Of Bangal, Bilaat and Korea

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By Akendra Sana
The immediate first. An economic and hi-tech power South Korea whose size is only about four and a half times, a small size country and population about seventeen and a half times that of Manipur with only technology has come to Manipur like none before. South Korea is today the thirteenth largest economy of the world, its long dependence on the US notwithstanding. Movies and Music, Drama that are originating from there through Discs, internet and TV are already determining what the preferences of the Manipuri youth and the society itself. How much of the music and drama are of American influence is another story. Pre-teens, teens and grownups in all the streets of Manipur swear by it. Some have even mastered the language only through TV. And fashion, shall we say more. Hair styles, dress and even mannerisms, if you care to watch some of these TV serials and movies, all have found comfortable homes in our youth. This is all about acceptance.

No community exists in isolation. Cultural influences come in many ways. Think of Bamon Khunthok, arrival of the Brahmins to Manipur from as far as present-day Gujarat and elsewhere dating back to at least the fifteenth century if not earlier and the interaction that took place whose harmony or otherwise is still visible. Religion, Bengal Renaissance and Bengal’s size and its role in the British scheme of things had considerable influence on Manipur. There was a time, to conduct business (or read political relationship) with the British, knowledge of the Bengali language was essential. This led Manipuri Kings to induct Bengalis into its administration. English of course was for the super elite say at least a century ago. When Johnstone Middle School was established in 1885 and upgraded to a High School about a quarter century later, the medium of instruction was Bengali, even though this can be said to be the beginning of formal western education. Pettigrew after experimenting in Imphal around 1895 found hospitality and acceptance in Ukhrul with both religion and education. The rest is history as they say about western education in all parts of Manipur and its influence on us all.

One wonders if any educated elder of that generation who knew speaking, reading and writing Bengali is still alive. If a few at all are, they cannot be any younger than ninety, ninety-five. Many things including literature and fashion were through Calcutta and Dacca. Bengal’s strong influence in culture, literature, fashion, dress and mannerisms in Manipur seems to be going away with the passing away of that generation. Bengal’s role and influence was determined by geo-politics of the time. Juxtapose this with Korea’s influence today, it is only technology that is determining and doing all the work. In later years, Bengal for Manipur became like any other province of India.

Britain’s full force came to Manipur with the Anglo-Manipur Conflict of 1891 and with the installation of the boy king, Churachand Maharaj. English education slowly began to find space. However, religion of the West of course was taboo. Some kind of adjustment and reconciliation among Christianity, Hinduism and the Manipuri religious beliefs continues to be taking place in layers, even as over the years western education is accepted completely. So soon it was for English language, literature, dress and many others like so many in similar situations in Colonial and Post Colonial societies. All aspirations have been against this backdrop since.

Along with all these, not so discreetly Americanism, if one may use the expression, has also been finding its exalted place with the rise of American power. Because whether it is blue denim or chewing gums or coke, a lot have come to universal permanence in our lives everywhere, in Bengal, Britain, Korea or Manipur and elsewhere. And of course, an American Degree is considered the path to everything successful.

World War Two can be considered to be the real window to the world for Manipur. For Manipuris, however brief the presence of the soldiers of all hues and nationalities during the war in many parts of Manipur, the influence can never be underplayed. Many elders then later narrate how the Japanese look so physically like us even as they also recall the Japanese bombings. And then of course today youngsters and the not so young tell you from what you see that the Koreans not only physically look like us, their body language, expressions and delivery of speech are so like us.

Apart from the natural adoption of these hair styles, dress and music, some unexplained willingness also seems to be in place. What about East and East, eagerness to find acceptance and questioning the status quo in them? And reconfirming, hey! narrow-eyes can be also fashionable and discovering almost a déjà vu. But then let us also remind that the space left by the exit of Bollywood movies and all that influence on the youth is now comfortably occupied by the Korean movies they choose to send out. Fashion is also about the in thing and about identification with what is perceived to be noticeable and acceptable among peers. If all this makes the youngsters more confident, so be it. But then, South Korea’s per Capita Income at about twenty thousand US Dollars will be much more than thirty times that of Manipur even by the most liberal estimate. So consumption patterns are hugely different. All our youths will do well to cautiously and consciously ignore the consumption habits of what they watch in the movies and serials.

Whether it is music or language or mannerisms, internet and TV are the leveller of our times. And yet you see powers like Britain appear to be looking inwards and occasionally reasserting for that exalted position, Bengal’s pride is undiminished. And well for some like Manipur assertion for pride is even greater in this din and clutter of the world. Is it therefore not of that connect of different times and milieu of a generation?

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