Manipur Field Trip 2004

The Guided Research Field Trip to Manipur for American Artists will bring eminent artists and scholars from the US to the state of Manipur in India. As a media curator and filmmaker, I have been in conversation with the artists listed above about working on some projects together. Since even widely traveled people in the West (and even in India) have very little knowledge about Manipur and the northeastern region of India, the first-hand experience of a field trip is a necessary first step.

Why artists? The project has some distinctive features:

1) If the imagination of the artist is one of the most effective avenues for cross-cultural understanding, the absence of knowledge, general or scholarly, about Manipur in the West makes this approach even more valuable than for other parts of the world.

2) The Field Trip is conceived to be, in effect, an in situ artistic salon. Here outsiders - Indian or foreign nationals - will visit not just to enjoy Manipur’s culture as it is woven into life with nothing arranged or presented for them.

3) The Field Trip will be designed for interaction between American and Manipuri artists.Ê It may come as no surprise that while Manipuri cultural products are occasionally shown in the West, few Western artists have brought their sensibility and craft to isolated, remote Manipur. By sharing a little bit of their art, the visitors will get a more intimate experience of Manipur.

3) Most people who visit Manipur are missionaries or agents of development. The Field Trip will not have changing or improving the people on its agenda; it will not be designed to look at what is lacking or ailing in a poor country. It will be appreciate, enjoy, interact, enrich and contribute. It will be based on equality.

4) But indirectly, by defining a new space for non-confrontational and creative encounters, unlike prior interactions among artists across borders, this interaction will go beyond the art and craft and explore the potential role of artists, art and culture in conflict transformation.

5) Lastly, potential producers such as GOH Productions, and supporters, such as individual funders for any resulting collaborations or projects will benefit from their encounter with Manipuri culture through the eyes of artists.

Manipur lies in the Uplands in the northeastern India. It is one of the stops along the lesser-known Silk Roads of Southeast Asia. A state of India, this 2000-year old former kingdom is about the size of Long Island. Manipuris, who number just over a million, live in the central valley the size of Rhode Island. They are Tibeto-Burman in ethnicity and language, and follow a syncretic practice of Vaishnav Hinduism and Sanamahi, a traditional blend of ancestor-worship and animism. Manipur, like the rest of northeastern India is closed to foreigners on account of ethnic separatism.

Manipuri culture is one of the most remarkable, yet least known, in the world today. There, everyone is an artist. Its music and dance, known as Manipuri, is one of four recognized as a classical style in India. Its films, made in Manipuri, have won national and international awards and been shown at venues like Cannes and the Museum of Modern Art. It has over 200 theater companies, with its directors showing at festivals such as Avignon, BAM Next Wave and Edinburgh. It has its own cosmology, literature, cable stations, TV soap operas and websites.

For Manipuris:
Manipur is quite unimportant really, depending on how one looks at it. Greater civilizations have come and gone. But since the latter half of the 20th century, Manipur is in danger of destruction.Ê In the face of ethnic insurgency and poverty, only culture may offer a new challenging and positive alternativeÊ for a positive non-confrontational interaction and cultural resurgence. It is perhaps the only practical strategic alternative to the draining and mutually destructive guns-or-money relationship with the Indian mainland.

Direct interfacing with American cultural practitioners will enhance Manipuris' perception of their cultural self and offer a new and invigorating validation.Ê New interactions with cultures that Manipur has with cultures it does not traditionally have connections with, will enrich and empower its local culture. A new sense of self will arm Manipuris to evolve new forums, new discussions, new strategies, and new hopes.

For the American artists:
An astonishingly rich and microcosmic dollhouse of culture, high and low, Manipur's size and complexity make for a cultural laboratory for better understanding of what makes a culture distinct, discrete and alive. It offers intriguing possibilities for innovative and challenging experiments in cultural activism and preservation in the age of rapid homogenization, globalization and new technologies.

Many of the component projects seek to explore ways to approach cultural exchange and interactions that go beyond the import and exhibition of cultural products to an inquiry into the transitive nature of the creative process across cultural boundaries, as well as urgent issues of cultural homogenization under globalization. Each project is conceived on is own merit, regardless of a prior interest or knowledge of Manipuri culture.

A NEW TERRITORY FOR CULTURAL ENGAGEMENT?The unfamiliar area where South Asia, China and Southeast Asia meet, which includes the northeast of India, has the potential to emerge as a new area for cultural engagement. With the leverage and seed-funding of the Asian Cultural Council's support and the interest of eminent American artists, the possibility of other philanthropists getting engaged in this region emerges.

