Sinlung /
04 February 2015

A Slice of Royalty

MK Binodini Devi, Somi Roy,
Somi Roy, son of the late novelist MK Binodini Devi. (Source: Deepak Shijagurumayum)


By Esha Roy

It was northeast India’s first entry at the Jaipur Literature Festival. Churachand Maharajgi Imung, (The Maharaja’s Household: A Daughter’s Memories of Her Father) (Zubaan Books) is the story of Maharajkumari Binodini Devi, presented by her son Somi Roy, and uncle of the present King of Manipur Leishemba Sanajaoba.

“The rest of the country has little idea about Manipur, and the Northeast in general. It’s either all the news of violence or an exotic view of the state from the government’s tourism website. By exoticising us, we are seen as ‘the other’. At Jaipur, Manipur has finally claimed a seat at the table,” said Roy, at the launch of the book during the recently concluded festival in Jaipur.

When The Indian Express met him in Manipur, there’s none of the political rhetoric. He sits on the lawns of his mother’s home as white butterflies flit across. In the same garden at the back, is a pond, and two imposing trees flank a shed where performances were once held. “Some of my earliest memories of home was when I was barely four-years-old. Every evening, around 10-15 artistes would come home either to practice a play or sing Rabindra sangeet. Where we are sitting was once the heart of Manipuri culture and Binodini Devi was the Renaissance figure of Manipur,” he says.
MK Binodini Devi, a descendent of the Ningthouja dynasty, passed away in January 2011. A student of painting and sculpture at Shantiniketan’s Kala Bhavan from 1948 to 1950, she was greatly influenced by the works of Rabindranath Tagore. But it is through her writings that Imasi or the Royal Mother, came to be known in Manipur as its first educated woman and author. She went on to win the Sahitya Kala Akademi award in 1976 and the Padma Shri for Literature the same year.

“MK Binodini was Manipur’s Jahanara. Like Jahanara, she was a privileged princess. She was educated, she wrote and was published. And like Jahanara she loved her father dearly and stayed with him at his time of isolation till the end,’’ says Roy. This book was her last published work. She was the daughter of Maharaja Churachand Singh (1891-1941) and his queen Maharani Dhanamanjuri Devi. Princess Binodini was the youngest of five daughters from this queen (her father had an elder queen) and her book begins in 1891 when the Maharaja was still a boy and Manipur was Britain’s last acquisition. The book straddles the dual worlds of Manipuri tradition and modernity — of palace events, equestrian sports on one hand, and the building of Manipur and resistance towards the British, on the other.

There are stories about the royal staff, the tailors, the ironers, the coal workers, the soldiers’ wives who came, the hangers-on and the wet-nurses. Traditions, unique to Manipur, come alive in the pages. For instance, the bridal procession of a princess, which is headed not by the queen mother but the wet-nurse or the maid. She sits on a phiranji or a patch of red velvet usually reserved for royalty in the kingdom and has her own palanquin and brings the princess bride to her new home.

After Roy’s coaxing in 1992, on a visit to New York, Binodini Devi began writing her stories as a column in a Manipuri newspaper Poknapham. “The book is essentially a compilation of these essays,” says Roy, who has translated the book into English. A film curator in New York, Roy has now started a trust called Imasi, which preserves and promotes his mother’s art and the culture of Manipur.

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