In search of Khubak Ishei

Dr Rekha Konsam
For the past few years, I have been exploring the devotional performances of Manipuri Vaishnavism.
Ironic as it seems, in almost all of these events the premise has been a unifying theme: each of these performances or ‘art forms’ is dying. It would, perhaps, not be wrong to say that this holds true not particularly with reference to Hindu Vaishnavite devotional music but applies to most traditional performances. Having spent some time in these arenas, at some point one begins to ask oneself if these art forms/traditions are dying, then what new forms are taking their places ? Furthermore, what do we mean when we say that they are dying ?
The season of kang (rathyatra), khechri and pineapples came to an end sometime back. It has taken some time to get my thoughts together. The pandemic had forced everything to be on standstill and rituals had been reduced to the bare necessity; but 2022 has been the year that people have started getting back into the usual pre-Covid normalcy. This year, kang was celebrated with the neighbourhood raths venturing out into its vicinity. With this return to pre-pandemic observations, I was hopeful of refreshing my memories of all the noisy July gaiety of evenings of Joydep (Jayadev), khubak ishei, etc.
My search, however, turned out to be more of a nostalgia for a long-gone era. For something that once characteristically transformed the quiet evenings into a boisterous one, the kang evenings seem to have been put under a silent zone. Devotional performances thematically dedicated to this season now seem so rare that one has to seek out where it is performed if one wishes to attend. Gone are the times when little children (for some reason, it was usually girls and not boys) would perform them; men and women from the neighbourhood would sche-dule their own offerings of devotional performance; and the evening would end with a hearty plate of khechri.
The colourful evenings unfolding in the neighbourhood temples seem to have petered out and khubak ishei seems to have lost patronage among its religious community but has survived elsewhere largely through State patronage. Even as the popularity of the Vaishnava culture appears to be on the wane, efforts continue on some fronts to keep alive its devotional expressions as artistic traditions.
It was in my quest for khubak ishei performance in 2022 that I attended an event organized by the Kongpal Nupi Ishei Marup. It was an event organized through the support of the Ministry of Culture on the day of Ningol Pali. It was my privilege that the organizing body was one that I happened to be acquainted with and hence had the good fortune to witness the planning and unfolding of the event.
I learnt that khubak ishei has different sheishaks. Some of these are Nimai Sanyas, Yogi Besh, Krishna Kali, Niti Lila, Brindavan Jatra, Nouka Bilas, Kakam Laman, Purba Raga, Swapnarita, Mathur, Pranballabh, Jugol Murti, Bansibhusan and Prabhas Yagya. As common people generally do not engage with it, we are usually more familiar with its performance during the rath (kang) festival. This, I have been informed, comes within the ‘Mathur’ sheishak.
Thematically, it is the ‘Mathur’ sheishak that is performed during the kang season. Akur Sangbad is the segment where Akrur takes Krishna to the court of Kansa on his Pushpa Ratha. Lost in the emotions of prembhakti, Chaitanya Mahaprabhu dances in front of the ratha, clapping in joy for the Lord that he revered. This is said to be the inspiration for the formulation of khubak ishei. One wonders though if it did not have anything to do with the clapping sequences of the Lai Haraoba ritual dance of the maibis.
Like most devotional performances of Manipuri Vaishnavism, khubak ishei was initially not allowed to be performed by women. Said to have started during the reign of Maharaj Gambhir Singh, it was popularized during Maharaj Churachand’s reign. It was also during the latter’s time that a woman, Lourembam Tombi, performed it for the very first time. Needless to say, she was admonished at the time. Ironically, the performance of khubak ishei later came to be associated more with women performers rather than men.
One of the leading exponents of this style of performance during our times is Smt. Yumlembam Gambhini Devi (Padmashri, retd Guru, JNMDA). The performance that I witnessed was in the style of Oja Gambhini. It was led by her student, N Romila Devi, a freelance artist herself who performed with the women of Kongpal Nupi Ishei Marup. Most of them, in some way or the other are involved in Nupi Pala sankirtan performance and the event was a demonstration of further learning the devotional music that they were being trained in.
At the end of the day, my thoughts were on the number of such ‘art’ forms that were premised on being ‘threatened’ and their performances which now seem to be, by and large, restricted to institute-trained artists fortified by awards and embellished by certificates of recognition. Would this mean that the life of such ‘art’ forms no longer exists for the immediate audience seated at the performance? For how else would one make sense of the request by one such artist to make sure that I took good photographs and videos that would reflect well on their performance.