Manipur’s ancient manuscript tradition comes to life in new children’s book
When L Somi Roy finished writing his book, he sent the draft to three people – Jessica, Tara and Theia, aged nine, ten and thirteen.
“I was terrified, I don’t have children. How to write for a child? If they [the kids] don’t like to read it, forget it, Roy thought.
Thankfully, his three incisive critics did, and Roy, an Imphal-based curator and cultural curator, breathed a sigh of relief.
But it’s not just the young people who go to Roy And that’s why (Puffin; Rs 350), a collection of twelve children’s stories based on ancient myths from Manipur. His story – rather, his story – is also engaging for adults. After all, it is through this compilation that the mythological traditions of Manipur – handed down from generation to generation, recorded so far only in manuscripts and folk ballads – are first told to the world.
Plus, as Roys says, the start of the whole project was “very mature”. “It started over a decade ago with the simple intention of preserving knowledge… but many twists and turns later, here it is, like a book.”
June 22, And that’s why was started by the titular King of Manipur, HH Leisemba Sanajaoba, who is also a member of the Rajya Sabha, at the Sana Konung palace in Imphal.
In 2012, Roy – who has worked for more than a decade in the field of cultural conservation and preservation in Manipur – was planning an art exhibition on the state’s ancient illustrated manuscript tradition. “What makes up some of the stories in the book is what was originally intended as gallery notes for the exhibition,” says Roy.
Although the exhibit did not function as expected, the stories – filled with history and mythology, gods and magic, talking animals and songbirds – stuck.
An ancient handwritten tradition
The Meitei community – which inhabit the Manipur Valley – has a rich, though little known, handwritten tradition called “puya”, written on handmade paper as well as leaves, bamboo and wood. These date from the 14th century.
“There were also manuscripts before that, but these had shorter entries. After the 14th century, record keeping became more contemporary, with richer and longer entries and treatises on a variety of subjects, ”says Roy, who adds that the myths in And that’s why predate the Hindu religious practice of the Meiteis, before the kingdom adopted Vaishnavism in the early 18th century. “The stories are part of pre-Hindu religious practice which is largely ancestor worship and animist – which continues to this day,” he says.
In the 97-page book, traditions come to life, with the endearing blossoming of childish prose – with subjects ranging from the mundane (And that’s why man is creative and can think) to those who are closer to home (And that’s why Manipur is the birthplace of polo).
Although not all puya are illustrated, those that were (called “subika”) are also found in the book thanks to the young engraver based in Imphal, the sketches of Sapha Yumnam which complement Roy’s words.
While many of these manuscripts can be found in private and public archives, and in university and college collections, the royal court of Manipur is the keeper of the tradition. “The Royal Palace in Manipur still maintains a council of scholars called the Pundit Loisang, responsible for chronicling the court, among other duties.” Roy said, adding that this is why he chose to officially launch the book at the palace, in the presence of the king.
This is even more important, Roy says, given that the Manipuri civilization has often been “performative”. “We have a great culture of dance and music, and even of sport, but not really a visual tradition,” he says, “It is these rare manuscripts that constitute the heritage of the Meitei community – and therefore must be to the extent possible.
Several versions, one story
Roy, who is known for his work in promoting Manipuri polo, writes often about cinema and the culture of the state. Last year he published The princess and the political agent (Penguin Modern Classics, 2020), translated from the original work of his mother, the late Maharajkumari Binodini Devi, author and member of the royal family of Manipur.
While her other books are also a translation of her mother’s works, And that’s why is his first children’s book. But the author claims that the book is not the only one to celebrate, but also to the scholars, archivists and ballads he consulted for it. “The process involved a number of actors,” he says.
As he grew up hearing these stories as a child, a book called Isusa Wari Lirage, (The children, grandfather will tell you a story) by Thokchom Thouyangba Meitei, a specialist in ancient manuscripts, opened up another world to him. While Sahitya Akademi’s award-winning novel contained many stories he had known before, there were many he didn’t. Still others had counterparts recorded orally in the form of ballads and songs. “I realized that the narratives varied – on the page and on the song,” he says.
The process therefore involved many cross-references, consultations and checks. With the help of folklorist Mayanglambam Mangansana, scholar Chanam Hemchandra, and historian Wangam Somorjit, Roy was able to hear all the versions and shape a single narrative.
“There is no one correct version of a story,” Roy says, “But again, I was creating a tale for children, so I chose the more visual one, with animals and birds – which could talk, laugh, sing and chat. “