Cultural Root Is The Strength To My Literature
Interview with Maharajah Kumari Binodini Devi

An interview by Salam Rajesh*

M K Binodini

M.K. Binodini

Maharajah Kumari Binodini Devi, born 1922, is a well-known literateur having contributed some of the best literary works in Manipuri. A recipient of Padmashree, M.K.Binodini is the youngest daughter of Maharajah Sir Churachand Singh of Manipur and Maharani Dhanamanjuri Devi. Educated at Shillong and at Santineketan, she is one of the popular writers in the state. She has to her credit several popular literary pieces including short stories, radio plays, lyrics, ballet scripts and filmscripts. Her collection of short stories, titled Nunggairakta Chandramukhi, bagged her the Jamini Sunder Guha Gold Medal. Her historical novel Boro Saheb Ongbi Sanatombi fetched her the Sahitya Akademi Award. She had translated several of Tagore's songs into Manipuri. She had written four ballet scripts, including Thoibi, Kong Hangoi, Keibid Lamjao and Loktak Eshei for the Jawaharlal Nehru Manipur Dance Academy. She had written filmscript for six Manipuri feature films, including Olangthagee Wangmadasgo, Imagi Ningthem, Paokhum Ama, Ishanou, Mayophygee Macha and Sanabi. Excepting Paokhum Ama, all the films bagged National Awards. She also wrote the filmscript for three documentary films, including the National Award winning film Orchids of Manipur, the internationally acclaimed film Sangai - Dancing Deer of Manipur, and Laa.

M.K.Binodini spoke to Salam Rajesh on her interests in literature and her experiences in her association with the literary and the celluloid world. The excerpts:

On her formulative years

I don't remember exactly when I first had the urge to write. For me, writing came to me more by accident than by choice. I never thought I would become a writer. Because, I was more attached to drawing and painting in my earlier days.

I initially started writing when I was in school. I was then 16 or 17 years of age. I started with short stories. My first short story was called Imaton. It is about a relationship between a youngman and his young stepmother. I liked it immensely as a good story. So, I showed it to my teacher, Oja Salam Tombi, who also happened to be my tutor. Contrary to my expectation, he gave me a sound scolding for writing it. He said it was unbecoming of me to write such an immoral adult story. I was so embarrassed by his words. I stopped writing there and then.

On the other hand, my parents did not encouraged me as a writer. The Maharajah (of Manipur) and the Maharani had no time to pay attention to me, as they were busy in the affairs of the state. Besides, writing as an art form was not in vogue then.

When I was in college, I started writing short stories again. I wrote three or four short stories in those days. Then I stopped writing again. I was around 19 or 20 years of age then.

In 1944, after my graduation I went to Santineketan to study painting and sculpture. I was there for about three years. I stopped writing in those days. Completely. My attention was on art, and sculpture was my interest. Then I married and had family. I forgot all about writing.

In 1961-62, there was a nationwide observation of the Tagore Centenary Year Celebration. I was in the committee for the celebrations in the state. I was associated with the group entrusted with Tagore's celebration, particularly on Rabindra Sangeet. That association rekindled the writer in me.

Soon, I was actively associated with Roop Raag, an association of scholars, writers, poets, musicians and dramatists. Dr.Lakhimai, the lady editor of a journal (it must have been the 'Naharol' a journal of the Manipuri students in Calcutta in those days) asked me to write an article for the journal. I don't know why, but I just sat down and wrote a short story. That was Nunggairakta Chandramukhi my first short story after a gap of nearly two decades.

Elangbam Nilakanta was the reviewer at that time. He appreciated it saying it carried the flavour of a short story. I was much inspired by it. After the commissioning of the All India Radio in Imphal, I started writing radio plays. Aribam Syam Sharma had once encouraged me to write radio plays. I put ink to paper and out came the featurette, Banshi Marol Chumdaba. It was not well received. After that, I wrote Ashangba Nongjabi. People liked it. From then on, I continued writing radio plays seriously. I felt the medium was very suitable, and so it was with sincere interest that I took to writing radio plays.

