"My parents say that ever since I could utter a few words as a child, I started dancing and singing,” says Manipuri singer, pena player, dancer and performance artist Mangka Mayanglambam as we sit in one of the empty classrooms of Saint Claret College in Ziro, Arunachal Pradesh. She is attending the Ziro Literary Festival, after performing at the Ziro Festival of Music, earlier this month.
The 26-year-old artist from Imphal grew up in a musical family of four, with her father—Mayanglambam Mangangsana Meitei, a Bismillah Khan Yuva Puraskar awardee—mother and brother, surrounded by musicians, composers and dancers. Her father would take classes in Manipuri folk music and folk instruments at their house. Mangka not only picked up the pena, a Manipuri mono-string instrument that is traditionally played only by men, but is one of the few Moirang Sai (storytelling art form) and Basok (all-female performance art) artists in the country; she has trained under Guru Langathel Thoinu and Padma Shri award winner Guru Khangembam Mangi. In 2017, at the age of 21, Mangka too gained recognition as the Princess of Manipur Folk Music, winning the state icon award.
While popularising traditional art forms, she has shattered norms and barriers—and continues to do so. For Mangka is one of the few female artists of pena. “In that festival (of Lai Haraoba), you will not see any female pena artists. It (pena) was always restricted to men.”
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She adds: “We have a saying in Manipuri, ‘pena mung lai’, which means ‘as easy as playing the pena’, but it’s quite the opposite. You can’t just pick up a pena and play it. I even have to make my own pena according to the length of my arms. It’s like Harry Potter’s wand. We have a real bond with the instrument.
“Most of the people who oppose me playing pena are men. But I challenged them. They say I am exploiting the traditions; if I am the one exploiting the traditions, who is going to promote the music and its culture? If you keep gatekeeping it, the youth will never be interested in it and eventually it will get lost. But I will never think of playing at the festival, because I can’t be myself there.”
Mangka, who teaches Manipuri folk music, is making sure the pena tradition is passed on to the next generation, especially girls. “Every student of mine, all of them girls, are now pena players. I insist on them knowing about it and learning how to play it. I am not going to destroy the tradition, I am just borrowing from it. And if my presentation makes people want to know more about our traditions, then why not? I am an artist, I am just experimenting,” she says.
“People keep asking me, ‘why traditional folk music?’ To me, folk and pop were all the same when I started. I just wanted to learn music. I chose Manipuri folk tradition because it’s full of lore, it’s unique, it’s what I love and where I come from. And that’s what I want to keep passing on to future generations.”
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Mangka has not escaped the pressure of making her music more “mainstream” and accessible. “When I am performing across the country, people tell me, ‘You have such an amazing voice! Why don’t you sing in Hindi?’ Or, ‘She’s so famous, only if she could sing something more mainstream.’ I feel like I am disrespecting my art form if I even compare it with the ‘mainstream’ music and performance art. If all North-Eastern artists keep moving to ‘mainstream’, who will represent the communities they are from? I am trying to make it popular in my own way.
“It’s a huge responsibility for me. It’s kind of scary,” she admits, about shouldering the responsibility of promoting Manipur music. “We don’t have very many artists. But I want to be an example for the existing and future generation artists that you can do it (make the kind of music you want to and earn money).
“I do compromise on my personal life. People are looking at me and they believe ‘she’s going to change something’, so how can I not welcome that?” she adds.
Her music, she says, is as much for those in Manipur as it is for the global audience. “I am a strong woman who is culturally rooted but knows how to connect with the world. Moreover, I don’t believe in language as a barrier when it comes to music. The music industry and the people who listen to it have changed. Even the audience has started listening to music like K-pop, watching anime, even though we don’t know the language. And I believe folk music can play a major role in bringing about this change.”
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Mangka says RaRaRaHei, a single with Welsh musician and artist Eadyth, released in May as part of the British Council’s India-UK Together Season of Culture to promote musicians, will also be released as an NFT, or non-fungible token, and will have its storytelling landscape on the Metaverse. “It’s one of the many ways to take my music across borders. Moreover, as musicians, we can do so by collaborating, no matter the language or genre of music.”
When I ask what the future holds for her, Mangka answers unflinchingly: “I won’t be performing forever, so I always wanted to have my own academy where I train kids to take Manipuri folk music forward because it’s not something I can do by myself. Also, if I want to stay alive after I pass away.”
Shubhanjana Das is a freelance journalist.