MAISNAM BE SINGH (1908 -2002): The Man who made the ‘Bheigyachandra & Elephant’ statue.
[Note: This is a revised version of an article on the late painter/ sculptor published in North-East SUN, New Delhi in October, 1991 under the title “Betombi Singh-His Art is his World”.]- Manas Maisnam
The name Maisnam Be(tombi) Singh might not really ring a bell in your mind. But if you had seen Imphal city’s landmark statue of Maharaja Bhagyachandra taming the wild elephant installed at the southern side helm of ‘Nupi Keithen’ (Women’s Market), then you would know. He is the one who made it. Betombi Singh is perhaps the only living student of legendary Bhadra and R.K. Yumjaosana (father of RKCS). “I don’t understand why I have been left alone. Many of my students even have died” said he.
Eighty three years old (in 1991) Singh is still in the pink of health. “I have a good eye sight and my hands are still firm. I pedal to my work.” [author’s note: Long after this interview, just about a year before his death in 2002 at the age of ninety-four, he still could ride a bicycle and his eyesight was still strong and did not used spectacles. As he said, his hand was still firm when using brush.] He says “I take two baths every day. One early in the morning and another at evening and never think ill about others. In fact, he choose not to venture out of his home during the period which astrologers say as bad days for him so that, according to him, others who see him will not gets his bad luck!!! Betombi started painting when he was eleven. He was first groomed by a local artist Kongbrailatpam Ibomcha Sharma. Later, he pursued his art under the tutelage of the illustrious R.K. Yumjaosana for six years. He was also Bhadra’s student for some time. His style of painting still carries the unique imprint of his teachers. He dislikes grouping the style under any “isms” of art. “Our art form should be recognized as Manipuri Art form”.
“Painting was considered a crazy man’s job. Also, we had to make our own brush and colour. Brush was made from goat’s hair. And those hand made natural colours were much better than today’s synthetic ones” he adds.
Apart from being a painter, Betombi is also a well known sculptor. Commenting on his elephant statue at Khwairamband Bazar, he says “It took me three years to complete the statue. I started in 1956 and completed in 1959”. The quantities of materials used were: (1) cement-20 bags, (2) steel bars- approx 400 Kg, (3) sand-2 truckload and (4) aggregate-1 truckload. When the contractor did not make payments to him during the work, he sold CGI sheets of his own house to complete the statue. So, the statue is his true labour of love. His other notable works are that of Virgin Mary inside Little Flower School and Don Bosco School, statue inside Ibotonsana Hr. Secondary School in Imphal. He also carved many statues of gods and goddesses which can be found in various temples. His service was also utilized in designing of pillars for the extension building of Raj Bhawan in Imphal.
“We had no patrons during our prime-time save the Maharaja. Maharaja Churachand used to call us for our service in return, gave us money. I had painted a scene of Krishna being reprimanded by his mother Yashoda, for the Maharaja and done portraits of Tamphasana and Tombisana” Betombi said. [author’s note: He put in his own, realistic imagination to the painting of Krishna being tied to pestle by Yashoda. While painting various murals for our mandap, he included the scene in one frame. In it, Yashoda was depicted as a plain woman sans heavy ornaments & flashy costume. To this, one of my grandmothers asked “Etei (an address of respect to husband’s own or cousin elder brother), why you had painted Yashoda in this way? She looks completely ungodly!! To this he replied “Krishna was an extremely naughty boy and Yashoda must be having a tough time trying looking after him. Such mother will have no time to adorn themselves with ornaments or fine clothes!!!]
Betombi was also claimed that he was the first artist to paint posters for movie hall, way back in 1939. “I was paid around Rs. 15 per month for three years by the British Government for this job”. Unfortunately, many of his paintings were done on cloth canvas in the form of murals for mandapas with washable powder colours and are lost due to the effect of elements over the years.
He had participated in an International Art Competition which was held at Calcutta (now Kolkata) just after 2nd World War and stood second among 200 competitors consisting of artists from England, Japan, China, France etc. Betombi vividly remembers that event and narrates a unique aspect of that competition. “We had to go behind a ten feet long blank canvas, bend forward and paint so that people on the other side could see a normal picture. Even our signatures were to be done the other way round so that the spectators on the other side of the canvas can read it. In later years, he used the ‘reverse painting’ technique to sketch the famous “Khamba Kau Phaba (Khamba taming wild bull)”. This author had seen him making the sketch starting from the tail of bull, sketching upwards, placing the paper in opposite direction and ending at the feet of Khamba. This ability to draw/ paint in reverse made him a unique artist.
In 1951, he was awarded “Certificate of Merit” by State Industries Department. In 1984, he was conferred the title “Shilpabhusan” by the Manipur Sahitya Parishad. He also received a “Certificate of Honour” on the occasion of Republic Day, 1991. In 1994, Education Guide Centre, Singjamei hounoured him with the “Ng. Ibopishak Memorial Award”.
Now in the twilight of life, Maisnam Betombi Singh laments “I don’t know who will pursue this art form after me. I don’t want it to die”. Then he picked up his brush once again and turns back to the blank canvas, losing in a world of his own. A world, far away from everything. He muttered to himself “Art has a great future in Manipur”.
Art Work and Photos of Maisnam Betombi Singh
[Note: Maisnam Betombi lived a healthy life pursuing his art, for another 11 years after the publication of this article in NE-SUN. He passed away on 22nd July, 2002 at the age of 94.]