June 20, 2024

Artists in Manipur are creating works to raise awareness, provide solace, and advocate for peace amid the ongoing ethnic violence

All my life I’ve been waiting for,

I’ve been prayin’ for, for the people to say

That we don’t wanna fight no more

There’ll be no more wars and our children will play.

In March 2024, six singers from the Kuki-Zo community in Manipur released the cover of a song titled “One Day”. The music video interspersed footage of the singers—Chichin Haokip, Lawmkim Khongsai, Neijavah Kipgen, Tingminnei Kipgen, Phalnu Kipgen, and Vahneichoi Kipgen—singing atop a hill with moving visuals from relief camps and protests from the ongoing conflict in Manipur.

Just two days after the release of “One Day”, 20 children uprooted by the conflict recorded a song inside a relief camp in the Meitei-dominated Imphal West district. Reportedly, this was the first time that these children were singing into a microphone. The song goes:

Often visited in my dreams

My little hut by the hillside

Although burnt down to ashes

My cherished village by the hillside.

Also Read | Eyes wide shut: How the state remains blind to Manipur’s reality

Created by the famous folk-rock band, Imphal Talkies, in collaboration with other musicians in an initiative called A Native Tongue Called Peace, the song, “Chingya-gee Khangpokshang” (Song from a Relief Camp), talks about the lost innocence of childhood. It was released on May 3 to mark a year of the ongoing violence in Manipur. “The artist should be the voice of the people in relief camps, who are sidelined,” said Akhu Chingangbam, frontman of Imphal Talkies.

Screengrab from the song, “Chingya-gee Khangpokshang” (Song from a Relief Camp).
| Photo Credit:
By special arrangement

Unwittingly, the two songs, “One Day” and “Chingya-gee Khangpokshang”, seem to converse with each other from across the buffer zone between the two communities. This is exactly what artists from across Manipur are trying to provoke through their artworks, songs, interviews, and social media posts. While the majority of them are appealing for peace, artists from individual communities are also conveying ethnonationalist pride or highlighting the suffering and grievances of their people. And they have not been deterred in their endeavours by the economic challenges triggered by the conflict.

Undeterred by economic hardships

Manipur’s art and music scene was recovering well in 2023 after decades of insurgency-related strife and, more recently, the COVID-19 lockdown. Concerts, dance dramas, and art exhibitions were being planned with seasoned artists and musicians from across Manipur, India, and the world as well as with fresh talents. Then the conflict started, and a slew of festivals—including the ShiRock festival, the Northeast Autumn Festival, the Where Have All the Flowers Gone fest, and the Sangai Festival—were cancelled. Music and dancing during traditional festivals like Cheiraoba (a Meitei festival where people form circles and dance) were restricted. The predominantly Christian Kuki-Zo community also had a muted Christmas and Easter.

Traditional Manipuri dancer Babina Chabungbam at a performance of Embodied, which explored themes of death and suffering, at Little Stint Festival in Delhi.
| Photo Credit:
Monis Khan

“Whether there is a conflict or not, there are very few programmes with contemporary artists and dancers in Manipur as it is. Even those stopped for months at the start of the conflict, resuming slowly in October and November,” said Babina Chabungbam (31), a traditional Manipuri dancer.

For musicians like the Churachandpur-based Lalparzo Sanate, the conflict posed an insurmountable challenge. “I haven’t been able to perform since the conflict began. It has knocked down my income and affected my career,” said Sanate, who has recorded 300 songs in various languages in a career spanning 19 years. She added: “I had to go to Mizoram because of a heart ailment: I was too weak to bear the chaos.”

The Churachandpur-based photographer Lalchhanchhuaha (30) was also forced to move for jobs. “Because of the conflict, no projects were happening. But I had to pay my bills. So, I shifted to Aizawl; it wasn’t easy. And then I moved to Delhi, where I worked as a photo editor,” he said.

Akhu Chingangbam, frontman of Imphal Talkies, collaborates with children for the inititative titled A Native Tongue Called Peace.
| Photo Credit:
By special arrangement

In December 2023, when a few photography assignments started coming his way, Lalchhanchhuaha returned to Churachandpur. “But things haven’t gone back to the way they were. I might have to move again,” he said. Akhu Chingangbam echoed his distress. “Some musicians are being forced to sell their instruments to support their families,” he said.

Art as solace

But despite the hardships, artists, musicians, and photographers are relentlessly documenting the conflict so that the larger world becomes aware of the dire situation in Manipur, and also to provide essential psychosocial support to the internally displaced people in the relief camps.

Nicky Chandam, a theatre practitioner from Manipur and creator of Octave Foundation, an organisation aimed at “connecting people through stories”, started an initiative centred on music and storytelling in the relief camps. “We [Octave Foundation] began working at relief camps from May 7, 2023, by crowdsourcing clothes for displaced people…. In the first nine months, we could provide around 8,745 people with basic requirements. In June/July, I started using music and theatre games [along with the folk music artist Khumanthem Nganthoi Leima] to connect with the children. It was a therapeutic process: most of the children had undergone a lot of trauma and I wanted to start a conversation through which they could feel that it was alright to smile,” she said.

