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"I am glad I could do so much for Manipur, I can die in peace now..." - And those were Maharajkumari Binodini Devi's prophetic last lines as she ended her interview for a documentary which we were filming. That was in the year 2009. Two years later one of Manipur's iconic woman litterateur, poet, painter, sculptor and a social activist breathed her last. But not before she left behind an outstanding legacy that boasted a body of impressive literary works including numerous short stories, essays, plays and award winning screenplays.
It was an unusually bright and hot summer's day when we landed at the Imphal airport. My first time in a state which I had many personal connections with and one whose stories of insurgency and state misrule I had read, heard of and was all too familiar with.
We had come to film a documentary on the legendary octogenarian MK Binodini Devi, the last of the Manipur royal princesses and a woman who had carved for herself not just a name in the literary and artistic world but was also known for her candid and forthright views on the social and political fabric of the state she lived in and loved.
Quite naturally we had gone through reams of material and read up whatever was available on the works and life of MK Binodini Devi.
But nothing at all prepared me for the meeting with Maharajkumari Binodini Devi. As we entered the compound of her simple yet elegant single storey house, I kept nervously repeating in my mind the questions that I had written down for the interview. We were told to set up our camera for the interview and having done that we waited on the lawns in front of her house.
Binodini Devi walked out a little later. She was petite, elegant and poised in her phanek (sarong worn by Manipuri women) and shawl and looked somewhat frail. But her eyes and spirit belied her age. There was an inexplicable spark and intelligence which shone forth.
At first she seemed reluctant to talk, seeing the camera and microphone officiously intruding into what she perceived to be a casual conversation. Eventually with some gentle prodding from her son she graciously consented and agreed to be filmed.
To the world she was Maharajkumari Binodini Devi. But to those whose lives she touched and those who knew her, she was simply Imasi or mother. And that's how I came to regard her during the course of our filming and thereafter. Such was the warmth and generosity that Imasi exuded.
Imasi Binodini was born in the year 1922, the youngest of five daughters of Maharaja Sir Churachand Singh and Maharani Dhanamanjuri Devi of Manipur. Her father, Maharaja Churachand, who ruled Manipur from 1891 till 1941, was the first Western-educated monarch of Manipur and her mother, Maharani Dhanamanjuri, played a pivotal role in ensuring that her children were not wanting when it came to modern education. Binodini Devi was thus formally educated at Pine Mount School, Shillong; Tamphasana Girls High School, Imphal; St Mary's College, Shillong; Vidyasagar College, West Bengal; and at Rabindranath Tagore's Viswa Bharati University in Shanti Niketan. She studied art at the university and had many firsts to her name including Manipur's first female graduate and the first lady of Manipuri feminism and the women's literary movement.
Imasi married Dr L Nanda Babu Roy in 1950, with whom she had two sons.
She was a true peoples' princess and that was perceptible during the course of the interview as she candidly shared with us her prolific journey from the House of Manipur Royals to the cultural portals of the Viswa Bharati University and then to establishing herself as one of the greatest woman writers and thinkers of the state.
"I had friends in Shillong who told me about the place (Shanti Niketan) and how exciting it was. When I decided to go there, my whole family was against it. There was chaos and being from a royal family it was difficult. In college I only wore phanek (sarong) and therefore was different from the rest. I was pretty popular then."
While her memory couldn't quite reconstruct the Shanti Niketan of those days, she did nostalgically describe it as a great place with beautiful trees surrounded by hills.
At Kala Bhawan, Imasi learned art and sculpting under the guidance of celebrated Bengal Masters Ram Kinkar Baij and Nandalal Bose. In fact she is said to have inspired the pioneer of modern Indian sculpture, Ram Kinkar Baij, who had painted many a portrait of hers.
She, however, seemed a little embarrassed when during the interview she was asked if the character in one of her later novels was based on Ram Kinkar Baij. She stoically replied, "I cannot say anything about that. He was from a very influential family and I cannot mention or say anything about him, though people do insinuate many things."
Imasi did remember some of her Gurus eccentricities, though.
"He (Ram Kinkar Baij) had a beautiful house surrounded with bamboos. He also had a boy who helped him in the house. One day he was standing outside his house and some of us asked him what he was doing. He said that he was waiting for the boy to finish his painting!"
"He was a great human being an extraordinary man. If he didn't like something, he would say it outright. His classes were huge where he taught us. There is so much to learn from him and I am glad we did."
