M. K. Binodini Devi

6 Feb 1922
17 Jan 2011
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Maharaj Kumari Binodini Devi (Hindi: महाराज कुमारी बिनोदिनी देवी; 6 February 1922 – 17 January 2011) was an Indian writer from Manipur, a Southeast Himalayan state in North-east India and a member of the erstwhile royal family of Manipur.She was notable for bridging the two worlds of ancient royalty and modern art. Born as a princess into a palace life which she lovingly recalled in a series of late essays, she made her name in the wider world as a novelist and a writer of short stories, essays, plays and award-winning screenplays, lyrics and ballet scripts. She received the Padma Shri in 1976, one of India’s highest civilian awards, followed by Sahitya Akademi Award given by Sahitya Akademi, India’s National Academy of letters) in 1979 for her novel Boro Saheb Ongbi Sanatombi (The Princess and the Political Agent) based on the true life story of a Manipuri princess, daughter of Maharaj Surchandra Singh. However, she returned the Padma Shrito protest the alleged rape and killing of Thangjam Manorama by 17 Assam Rifles personnel in 2004.

M. K. Binodini Devi wrote under the single name of Binodini. Her screenplays were made into award-winning feature films, directed by her long-time collaborator director Aribam Syam Sharma, such as My Son, My Precious, 1982; The Chosen One (1990), that have also been screened in the London Film Festival as well as the Museum of Modern Art, and Cannes, Toronto and Locarno Film Festivals. Her wildlife and environment themed script for a modern ballet was made into Sangai – Dancing Deer of Manipur, a performance film that won the British Film Institute’s Outstanding Film of the Year Award in 1984.

She died at 8:04 pm at her Yaiskul Police Lane residence in Imphal on 17 January 2011. She is survived by her two sons.

Devi, also known as Princess Wangolsana, was born on 6 February 1922 in Manipur. She is the youngest among the five daughters of Churachand Singh and Dhanamanjuri Devi, king and queen of Manipur. In 1950. She married L. Nanda Babu Roy, a surgeon, with whom she had two sons.

Churachand, who ruled Manipur from 1891 till 1941, was the first Western-educated monarch of Manipur.His wife Dhanamanjuri, played a major role in giving modern education to her children, assigning her English companion, Mrs. E. M. Jolly, as her daughters’ first English teacher. M. K. Binodini Devi got her formal education at Pine Mount School, Shillong; Tamphasana Girls High School, Imphal; St Mary’s College, Shillong; Vidyasagar College, West Bengal; and studied art at Tagore’s Viswa Bharati University in Santiniketan. She was Manipur’s first female graduate.

M. K. Binodini Devi wrote in Manipuri, the Tibeto-Burman language of Manipur. Her last book, Maharaj Churachandgi Imung, (2009; translated as The Maharaja’s Household) is a collection of 34 personal memoir essays about life with her father, Churachand. Some of the earlier essays were written and published in local newspapers from 1997 onwards.

It was during the years just before and during World War II, at a time when she lived with her mother in the pilgrim town of Nabadwip in Bengal, that Binodini was introduced to her greatest literary influence: the Bengali literature of Saratchandra Chatterjee, Bankimchandra Chatterjee, Rabindranath Tagore and Michael Madhusudan Dutt.

As early as 1939, while still a student in the tenth grade, the future author made an attempt to publish her first short story called Imaton. The young writer was scolded by her tutor for her unconventional theme of a relationship between a young man and his stepmother. During her days at St. Mary’s College in Shillong, she began writing stories again. But it was only in the early 1960s that her first published story, Nung’gairakta Chandramukhi, appeared in a Calcutta-based Manipuri journal. Elangbam Nilakanta Singh, the eminent Manipuri literary critic, acclaimed it as the first fully realised Manipuri short story.

Her work is noted for a modernity rooted in Manipur’s traditions and for her strong, unconventional female characters. Young women authors especially look to M. K. Binodini Devi, whom they call Imasior Royal Mother, as a role model. Binodini has published a collection of short stories, Nung’gairakta Chandramukhi (Chysanthemum among the Rocks,1965); more than 50 song lyrics; and over 40 radio plays, some of which are published in the collection Asangba Nongjabi (Azure Skies,1966). Her novel Boro Saheb Ongbi Sanatombi (The Princess and the Political Agent) was published in 1979 and a collection of travel essays called O Mexico! Travel Stories was published in 2004. She has also translated into Manipuri the works of Bengali writers such as Rabindranath Tagore, Shankar and Badal Sircar.

Binodini was a prolific writer, with her essays appearing with regularity in Manipur’s newspapers. These include the series, Maharaj Churchandgi Imung; a series of portraits called Yaiskul Yai on colourful characters in her neighbourhood, The Last Saheb; and Yengkhom Ongbi Hemabati, an essay on World War 2 from the Manipuri perspective. Known for her horsemanship as a young woman, she wrote 16 essays on Manipur’s equestrian culture, commissioned and broadcast by All India Radio.

Binodini has written scripts – some original screenplays and some based on her own stories – for eight feature films and four documentaries. The films Binodini scripted in her on-going collaboration with director Aribam Syam Sharma have garnered international acclaim at many screenings including the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Cannes, Locarno, London, and Toronto film festivals. A selection of these films was screened at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 2000. Their film Imagi Ningthem (My Son, My Precious) received the Grand Prix at the 1981 Festival des 3 Continents at Nantes; their documentary Sangai, Dancing Deer of Manipur, based on her wildlife ballet, received the British Film Institute Outstanding Film of the Year Award for 1989; and their feature film Ishanou (The Chosen One (1990)was selected for the Un Certain Regard section of the Cannes Film Festival in 1991. Their last collaboration, the feature-length documentary Rajarshi Bhagyachandra, was screened at the 2007 International Film Festival of India.

