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Does Gitiswami fit Gokul like a glove?

Ramlal Sinha
Gokulananda Gitiswami
Gokulananda Gitiswami
Born into a penurystricken family and having to trot across towns and villages for education, he  groomed himself as a minstrel with a cause: going to every sleepy Bishnupriya Manipuri village with his “dawn chorus”  for social reforms. And he traversed Bishnupriya Manipuri-inhabited regions in Assam, Tripura and Purbobango (now Bangladesh) with the message of light till he breathed his last in 1962. The word ‘rest’ was quite alien to him as he would work round the clock with the goal of bringing his fellow beings on a par with other communities in all respects. The irony is that the very community he had served all through his life, gave him little in return – ‘Gitiswami’.
Strange as it may sound, the adjective ‘Gitiswami’, when used to honour bard Gokulananda, doesn’t sound melodious to me. Doesn’t the term ‘Gitiswami’, a title conferred on the balladeer, reek of his image being dwarfed? The title of ‘Gitiswami’ for the alternative media mogul always gives one an impression of the poet being confined only to songs.
Gokulananda was a singer, lyricist, poet, dramatist, social  reformer, politician and philosopher all rolled into one. Those at the helm of Nikhil Bishnupriya Manipuri Mahasabha (NBMM), which has given the title of ‘Gitiswami’ for the bard a timeless eternity, this writer hopes, will bear with him.
Onga (ogya), onga, ogna… The first cry of Gokul ended Ngouba Singha’s and Amutala Devi’s impatient wait to hear the patter of the tiny feet on November 26, 1896. Though Ngouba’s family at Madhabpur in Bhanugachh in erstwhile Sylhet district (now Bangladesh) beamed with joy on that very day, the first cry of the newborn remained his leitmotif throughout his life. The poet was born at a time when the Manipuris – during the period of post-exodus to Assam (undivided), Tripura and Burma (now Myanmar) after the Owar Dhawa (Burmese attack on Manipur) – were struggling to get a foothold in moyangmati (outside Manipur).
The March 29, 1931 notification issued by the British India Finance Committee listing the Manipuris as a Scheduled Tribe made both the Meitei and the Bishnupriya communities huddle together to confront the threat to their identity. That single incident turned out to be a real humdinger of a game – giving birth to Surma Valley Manipuri Association (SVMA) on September 25, 1932.
The launch of a trilingual literary magazine, The Manipuri, in 1933 from Sylhet with Haridas Singha (a Bishnupriya) as the editor and Dr Lairen Singha (a Meitei) as the co-editor was the immediate outcome of the Manipuri bonhomie outside Manipur. The camaraderie , however, had to undergo a real roller coaster later ; and the Meiteis and the Bishnupriyas parted their ways.
Hopefully, that wasn’t a good riddance for either of the two brethrens who have mingled socially, culturally and linguistically over the years. This meant that they could never be separated in the real sense of the term. Some glaring instances are that the present ethnic composition of the Bishnupriya Manipuris – Panchobishnupriyas, the Khumols, the Moirangs, the Luwangs, the Angoms and the Mangangs; besides the Koireng Khullakpas – has a remarkable section of the present Manipuri population in Manipur. This aside, both the communities continue to follow the same culture, and the Indo-Aryan Bishnupriya Manipuri language has many Meitei words, some of them in successful and distinctive “wedlocks” with Sanskrit words. The influence of the Meitei language on Bishnupriya Manipuri is also a fact.
Based on the speech delivered recently by Uttam Singha of Pouri International, Bangladesh at the Endangered Language Fair (ELA) at New York Public Library, the classifiers at the fair said: “The Bishnupriya Manipuri language really sits on the border of IndoAryan and Tibeto-Burman (Burmese) languages…” Albeit, KP Sinha had shown much before as to how a large number of Meitei words combined with Sanskrit words through the Bishnupriya Manipuris.
When the Mahasabha was formed in 1932-33, Bishnupriya Manipuri literature in moyangmati was a babbling toddler. The litterateurs of the time failed to reach the non-elite masses. They were confined to a conscious coterie comprising Haridas Singha, Mohendra Babu, historian Falguni Singha, historian Sena Singha and Tanu Babu Singha, to name a few, who had formed the literati of the community at that time.
The barriers before them were:
(1) Most of the people of the community were illiterates. The then writers had utterly failed to break the barrier called illiteracy that prevented them from reaching the target readers (audience).
(2) This aside, most of the community members were poor farmers who had to toil hard to make their both ends meet. Even if any of them wanted to read any literary magazines in Bishnupriya Manipuri at that time, he or she couldn’t have done so due to poverty. The writers of the time were not skilled enough to break the economic barrier that literally made their target audience immune to their literary works. Their works had failed to attract the non-elite lot who continued to remain indifferent to their mother tongue.
