Remembering Elangbam Joychandra

Falguni Rajkumar IAS (Retd)
Elangbam Joychandra winner of the prestigious Sangeet Natak Akademi Award (by the National Academy for Music, Dance, and Drama for the performing arts of India) for his contribution to Manipuri Drama in New Delhi died at Imphal at his residence in Elang Leikai on 24 May 2021. A short write up about the ‘man’, my eldest maternal uncle I can never forget, and the artist Manipur has learnt to forget.
I am a jumble of influences and impressions of several unlike persons. My maternal uncle, Ima’s eldest brother Elangbam Joychandra who was more than 95 years (Ima had a younger brother and an elder sister) was someone she admired and respected for his tenacity and courage much more than her elder brother, was one such person. And I in turn did the same. I learnt to chip away life’s little rough edges having seen, and known the life of this maternal Uncle, a pioneer in Manipuri touring drama locally known as Sumang Lila.
Manipuri theatre with its distinct flavour and style, rich repertoire became famous courtesy people like Heisnam Kanhailal, Ratan Thiyam, Haorokcham ‘Sanakhya’ Ebotombi, Lokendra Arambam, GC Tongbra, late P Shamu, Brajachand, Sanajaoba, and others had a humble beginning. The first proscenium drama was the Bengali play, Pravas Milan, performed under the auspicious of Bamacharan Bandhav Natya Sala a drama group of Bapupara (a Bengali settlement area in Imphal) in 1902-1903. The first original Manipuri Meitei language drama was ‘Narasingh’, written in 1922 by Leirenmayum Ibungohal Singh (1895-1966) when he was a student in Dacca, but enacted only on 30 September 1925.
Things changed after Maharaja Churachand patronized ‘Prahalad Charita’ a religious play. Theatre and drama became acceptable and acquired new respectability. Several new talents and enthusiasts joined and began patronising in larger numbers. Friend’s Dramatic Union, Victoria Club Drama, and other drama and theatre groups began and thrived. Proscenium dramas became extremely popular and a major public entertainment.
Unfortunately, these dramas were confined within Imphal in fixed venues, auditoriums, and theatre halls. The rural and mofussil public were left out. Elangbam Joychandra was one among few who filled this gap with his version of drama locally known as Sumang Lila or Touring Drama (also known as Mobile Theatre). He founded the National Touring Drama Party or Manipur Artist Touring Drama Party in 1949, popularly known as ‘Joy Drama’. It was a rage until the 1980s. His sheer determination alone could have made it last so long.
It was mobile, economical in the use of props, but not in skills and techniques. It had very humble beginnings coming at a time in post-World War II Manipur, when entertainment of any kind was badly wanting. It was the only form of entertainment in the rural areas until cinematography came to Manipur. Joychandra toured extensively within Manipur and across the North East wherever Manipuris domiciled and commanded a huge following in the early 1950s until the 1980s. I remember meeting him during his tours when my father was in service in Assam.
Provincial in character and orientation, it was a very powerful means of social interaction and communication, disseminating ideas, opinions, helping change social mores and thinking in Manipur. Interestingly, the themes and contents were socially acceptable. And at a time when generations of Manipuris both in the valley and the hills were far more conservative and circumspect, when young lovers conveyed their affections non-verbally and of course non-physically, the ‘happenings’ in the Sumang Lila or Touring Drama became the via media through which young lovers conveyed and expressed their emotions and feelings to one another.
This uncle wrote the plays, composed the lyrics, directed, and acted himself. It was almost a one-man show. Some of his well-known works considered classics were Khanguthakki Chekla, Punsi Pamel, Sagaigi Mou, Sarat Chandni, B.A. Lamja, Pongi Chekla, Phijigi lan, and Basanta Purnima. Most of these were tragedies. In 1954, he won the Best play award in the All India Drama Festival in New Delhi for his play ‘Haorang-Leishing Shaphabi’. He played the lead role.
His true character revealed after calamities struck him from every side. Joychandra was not yet forty, when one of his legs had to be amputated. It took place in the Assam Medical College, Dibrugarh. Almost immediately, his marriage with costar-actress Randhoni Devi, mother of his three children, broke. Life went for a toss. Lesser mortals would have succumbed to these unfortunate developments - not Joychandra ! He pursued his love for the theatre, continued to write, direct, and even acted in an autobiographical play in his crutches. He was humility personified. He knew his limitations and never aspired beyond his boundaries. He stuck to it-pursuit perfection until the end. I can only remember him with regard and respect. Man and artists like him are born rarely.
Recognising his contribution to Manipuri Drama the President of India Dr Abdul Kalam awarded him the prestigious Sangeet Natak Akademi Award (by the National Academy for Music, Dance, and Drama for the performing arts of India) on 1 March 2007.

May his soul rest in peace !