing. Thus Tongbra introduces into contemporary Manipuri drama “an unreal theatre” in order to show the inner truth behind contemporary life. Inside this unreal theatre of his one can put unbelievable impossible, or improbable things. There is nothing improbable in his plays. That is why we find elements of farce and fantasy in plenty in his plays, How could we make people fall into wondering how deep and how long? …… What happiness could be there beside seeing the light of wonder in this world filled with wonder?” Tongbra asks to amaze people, the truth at the untruth interchanging them, to fill with wonder by insinuation or by indirect method in Tongbra’s writing style in his days. There, we come across the topsy turvy side of his characters and actions many times – externally ideal looking characters, leaders, officers turn mere hollow persons inside the brave of the heroic are found cowardly in their hearts. those pious and religious become in reality crooks inside, seemingly weak persons, the commoner, slaves, the poor, infantry, soldiers actually turn out real brave beautiful and real mighty people. He shows another opposite view of the father-son relationship in the play Upu Bakshi (the Little Chest) – the father puts out an advertisement for taking care of the child and its mother. He experiments with a new form of ‘Sati’ – different from the traditional Sati Sita and Tara in Changyeng Manja (The Probation Husband). He shows again a fierce looking revolutionaries fearless of losing their lives and soldiers tremble at handling the gun in the play Chcngni Khujai. This is an alternative view of our supposition of valour in battles and generals. So, the stories we already know, the perceptions we already have about the story and the characters sometimes used in a topsy-turvy manner that these characters remain upended on the stage. In this connection Tongbra is one in idea with GB Shaw who said, “You could not have Aesop’s fables unless animals talked. “If these uncharacteristic episodes and controversial characters were not there Tongbra’s play would not have been written. “For Shaw as for Ibsen the real was a phrase used in antithesis to the ideal.” What Tongbra shows is also an antithesis of the socially accepted truth.

What makes his antithetical, seemingly farther from the truth plays artistic creation is with help of humour. Because humour is an asset to his plays. And it is not counted to be the end in his plays, what is important here is that he does not employ humour for the sake of humour only. Over and above to execute his desire to satirise the many defects of society he uses humour as a very handy and appropriate tool. For Tongbra says –“If you chide the arrogant office in public he is going to get angry, so if you ridicule him humourously you can make him understand his fauIt. It will make the both of you laugh. If there is laughter others will also join you, when you are crying others will not, they will rather put the distanc.”

Tongbra’s humour, bereft of softness, unromantic and unsentimental is quite different from Aristotle’s classical comedy. It is closer to G.B. Shaw’s ‘Comedies of Purpose’ or ‘Purposeful Fun’ type of humour to bring out man’s follies, weakness, defects, in the light of humour and irony to make them understand. Tongbra says, “For the pen cannot kill a man by making him see his image in the mirror I have tried to find out whether the man  tried to bring improvement to himself. For the sake of the people with whom one has to live in the society I have tried to make it easier for association and to make them wiser.” So, Tongbra tries to show the truth in the principle of living and for that he uses humour of value and intrinsic worth. Otherwise humours of the lower kind, known as humour for humour’s sake cannot make man exalt to a higher level of personality. So, Tongbra uses such truthful humour that could inculcate sense of aesthetics in man and that belongs to a higher, deeper level of thinking. Meredth wrote: “The comic spirit breathes in a purely intellectual atmosphere; its weapons are wit and commonsense, its butt is human vanity, egoism, pride and all un-social traits.

Tongbra’s humour, satire, irony and comic sense occupies a separate chapter in Manipuri literature. We find in this Tongbra’s own individual expressions and a new set of beautiful creations in language. Tongbra comments on his own humour “that one can see in his plays (Tongbra’s) as picturesque is that humour becomes the main ras (essence) whereas others remain tile ingredients. People who read and see his plays sometimes complain of them being full of humour and less of play as the saying goes, as it were, missing the forest for the tree. Humour and tears are so mixed together that one finds it hard to decide if one should laugh or cry. “In fact his humour keeps behind it many deeper ideas. These seemingly innocuous looking verbal expressions though they look rough, uncent and unhewn they are in fact serious artistic constructs. As we go on uncovering the components of these simple looking pieces of humour in his dialogue we cannot help from wondering at Tongbra’s mastery over the complexity of his thought that had been expressed so easily and glibly. There is beauty in his simplicity and complexity ill his simplicity.