In the early 1970s, friends of mine like Syam S harma, Lokendra Arambam and others became involved in films. When the film Matamgi Manipur was on the anvil (in 1971/72) they invited me to join in. Karam Amumacha (Monomohan), the producer of the film, also happened to be a relative of mine. He asked me to asociate in the film. I was reluctant initially, for it was something hard to believe in those days that a film in Manipuri could be possible at all. But I joined in when the making of the film started in earnest. I took care of the costume for the film. That was how my association with films started. I also wrote the lyric for some of the songs in the film.

On her literature

People say I was in Bengal and was associated with Bengali art & literature, and that these influenced my writing. It is not exactly so. I had the inspiration to write long time back as I had mentioned before, when I was in my teens, and in school. I read works of Saratchandra, Bankim and Madhusudan Dutta even before I was in Santineketan. We were staying in Nabadwip (in Bengal) during the second world war days, and there I read books by these great writers of Bengal. I do feel pfoud in saying that I gained much after reading the works by these master literateurs.

It is hard to say which of the form of writing, either short story, radio play, ballet script or filmscript I would prefer most. It all depends on the occasion of writing, the time and the situation.

When the occasion necessitates me to write a lyric, then I am involved with writing lyrics. The same is true of when I get involved with writing in any of the other forms. In fact, I am presently working on a new radio play. And when an opportunity pops up for me to write a filmscript, then I shall be fully involved with films. That goes on.

Writing in the different forms needs working in different perspectives. Radio plays are without the visual angle; emphasis is naturally on the audio effects. So, I have to think of the characterisation and the sequence of acts minus the visual angle. Detail is given on the sound, music and dialogue.

In writing a filmscript, I have to visualize the entire length of film, as it would take shape finally. In films, dialogue can be cut down and replaced by visual and sound effects. That is more effective than lengthy dialogues. And, I have to involve myself in self-drama to conceive and to visualize the different characters and their roles in the film.

On the characters in her stories

People say me being a woman, I give particular emphasis on the female characters. Which, I disagree. Because, when I write I don't remember my sex. Say, in the story Sagol Sanabi the focus is on Mangi, a male character. Not Sakhi, the main female character. Even in my short story Nunggairakta Chandramukhi, the focus is on a male character, the one playing the role of a gambler, a ruffian.

I recall an interesting incident regarding the short story Sagol Sanabi. I sent a copy of the story to my son in America. And he showed the story to some American friends. A lady in her early forties read the story and she came to my son to tell him she had fallen in love with Mangi, the main male character in the story. Such was the force of the story. The domineering role of Mangi in the story had emerged to win the American lady's heart. That proved amply that I had given more thrust on the male character, and not on the female character.

As for myself, I would never write on characters of whom I have no indepth knowledge of or whom I as a writer had not associated in any particular time in my life. To write a documentary on the experiences of life, one need to interact at close quarters with the subject.

On her language and style

People usually have misconceptions of the life in the house of the royal family. Some critics ridiculed me as 'an orchid that bloom in the luxury of the palace and it was unthinkable for the orchid to have a sense of the earthy issues'. They ridiculed me that I sit on a soft sofa chair and I write from there, without ever coming in contact with the masses. That was a shock to me in those days. But I write more about the common people, and I use their language in my writings.

The monarch in Manipur never stayed aloof from the masses. The relationship between the royal family and the common people was a close, cordial one, unlike that in other former princely states. That was the beauty of the Manipuri tradition.

People came in droves to the palace. Like we say 'Konung kaba or Konung khanba. There were several domestic hands in and around the palace complex. My own wet nurse (Yokchabi or Sana Mapi) in the palace was a commoner. So, I had actual intimate contact with the people all my life. I saw them, heard them and interacted with them. That interaction proved invaluable to me when I took up writing. For instance, the title of a story, Nangga U-naramdrabadi (if I had not met you). Very simple language. I took it up from what I heard around.

It is a natural trait with me to write in the first person, using 'I'. When I write in this style, I tend to portray myself as a woman first. So, I write as a female writer, naturally. Whereas, I never try to preconceive any message or moral in my stories. Once, a friend asked me how I write my stories. I said to him I don't know for certain. I somehow write them when the urge comes.

