On the second day of a folk music festival in Jodhpur this September, a young woman had the audience utterly captivated with her robust voice. As she sang a Manipuri folk narrative – the epic love story of Khamba and Thoibi of Moirang – in a dying art form, known as Moirang Sai, her silhouette moved in a graceful, rhythmic enactment of the song. The characters and the forces of nature were personified in the scale of her performance. Mangka, the 21-year-old singer, drew a full house at Jaswant Thada, the venue, and much of the audience were young people who were not familiar with the language she sang in. They were there because of the beauty and drama of her performance.
Dressed in a phanek or traditional sarong, with flowers in her long hair, Mangka brought grace, valour and humour to the narrative, with a touch of the theatrical, evoking the the Pandvani renditions of Teejan Bai. Her voice and movements shift from subtle to formidable with the story, reflecting all the nine rasas. She is accompanied by her father who plays the langdeng and another musician on the mrdanga – both traditional drums.
Off-stage, the petite Mangka is mild-mannered but a rebel of sorts. The unassuming young woman has broken many taboos associated with Manipuri traditions. To begin with, women were not encouraged to perform Moirang Sai, an almost extinct art form that Mangka has become a almost a custodian of. Nor were they allowed to touch a pena, a fiddle-like folk instrument that she now plays with authority.
Because of Mangka Mayanglambam’s commitment to Moirang Sai, it is now drawing both an audience and aspirants – nearly 200 young students, who call her oza (respected teacher) throng to the school that her father runs in Imphal to learn the art form. For her part, Mangka was drawn to Moirang Sai because of the element of dance but when she approached Langathel Thoinu Devi, the only woman who had kept this art of narrative folk singing alive, the grand old lady taught her the lyrics that would bring to her mind the mythical characters she had been reading about at school. Mangka found the learning of nearly-extinct words and phrases, which had been used by her forefathers, interesting.
But the adventure of learning an old language and art came with its own pitfalls. She was a shy girl and when her schoolmates started calling her grandmother, it made her feel even more isolated than usual. “Why do they make fun of me?” she would ask her father, a well-known teacher whose troupe, Laihui, is committed to reviving fading folk art forms of Manipur. He said, “If you turn back now, you won’t reach anywhere.”
And so, undeterred, Mangka, who was barely 12 at the time, would sit at her teacher’s house for hours, singing songs that she had learned by attentive listening. Finally, Thoinu Devi – who had initially paid little attention to the young girl in her home – took her in and Mangka began staying with her teacher for weeks to learn. “She had it all in her mind, there was no pen and paper between us, [it was all in her] memory,” she said.
As a fifth-grade student, Mangka sneaked out from home to give her first performance and won a prize, but people shouted at her and laughed at her archaic interests, making her cry from humiliation. But her father stood by her, encouraging and inspiring her. Her response to that time was simple – “I stuck [to it] because I love it. This is our own music and thereafter, I just listen to the music, ignoring the noise.”
Recognition started coming her way through sheer perseverance.
All India Radio, Imphal, recognised her talent and asked her to send in a five-minute recording for the all-India contest to participate in the Asian Broadcasting Union Radio Song Festival. Mangka sent in a five-hour recording because, “a narrative cannot be finished in five minutes”. Her song was still selected and she was invited to represent India and perform Moirang Sai in Colombo in 2014. She was in the ninth grade when she sang solo, “in a huge auditorium”.
Mangka returned home a star and started getting many requests to perform but she still remains discerning. She has also trained in Indian classical music to “learn about sounds from other traditions”. Mangka lives in Imphal and apart from her performances with Laihui Ensemble, she has been collaborating with contemporary music groups, and is not averse to current genres of music. Even though she is selective about her performances, her calendar is full, with three to four performances a month. “There are so many great artistes,” she said. “I don’t want to be like anyone else, I want to be myself.”
And when her song, Hada samaton, recorded for the International Polo Tournament, was relayed by DD Imphal for 10 consecutive days in 2014, those who called Mangka grandmother began to hum the song that celebrates being born with wings.