Octave Foundation, founded by Nicky Chandam, is trying to creating a safe space for children at relief camps.
| Photo Credit:
Octave Foundation’s Facebook page 

Later Chandam organised storytelling sessions combining visual arts for the children. This mental health initiative called Hope through Sharing, which concluded in January 2024, reached over 1,000 children living across 16 relief camps in the valley (the Meiteis dominate the valley, while tribal groups including the Kuki-Zos live in the surrounding hill areas). “The response has been good. This initiative came as a relief not just for the children but also for the adults,” Chandam said. Octave Foundation conducts various livelihood projects, mainly for women living in the relief camps. Other initiatives like Resilient Roots and Healing Hearts, founded by the singer-songwriter Chaoba Thiyam, are similarly aimed at healing young adults and children displaced by the conflict through music.

Also Read | Editor’s Note: The deafening silence on Manipur

The photographer Jehovah Mangkhankhual, aka Jehos Dymz (28), from Churachandpur, usually covered wedding and birthday celebrations. The conflict took him to the front lines and relief camps. In August 2023, Mangkhankhual put up a video titled “100 days of unabated Meitei atrocity”, on a rally held in Churachandpur to mark 100 days of the conflict. “My people have been subjugated by the majority, and the current government is complicit in this. I am trying to bring the unheard cries of our people to the world so that everybody can hear,” Mangkhankhual told Frontline.

Recently, a photo essay published in a news website featured Mangkhankhual’s images of special polling stations in Churachandpur, which had been set up for “specified” voters from the relief camps, during the first phase of the general election. “I felt overwhelmed on seeing the dead and the injured at the front lines. Visits to relief camps were equally distressing because I could see how people were suffering,” he said.

Babina Chabungbam expressed this anguish through the medium of dance at a recent performance in Delhi. “I performed a piece called Embodied, which examines what it means to embody pain and what dancing means to a body faced with death, loss, and fear,” she said.

  • In March and May 2024, artists from Manipur, including singers from the Kuki-Zo community and the band Imphal Talkies, released powerful songs calling for peace amidst ongoing conflict, capturing the hope and pain of their communities.
  • Despite economic hardships and displacement, musicians, dancers, and photographers continue to create and share their work, using art as a form of documentation, therapy, and resistance against the violence in their State.
  • While facing threats and limited freedom of expression, these artists remain committed to their cause, urging the government to act decisively to bring peace and reconciliation to Manipur.

Art as a site of conflict

Expectedly, in this situation, art has become a site of conflict too. In July 2023, an FIR was lodged against the popular Meitei singer Jayenta Loukrakpam, who goes by the stage name Tapta, for his song which said: “Meiteis will never have peace until every Kuki is killed.” In the face of the controversy, he was quoted as saying: “Where have I written this song from? I am writing it from a war zone. This is not a song written during a state of peace. What will be the lyrics be?”

Screengrab from the video of “Lingjel khaba Meiteini” (Meiteis are tough when united), by several Meitei artists and musicians.
| Photo Credit:
By special arrangement

Then there was the song “Lingjel khaba Meiteini” (Meiteis are tough when united), by several Meitei artists and musicians, produced as “a tribute to all front-line warriors & Meira Paibis of Manipur who sacrificed their lives for our ancestral land”. Having premiered on YouTube in September 2023, the music video has garnered more than 1.6 million views. It goes:

Shameless scrounger, Meitei are valiant

Let the light of knowledge be the rope of togetherness

The moment comes to root out these parasites

Arise your compatriots, you never spared your foes

We could upheaval the whole creations [sic]

Also Read | Arambai Tenggol: How a Meitei ‘sociocultural organisation’ became an armed-to-the-teeth militia

In contrast to the polarisation evident in this song, there is grief at being displaced by the conflict in a song like “Igam hilou ham?” (Is it not our land?), performed by a Kuki-Zo ensemble. Sanate, one of the singers, said: “The first two lines of the song say, ‘Isn’t this our land where we stay, where we have our home? Why are these [Meitei] people trying to put us away, like refugees? Is your feeling not hurt, being put away like this?’ The song seeks to unite different tribes of Manipur. The artists of our community are working hard to let peace prevail.”

Threatened but not defeated

Artists have faced threats because of their efforts. In December 2023, Akhu Chingangbam was kidnapped by unidentified gunmen and later released, 20 kilometres from his home. “When I started my career in Delhi, I faced a lot of attacks online. In Manipur at present, it is difficult to express what I think. Everyone is reluctant or scared to speak. Even if you express your opinion through music, you have to be careful because you don’t know what the consequences will be,” he said. Chandam also expressed discontent, saying: “Where is my freedom? I can work in relief camps, but beyond that, if I talk about anything difficult, I will be scrutinised.”

James Riamei, frontman of the rock band, GMP.
| Photo Credit:

James Riamei, 37, a Rongmei Naga who leads the rock band GMP, said: “Every community claims to be righteous. The habit of ethical reasoning has faded. Once-flourishing Manipur is now in a state of distress.” In April 2024, GMP released a song called “Gaga city”, which speaks about the anxieties and uncertainties that the future might bring if the crisis is not ended at the earliest. But he is hopeful. “The intense hatred seems to be calming down, bit by bit. More and more people are expressing harmony,” he said.

However, artists are also sceptical of the difference they can make if the government does not work towards resolving the crisis. For instance, the singers of “One Day” said: “Artists and musicians can be the harbingers of societal peace and harmony. However, if the people who have the actual power to change the course of events choose to remain silent and indecisive, what can artists do? They can only express their desires and dreams. It is only the government that can bring about peace and reconciliation now.”

Angana Chakrabarti is a Guwahati-based independent multimedia journalist. She primarily covers the north-eastern region.

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