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Friday, July 30, 2021

Manipur’s ancient manuscript tradition comes alive in a new children’s book

It is through this compilation that Manipur’s mythological traditions — passed down from generation to generation, recorded so far only in manuscripts and folk ballads — will be told to the world for the first time.

Written by Tora Agarwala | Guwahati |
Updated: June 26, 2021 7:44:28 pm
Somi Roy’s "And That is Why" is a collection of twelve Manipuri myths. (Image credit: Puffin)

When L Somi Roy finished writing his book, he sent the draft to three people — Jessica, Tara and Theia, aged nine, ten and thirteen.

“I was terrified, I don’t have any children. How do I write for a kid? If they [the kids] don’t enjoy reading it, forget about it,” Roy had told himself.

Fortunately his three incisive critics did, and Roy, a cultural conservationist and curator based in Imphal, heaved a sigh of relief.

But it is not just the young who will take to Roy’s And That is Why (Puffin; Rs 350), a collection of twelve stories for children based on ancient myths from Manipur. Its telling — rather, retelling — is equally engaging for the adult too. After all, it is through this compilation that Manipur’s mythological traditions — passed down from generation to generation, recorded so far only in manuscripts and folk ballads — are being told to the world for the first time.

Moreover, as Roys says, the beginning of the entire project was “very adult.”“It started more than a decade ago with the simple intention of preserving knowledge…but many twists and turns later, here it is, as a book.”

L Somi Roy.

On June 22, And That is Why was launched by Manipur’s titular king, HH Leisemba Sanajaoba, who is also a Member of Parliament at the Rajya Sabha, at the Sana Konung palace in Imphal.

In 2012, Roy — who has been working for more than a decade in the field of cultural curation and preservation in Manipur — was planning an art exhibition on the ancient illustrated manuscript tradition of the state. “What makes up some of the stories in the book are what were originally planned as gallery notes for the exhibit,” says Roy.

While the exhibition did not work out as intended, the stories — filled with history and mythology, gods and magic, talking animals and singing birds — stayed.

An ancient manuscript tradition

The Meitei community — which inhabits the valley of Manipur — has a rich, albeit little-known manuscript tradition called ‘puya’, written on handmade paper as well as on leaf, bamboo, and wood. These date back to the fourteenth century.

“There were manuscripts before that too but those had shorter entries. Post fourteenth century, the record-keeping became more contemporaneous, with longer richer entries and treatises on a variety of subjects,” says Roy, who adds that the myths in And That Is Why predate the Hindu religious practice of the Meiteis, before the kingdom adopted Vaishnavism in the early eighteenth century. “The stories are a part of the pre-Hindu religious practice that is largely ancestor-worshiping and animistic — which continues till this day,” he says.

In the 97-page book, the traditions come alive, with the endearing flourish of childlike prose — with subjects that range from worldly (And That is Why Man is Creative and Can Think) to ones that are closer home (And That is Why Manipur is the Birthplace of Polo).

While not all puya are illustrated, those which were (called ‘subika’) find their way into the book too through young Imphal-based printmaker, Sapha Yumnam’s sketches that complement Roy’s words.

While many of these manuscripts can be found in private and state archives, and in collections in universities and colleges, the royal court of Manipur is the custodian of the tradition. “The royal palace in Manipur still maintains a council of scholars called the Pundit Loisang, charged with writing the court chronicle, among other duties.” says Roy, adding that it was why he chose to officially launch the book in the palace, in the presence of the king.

It is even more important, says Roy, considering Manipuri civilisation has often been “performative”. “We have high culture in dance and music, and even sports, but not much of a visual tradition,” he says, “It is these rare manuscripts that make up the heritage of the Meitei community — and hence, need to be preserved as far as possible.”

Many versions, one story

Roy, who is known for his work in the promotion of Manipuri polo, often writes on film and culture of the state. Last year, he published The Princess and the Political Agent (Penguin Modern Classics, 2020), translated from the original work of his mother, the late Maharajkumari Binodini Devi, author and member of the royal family of Manipur.

While his other books are also a translation of his mother’s works, And That is Why is his first children’s book. But the author claims the book is not his alone to celebrate, but also of the scholars, archivists, and balladeers he consulted for it. “The process involved a number of players,” he says.

While he grew up hearing these tales as a boy, a book called Isusa Wari Lirage, (Children, Grandpa Will Tell You a Story) by Thokchom Thouyangba Meitei, a scholar of ancient manuscripts, opened up another world to him. While the Sahitya Akademi-winning novel had many stories he had known before, there were many he had not. Yet others had counterparts recorded orally in the form of ballads and songs.“I realised that the narratives varied — on page and on the song,” he says.

So the process included many cross references, consultations and verifications. With the help of folklorist Mayanglambam Mangansana, scholar Chanam Hemchandra and historian Wangam Somorjit, Roy managed to hear all versions and shape a single narrative.

“There is no one correct version of any story,” says Roy, “But then again, I was creating a tale for children, so I chose the more visual one, with animals and birds — who could talk, laugh, sing and argue.”

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