Culture

One Hundred Words: How Manipur’s Governor Insulted the Culture of the Manipuris

The governor asked Manipur’s top cultural personalities to send in 100-word definitions of culture in order to secure an invitation to tea with him. A leading Manipuri film-maker wrote an open letter in response.

File photo of V. Shanmuganathan, BJP leader and governor of Meghalaya and Manipur, with Prime Minister Modi. Credit: PTI

File photo of V. Shanmuganathan, BJP leader and governor of Meghalaya and Manipur, with Prime Minister Modi. Credit: PTI

The Open Letter by Aribam Syam Sharma – arguably the most accomplished film-maker in Manipur and a leading light of Indian cinema –  was written in the aftermath of a public event in Imphal, described by the author, where Shanmuganathan asked an audience that consisted of Manipur’s top cultural personalities to write about the “meaning of culture” in 100 words in exchange for the promise of tea at the governor’s residence. Shanmuganathan was a senior RSS and BJP leader before being appointed governor by the Modi government in 2015, first of Meghalaya and then of Manipur too.


Your Excellency,

The inauguration of the University of Culture and Manipur State Film and Television Institute on August, 12, 2016 is a realisation of a dream for many who have worked for the conservation, transformation and evolution of Manipuri culture. Your august presence in the inauguration is appreciated by those assembled lovers and proponents of Manipuri culture. In your address, your excellency, in an inimitable style of interactive deliverance, had asked those assembled to write in 100 words the meaning of culture with the promise of a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to have tea with you. (This invitation was translated to Manipuri by the ADC on your excellency’s command.)

The award-winning Manipuri film-maker Aribam Syam Sharma. Credit: Facebook

The award-winning Manipuri film-maker Aribam Syam Sharma. Credit: Facebook

I shall not attempt an answer to your question here so I forfeit any claim to tea with your excellency. But I shall make an observation that I hope would be entertained by you.

Your excellency’s playful challenge to those who assembled, amongst which were gurus of the arts and culture of Manipur, is considered as thaksi khasi naidaba, leibak macha tadaba*  in our culture. I would not attempt to translate these phrases in English because what is significant here would be lost in translation.

Norms and propriety are part of any culture. There are norms of distinction and measure: what is proper and what is improper. What counts as proper and what counts as not may differ from one culture to another. Whether there are invariants in these norms, cutting across communities and civilisations, here again I admit my ignorance. But at least this much I can say that in the culture of those assembled on that occasion, asking such a question – fit for school children – to those who have dedicated their lifetime, who are living embodiment of culture, is considered as uncultured, in our culture.

Perhaps, this is a case of culture shock. At least, the shock was on our part. The culture, the milieu which has shaped your excellency’s tastes and sensibilities are markedly different from the culture of Manipur, it seems. My humble submission, therefore, is that this shock has happened because there are not only diverse but sometimes irreconcilable sensibilities. Because of this, an overarching definition of culture might not be available. Your excellency should not, for that reason, be surprised if not many hundred-worded definitions of culture reach Raj Bhavan.

Just like we breathe without the need for the definition of what it is breathing, the people of Manipur know what culture is. It is the prana of our making, that makes us live, that makes us who we are. It is the spirit that we create, in which we immerse and live, and make sense of that living.

After the inauguration of the University of Culture and the State Film and Television Institute, we expect a Sports University to come up in Manipur. We expect that your excellency would grace the inauguration. I would like your excellency to make the adventure of asking those assembled – which would include Olympians – the meaning of sports in 100 words. In a gathering of politicians, we would also like to see you invite a definition of what politics is, in hundred words. Or is it too much of an asking, your excellency?

Yours sincerely,

Aribam Syam Sharma
Manipuri film-maker
Imphal West, Manipur -794002

13 August 2016

*Note from The Wire: The phrase may roughly be translated as: “A person who doesn’t show respect and have propriety doesn’t have the decency to respect the knowledgeable.”

  • Oinam James Singh

    A very fitting answer indeed.

  • Kahula

    wonderfully classy rejoinder. Wonder who’ll translate this classiness for BJP drones?