Age has obviously made Imphal-based Nameirakpam Ibemni Devi frail. At 85, the Padma Shri (2012) accorded well-known balladeer from Manipur takes small measured steps on the lawns of New Delhi’s Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts (IGNCA), looking for a spot of sun on a cold day. Finally, when she settles down, Ibemni Devi, in her traditional attire phanek, her elegant innaphi shawl sitting lightly on her shoulders, stands out among the crowd of city-bred visitors at IGNCA’s Kathakar International Storytellers Festival.
Her art, Khongjom Parba, too stands out in the pageant of oral traditions this country has. Though the British defeated many local rulers to begin their rule, not too often do we come across an established tradition in a community that recounts through ballads the tales of heroes who went down fighting for the motherland. In a sing-song way, Khongjom Parba depicts the heroic battle the Manipuris fought against the British in a place called Khongjom on the India-Burma Road in 1891. The superior force of the British army led to the fall of Khongjom which brought the Kingdom of Manipur under British hegemony. Manipur lost some of its celebrated heroes in that war — say, Paona Brijabasi, Chenglensana, Yaiskul Lakpa, Narangba Poila, Chongta Mia Singh.
A war memorial in Khongjom and a remembrance day observed every April 23 in the State keep alive the memory of this important page of Manipuri history. But much before that, it is the tradition of Khongjom Parba that has kept it fresh in public memory. Ibemni Devi, even though she lost her father at the age of three, still remembers him singing paeans to those war heroes by weaving into the lines their pain and suffering, their sacrifice for the land, before an assembled crowd in her village. “Though he was one of the first balladeers to do Khongjom Parba, he was not its founder. Dhobi Leino was,” adds the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award recipient (2004).
Ibemni Devi began learning the art from her father’s student Chaoba Singh at the age of six. Being an oral tradition, the parba needs to be memorised. “It is very long. If you continue to sing it and emote with the dialogues, the whole story would take you 10 to 12 days. We choose different parts of the ballad to recite in a gathering. Typically, one session goes on for about two hours,” she says. Since there are no written versions of the Parba, “there is always a scope for improvisation in it,” she points out.
The accompanying instrument of this solo art is the dholak. Ibemni Devi, by the way, is not only the first woman Khongjom balladeer but is also said to be the first woman in Manipur to play the dholak. “I learnt it from Tombi Singh and Krishna Mohan. Both were my father’s disciples,” she recalls.
Khongjom Parba is sung in Bengali, the official language adopted by the royalty in Manipur between the early 18th and mid-20th centuries leading to the ban of the local language Meeteilon. She adds, “After singing in Bengali, I translate it to Meeteilon for people to understand it.” In terms of the tone, she says, “It emulates the veer rasa.”
Ibemni Devi also regularly sings ballads depicting episodes from the Ramayana and the Mahabharata at the famous Govindaji Temple in Imphal in the Khongjom Parba style.
“I usually sing about Sita vanavas. It talks of her viraha . Sita asks Mother Earth why she was never destined for happiness, why seeds of sorrow were always sown on her path.” She explains the rasa here by emoting a few lines of the ballad in her feeble but still so captivating voice. Though many ballad compositions are credited to her, she states, “It would be wrong to say that I composed them alone, my gurus also contributed to them.”
To teach Khongjom Parba to more and more people, she has been running a school from her home in Imphal since 1964. With a laugh she says, “Some of my students are long dead.” Though age has weakened her body, “it is the passion for the art”, she says, that makes her teach students every day. She pins her hope on some of her disciples saying, “They have the potential to take the art forward.”
She is also teaching some of her grandchildren but adds, “A guru gives knowledge equally to everyone. It depends on a student how much he or she can take from the guru.” She elaborates it with an episode from the Mahabharata popular in Manipur. “Both Kunti and Gandhari were great devotees of Lord Shiva. One day, both wanted to know from Shiva who was a better devotee. Shiva said, whoever can get me 100 golden champak flowers with 100 petals each the next morning will be the one. Both Kunti and Gandhari felt they would not be able to give Shiva the offering he had asked for and were sad about it. They shared it with their sons. Arjuna got for Kunti the golden flowers by piercing arrows at Kubera’s treasury to get all the gold he needed and then with his arrows created beautiful champak flowers. Arjuna said he learnt the art from his guru. Though all the Pandavas and the Kauravas had the same guru, it was only Arjuna who could learn the art.”