James K: Can you tell us more about your relationship with Oja Khangembam Mangi the master pena musician of Manipur?
You were asking about my association with Oja Mangi? For those that don’t know, Oja Khangembam Mangi is the senior most “Pena Khongba” (Pena musician) of Manipur. He has been awarded every state honor there is and also has received the Padma Shri from the president of India (India’s 4th highest civilian award) for his achievements in traditional culture and music of Manipur. He is now over 90 years old and still an active musician and foremost expert on Lai Haraoba, and he is also an Amaiba, and traditional healer. He is a cherished living treasure amongst the Manipuri traditional arts scene. I was introduced to Oja Mangi through the folks of Laihui, who are Mahesh, Tiken, and Mangansana, I wanted to mention them because we are all kind of like a team. From the first day over a year ago that I met Oja Mangi, I knew I needed to be recording him, that this was my responsibility. That above and beyond everything else I should be working with him and recording his invaluable knowledge and storehouse of endangered traditional musics. You know that it is said that in cultures and their traditional folklore, songs are the first things to go. Foods, costumes, and ritual can continue but music and songs are so fragile, they are like delicate endangered songbirds, these traditional folk songs, and they are going extinct and disappearing right before our eyes, every day songs are disappearing from humanities repertoire forever. What to do? Well thankfully these days there is very affordable digital video and recording devises that are available on the market. Modern technology has made it possible for just about anyone with the desire to make high quality digital field recordings. So this is what I’ve started doing, and it is people like Oja Mangi, the old master musicians, who we need to start with first. And I will be frank and direct when I say, we should start with the old musicians first, because they are are growing older and soon will disappear, as life has it, right before our eyes, and we will deeply regret it and if we have a conscience we will be haunted in our dreams when they are gone and we didn’t do all we could to in some way preserve the knowledge they are so willing to pass on.
Oja Mangi is an expert on the epic Khamba Thoibi (the Manipuri song poem story) performance. His version of Khamba Thoibi is about 70 hours long, and he can still do the whole thing. Can you believe that? He can sit down and over days he can play and sing 70 hours of the Khamba Thoibi story from beginning to end. Its mind bending, this is the grand tradition of Manipuri folk music! The story is 500 to 600 years old and Shakespearian in depth and character. Once you get into the details of Khamba Thoibi its really entertaining too. And well the fact is, no one has ever recorded the whole thing. This is the Meitei people’s historical epic story, and no one has as yet to record its performance in full. And then yes its endangered, as there are really, according to what Oja Mangi has told me, only four people living who can still do the story in full, and Oja Mangi is the oldest.
Then also Oja Mangi is the foremost expert on Kanglei style Lai Haraoba. One has to just think about this one fact, he is over 90 years old and has been Pena Khongba in Lai Haraoba’s since he was about 12 years old. Oja was actually awarded by the Royal “pena loishan” to officially wear the sacred “Khamu Chappa” (eggplant snake pattern cloth) at lai haraoba when he was like 14 years old, which would have been around 1932 right, even before WWll right? This means that Oja Mangi has over 75 years of official Royal and state approved lai haraoba experience! We are not talking about bookish scholarly writing, or armchair philosopher conjecture, this is 75 actual years of living experience and gained knowledge of Lai Haraoba. That is the importance of Oja Mangi, and the other elder musicians of Manipur traditional arts. They are the real authentic people. I would call them living treasures. When I met Oja Mangi and I said to myself, “Oja, I promise I am not going to let you slip through my fingers.” So over the past 16 months I have been recording as much as I could, so that I have about 40 hours of music and documentary video with Oja Mangi. I can say it was not easy, but it was so worth it. I followed Oja to three Lai Haraoba festivals, and over 20 ritual events, and we also recorded about 20 hours of the Khamba Thoibi epic song. Eventually Oja asked me to live in his house, so we spent over two months living together.
James K: I know you have also been recording other music too. Tell me about Mangka and the Laihui group, who seem to be the new rising stars of traditional Manipuri music? I think you called this a revival? What do you mean by that?
Yes yes, Laihui and Mangka. So as a theme in my project Oja Mangi exemplifies and represents the old master musician. My second focus of recording and research has been, what I might call, “The modern take on the traditional”. And representative of this is the young Manipuri folk artist Mangka, and the Laihui musical group. Over the past year and a half I have been following and documenting this phenomenally talented young woman who had been playing a big part of the new revival of Manipuri traditional folk music. This new revival with artists like Mangka and Laihui, and some other artists like my friend Pinky Saikhom who also sings Moirang Sai, and the young son of Pena Achoba of Moirang who is carrying on Pena in Moirang, and Rojit Meitei of Kakching who is carrying on the pena traditions in Kakching. These young folks and their passion for the music is what will hopefully keep traditional Manipuri Moirang Sai and the numerous Pena styles alive, and also serve as catalyst to inspire other young kids to follow. So this following of the old and the new are my two main themes of research.
