by Yambem Laba
WHEN Maharajkumari Binodini passed away on 17 January, it could be said that Manipur’s last princess had taken leave of this world. She was 89 and the youngest daughter of the late Maharajah Sir Churachand Singh and Maharani Dhanamanjuri Devi of Manipur. Born in 1922, she was affectionately called Imashi, meaning mother, an honour bestowed by generations of Manipuris whose lives she touched in various fields. During the days when education was a taboo, her father had her tutored through a Manipuri teacher and a British governess.
She began her formal education when she was sent to Pine Mount School and then St Mary’s College in Shillong. Later, she got herself transferred to Vidyasagar College in Kolkata. Life took a significant turn after she entered the portals of Vishva-Bharati in Santiniketan to study art. It was at Kala Bhawan there that she soon shone as an artist and sculptor under the tutelage of the great Ramkinkar Vaij and Nandalal Bose.
Mesmerised by the beauty, charm and talent of this exotic princess-artist of Manipur, Vaij executed a series of portraits and paintings of the young Binodini as a subject. This entire collection was acquired by the National Gallery of Modern Arts housed in New Delhi.
When she returned from Santiniketan she was well versed in English, Hindi and Bengali, as well in the arts. She self-professedly always drew inspiration from Rabindranath Tagore and translated many of his Rabindrasangeet creations from the original Bengali to Manipuri. She married Dr Laiphungbam Nandababu Roy, FRCS, and they had two sons. But the couple separated some 30 years later and she plunged into literature, art, theatre, cinema and issues concerning women. In 1965, her play, Asangba Nongjabee (Green Clouds) was performed and also adapted as a radio play. It later became part of a published collection of plays by her under the title, Nungairakta Chandramukhi (Chrysanthemums amongst the rocks). This brought her to the notice of the world of literarture. The next year she was awarded the Jamini Sundar Guha Gold Medal by the Sahitya Parishad of Manipur. A decade later, she published her first and only novel based on the true life story of a Manipuri Princess called Sanatombi, daughter of Maharaj Surchandra Singh, who married Maxwell who was the British Political Agent at the turn of the 20th century in the early years when Manipur became an Indian princely state after its defeat at the hands of the British in the Anglo-Manipuri War of 1891. The novel was called Boro Saheb Ongbi Sanatombi and it brought her accolades from everywhere, earning her the Sahitya Akademi Award and the state Kala Akademi Award. The same year the President of India presented her with the Padma Shri.
In the course of an illustrious career, she was also secretary of the Jawaharlal Nehru Manipur Dance Academy, the national academy of Manipuri dance under the Sangeet Natak Akademi, a post she held for 16 years. Her ballet, Sangai, based on the endangered brow-antlered deer of Manipur, locally called Sangai, received international praise for its message on conservation and this ballet was later made into a film by the Sangeet Natak Akademi. In 1976, she led a Manipuri cultural delegation that toured the USA during the bicentenary celebrations of the founding of the USA. It was during this trip that she introduced Thang-Ta, a Manipuri martial art, on stage for the first time and this martial art form took a quantum leap and is today one of the two recognised martial arts forms of India. The troupe then went on to tour Mexico, Canada, France and Germany. She later wrote a travelogue entitled Ho Mexico.
She also shone as a script writer for films, the most famous amongst these being Imagi Ningthem (My son, my precious) and Ishanou. Both were directed by noted film director of Manipur Aribam Shyam Sharma. Imagi Ningthem took the world of cinema by storm during Filmostav 1982 in Kolkata and went on to receive the Grand Prix at the Festival des Trois Continentes at Nantes in France. This film has been listed as one of the best 20 productions of Indian cinema and ranked along with Satyajit Ray’s Pather Pasnchali. The other film, Ishanou, featured in the International Film Festival at Cannes. There were two other films she scripted that went on to be screened in the Indian Panorama and bagged national awards. Binodini herself was a jury member on three occasions of the Indian Panorama section of the National Film Festival and later played a crucial role in establishing the Manipur Film Development Corporation.
She also found time to strive for the preservation of Manipuri culture, became an ardent exponent of traditional art and artistes and was a close friend of the Maibis (traditional shamans) and players of a Manipuri stringed instrument called the Pena. As a lifetime patron member of the All Manipur Polo Association, she was an enthusiastic supporter of the sport and also played a role in establishing and developing Manipur University as a member of its senate and syndicate. The Maharajkumari founded “Roop Raga”, the music group that took Manipuri modern songs to great heights in the 1970s and 1980s. She was at one time president of the Indian People’s Theatre Action, Manipur Chapter, and also founded “Leikol” (Garden), otherwise called “Leimarol Khorjeikol” (Women Writers’ Forum) for women in Manipur who love literature and was its life-time president.
Binodini was also alive to social issues and like Rabindranath Tagore who returned the Knighthood bestowed upon him by the British to protest against the Jalianwallah Bagh massacre, she too returned her Padma Shri to protest against the brutal rape and murder of Manorama Devi by the Assam Rifles in 2004. This killing had sparked much anger amongst the womenfolk of Manipur and led to a group of Manipuri Imas (mothers) storming the Assam Rifles gates fully naked with festoons that read “Indian Army come and rape us”. A woman of letters, she would write in vernacular dailies and also the English daily, Imphal Free Press, on issues concerning the state and society. She practiced an egalitarian lifestyle to the hilt, often directing embarrassed hosts at private and public functions to remove the red cloth earmarked for royalty to sit upon.
Condolences have began to flow in from all nooks and corners. Her death was described by Ratan Thiyam, eminent theatre director of India and vice-chairman of the Sangeet Natak Akademi thus: “A sun that will never rise again has set.”
Noted Manipuri danseuse Priti Patel of Kolkata said: “I am what I am because of her — she passed down to me not only the unique tradition of Manipur but the value systems of life — the most important thing being to be a good human being. She is the greatest icon of our time.” Manipur Governor Gurbachan Jagat and chief minister Ibobi Singh condoled her death and described her passing as an irreparable loss to the people and the state. VIPs and celebrities apart, countless ordinary Manipuris paid tribute to the last princess of Manipur who stood for their culture, art, sports and well-being.
The writer is the Imphal-based former Special Correspondent of The Statesman.