Shri Nilakanta once wrote about Tongbra and his plays: “His male female protagonists mainly are more mouthpieces of his ideas. It is mixed with the share of propaganda.Thus when he gave some remarks about Tongbra’s characterisation and its weakness Tongbra bitterly replies in return: “It seems such remarks have been copied from William Archer and other critics who commented on the plays of G.B. Shaw. This is a ridiculous thing taking into consideration their ignorance. Ideal characters such as Ram, Dushyanta, Sita, Savitri, Bhisma, Yudhisthira, Kamsa, Ravana should we call them all so representatives of ideas“. When did anybody create any character that cannot be called representatives of ideas? Will you call it criticism when you write down something that you had copied from some other? If you say your character is not alive the writer himself is a nincompoop. What are the examples he gave for this? Should we say Shaw did not know the art of characterisation? Yes, I agree I do not know the art. But I will be most happy if it has been pointed out to me the area where I am ignorant.” The matter being debated here is a very important one. Both have got plus minus points. As Tongbra firmly blieved in plays of argument it had been his strong belief that the problems discussed in his plays may be solved with group discussions that would dispel ignorance in society and life. It would also help to bring a solution at end. In this context the writer’s mind is expressed through his character. Due to this reason is acceptable to assume his characters represent his ideas. But it is wrong to assume that every character that is alive through ideas lack life. The principal characteristic of Tongbra’s characterisation remain – the destroying of the traditional idea of good and bad, that is set ideas of hero and villain – it is through their destruction and bringing of an equilibrium that Tongbra’s characterisations are founded. Under this manner of charaterisation now he is able to be free from old customs and traditions, deny defective social systems of valuation, to be free from living in a world of dreams – to be free from the restrictions on individual freedom to free will, with the ability to form self-determined characters. Such characters are endowed with natural abilities, they are very comprehending, brave and can face society if need be. Senjeng in Upu Bakshi, Pratap in Matric Pass, Baba in Tapta and many more in other plays are wise and capable persons, who know the do’s and don’ts, who could fight with composure against the injustice committed in society. If we say Senjeng, Baba, Pratap and others are dormant characters it will be wrong on our part. They are beautiful creations by Tongbra.

And if Tongbra had nor coloured his characters to distinguished then between good and evil he had certainly made some of them as characters who are not able to cross the barriers put by society who are still in the clutches of old customs amidst the conflict of two ideas – new and old. But these characters do not altogether live under the control of the writer thereby making them characters without own will. Tongbra’s characters are intelligent, free will beings who could decide their own course of action. The principal cause lies with Tongbra’s desire to put the elements of reality in each of them. Thus, he makes even illiterate people in the play, servants etc. quite intelligent in their own right.

Tongbra’s woman characters are a new class of beautiful persons in Manipuri literature. Imamacha Imphal Thoibi, Sanajaobi, Ngabong Khao, Thariktha, Matric Pass, Kumari Rambha Kumari Rambhagi Mang, Memthoi Memthoibi, Nupimacha Leishabi Chithikhela, Kumari Basanti Kaophabi etc. are those woman characters who no man could take lightly, George Meredith once wrote Conflict can exist only where women have a high status, since it depends upon a battle between the sexes – male and ‘ unwomanly’ heroines,”  So when the status of woman goes up then only could comedy survive. Tongbra created and presented many characters of a higher level. New woman’s movement and its creation was given shape by Tongbra in Manipur. His female characters are those who demanded for equal rights with man in the society, not given to love and lust, who could not be suppressed and exploited by man at will, intelligent, who are far ahead of their male counterparts. G.B. Shaw said: “…good women are a1l mainly good men being equally all womanly men.”  A very mirthfully true comment it is.

Tongbra is a man of theatre. There is no doubt about it. He is a true artiste in this respect. He changed the concept of theatre as a play only, but instead broke new grounds to make theatre as a means to give pleasure to the audience and turned it into an art to make him wiser. About the aim and objective of theatre he says: “ I try however little though it may be to make life easier for those who are living in the society and for us ourselves as well.”  His plays that he wrote before he studied Ibsen are still liked by readers which points to the fact that some of his plays have succeeded in crossing the barrier of time to survive as long lasting plays such as Mani-Mamou (1945-46) and some others that followed it like Matric Pass, Hingminnaba etc. Main reason for the lasting life of these plays are, as I think, due to less experimentation with difficult techniques and less use of non-realistic techniques bringing them closer to Manipuri society and life though there are selection of some problems that interspersed near Manipuri theatre goer heart expressed with a lighter touch nitroprusside with his timely humour. If people laugh while Tongbra the playwright sheds tears, if people find the plays of a light nature the areas does not lie entirely with his readers inability to take in the beauty, the innuendos of the writer deeply as the writer wants. Sometimes his plays are overridden with his ideas. Sometimes his humour becomes exaggerated and too absurd to be real which pulls down his artistic vehemence. Taking into consideration the state of the audience of his days and the ill managed theatre party of his plays. There was always restriction in the untrammelled sail of his pen, Beside these, we find some deficiencies in the problems of life which Tongbra deals with. He takes for granted that the current problem before him are the last ones in this world and is not able to go beyond them. As the Gita and Upanishads are counted as the foremost works among the books of religion, we find (in Tongbra) no serious works related to the depth study of life from a spiritual point of view. Though we find in some of his later day period works when he uses expressionistic technique (particularly in Ngabongkhao, Upu Bakshi etc.) Where he takes up the deep-rooted problems of life, he needs to leave the frivolous, whimsical; satirisations that are generally found in his presentation and need to pay more attention to the deeper, loftier, encompassing problems in life. Having said this, it must be made clear that Tongbra is a very rare and unique dramatist in Manipuri literature. He is presenting us still today with new creations, views and perspectives continuously having ventured into virgin areas and yet unvisited places. About Tongbra’s position in Manipuri literature what Shri Nilakanta commented: “In the world of drama, solitary star none to follow in his wake, none to walk even close to him – such a person is Gitchandra Tongbra” still holds true in Manipuri literature.

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