Life & Letters

The Princess of Arts

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The youngest daughter of Maharaja Sir Churachand Singh of Manipur, Binodini Devi, was a feisty beauty who authored the first recognised Manipuri short story, wrote the script for a film that won the Grand Prix at Cannes, and took Manipuri dance to the world. Yet astonishingly little survives of her work on record

Like many others, I encountered Maharaj Kumari Binodini Devi only after her death. She succumbed to a brief illness on 17 January 2011. My quest to write a profile on her was made more difficult by the fact that I couldn’t access her writing, whether through the internet or friends, no matter how well read they were or how large their collection of books. Her novel, Boro Saheb Ongbi Sanatombi (The Princess and the Political Agent), couldn’t be found in bookstores, her collection of short stories, Nung’gairakta Chandramukhi (Chrysanthemum Among the Rocks), unavailable on Amazon, and her collection of plays, Asangba Nongjabi (Azure Skies), not archived in any library I had been to. How was it possible, I asked myself, for such a prolific writer to remain practically unrecorded? For such a proficient writer to be so inaccessible? It would be tragic to explain it away with the fact that the bulk of her writing, whether essays, fiction or non-fiction, remains largely untranslated from Manipuri. I called people in Imphal. Aribam Shyam Sharma, Binodini Devi’s long-term collaborator-director, was unwell. And other people who might have known were polite yet firm in shutting me out: “We knew her well, but we’re not the right people to speak to.” It looked like a dead-end.

Until I met two Manipuri poet friends for nimbu-paani on a Sunny afternoon. “My mother went to school with her in Imphal,” Robin Ngangom told me. “They put up plays together.” Ngangom teaches English Literature at the North Eastern Hill University and is an established ‘Shillong’ poet who writes in English. “I grew up in the same neighbourhood where Binodini Devi lived,” Ibohal Kshetrimayum, a civil engineer and writer, added with a laugh. “Her nephews and I used to steal fruit from her garden. She called us hooligans and chased us away. I don’t think she liked us much.”

The two agreed she was exquisitely beautiful. “She was a princess, yet she journeyed out on her own, in rickshaws. It was unheard of for women from the royal family to do that,” said Ibohal. “She always ventured out with a flower in her hair, and we kids would run out to the road to watch her pass. I always admired her beauty and wished to marry a woman like her one day.”

This independent streak was cultivated in a household that was extremely progressive for its time. Maharaj Kumari Binodini Devi was born into the Manipuri royal family on 7 February 1922, the youngest of five daughters of Maharaja Sir Churachand Singh and Maharani Dhanamanjuri Devi. The king was the state’s first Western-educated monarch, while the queen played a major role in educating their children (at a time doing so for Manipuri women was considered a sin), even assigning her British companion Mrs EM Jolly to be their English teacher. Binodini Devi was sent away to Pine Mount boarding school and later to St Mary’s College, both in Shillong, where she displayed, early on, a fondness for writing short stories. At the Vishwabharti University in Santiniketan, Bengal, she studied sculpture, and was the muse—some say lover—of the artist Ramkinkar Baij; his portraits and sculptural pieces of her hang in New Delhi’s National Gallery of Modern Art. Binodini Devi was Manipur's first female graduate.

“She was a path-breaker in many ways,” said Ibohal. “In Yaiskul Police Land, the place where she lived in Imphal, the women emulate her— the way she dressed, her intellectual pursuits, her independence. No conservative Manipuri father would want a daughter-in-law from Yaiskul.” This candour also found its way into her writing, Robin explained, some of which was considered quite scandalous for its time. Nung’gairakta Chandramukhi, her first published short story, featured in a Calcutta-based Manipuri journal in 1965, for instance, detailed a relationship between a man and his young stepmother with undertones of incest. Most of her stories are known for their strong female protagonists, for straddling traditional Manipuri culture as well as its attempts at modernisation. This was a feature of her writing across genres. Take for example the screenplay of Imagi Ningthem (My Son, My Precious), made into a film by Aribam Syam Sharma, which won the Grand Prix at Cannes in 1982. Set in a small town not far from the Burma border, the movie tells the tale of a young boy, the illegitimate son of a townsman, brought up by his grandfather after his mother dies in childbirth. Through a string of coincidences, the man’s wife (childless herself) meets the boy and develops a strong maternal attachment to him. So powerful is their bond that she adopts him, facing tough criticism and derision from the male figures in the story. The movie, featuring Lelkhandra Singh, Leikhendro and Rashid, exquisitely captures this tussle, and the woman’s brave and fearless attempt to defend the ones she loves. According to BK Bidur, the 2010 National Award-winning film critic from Manipur, Binodini Devi’s screenplays were strong because she “wrote for images”. “She brought her wealth of knowledge about Manipuri culture into a piece and translated it into visuals. It’s a difficult thing to do.”

Although Binodini Devi also dabbled in sculpture and painting, it was stories that fascinated her the most. Her elder son, Dr Laifungbam Debabrata Roy, called Bobby by friends, told me in a phone conversation that among the many endearing memories he has of his mother, his favourites are the ones of her telling him and his brother stories. “She was a wonderful story-teller. She was such a curious person, everyone interested her—whether the market women or the street workers. She had a gift for communicating, for building a rapport with people… she was interested in them deeply, not superficially like most of us.” Consequently, he continued, most of her stories are about common people and their lives. It also explains why almost everyone called Binodini Devi ‘Imasi’ (royal mother).

His other cherished memory is of making the journey with her to Mount Hermon in Darjeeling. “It was February and bitterly cold, yet it was our special time together. She was so excited to travel there with my brother and me.” It was during this time that she went through a separation with her husband.

“It was a difficult period, and it showed in her correspondence with us. The one great value I’ve learnt from my mother is something she wrote in her letters. In Manipuri, the word is ‘akhang-kanba’ (to endure, to carry on no matter what).”

It is clear that that was Binodini Devi’s special gift. She regularly wrote essays for Manipuri newspapers, radio broadcast programmes for All India Radio, and a biography of her aunt Sanatombi, herself a feisty lady who left the royal household and her husband and family to live with a British gentleman in Calcutta.

She was also the president and founder of Leikol (The Garden), an organisation of Manipuri women writers, and the first secretary of the Jawaharlal Nehru Manipur Dance Academy. She famously helped incorporate martial arts into classical Manipuri dance and, in 1976, took the first all-Manipuri dance troupe on a tour of North America, Latin America and Europe. The same year she was honoured with a Padma Shri for her contribution to the field of literature and arts.

“She was amazing,” said Bobby, and despite the crackling long distance line, I heard a smile in his voice. “Even while doing all this she still found time to fill the house with art objects she made with her own hands. She kept everything that my son painted, even his drawings on the walls of her home. She refused to let them be painted over.” When I bring up the issue of how little of Binodini Devi’s work is accessible to people outside Manipur, Bobby tells me that his younger brother, Laifungbam Somi, who is based in New York, is working on a translation of her memoirs. “My mother used to say that only her sons could truly understand what she was saying in her writings—it is therefore our responsibility to see that this is done.”

Long ago, in a journal entry in November 1951, Jack Kerouac wrote, ‘I hope it is true that a man can die and yet not only live in others but give them life, and not only life, but that great consciousness of life.’ Fifty years on, these lines resonate deeply. At journey’s end I am left with Bidur’s words on Binodini Devi, “There is no one like her now. She was rare, unique. She will continue to inspire all of us, everyone she has left behind.” As I read the few translated stories Bobby has emailed to me, I feel like I am finally getting to know her.

Many thanks to Sagolsem Hemant, ex-president of All Manipur Working Journalists Union, for his help