New Delhi, Sep 22 The 'pena', a musical genre from India's northeast associated with shamanistic folk rites from the pre-Christian era, is making its way into mainstream performances after roping in women and youth.
Manipuri pena exponent and balladeer Mayanglambam Mangangsana is promoting the ancient bow lute, also called the pena, and ballads sung to its melody.
"Two of my mentors, Ojhamangi and Langathel Thoinu and I teach the instrument and the ballads sung with it to children, both boys and girls, in the monastic tradition in Manipur," Mangangsana said here.
"A shaman priestess instructs youngsters in the shaman dance. The ritualistic dance is usually performed at the opening of the festival to narrate stories of creation and evolution of human race," Mangangsana said.
The 38-year-old pena performer and composer was in the capital to conduct the United Nations Millennium Development Goals concert at the Purana Qila last week with 100 percussionists.
The pena is common to Manipur, Nagaland and pockets of Bangladesh bordering northeastern India.
The fiddle, made of coconut or bitter gourd shell, wood and horsehair, resembles the 'ravanhatta' of Rajasthan and 'bin' of Assam.
The songs sung to the melodious strains of the fiddle are woven around the praise of god, stories of creation, nature and a legendary love lore between princess of Moirang, Thoiba and Khoma, a young orphan warrior.
The pena tradition was popularised by Manipuri Meitei ruler Chandrakirti in the late 19th century after a seven-day soiree that impressed the king. A complete pena performance featured "lute music, songs and an invocation dance by a shaman priestess with a gripping narrative".
Mangangsana has trained under four maestros of traditional Manipuri temple ritual music since he was five.
"I lived and travelled with my first guru, Leimapokpam Yaima, during school breaks. I performed in public for the first time at the Lainingthou Sanamahi Temple Board in 1978," he said.
The pena was traditionally played by men till Mangangsana and his mentor allowed women to learn the pena as a performing art with the blessing of Manipur's erstwhile royal family that still vets decisions pertaining to changes in age-old traditions and presides over religious rituals.
In a workshop in 1994, Mangangsana and his teacher, N.G. Ibopishak, allowed 10 women to play the instrument and sing pena songs.
The last 16 years has seen a slow but steady growth in the number of women pena practitioners. Manipur currently has 30 women pena performers, who play the instrument and sing accompanying pena songs exclusively for entertainment.
"The royal family prohibits women from playing the instrument during religious festivals because it is associated with the sacred shamanistic rites of the traditional Lai Haraoba festival in Manipur celebrated in villages to honour local deities," said Mangangsana, a member of Manipur's erstwhile royal family.
His first encounter with modern Manipuri folk music took place when he collaborated with "guru N.G. Ibopishak, who composed modern ensemble music drawn from the folk traditions.
"Subsequently, I was associated with the theatre in Manipur as a stage musician and collaborated with contemporary Manipuri dancers like Preeti Patel in Kolkata and Yosiko Chuma from New York," he said.
His joint endeavours with the New York-based School of Hard Knocks, took the traditional pena from Manipur abroad.
Mangangsana leads the popular pena band Laihui, a legacy from his tutor. "In 2007, my band presented one of my compositions, 'Songs and Shaman Dances', featuring eight women and five men at the World Music Institute in New York City," he said.
The composer followed it with an act featuring Phuoibi, the Manipuri goddess of rice, in 2009.