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Pena: The spike fiddle of Manipur

Mayanglambam Mangangsana Meitei (middle) Sangeet Natak Akademi Yuva Puraskar Awardee and his talented disciples (Photo Courtesy: Thawai Hou)

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) 

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