(3) There were also cases of educated and well-off community members who did not cultivate the habit of reading any literary magazines in their mother tongue. Lack of reading habit is one of the difficult barriers to break even now. The writers of the time being talked about had also failed to overcome this barrier.
These three barriers apart, there were numerous other roadblocks between litterateurs and their target readers (audience) in early 20th century.
Then came bard Gokulananda like a “minstrel incarnate” to rescue the community from the plight it was in; and in doing so, he turned out to be one of the few epoch-makers in the world. Gauging the gravity of the three barriers – illiteracy, economic backwardness and lack of reading habit among his community members, he racked his brains to find a solution to them out of nothing.
There was a media vacuum (which even exists now to a great extent) in the Bishnupriya Manipuri community in early 20th century. What we call mass media today was quite alien to the community then, though some of the developed communities had enough media access. The few magazines published by community members at that time were mainly used by those heading the Mahasabha to neutralise the identity threat facing the Bishnupriya Manipuris.
In such an arid environment (among the non-elite masses), Gitiswami emerged on the scene, with a sense of renaissance, spearheading a great many literary and cultural activities. From among a whole lot of alternative media available with the community, he choose padakirtan (a highly mesmerising performing art among the Manipuris performed by one singer in the company of a very small troupe of backup singers and hands for the tiny music of Manipuri cymbals and khul) -Gaurleela, Manbhanjan, Subal Milan, Rohini Milan, Nouka Bilas and the like that had many takers among the community.
The success he achieved with this medium (padakirtan) was indeed magical . He worked hard to translate and write a large number of padabalis (verses), works of “dawn chorus” literature, songs, dramas, etc., and performed and presented them himself on the stage before the nonelite section of his community members. With his magic mandap spell, he could nullify all barriers of the time. Since the language he had chosen was the one the community spoke, the barrier of illiteracy disappeared on its own. The bard could overcome the financial barrier at ease. So impressive were his stage performances that a menial worker, who could not afford to buy a Bishnupriya Manipuri book worth Rs 5, could even forfeit a day’s wage to listen to padakirtans by the bard.
As the bard was an artiste par excellence, he could reach all and sundry in his community. His is a success story scripted in golden letters. His treasure of literary works – which were aimed a t promoting community consciousness, boosting socio-economic stability, uplifting the standard of community life, spreading education, empowering women, and bringing about a wholesome change in the agrarian life of the community members — are still fresh in the retentive memories of Bishnupriya Manipuris.
The bard was a staunch supporter (worker) of the Mahasabha that has been contributing to the well-being of the community since its inception in 1932-33. But when it comes to honouring the bard, the Mahasabha seems to have done little on this count. By “honouring” the minstrel with the title ‘Gitiswami’, he has been “made a molehill out of a mountain”. The Mahasabha conferred the award ‘Gitiswami’ on the poet in 1933 when he was 30-plus. In the long time lag between 1933 and 1962, the poet scaled many a new height, but the honour of ‘Gitiswami’ got stuck in a time warp. 1933 isn’t 1962, and this is “where the Masasabha is caught on the wrong foot”.
While the persona Gokulananda kept growing fast, the Mahasabha stopped short of re-evaluating his contribution, thereby giving the title ‘Geetiswami’ for Gokulananda a timeless eternity. Why has he been given short shrift? The irony, however, is that even if the Mahasabha wants to honour the bard afresh now, it will only land the bard in a fresh controversy as the Mahasabha itself is a divided house. Such lack of unity is one of the reasons why the first cry of Gokul remained his leitmotif throughout his life – kar kaje kadourita aggoyou na harpeilai, hobar kaje mattegate arak ahan ningkorlai (none of you have come to know for whom and why I keep crying; when I say something for the well-being of all of you, you take it otherwise).
The Mahasabha survived a split in the past, and given its present situation, one can only hope that the parent body of the community will overcome this difficult phase too. The bottom line is: the Mahasabha should keep its own house in order before it is too late, and then honour Gokulananda with a new award that fits him like a glove.


  1. Dear Ramlal,
    A great thought provoking article. Keep it up.
    Dawlasau, Mizoram


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