Millennium Post

Female firebrands from Manipur

One of the Seven Sisters has suddenly emerged from the amorphous cluster known as the Northeast. Mary Kom’s bronze in the flyweight (51 kg) category, has pushed Manipur, hitherto subjected to national amnesia, into the incandescence of a global gaze. Prime-time news has marvelled at the blossoming of talent in a state riddled with blockades and power cuts. Reporters have flocked Mary Kom’s hometown, Kangathei, for footage of the boxing champion’s family and friends, glued to a chunky TV set as they watch with old-fashioned togetherness, a daughter of the soil showered in glory.

While Mary Kom’s achievement has the world scrambling to find Manipur on the map, she isn’t the first woman from the state whose reach has exceeded her grasp. Manipur has a legacy of feminine talent and iconic activism that shines through dusty layers of anonymity and political unease.

Maharaj Kumari Binodini Devi’s contribution as a writer of short stories, screenplays, essays, lyrics and ballet scripts in the 1970s is no less Olympian than Mary Kom’s performance against a younger, fitter opponent. Born in 1922 into the erstwhile royal family of Manipur, the princess, who wrote in Manipuri simply as Binodini, received the Padma Shri in 1976. She was also awarded the Sahitya Akademi Award in 1979, for her novel Boro Saheb Ongbi Sanatombi (The Princess and the Political Agent). Her screenplays, directed by Aribam Syam Sharma, metamorphosed into critically-acclaimed films like
My Son, My Precious
, (1982) and The Chosen One (1990), screened for their effortless excellence in festivals that elude most filmmakers in India – Cannes, Toronto and Locarno.

The young princess, whose female protagonists were usually unconventional and free-willed – in the tenth grade, Binodini ‘s first short story told the tale of a boy’s relationship with his stepmother – inspired many a novice female author in the state. They called her Imasi or Royal Mother. Her published work includes a collection of short stories Nung’gairakta Chandramukhi (Chrysanthemum among the Rocks, 1965), over 50 song lyrics and several radio plays. A collection of travel essays called
O Mexico! Travel Stories
was published in 2004. She also wrote essays and ballets on the state’s ecology. In 1972, she wrote Thoibidu Warou’houee, her elegy on the brow-antlered deer.

Yet another firebrand from the state is the activist and poet Irom Sharmila Chanu. In November 2000, she went on a hunger strike demanding that the Indian government repeal the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, 1958 (AFSPA), attributing its enforcement as the reason for violence in the state. By refusing food and water for more than 500 weeks, she became known as the world’s longest hunger striker. In 2004, she was described as an 'icon of public resistance,' and in the following year, she was nominated to the Nobel Peace Prize by the North East Network.

Mary Kom, who has been running a boxing academy since 2006 and has recently announced her intent to restructure it, is perhaps, the contemporary face of activism in a state known only too little for its radical feminine prowess. For, before her recent bout at the Olympics, there were but a few who knew that the World Boxing Champion was a title she had won five times over. Like her predecessors in their varied fields, Magnificent Mary’s achievements lay in a forgetfulness that was, until now, the fate of Manipur.

Radhika Oberoi is an advertising professional and freelance writer.
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