Imasi's recollections of the time at Shanti Niketan, however misty, did indicate that those were memorable days for her.
However, soon after she left Shanti Niketan, her tryst with painting and sculpting came to an end.
"I got married, had family and so my lifestyle changed and most importantly I started writing and after that I didn't take interest in anything else."
It was when she was with her mother in Nabadwip in Bengal that Imasi Binodini's initiation into writing truly began. She was introduced to the prose of legendary Bengali authors Sharat Chandra Chatterjee, Bankim Chandra Chatterjee, Rabindranath Tagore and Michael Madhusudan Dutta.
"Ashangba Nongjabee" (Azure Skies), the first drama she wrote after leaving Vishwa Bharati, was, by her own admission, influenced by her time at Shanti Niketan. The fun and joy that she experienced during those years were imbibed in the play. Imasi thus embarked upon her literary journey, one that brought her many accolades and prestigious awards including the Sahitya Akademi Award and the Padma Shri.
She went on to pen numerous literary works including a published collection of short stories titled "Nung'gairakta Chandramukhi", several song lyrics, and many radio plays as well. She also translated the works of a number of Bengali writers into Manipuri.
Reminiscent of many of her literary mentors like Sharat Chandra Chatterjee whose narrative always embraced strong women characters, Imasi Binodini's writings too were well known for portraying women as central characters in exceptional and unconventional roles.
The tapestry of her prose also wove into its innumerable collage stories of modernity: of a contemporary Manipur struggling to come to terms with its constantly evolving social and political milieu. Ratan Thiyam, the celebrated playwright and thespian, in a parallel interview, spoke of how effortlessly she bridged the two worlds with cohesion.
"You will find in her writings how Manipuri society is changing and growing. It is because of her association with the royal family. As a princess she has seen the entire changing history of Manipur and being a part of the royal family she knows exactly the whole custom and tradition of this society because in early Manipuri society everything was governed by or controlled by the royal family. And not only that she was also exposed to a different kind of culture, particularly her association with Shanti Niketan for quite a long time and in fact she was the first person to be able to bring Tagore, Gurudevs idea to Manipur. Writing for the people is one of the most important factor or element of, you know, being MK Binodini. Reaching out to the people, down trodden very backward classes of people, because being in the royal family she comes in contact with different type of people from the very lower strata people to the most powerful people. So the range is quite a lot. In some of the short stories she has chronicled the colonial attitude. There are not many people who are familiar with the intricacies of Manipuri society. It is a very rare combination which makes MK Binodini great."
Imasi Binodini's writings were characterised by an almost revolutionary appeal. Her abundant commentaries and observations on the flagging political and social environment in her home state to the cultural denigration of customary traditions to voicing the anxiety, apprehension and distress of hundreds of Manipuri women, found space in not only her stories but also in innumerable articles which she wrote for many newspapers in Manipur.
Unfortunately, as Ratan Thiyam observed, she did not quite receive her due, something she truly deserved. Despite wielding the pen with such flourish, despite giving voice to the marginalised and despite articulating the deep divides in our times so magnificently through her writings, she remained nondescript as far as the mainland was concerned.
"She is a natural intellectual, she is a social activist she has done quite a lot. She is a thinker. Quite a lot she has spoken very strongly during many times. She has taken part in many of the struggles and agitation that has been borne out of the political situation...and she has been always involved it is not only one incidentshe has been always involved. Her other story is thatyou see the main problem of being born and brought up in this region is she can't get exposure anywhere. She got stuck somewhere in a corner and could not come up to the limelight as it should be everywhere, she can be compared with anybody in that fact."
In October 2001 Imasi Binodini founded Leikol, a collective of women writers, bringing together women academicians, intellectuals and authors on a platform that would enable them to communicate their thoughts and express their ideas on themes ranging from women's issues, social issues, and political concerns.
During the course of filming our documentary, we did get an opportunity to meet and speak with the members of Leikol.
Vivid and intelligent yet humble and modest at the same time, these remarkable women led by Imasi opened our eyes and minds to their world, a world where feminist thought, social revolution and romantic ideology poured forth from the pens of housewives, academics and businesswomen alike. Dr Sheelaramani of Leikol and a Reader in the DM College of Arts recounted how it had begun with Imasi Binodini at the helm.