I struggle, you know, to use very simple language. Because, my range of vocabulary is not vast. It is only now that I am picking up beautiful Manipuri vocabulary, but otherwise I am not very fluent with it. usage is simple. Yes, my stay in Bengal for some years was fruitful for me. The common man, even the rickshawallahs, spoke language in a simple but very literary style. I may have picked that up in my filmscripts.

On her working relationship with the director of film

When working in films, for a good film, a writer has to work very closely with the director of the film. Usually, when I write I always try to work closely with the director of the film. Like, I have been working with Syam Sharma. I have to consult him constantly on the different viewpoints in the film. We have to come to a level of understanding. This understanding make things more fruitful for the film.

M.K. Binodini

M.K. Binodini

As a short story writer, I do the writing by myself, on my own. It's very personal, not a teamwork. It's only when it comes to the question of publishing it that I worry about the financial involvement, and I consult people. Otherwise, I normally do not consult with anybody on my stories. But, in films, I need to be in close contact with the director when writing the filmscript. Both Syam and myself were in Santineketan, and perhaps we have a close understanding of one another for this reason. We normally interact closely when working on filmscripts.

It do happen that we sometimes defer on certain points. I even walked out sometimes on some differences. Because, I am not a writer who writes a filmscript and then forgets all about it once it is sold off to a producer. This happens to writers of formula films. For me, I write the story and do the filmscript. Even when that has been done, it is my natural instinct to involve myself in the filmmaking because I am very much concern of my work and how it is going to shape up. Anyway, even if I disagree on certain points, I have to compromise with the director as he may have his own views of projecting things. He may also have technical difficulties because of which certain changes have to be made.

On the cultural inputs in film

The theme of Ishanou was a challenging subject. Syam and myself knocked heads together to conceive the film story. Initially, Syam had proposed to cast a real Maibi in the lead role. I instantly raised an objection as there was no telling what it would end up to. I feared the Maibi would get into a trance while the filming was in progress.

The Maibi institution is something which one finds only in a state like Manipur. Studying this institution and working on it was a great challenge for us. We had more than twenty Maibis to interview. Fortunately for me, I was associated with Maibis during my stay in JNMDA. They were there in the Lai Haraoba function, in the mornings. At the palace, too, I saw Maibis but I was not in close contact with them.

Whereas, in the dance academy, I was closely associated with them and I could study their life-style in depth. When working on the filmscript for Ishanou, there were several beautiful sequences that me and Syam loved to put in the film but we couldn't for some reason or the other. Money and time factor were the major obstacles.

In the scene when Tampha Maibi comes running from her husband's place, in my original story I had shown her scampering up a Kiyamgei tree and taking shelter up there. It was dark then. In the film, Syam had made the villagers to hold modem torchlights in seeking her. In my script, the villagers came in a line with Meira (bamboo-lit torches) in their hands. When she saw them, Tampha Maibi teased them with the words, "Keku, Keku". I am sure Syam loved that sequence. Me, too. But it was not possible to shoot the sequence. Obviously technical difficulties.

So, that was that. Sometimes I had to give in to the director, and sometimes the director had to give in to the circumstances. It went on. But, it is very important that the scriptwriter and the director of the film should work very closely to bring out a good film.

One advantage of my background, of my life in the palace, is that the palace was a seat of culture. There was the Pena Loishang, the Maibi Loishang, the Pala Loishang, Sagolkangjei, Raas - you name it. I saw it all.

In the film Imagi Ningthem, Syam had inserted a beautiful sequence. Dhani had heard of her brother-in-law's illicit affair with a girl. She was waiting for her sister to return. In that sequence, Syam and I thought if we made the sister to return home after attending the Jalakeli performance at the palace, she would then be in typical Meitei traditional dress. In the film we saw Ekashini returning home beautifully dressed in typical Meitei dress and with a lovely aroma around her. That's how we try to incorporate the essence of Meitei culture in our films. We attempt it whenever we find the opportunity. It is an essence of our rich cultural heritage, and a dimension of the Manipuri civilization.

