How times change! Today everyone flocks to handicrafts emporiums, leaving traffic bottlenecks up-and downstream from their location. But those of my age will remember how in our childhood, itinerant vendors would walk past our houses with baskets on their heads overflowing with the most ingenious, intricate hand-made toys and display items.
I remember in particular miniature models of ships, complete with decks, masts and sails, made from wood and bamboo. It was a cherished favourite of mine for years. But I also remember the single-stringed violins (I now know them to be called ‘kingri’, in many ways a bowed variant of the ektara) upon which the vendors would play so lustily the prevalent Hindi film (the term Bollywood hadn’t yet gained currency) top hit tunes.
We were already learning the violin by then, so the allure of these vendors, playing these melodies so effortlessly, and on a single string as opposed to our ‘western’ violin’s four, and with an arched bow that had much more in common with an archery bow than the one that accompanied my instrument, and all this while balancing a basket on their heads, was quite irresistible.
And to add to the challenge of the kingri, the single metal string was being stopped, and from a much greater height than a conventional violin, not by a fleshy finger-tip, but (precisely because of this greater height) by the proximal nail fold, the portion where the fingernail disappears into the finger after the lunule. It’s an acquired skill, and a mighty painful one for a beginner. I can vouch for this. And the concave shape of the bow makes the bow-hold quite awkward to those of us schooled in conventional violin-playing.
The instrument is propped not under the chin like a regular violin, but held against the chest, even closer to the heart. Unlike the violin which has pegs around which its four strings are tethered and tuned, the kingri is a ‘spike fiddle’, with a spike serving the function of a peg, bored into a thin stick that serves both as fingerboard and part of the body, ending proximally in a semi-globular resonator cavity (‘sound-box’, often a halved coconut shell) that has a membrane of dried animal hide stretched over its mouth upon which the tiniest ‘bridge’ lifts the string off its surface.
I was reminded of this on the second day of the splendid Monte Music festival earlier this month. This has been for me the most uplifting edition of the Monte festival in recent memory.
The first act on the second day featured the Laihui ensemble from Manipur, which had three of its five members playing the pena, belonging to the same ‘family’ of instruments as the kingri. It was my first encounter with the pena.
The pena is believed to be the most ancient among the musical instruments of the Meitei, the majority ethnic group of Manipur. Its name is believed by some to have its etymologic derivation from the Sanskrit ‘vina’, and its corruption to the Bengali ‘bina’, and thence to ‘pena’. Other accounts trace its ancestry to the Chinese spiked-fiddle family Huqin, to which the erhu, zhonghu and gaohu belong.
I came across another ‘relative’ of this fiddle ‘family’ at the last day of the equally wonderful Sur Jahan World Peace festival, among the instruments of the Ethiopian-Italian ensemble Atse Tewodros. It is called ‘Masenqo’ and is very similar to the kingri.
In Yehudi Menuhin’s beautifully written book ‘The Violin: An illustrated history’, he charts the history of the violin from its origins in the bow and arrow, through to the Stradivarius. It is easy to imagine how the instruments of the single-stringed fiddle family, with the very arched bow, fit into this lineage, and one can only speculate how the instrument evolved and was disseminated across continents and oceans along ancient trade and migration routes.
What I found most interesting about the pena was the unusual shape of the bow. While made of wood, it has a curved flourish made of metal where the conventional violin bow would have had a ‘tip’. And while the bow hair is made of horse-hair like a western bow, the strands are loose, not drawn taut. The right hand grips the bow in a fist, so that the bow is quite literally ‘pulled’ and ‘pushed’ across the string, which is traditionally also made of horse-hair.
With this dependence on and inspiration from the horse being so vital to the composition of the instrument, it is perhaps not surprising that there are equestrian references in the folklore of the Meitei people as well.
For instance, from among the five Manipuri folk songs that Mangka Mayanglamban sang at the Monte, ‘Loi Okpa’ stood out for its particular feistiness. It recounts in ballad-form the story of princess Thoibi returning from exile as punishment for refusing to marry a suitor named Nongban who had been picked out for her in a matrimonial alliance, but then fleeing on horseback to the home of her true love Khamba.
And the last folk song ‘Khonjom Lan’ was a history lesson for me, an energetic retelling of the 1891 Anglo-Manipur war. There is so much of our subcontinent’s history that we do not learn in school. There was nervous laughter and some squirming in seats when Mangka enquired if there were any ‘British’ in the audience. She then sweetly reassured them, “But British won, so no need to worry.”
That became a matter of some homework for me. The Anglo-Manipur war (known in Manipur as the War of Independence) began as a petty rivalry between princes over succession to the throne, and things escalated quickly when one faction sought British intervention.
Khongjom hillock is 44 km from Imphal, and has a war memorial commemorating the site where 400 Kangeilpak soldiers of King Kulachandra fought the British (350 infantrymen, 44 cavalry and 2 cannon) on 23 April 1891, in a valiant yet unsuccessful defence of Manipur. The Manipuri army battled to the end, resorting to hand-to-hand fighting when ammunition ran out, with a loss of 128 lives on the Manipuri side. The day is celebrated in Manipur every year as Khongjom Day.
We were extremely privileged to hear in the Laihui ensemble Mangka’s unassuming father Mayanglamban Mangansana Meitei (seated, centre, in the picture below), a much-respected performer, exponent and champion of the pena.
(An edited version of this article was published on 18 February 2018 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)