James K: We have talked before about your searching for, “the authentic image”, can you talk about that?
Then there is the third subject which I am really interested in which is Lai Haraoba, the traditional ancient Ancestor worship festival of the Meitei and Chakpa of Manipur. Many people have asked me why I am interested in Lai Haraoba? Which is a very good question. I am not a scholar, I am a film maker, photographer, and an artist and I am not a Manipuri, so why should I be so interested in this subject? So I want to tell people that I am approaching Lai Haraoba with the greatest of respect, and to do this I have to come to it from the honest perspective of an outsider, looking in, trying to understand, and also participating and experiencing and saying, OK here is what I saw, this is how I saw it. The beauty of Lai Haraoba in all its aspects is undeniable, and I am just going for that, the music, dance, and rich authentic ritual beauty that it possesses. Over the past year and a half, I attended ten different Lai Haraobas, and three of them in full from beginning to end. I attended Moirang, Kakching, Chakpa, and Kanglei Haraobas. I was lucky enough to attend the Chakpa Phayeng Lai Haraoba for two years in a row where I lived with and was advised in my research by the Khullakpa’s village leaders families and elders. Phayeng holds a 10 day Lai Haraoba so I actually lived in Phayeng village for the duration of those festivals. in 2014 I followed Oja Mangi to three Lai Haraobas, and lived with him in the laibung documenting and recording the life of the Pena Khongba. I also followed Ima Dhoni Amaibi (the head amaibi of JN Manipur Dance Academy). All in all I’ve shot and recorded over 50 hours of music, dance, and ritual, and took over 30,000 photographs during actual Lai Haraoba. This is not cultural program or staged performances; I filmed and shot actual Lai Haraoba as they happened in the real and authentic setting. I captured hours of Ima Dhoni Amaibi leading dances, and hours of Oja Mangi singing and playing on pena in the ritual setting. And tens of hours of actual Phayeng Lai Haraoba. Besides all this I also participated, I was asked to and danced for the pleasure of the Umang Lai in the forest of Chakpa Phayeng during their Lam Thokpas, and on the Laibung at Hibongpokpi for Laibou Jagoi.
This all brings me full circle back to talking about my recording and film project, Ehool.
James K. Yes so you have been researching, photographing, recording, and filming and now your plan is distribution? You have made a production company called Ehool? Tell us a little about that.
With these projects I have been pursuing in Manipur I have made a new production company, It is called Ehool Films, and the long name is Ehool Manipur Music and Films. The goal is to help preserve the rich traditional dance, music, and rituals of Northeast India, with a focus on Manipur. The tools of Ehool are photography, video, and music field recording, writing, and the internet. Its a big project you know and only really just beginning. One exciting development is that I was able to get a book deal to publish a book of photographs on Manipur Dance and Ritual. The publisher is Vajra Books based in Kathmandu, who are one of the highest quality publishers in South Asia. We have made a deal to create a 250 to 300 page book of my color photographs, which will be coming out sometime later this year. No one has really done a book like this before on Manipur traditional culture. We will keep you informed of the details on the Ehool Facebook page. So besides publishing this initial book of photographs. I want to distribute the videos and musics from the 2013 to 2015 recordings. I will be uploading many videos to YouTube and other online viewing sites for public distribution. I will also be distributing music in the same way. Then I also will be creating music albums of particular music that will go up for sale, with the proceeds going directly back into the project and also pay the artist themselves. I also have enough material for a documentary film about Chakpa Phayeng Lai Haraoba, and I want to make a film on the Amaibi. Then in the next year I want to go back to Manipur to continue this work. We hope then to finish our recording of Oja Mangi and complete his version of the Khamba Thoibi story. Then my next phase is to head into the hills and try to find some authentic hill tribe musics. So even though I am for the time being no longer in Manipur am keeping really busy. I am totally out of money too. I spent a year and a half of my own money and all of my life savings to do the work I’ve done so far. But I have faith that If I do the right thing, it will turn out all right? My philosophy is that if you spread the music, and the more people you reach, and if you stay positive, then the more opportunities will come. What did John Lennon say? “You may say I’m a dreamer. But I’m not the only one.”