When he first arrived in Bhanugach, it was raining. Fields of paddy stretched out as far as the eye could see. A thatched home stood there, lashed by cold, biting winds. And yet, in this village in the Moulvibazar District of Bangladesh, Akhu Chingangbam felt he like he was back home, in Imphal.
That trip might have ended, but the memory sustained. Today it is a song — one of several the 38-year-old musician has composed to create Ema gi Wari (Stories of My Mother), an album that tells the story of his travels.
In March and April in 2018, Chingangbam journeyed outside Manipur so he could answer a question about Manipur: Who is a Manipuri? Till then, the Manipuri he knew — and frequently sang about — lived their whole, or at least a significant portions of their lives, in Manipur.
“I was aware that there were settlements of Meteis, the dominant inhabitants of the Imphal valley, outside Manipur — even in Bangladesh. But I never knew how many, or even how they lived,” says Chingangbam.
Over the years, he had been reading literature by Meitei poets and writers from Bangladesh, and even Cachar in Assam. “The Manipuri literature I read had a sense of angst and helplessness because of the years of conflict in the region. But these stories were different. They had a sense of hope,” says Chingangbam.
The diaspora literature led the musician to seek a grant from the India Foundation for the Arts. “My proposal was to travel around Tripura, the Barak Valley in Assam, and across the border to Bangladesh, where I heard that many Manipuris lived,” says Chingangbam. “I was curious. What was their life like? Did they struggle with their identity? How did they feel about Manipur?”
At different points in history, a large number of Meiteis had to leave Manipur: the first was during 1819-26 when the Burmese invaded Manipur. Then again, in the late 19th century, another mass exodus took place to Assam, Tripura and Sylhet in Bangladesh after a war between the British and the Manipuri king. Those who fled during the Burmese invasion followed a route called tong jei maril (loosely defined as exit route), through which they reached the Barak river (later, the Surma in Bangladesh), and settled alongside it. Two centuries later, over 20,000 Meteis live in Bangladesh today.
Chingangbam is a well-known voice of political dissent from Manipur. He started singing when he was pursuing his PhD in Delhi, when activist Binayak Sen was arrested on charges of sedition. Later, through his songs, he attacked the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (AFSPA) and encounter killings, and sang about Irom Sharmila and freedom of expression. “My music is usually ‘angry’. Perhaps it will always be. I can never disengage from the political. But over the past few years, a part of me has become more ‘reflective’. I thought it would be good to explore that and get a fresh perspective on Manipur.”
His journey across the border was just about that: perspective. Chingangbam discovered that there was much more to the Manipuri identity, that the Bangladeshi Manipuris were as similar as they were different to their Indian counterparts. On the one hand, they steadfastly held on to their identities — they spoke Meitellion, dressed traditionally, lived and ate like their brethren in India did. There are schools in the Manipuri settlement in Sylhet where Meitellon is a part of their official syllabus. Yet, some young Manipuri activists Chingangbam met did not want to be known as the “diaspora”. “While they love Manipur, they are rooted in their identities as citizens of Bangladesh,” says Chingangbam. “Many of them took part in the liberation war of 1971, fought for Bangladesh’s independence and are extremely patriotic,” he says. The musician even came across two very popular Manipuri songs, passed down orally. “They were about Bangladesh!”
Chingangbam is now helping some young musicians from Bangladesh to record these songs for the first time. His own album will be released this month. In one of the songs, Eisu Nangi Nachani (I am also your child), he brings alive the landscape of Bhanugach through a conversation with an old woman. “In this song, she is standing in the middle of the paddy field. I tell her: ‘I came crossing mountains and a rivers. Can I stay? Can you feed me? Can you tell me stories?’”
While the woman in the song is metaphorical, Chingangbam did meet a 103-year-old woman as well as several poets, writers, activists, folk singers, teachers, social workers, students — all of whom shared with him riveting tales. The album’s final songs talk about Chingangbam trying to find his people. When he was a child, he and his cousins would gather around their grandfather as he narrated stories of the past: about the Japanese war, about the relative “who ran away to Sylhet”. “We would ask him how many days it took to reach Sylhet, and he would narrate to us this thrilling journey from Manipur to Bangladesh,” recalls Chingangbam.
Chingangbam partly undertook this journey in the hope of finding his long-lost relatives. But there was no record of a Chingangbam there. “I realised that my grandfather was making it all up,” he says with a laugh.
This article appeared in print with the headline ‘On the Exit Route: Akhu Chingangbam on his new album’