Old indigenous musical instrument find revival strings in Manipur

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Laihui is trying to create ample opportunities to analyze and understand the aesthetics of this rare instrument. Photo: S Ratan

Sometime insurgency, other time counter insurgency, or perhaps a series of economic blockades make life in Manipur far away from normal; yet people have to live on razor edge. It does not stop Manipuris to get out of their homes to earn their daily bread, socialise and even practice old traditions. In decades of turmoil, if there has been something through which Manipur has found respite, it has been music; with the lament however that its indigenous music is losing out to western forms.

The age old Manipuri instruments are on the verge of dying, with the youth getting more attracted to an electronic guitar than the mono-stringed Pena. While Manipur has treasured most of its indigenous art and cultural forms, Pena has not been that lucky. “For several centuries, Pena recital used to be a popular form of entertainment and considered as the spine of Manipur’s rich legacy of folk music. However, during the 1970s, Pena playing was pushed to the backdrop by popular Hindi film songs and western music. Since then, this unique fiddle has slowly lost its adoration and only a handful of patrons exist today”, recalls Sangeet Kala Akademi winner, Guru Mangi.

Perhaps the overwhelming affiliation of Pena with religion and culture has resulted in confining this art to a small group who are trying to conserve this folk culture, which has not only put the instrument and its legacy on a revival tunes, but has given it a fresh string of hope of survival. However, without any scientific or academic syllable, there is no enthusiasm and curiosity for learning Pena among today’s young generation who are constantly exposed to contemporary music and hi-tech gadgets which seem more appealing.

Imphal based Center for Research on Traditional and Indigenous Art, popularly known as Laihui, is bidding to give a modern facelift to the fading enthusiasm of Pena. Through workshops and live sessions, Laihui is trying to create ample opportunities to analyze and understand the aesthetics of this rare instrument. “These workshops are conducted to teach youngsters basic principles and scientific characters of Pena music, so that the educated youth can innovate and blend unique and imposing tunes of Pena with modern tunes and hi-tech gizmos with the larger objective of appealing to the global music lovers” explains Mahesh, secretary of the group.

These efforts have been getting positive response from youngsters in the Imphal valley. “Before this workshop, I didn’t know that the Pena is capable of producing such vast array of tones and rhythms. Laihui’s scientific and analytic approach of tutoring the art of Pena has opened up a rich and fascinating scope of our indigenous music and musical instruments. I think the Pena could be successfully merged with the rhythm and tunes of popular music.”, says Raju, a 16 year old school student who has taken up Pena lessons with his regular guitar classes.

“By applying a scientific approach we are trying to harness the unique sound of the Pena for fusing with contemporary musical ballad and neo-classic trend. During the session, we discuss and introspect on the key principles and basic chords of the instrument so that we can exploit this unique fiddler to carve its own niche in the modern musical trend” tells Mahesh to Tehelka.

For the multitalented Manipur, people have started experimentation with Pena. “I have got ideas to compile a fusion album because the sound of Pena has a touching and nostalgic effect on listeners, but due to lack of patronage, Pena has been reduced to a mere element of Manipur’s cultural art. If we can bring some innovations and renovation, it can produce unique and different melodies which youngsters may find more attractive “says H. Lemba Singh.

According to Naga folk musician, Guru Reuben Masangwa, the tunes of Pena is embedded with a deep and vital message of harmony and honour, which the modern Manipuri society, consisting of both hills and valley, have long forgotten. Masangwa says, “If we look carefully at how the art and culture of each ethnic group in Manipur evolved into its present form, we will find that we have sprung from a common background and the same environment. We can see this in today’s religious functions where it is obligatory to offer folk songs and tribal dances to the ancestral deities. We need to sensitize the people in the hills as well as the valley, so that we can co-exist in harmony.”

As Manipur grapples with a growing distrust amongst communities, perhaps in the strings of Pena lays the strength of uniting such a varied multi-ethnic fabric.

(With inputs from RK Suresh)

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A young IT professional by training and a journalist by chance, Ratnadip comes from the smallest Northeastern state of Tripura and has been reporting out of Northeast India for ten years, as of 2014. An award winning Journalist, Ratnadip started his career with the Tripura Observer and went on to work with the Northeast Sun, The Northeast Today, News Live, Sahara Time and The Sunday Indian. He has also contributed to BBC, CNN, NatGeo TV, NDTV, CNN-IBN and TIMES NOW. Before joining Tehelka, Ratnadip worked with the national bureau of the television news channel NewsX. He specialises in conflict reporting and has a keen interest in India’s eastern neighbours. He has won the RedInk Excellence in Journalism Award 2013, Northeast Green Journo Award 2013, LAADLI Media awards for Gender sensitivity 2013. He is among 10 young Indian scholars selected by International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) on trans-boundary river issues of the subcontinent. He is based in Guwahati.