Taking the northeast of India in particular, there are several reasons why this area has been ignored so far, including:

- The closing off of this region of India to foreign nationals for over five decades.

- Emerging nationalisms on both sides of the border offer a novel opportunity to reconsider the Big Issues: culture, preservation, nationalism, ethnicity are thrown into sharp relief here.

Several developments in the surrounding regions offer an insight into this potential for a new period of engagement: 

- In 1997, the Kunming Initiative was initiated by Beijing and New Delhi to explore and promote new connections building on the old ones between India, China and Southeast Asia.

- In July 2003, an institute exploring ties between northeastern India and the countries of Southeast Asia was started with funding from the Ford Foundation in New Delhi. It is headed by Sanjib Baruah, a professor at Bard College and a native of Assam.

- There are now flights between Chiengmai, Chittagong and Kunming; a new link between Imphal and Mandalay is in the planning, the lesser-known Silk Roads of this region are being rebuilt and a new Asian Highway will run though this region to Hanoi.

- New ways of looking at regional culture are under way in this part of the world. For instance, a focus on the cultures of the Mekong River will be held at the Smithsonian Institution in 2007. 

Sagol Kangjei, traditional Manipuri polo

Each American artist will make an informal presentation on his or her art/work to a small audience of his Manipuri peers. A program and itinerary of cultural experiences, in-situ, will be put together for the entire group, as well as individual project-related meetings between the US artist and his/her Manipuri counterpart. The group will experience cultural happenings of the range that Manipur provides. Weddings, funerals (for the best music), and other religious rituals, dance, story-telling, and folk festivals are all possible. No performance will be staged; there will be no interactions with official arts academies. Happily, in Manipur, as in Bali, performance is a living part of everyday life and can be experienced at any given time.

This field trip to Manipur has no destination or, rather, it has many destinations. Every artist signs on with no strings in order to give them maximum creative flexibility. Each artist will be set up with a Manipuri peer as an adviser, guide and/or potential collaborator. As the American artists take in Manipuri culture, local artists will also see Manipur, their own culture, through American eyes.

There are some specific areas of interest that range from baseball to film, from dance to preservation. In each of these special areas, an American artist with a Manipuri peer as adviser. Some of these areas have the potential for projects that may be developed.

One fundamental approach to these potential projects is that they aspire to an independent artistic merit that does not require a prior or on-going interest in or existing knowledge of Manipur. Projects that do arise will emphasize the inquiry into the transitive nature of the creative process across cultural borders and less on the import of cultural product.

What the American artist chooses to do upon return will be entirely up to him/her. There is no obligation. However, the field trip will bring together under one umbrella, the initial fact-finding and research needs of several of Manipur-related projects I have currently been developing in the US.

Hopefully, additional new and innovative ideas and collaborations will occur and the experience will help extend thinking about culture, the creative process and cross-cultural exchange in service of the larger issues of conflict and globalization.

In India, a country that plays cricket, Manipur has over 10 baseball teams, more than any other place in India. Did GIs stationed there during WW2 play the game during their down time? Sidney Lumet, who was stationed there at that time, says he does not remember playing baseball. So is it because of the recent proliferation of television and other media? What really is going on?

The spectacular Sanjenba (The Divine Cowboy) is a traditional ballet-opera about how the god-boy Krishna goes cow herding with his pals and is beset with demons sent to kill him by his evil Uncle. The ballet-opera is performed outdoors by up to a 100 children, age 3-13.Ê Kaleidoscopic in Krishna costume, they enthusiastically slay witches (usually beefy men in drag) and larger-than-life puppets of animal-demons. The all-night Maha Ras is the greatest of Manipur's temple dances. It will be held in the Palace Temple on the full moon night of November.

When Manipur adopted Hinduism as its state religion in the mid-18th century, there was conversion from the original Meitei script to the script of the Bengali missionaries. An enormous number of original manuscripts containing the traditional cosmology and religious rituals were destroyed. Many were secreted away by maibas, the traditional priests of the old shamanistic order, and thus survived. A great many manuscripts are in the private collection of Oja N. Khelchandra, Manipur's preeminent historian and archivist. The project will explore the possibility of scanning and digitizing his collection, including the Cheitharol Kumbaba, Manipur's royal chronicles.


The artist is the shaman of today, as Martha Graham famously said. The maibi, the female charismatic shaman of Manipur, leads all the important animistic rituals of the Manipuris, notably the dramatic creation ballad-ritual, the Lai Haraoba. Versed in magic and spells, dance and music, the maibi is also remarkably gender-free and economically independent. Cross-dressing in performance takes on a contemporary traditional turn in the courtyard theater of Manipur.