At a time when the need to preserve the authentic tradition of Lai Haraoba consumes public discourses on the issue, ‘Maibido Maibado Mapuroibado’ comes as a refreshing take. The venture by The Sangai Artiste Association is laudable in its effort to bring out aspects of a neighbourhood Lai Haraoba festivity that any common person can relate to. It vehemently keeps away from rituals choosing instead to delve into the human agencies responsible in fleshing out one such festivity. To give it its due, the play talks about a different Lai Haraoba than what has been written about. Significantly, it is firmly ensconced within the realm of the contemporary society of Manipur reflecting, in the words of Keirao Rajen, ‘a mirror image’ to society.
The play addresses stereotypes – the senior maibi who is the lone bread earner of her family, the frustrated husband, the youth committee member looking for a fling with the younger maibi, the young lady who having had training in dance takes up maibi-hood as a profession. These are balanced off with the ideal son, the model wife, and the sacrificing young maibi. The climax is brought about by the intervention of the meira paibi which takes it on themselves to enforce moral norms on the basis of unquestioned ‘evidence’ however circumstantial it might be.
The play opens with the rantings of the educated but unemployed disillusioned drunkard husband of maibi Thaballei. His suspicions about his wife are countered by the unfailing good faith of the son who persuades his father not to be suspicious. In a way the two characters presents the two faces in which society sees a maibi – the suspicious moral tone which suggests her as ‘wanderer’ ‘promiscuous’ ‘available’ versus, the reality of household demands on the one hand while on the other, the idea of a ‘calling’ of a higher spiritual plane which has material benefits to it, specially in present times of violence, corruption, unemployment and limited opportunities. Her being away from home for several days is but a professional hazard while the question of her sexuality raises hackles. These hackles are further extended to her husband fueling his sense of incapability. His inability to support his family deprives him of economic power within the family which in turn makes him feel ‘un-masculine’ – what kind of a man am I? His masculine pride is further dented because society does not hold the husband of a maibi in high esteem.
The Lai Haraoba maibi(s) are necessarily inducted into the realm of the public. While as mediators on the spiritual plane they are upheld as mother, it is never on a happy harmonious note that a family accepts a daughter joining the maibi fraternity. For, the life of a maibi is never an easy one. Thus, Sanarei wins the sympathy of the audience as that hapless young woman who accepts her destiny but refuses to draw the young man to that life saying ‘meegi machadu mangnanabani’. Her refusal is but a refusal to let her difficult social position extend to him.
Sanarei and Numitlei represent another stage in the life cycle of a woman. As two young unmarried maibi, they are full of youthful exuberance, are unattached and objects of desire. However, they occupy opposite poles. One tries to pass herself as an ordinary girl while the other tries to pass off as a maibi. While one has been ‘chosen’, the other ‘chooses’. Thus, in a sense they both pretend to be people that they are not.
The characters of Sanarei and Thaballei pay tribute to the ‘real’ maibi, Numitlei represents the much whispered about ‘pretender’ maibi. Unapologetically she proclaims herself as ‘modern’ maibi. She had dreamt of being a film star but having failed in the Miss Manipur contest sought the path of maibi to earn a living. She comes across as chirpy, flirtatious, attractive and confident of her charms to attract men. She is very much grounded in a ‘this-worldly-materiality’. She has no qualms throwing in a little gyration here and there to spike up the performance if it means that she will be showered with more money by the audience, or if it wins her a fan who would not mind attending to her beck and call and re-fill her mobile phone. She is aware of men like Pukkasana who look forward to a Lai Haraoba in the hope of having a good time with young maibi whom they would insist on being a part of the festival. She thus celebrates the power of the young exuberant alluring enchanting flirting unbounded female sexuality.
Ironically (or predictably), the two characters portrayed as real maibi are presented as slinking around almost apologetically in their attempt to ‘fit’ in while Numitlei flaunts it. Sanarei is accepted by her young man because ‘a lotus remains pure even if it flowers in a muddy stream’. While the lotus is upheld for its purity, society continues to be fascinated yet discomfited with the ‘muddy stream’. To quote Heramot’s lines in the play, “Ima maibi ima maibi haina mitchi hek khatchinladana shengkhraba laibung se makhoina restaurant bar hek onthoklami….. khangdre!”
The un-tamed, un-domesticated spirit of maibi is tamed to fit into a certain mould more acceptable to society’s dictum of how a woman should behave. Thus, the climax sees the flamboyant Numitlei forcibly married to the pena player by the incited mob of meira paibi as a punishment. However, the force of the social unleashed through the meira paibi ends up ‘punishing’ not only Numitlei but also Matouleibi, the self-consciously styled ideal model of the domesticated wife with an absentee husband who is devoted to the well-being of her husband’s family. The doting sister-in-law of Pukkasana is ‘caught’ by the mob. The innocence of the ideal woman is put to question. Does she succeed in proving herself? How does she prove her innocence? What are the options open to her? Pukkasana upholds her, but is helpless having provoked forces beyond his control. Having been ‘caught’ with another man, the mob would marry her off to that man as punishment for being promiscuous. However, marriage to another man is not a course of action open to the idealized role model. This leaves her with only one option. Death.
Without doubt the play does strike a chord with the audience. However, one cannot help but notice that the male characters with the exception of the husband, has not been given due attention. The son comes across as the proverbial good boy– obedient, devoted, hard working, studious, and meritorious. His crowning glory is his winning of the much coveted Manipur Civil Services (M.C.S.) post on his own right without resorting to bribery – a most sought after dream. The roles of maiba and pena has been enacted with great finesse and timing, however, the characters lack detailing. They are only to be seen vying for the attention of some attractive female. The objects of attraction have been detailed but the subjects have been relegated to the background.
Pukkasana as a face of the community that manipulates the ire of the society to settle petty personal scores has not been problematized. He comes out unscathed while Matouleibi faces persecution. This leaves us with the question, is the meira paibi to be understood as an organization of women acting on its accord or as an irate unquestioning mob which reacts rather than act? Has it become so easy to manipulate our meira paibi brethrens as the play seemed to suggest?
Just as a photographic image of a Lai Haraoba zooms in on the doled up maibi, the play focuses at length on the three models of maibi. On the whole, the play is commendable in its sincerity to showcase a Lai Haraoba to which any lay person can relate to. In that sense, the mirror has done its job of reflecting. However, it leaves one thirsting for a more nuanced wholesomeness. To use Heramot’s saucy rejoinder, ‘icham chamna thum yaktakna’ is perhaps what we need to think along.
This is a blog post of an article that I had originally written for The Imphal Free Press on 22 June 2010