A profile by Jimmy Leivon
Octogenarian Khangembam Mangi Singh, popularly known as Guru Pena Mangi is a living legend of Manipur, an exponent of the Pena. As an artist, the guru has survived the toughest of times, through the ups and downs of life. Born in Lambal, Lamsang in Imphal West district, he started learning Pena from his father, late Khangembam Tomei, who was also a traditional Pena performer. Since the age of 11, Pena remains Mangi`s vital survival tool both for him and his family.
Born and brought up in a poor family, Guru Mangi never had the privilege to go to school. His struggle for survival began the moment his father left the family for another woman.
He grew up spending much of his childhood and teen years helping his mother to keep the kitchen fire burning and following his elders (Pena performers), on various occasions watching them perform. He mastered Pena at a very young age. His professional career as a Pena performer took a sudden turn when he accidentally had the opportunity to perform at the courtyard of the then King Budhachandra, the erstwhile King of Manipur.
“The king summoned ten Pena artists to perform at the royal courtyard, but at that very moment only nine elders could be assembled. Left with no other choice, the elders had to ready me to perform with them”, recalled Guru Mangi nostalgically.
He noted that Pena performance in those days was a prerequisite item for any important occasion ranging from birth, death, marriage and other rituals. But today Pena`s role seems to be restricted to religious rituals only, Guru Mangi noted.
While elaborating the era of Pena and its compositions that he journeyed through, Guru Mangi revealed that, “Moirang Sai” Traditional folklore of “Khamba Thoibi” was one of the most popular performances but it was banned by King Budhachandra owing to cracks appearing on Thangjing Hills (considered to be a sacred hill in the folklore and as part of the Manipur Tradition). Then came the era of Umanglai, Sanamahi and Laiharaoba, he said.
After his marriage to Yengkhom Mema, Guru Mangi had to manage bullock cart carriages apart from his artistic pursuance of Pena to support his family. He remembers that 12 rupees was the maximum he would earn from bullock cart transportation and 3 rupees through Pena recitations. He had to support his 8 siblings too.
Khangembam Mangi Singh received a sigh of relief on his duty to support his family and also to his dream of keeping Pena culture alive when he joined the Dance College (presently known as JNMDA) Imphal as a Pena performer in 1975. He retired from the same institute as a Guru of Lai-haraoba in 1996.
He was one of the founder members of Laihui, established on 1985. He has toured and performed Pena in many venues around the world, including Mexico, Washington, London, Berlin, France and other places in Asia. He had also acted in Manipuri traditional plays of Moirang Parba and Sumang Leela during 1950 to1970.
Apart from his father, Khangembam Mangi learned Pena from Moirangthem Modu of Lairenkabi, Phamdom Sanajao of Tera Urak, Thangjam Toyai of Lamshang, Tokpam Papu of Sangaiprou, Khumukcham Kanhai of Iroisemba, Yumnam Kanhai of Thoubal, Thokchom Tolomu of Khurai and a few others whom the guru`s ageing mind was unable to recall.
He has presented papers and demonstrations of Pena and Lai-haraoba on various seminars and workshops. He had directed innovative forms of Pena performances of Laihui, namely “Ukai Kappa” (2002) and “Lamjel” (2003).
Many of Guru Khangembam Mangi`s students have achieved many prestigious awards and recognition like National Scholarship and Fellowship given by Ministry of Culture, and Ustad Bismillah Khan Yuva Puraskar given by Sangeet Natak Akademy. Many of his students are performing in many Lai-haraoba functions.
Guru Khangembam Mangi`s dedication and devotion in reviving and keeping alive Pena was given due recognition when the Pena Legend was selected for the Padmashree award 2011 by the Government of India.
The Guru’s other recognition includes the Manipuri Sahitya Parishad Shanman 2010, LEIKOL`s Basanta Bimala Award 2008, Sangeet Natak Akademy Award 2006, Manipur State Kala Akademy Award 2005, Manipuri Sahitya Parishad`s Sangeet Bhushan 2004, Sana Leikham Pena Shanglakpa 2002 of Manipur Pandit Loishang.
Khangembam Mangi Singh`s greatest desire is to establish a school of Pena. He wishes to draw the attention of the state towards this in an effort to revive and retain the Pena Tradition.
Despite his retirement he is holding the post of Sana Leikham Pena Shanglakpa of Manipur Pandit Loishang, Guru of Laihui and altogether 80 students are currently taking Pena lesson under him.
Presently Guru Khangembam Mangi Singh is living with his wife and two of his children at Thangmeiband Lourung Purel Leikai, Imphal West.