~ Cecil Thounaojam
Reclaiming indigenous culture/tradition needs an understanding of how we lost it. Various traditions have slowly gone out of practice and people’s minds while some are either frowned upon or seen in bad light. Two such traditional practices of indigenous Meitei community of Manipur are Leipung Phamba and Shinaipham Kaba. Both are not only out of practice today, but also have either been forgotten or mistranslated. These two traditions can be considered a form of indigenous education system with a non-formal setting as compared to today’s system.
Leipung Phamba is a traditional practice for the male folks to come together during their leisure time in the evening to share their stories and discuss social issues. It ranges from elders narrating their experiences in life to others talking about various life incidents to the younger ones. Conducted mostly in the evenings, the gathering usually takes the form of discussion and storytelling. The discussions revolve around jobs, family issues, human relations, social conditions, political situations and other current affairs. Exchanges of professional knowledge and mutual help are integral parts of this practice. It helps in the “economic and social upliftment in the society.” Chattradhari Soyam, in his biography of Hijam Irabot, talks about Leibung phamba as a site where young and old gather to discuss the politics of the land. He mentions that during Irabot’s time, leipung phamba was a popular means to build political consensus and it was also a place where youths were introduced to politics.
In Shinaipham Kaba, female folks “gather at a village leader’s house and work upto late hours or even stay the night in the house.” The gathering involves youths of a locality learning occupation from the skilled elders. “Young girls are taught spinning yarns from cotton, weaving clothes, embroidery, needle works, etc.” As the female folks gather to share knowledge and learn various occupations, they also discuss life, family, social status through storytelling, riddles, and sharing information. It allows the elders to guide the younger girls in different phases of life and trades.
Both the practices provide space for the indigenous folks to build communities and build each other up. It allows the younger ones to learn from the experiences of the elders. Such practices also keep the people aware of the social and political issues while maintaining an economic well-being. However, today, we do not hear anything about Shinaipham Kaba while Leipung Phamba (or uku phamba) is considered a waste of time. The question is how do these practices that help the socio-economic upliftment of Manipur society get erased and lose its purpose in the society.
There has not been an extensive study on both the history of its practices and its erasure from traditional practices. Having said that, if we look back, we can find events and circumstances that led up to what we know/do not know about these practices. After the merger of Manipur to India, we have seen various political uprisings resisting the merger during the 1970s and 80s. On the other hand, the draconian Armed Forces Special Powers Act, 1958, was imposed in Manipur in 1980. The imposition of AFSPA brought a terrorizing situation in the life and minds of the people of Manipur. It is a known fact that during this time, there have been massive atrocities inflicted on the people. The news of extra judicial killings, disappearances, rapes, physical and sexual assault became part of every daily news. Many have lost lives and families to Indian army. The militarization brought about the violence and fear that had varied impacts on the lives of the people and the society at large.
During this time, people feared to step outside their houses after dusk. Indian army or the state forces constantly conducted operations in marketplaces, localities, and even inside houses. For men to be seen in groups or a gathering have become difficult as it was under constant suspicion. News of rape and sexual assualt of women by Indian army have made lives of women more difficult, even at their homes. The time was filled with fear amongst people to even gather or stay over at someone’s place or step out after sunset or to even stay home alone for women. It all resulted as AFSPA gave power to Indian army to do whatever they want, to the extent of killing someone on mere suspicion.
Given these circumstances, it might not be a far-fetched idea to say that the practice of Leipung Phamba, wherein male folk discuss social and political issues, disappeared slowly. Similarly, the fear inflicted on women folks to even step out after dusk might have played a role in the end of the practice of Shinaipham Kaba. Therefore, this sudden change in the political system can be a reason that put these indigenous traditions out of practice.
On the other hand, there was also a change in the social and economic system as a result of the advent of this new political change. It is possible that this new socio-economic system is behind the interpretation of Leipung Phamba as a “waste of time” for it is usually a gathering of male folks during their leisure time. Similarly, Shinaipham Kaba is a gathering of women folks to spend time together in the evening, but it is a popular opinion today that women “waste time gossipping” with such gatherings. However, if we look into the history of the idea and meaning of “gossip”, Sylvia Federici said in her essay “On the Meaning of Gossip” that the word “referred to companions in childbirth not limited to the midwife. It also became a term for women friends, with no necessary derogatory connotations.” However, with the transition in the social system (patriarchal) and the economic system (capitalism) in modern England, an idea of solidarity and female friendship “turned into one signifying idle, backbiting talk, that is, talk potentially sowing discord, the opposite of the solidarity…”
Just like how socio-economic and political changes in modern England brought about a change in the idea and meaning of gossip, the militarization and changing economic system in Manipur post its merger into Indian union could have induced the disappearance and mistranslation of these indigenous traditions. The militarization by Indian state created a fear amongst the people to continue with such gatherings and to step outside after sunset, especially for women folks. On the other hand, the idea of spending leisure time together or women gathering started to translate into “wasting time” with the new social and economic changes. Therefore, it is necessary to not only understand the importance of such traditional indigenous practices, but also study the reasons behind how it went out of practice.
Federici, Silvia. 2018. Witches, witch-hunting, and women. Oakland: PM Press.
Rajkumar, Sanajaoba. 1998. Development of adult education in the valley area of Manipur during post independence period. Unpublished Thesis. Manipur University
Soyam, Chattradhari.1972. Manipuri gi Itihas ta Irabot. Imphal: Soyam Publication.