Traditions to Art

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The festive season is here again. Durga Puja and the parallel Panthoibi Haraoba have just concluded. So has Mera Hou Chongba, the beautiful re-enactment of the myth that reminds everyone how the different indigenous communities in the state are children of the same ancestors. There are more festivals lined up in the coming weeks. Diwali on October 30, and on November 1, Kut and Ningol Chakkouba. Kut as an organised festival is about three decades old, but has been a living tradition for ages. It is perhaps as old as the time the Kukis started taking to agriculture, be it jhoom or settled wet cultivations. For Kut is the celebration of harvest. Though still not recognised as official state festivals, there are many other variations of harvest festival amongst the many communities of the state. In many ways, Mera Houchongba too is an affirmation of good harvest and fraternal communities exchange gifts to celebrate it. The timing of the Ningol Chakkouba of the Meiteis also indicates it is related to harvest. Hard labour in the paddy fields for the season having come to a conclusion, and food security for the rest of the year thus guaranteed, married women return to their parental homes for a good meal together with other siblings. For traditional communities, it is clear a good harvest certainly means a lot. Memories of this sense of fulfilment that harvest brings are carried over into the modern times and therefore this yearend festive season. The importance given to harvest cannot be better captured than in a very telling Meitei saying. A paraphrase would run something like: “Even if your mother dies during the harvest season, tragic as the event may be, cover up the body with a yangkok (an agricultural implement for separating the chaffs from the grains) and only after the harvest is over, perform her last rites.” The concern is that under no circumstance must the ripe grains be allowed to be damaged either by sudden inclement weather so common in this region, or by over ripening. Not surprisingly, as amongst all communities living close to nature and bound to its cycle, spring and seed sowing festivals are as important as harvest amongst Manipur communities. The range of festivals also is an indication of the beautiful diversity of the state. We must all pledge that this beauty is never tarnished by selfish interests.

It must also be said there always comes a time when living cultures begin to divest themselves from direct and immediate associations with the contexts that originally shaped them. This is also the stage when they begin to transform into art. The tribal pot for instance has a utility value in the tribal home, it being a part of the family kitchenware, but it sheds this utility value and becomes art if it were to sit on the shelves of a museum or else in an urban drawing room. This is what happened to much of Meitei tradition and this is what is beginning to happen to festivals of all other traditional communities as well as they enter the modern era. Kut, Lui Ngai Ni, Mera Hou Chongba etc., for example are no longer about farmers alone as it traditionally must have been, but of urban men and women who probably know little or nothing of farming. This is inevitable as the economy transform to suit modern needs and professions begin to multiply far beyond the traditional. Agriculture technologies too have similarly taken quantum leaps, freeing in the process many able bodies from the binds of tilling the soil. These changes have nevertheless pose new challenges to the notions of culture. Tradition must now be interpreted and shaped by those who no longer can be said to be part of the tradition. Should the new interpretations be just about fashion shows and beauty contests? How must tradition and modernity marry? These are thoughts for the different communities to ponder on. In this regard, it must be said, the Meiteis have been most successful in affecting a transformation of tradition into performing arts of the highest orders. Culture and the arts, amongst the Meiteis are today a profession, with dedicated men and women ever striving to perfect them even when livelihood returns are not as rewarding as other services. The links between these art forms and the original exigencies that necessitated their birth now exist only as symbols. Like the tribal pots and spears becoming objects of art in the urban drawing room, these dedicated, urban professionals have transformed traditions of yore into unique performing arts known worldwide. Thanks to them long after the cultural traditions have ceased to be a survival need, they continue to live on in the modern world as arts.

Source: Imphal Free Press

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