Speaking of the film Sanabi, as one knows, Manipur is a land of pony culture. Polo has been played in this land since time immemorial. Our ancient manuscripts speak about it. At the palace, we used to ride horses. We loved horses. Some of us sisters, including myself, knew horses well. My father (Maharajah Sir Churachand) was one of the best polo players then. He encouraged us to learn to ride horses and he had a plan even to teach his daughters to play polo. That background helped a lot when I started working on Sagol Sanabi. It made my writing easier.

Personally, I would not like to comment on other's works, but in our own films we tried to put in aspects of the Manipuri culture in appropriate situations. Say, for instance, in Imagi Ningthem, We put in a piece of the Jalakeli. But we did not showed the actual performance. We made the actress to appear that she was returning from attending the performance. Her dress and flair said it all. And at the concluding part of the film, Ekashini took the boy to a dance rehearsal. We did not showed an actual performance. Frankly speaking, we have such a rich cultural heritage that we find it extrgmely hard to turn a blind eye to the different aspects of our culture.

What is wrong in bringing out our cultural values and traditions ? We could have had made the boy to sing a pop song or a modern song, seeing the modern trend. But, for us, we felt it was best to dwell into the beauty of our traditions.

As for Ishanou, things were even more complicated. We have such a rich tradition of the Meitei culture that we had a hard time in choosing a few pieces from the vast repertory of the Maibi institution. We did workshop for two gruelling months to know Maibis and their culture under the guidance of Oja Kumar Maibi. Kiranmala was strained to brfeaking point in the workshop. She was transformed into a Maibi and we could see the real Maibi in her.

I attended the workshop right from early morning till evening. I was also transformed and that was why I found it extremely difficult to decide what to leave out. It was so complicated. Syam knew we had put in doses of dance than necessary. But we could not resist it. We had barely an hour of film duration. If that had been two hours, we would probably had put in more.

Actually, I had desired the film Sanabi to be shot in black & white. I had certain concept that particular sequences of the film would be extremely dramatic in silhoutte. Specially the silhoutte of the grey horse against the backdrop of the sky.

On her love of the animals and the environment

Yes, I have a great love for birds, animals and the environment since my childhood. This love influenced me to work on the story on Sangai and in writing the ballet script Keibul Lamjao. I am also deeply concern of the losing of the Loktak lake. Loktak is not just a lake where people fish and pluck edible vegetables to live.

The Loktak lake is a rich depository of several legendary tales. There is a big tradition, a huge cultural tradition associated with the lake. There has been so many literature on the Loktak, inspired by its beauty and charm, of its legends and folktales. That is why I have tried to write the ballet Loktak Eshei for the Jawaharlal Nehru Dance Academy. Even now, I am much worried.

On the human sufferings

Yes, I am conscious of the human sufferings. I do reflect on it in my writings. Say, in Nangga U-naramdrabadi there is element of human suffering. Specially, I feel like writing on the silent, mute sufferings of the mothers in our state. Their tensions, their anxieties. For me, I feel a literary work cannot be said to be complete without a single note on human sufferings.

On the classics

As a child, I had the good opportunity to watch classic films. Even today, I love watching classic films. In the context of Manipur, we have classics of our own. Once, Syam and myself talked of working on the Manipuri classics. But, as we went deep into it, we became all the more worried. Say, the epic tale of Khamba and Thoibi. It is so rich and it means so much to the people that we feared we would be committing sacrilege if we made blunders in making film on the epic.

Also, it required intensive research to do it. It was part of our vast civilization. We had not the courage to distemper the delicate fabric of our ancestors' treasures. Speaking frankly, we are yet to attempt a classic film, but we do dream of making one provided we have the resources and the energy to go through it.

A word of note to the upcoming filmmakers

Speaking in the context of Manipur, we have numerous forms of difficulties in making film. I have been associating in films for the last twenty-five years, since the making of Matamgi Manipur. If I am asked to give my views on the present trends of filmmaking, I would say to the upcoming filmmakers that they need to think more deeper, and they have to interact closely with one another to bring out good films. We have had a film winning the Grand Prix, and several of the Manipuri films had bagged national and international laurels. We have reached that level of standard. So, they (young hopefuls) must strive to excel that and more.

* This article is originally written and published as part of MFDC 25 year (1972-1997) celebration. This article was webcasted with due courtesy to MFDC (Manipur Film Development Corporation) on June 30 2009.

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