"She was the founder president of this association and she was very active for sometime. Off late she has been sick she has been very aged and she has some health problem, but still she is very active. I used to visit her some 2 years ago very early in the morning, and I found her with a table lamp on her bed reading all the newspapers and sometimes writing and also in winter in December. It was amazing to me that at her age she is very active. She is an intellectual. We have been influenced by her a lot. The younger women writers of Manipur have been influenced by her a lot in thematic source and in language and also in activism."
Women in Manipur have always been known to essay an active role in successive wars...conflicts arising out of political, social, economic and cultural suppression and coercion.
They have, since the early 20th century, raised their voices and their collective might to lead peaceful yet powerful struggles against the state, insurgent groups and many a times against social evils.
Women's struggle against various oppressive forces in Manipur started with the Nupilan (Women's Wars) and continued with the Meira Paibis (women torch bearers). If it was the colonial powers in the early 20th century that demanded their attention, then after independence, these intrepid women were unswerving in their commitment to ensure freedom of their people from the excesses wrought by the Indian army and para military forces in the name of the draconian AFSPA (Armed Forces Special Powers Act, 1958).
The nature of their struggle is not limited to the political context alone. The Meira Paibis have acted as sentinels to check alcoholism and drug abuse among other things. There have been numerous instances of young boys being picked up for questioning by the security forces, never to return.
Again, at such times, it is the women who take to the streets to protest, to raise their voices, to hold those responsible accountable.
And it is in this struggle that Leikol offers a literary forum and powerful medium to many women to voice their angst and opinion and inform many of the oppressive nature of the state, as articulated by Dr Sheelaramani in her interview.
"You know the women writers of Manipur have taken issues such as family issues for the first time. For the first time the association organized a seminar on feminism in the state. It consisted of other issues, not only literary issues but also social and political issues of women in the region in that seminar. In fact, the organization has initiated this contemporary school of thinking in literature and in other aspect also. After that many literary organisation has also taken up the issue as an objective of their organization. I am very proud that Leikol has the credit of introducing these kind of thinking in the region. The women have been active since time immemorial here in the state. Many movements of women have been noticed in history in the past also and at present also we have women moving in the front against the atrocities committed by the armed forces special powers act and the security personnel and yes woman as a frontal organization have done a lot, have contributed a lot in bringing changes."
In that sense Imasi Binodini's contribution as a writer-activist has been colossal. As Dr Sheelaramani very succinctly put it, "She (Binodini Devi) is an activist. It is at this point that women are very different from men. She speaks from her own perspective; she is very personal in her tone. Whenever she reflects on a social issue she speaks from her own personal feeling. And most women writers and women activists here do that too."
As we were winding up our interview with one of Manipur's greatest women icons there was one question which seemed to tug at our hearts, whether Imasi Binodini's Manipur would ever hark back to its glory days when insurgency, festering state misrule and social decay were just lurid and nightmarish thoughts. She summed it up in the way she knew best, straightforward and uncomplicated, quite like herself: "Art and culture have been living and surviving in Manipur for a long time. It is my feeling that it can sustain even in troubled times. As an old woman I feel I have seen for a long time, it will survive anyhow. For me any change is good. I may die anytime because I am very old, I've witnessed many cruel things and now I feel that Manipur is surviving. I have nothing to regret nor feel bad aboutI got involved and that is joy for me. I am glad I could do so much for Manipur, I can die in peace now..."
Our interview had drawn to a close and through the course of the journey that we had traversed with Imasi Binodini we had borne witness to the life and times of an incredible woman...Maharajkumari Binodini Devi, an extraordinary soul whose undying spirit cherished a splendid and glorious legacy which no doubt will be carried forth by those whose lives she touched.
More about Priyanjana DuttaOriginally from Shillong, journalist and independent filmmaker Priyanjana Dutta grew up in the capital city of Meghalaya and then later in Delhi. A journalist for more than 15 years, she began with United Television and then moved on to NDTV's award winning documentary team. She was an NDTV sports anchor before she joined CNN-IBN in 2005 as their Bangalore bureau chief. As an independent filmmaker her focus has been on developmental issues as well as on women. She has done in-depth features on issues ranging from water privatisation, waste management in urban and rural areas around Bangalore city, gender issues, sustainability issues, environment and special investigation reports. She can be contacted at email@example.com. For more on her work, visit www.independentfilmmaker.in.
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