Research on how the Pena reached the present status cannot be easily conducted. The pursuit for knowing the musical instrument can only be followed after the knowledge seekers get to know the passion and sacrifice of the so called ‘lowly’ Pena balladeers. The task is not as easy as the popular Manipuri adage “Pena muk Lai’ (literal translation: As easy as Pena).
By Marjing Mayanglambam
In the valley of Manipur, surrounded by hill ranges, there settles a small population amongst several tribes and communities, the proud and mighty ‘Meitei’. It is indeed a surprise for many when they encounter this small land situated in the northeastern part of India bordering Myanmar, where there are many unseen and unheard wonders ready to be explored, praised and eulogized. It will be hard to believe, but this small cluster of people as compared to the big populations of the rest of the world had a civilization and mythologies of their own which to this day still exists in fragments, cultures, folklores, traditions and written manuscripts.
In terms of culture, the Meitei are never to be left behind for they are more advanced in many aspects. Let us dwell towards one cultural trait of the Meitei, which is their music, and particularly, the Pena.
In this palm shaped land of Manipur, there exists a magnificent traditional musical instrument, which is the heart and soul of every Meitei music lover, known as the Pena. A spike fiddle instrument, made with utmost care and devotion for the performer to play melodious tunes and sing hypnotical ballads. Believed to be divine, the Pena is considered very pure and a few of the Meitei even worships it. Pena, the word itself does not signify only as a mere musical instrument, but as a song and dance too. Thereby, Pena is a complete performance which in addition includes literature, ballad, costume, gestures and so on.
The narratives of the meaning of Pena are unique. According to an Oja (teacher), the instrument is played very much wholeheartedly, hence named Pena “Penna khong ngee Pena”), and another Oja narrates that the ears are so much pleased hearing the sound of Pena, thus named Pena. The two components of Pena, the Chei jing (Bow) and the Maru (Body) have their own narratives. The Cheijing is considered to be the ‘father’ or ‘sky’ and the Maru as the ‘mother’ or ‘earth’. And there is the saying by our Oja which goes on like this, “Cheijing, the father unites with Maru, the mother and produces offspring which we hear as melodious and sweet tunes.” The melodious songs of Pena are so hypnotic and enchanting that there is one narrative folklore which narrates, “Once in the Lainingthou Koubru’s Lai Haraoba (Merry making ceremony of the deity Koubru), hearing to the sound of Pena, a woman breastfeeding her child in a kitchen, was tranced with the sound of Pena that she was not aware of her child who became full with milk and went down from the mother’s lap and unaware, the mother thinking that she was cutting a pumpkin accidentally cut her child”.
From this story, there is a myth that woman should not cut the whole vegetables like pumpkin and alike but can prepare it after a male cut it. This incident of the woman states the godlike power and aura of Pena’s sounds.
The bow of Pena is made of iron, wood, and consists of small metal bells. The sound box of the body is made from coconut shell, and the handle is made from bamboo, while the connecting part between the bamboo handle and the coconut shell is made from a decorative wooden pole. This pole goes through the sound box; hence Pena is a spike fiddle. The strings of both bow and body comprises of horse tails. The friction between these two strings is made more prominent by applying Uchan Marek (Pine tree resin — Rosin). Sometimes, the Maru, representing mother is adorned by putting a Shamai (a decorative cloth) at the end portion of the body.
Early morning, the soft and serene Lai Yakeiba (awakening song of the deities) sung by the Pena Asheiba (singer) narrates the clucking and chirping of various hens and birds towards the directions of each ancestral directional deities of the Meitei’s myth, and the fragrances of flowers and fruits being carried by the winds are also narrated. Listening to the Yakeiba, the listeners awaken from their slumber feeling fresh and lively, and it can be imagined that even the deities do the same.
Holding the Pena and dressed up with the full costume or Manaa Phee (ceremonial costume gifted by Kings), a Pena balladeer grasps the eyes of every viewer, and his songs touches every listener’s heart. The songs of Pena include mostly narratives of mythical events, riddles, historical events and so on, which are endless and cannot be written in mere words.
How the society of Manipur views Pena is of big importance, since the survival or development or even downgrading of something whether it may be music or art lies on the role on the society. In the context of Manipur, Pena, even though is considered as divine and worshipped, there still exists a stigma towards a Pena balladeer.
“He who is a practitioner of Pena is of low class and the woman who marries him has entered a life of burden, and sorrowfulness”. This statement signifies how a Pena balladeer’s life is considered lowly and badly reputed. But, the counter argument against such stigma is viable and should be acceptable with the reasons which will be stated below:
The status and fame of Manipur is not just brought by sports or administrative services, but by arts and culture too, and Pena plays an undeniable role. And, the ignorant people may inquire, “How?”, and for this question raised due to years of denial and stubbornness, the answer won’t be given easily in this article. Pena has reached many countries and communities of the world which are not easily reachable by the ill-wishers and other overrated fields of work. Search and research on how the Pena reached the present status is not easily attainable. The answer will be found only after the knowledge seekers get to know how much the so called ‘lowly’ Pena balladeers dedicated and sacrificed in order to make sure ‘Pena’. The task is not as easy as the popular adage ‘Pena muk Lai’ (literal meaning: As easy as Pena).
(Marjing Mayanglambam is a well-known young performing artiste who also loves to write on issues pertaining to arts and art practice)Manipur, Pena instrument, Music