As President and Founder of Leikol, the literary organisation of women writers in Manipur, she was the guiding spirit for its publication of Nachom (2003), an anthology of women writers on love.

In her writing and in her arts and social activism, M. K. Binodini is recognised as a pioneer of a non-doctrinaire thinking in Manipur that borrows little from conventional modernism and is rooted deeply in Manipur’s own traditions.

Although M. K. Binodini Devi is known best for her writing, she is an also an accomplished sculptor. While a student at Tagore’s Santiniketan, she became celebrated as the muse of the Indian sculptor and painter Ramkinkar Vaij. Portraits and sculptures of her by Vaij are in the National Gallery of Modern Art in New Delhi.

Her vocal renditions of Rabindra Sangeet have aired over All India Radio. She is a Founder Member of Roop Raag, Manipur’s pre-eminent association of writers, poets, dancers, musicians and dramatists since 1960. This association paved the path of a lifelong immersion in the arts for her.

M.K. Binodini Devi served as the first Secretary of the Jawaharlal Nehru Manipur Dance Academy where she pioneered the incorporation of martial arts into the canon of classical Manipuri Dance and took the first all-Manipuri dance troupe on a tour of Latin America, North America and Europe in 1976.

She ignited environmental awareness in Manipur with Thoibidu Warou’houee, her 1972 essay on the state’s wetlands and wildlife. An elegy to the brow-antlered deer, the essay was the basis for her script for Thoibi (1972), an environmental ballet she wrote during the time she ran the Jawaharlal Nehru Manipuri Dance Academy. Other contemporary Manipuri Dance ballet scripts with an environmental message include Keibul Lamjao (1984) and Loktak Isei (1991) a ballet on the wetlands of Manipur. Her environmentalism often takes on an active aspect as with The Nong’goubi Project, a series of community actions taken in 2002 to clean up the Nambul River.

She has also held elected office as was a Member of the Legislative Assembly of Manipur and founded micro-financing for women in Manipur with the formation of Manipur’s first women’s cooperative bank in 1973.

M. K. Binodini Devi was honoured with India’s National Book Award (the Sahitya Akademi Award given by Sahitya Akademi, India’s national arts and letters academy) in 1979 for her novel Boro Saheb Ongbi Sanatombi (The Princess and the Political Agent). The Sahitya Akademi also commissioned Binodini: A Writer’s Life (2001), a documentary film on her literary career, directed by Aribam Syam Sharma. In 2007, the Sahitya Akademi selected her for their Eminent Senior Writer Award.

Other awards include the Jamini Sunder Guha Gold Medal in 1966 by the Manipuri Sahitya Parishad for Nung’gairakta Chandramukhi, her collection of stories; and the 2002 Kumari Barooah Foundation Award for Culture.

In 1976 she was awarded the Padma Shri (India’s national honours list) by the President of India for her contribution to music, drama, dance, film and literature, She subsequently returned the award in 2001 in protest to India’s plans to alter Manipur’s historical boundaries.

PUBLICATIONS (IN MANIPURI) Nung’gairakta Chandramukhi (1965), short stories Asangba Nongjabi (1966), plays Boro Saheb Ongbi Sanatombi (1979), novel Amasung Indrajit (1990), “And Indrajit” play by Badal Sircar, 1963, from the Bengali O Mexico! (2004), travel writing about Mexico, the US and Europe Maharaj Churachandgi Imung (2008) memoir essays

FILM SCRIPTS (IN MANIPURI) Olangthagee Wangmadasoo (feature film, original screenplay,1980) Imagi Ningthem (“My Son, My Precious”, feature film,1981) Paokhum Ama (“One Answer”, short feature, original screenplay,1983) Sangai – the Dancing Deer of Manipur (documentary,1988), Ishanou (feature film, original screenplay,1990) Mayophigee Macha (feature film, 1994) Orchids of Manipur (documentary,1994) Sanabi (feature film,1995) La (documentary,1997), Thengmallabara Radha-Manbi (feature film, 1999) Asangba Nongjabi (short feature, 2003) Ngahak Lambida (short feature, 2006) Nangna Kappa Phajade (short feature, 2007)

BALLET SCRIPTS (IN MANIPURI) Kong Hangoi (children’s ballet,1971) Thoibi (wildlife ballet,1972) Keibul Lamjao (wildlife ballet,1984) Loktak Isei (ecology ballet,1991)

TRANSLATIONS Amasung Indrajit (“And Indrajit”, Badal Sarkar, 1963). Play. From the Bengali.

RELATED: BINODINI: A WRITER’S LIFE A documentary film by Aribam Syam Sharma. Manipuri with English subtitles. Produced by Sahitya Akademi, New Delhi, 2001. 45 minutes.

TRANSLATIONS INTO ENGLISH My Little Friend (Imphal Turelgi Itamacha). Short story. Translated by L. Somi Roy. Published in Sahitya Akademi anthology. New Delhi 2005 One Answer (Paokhum Ama). Original screenplay. Published by Cinewave, Calcutta 1984 My Son, My Precious (Imagi Ningthem). Original screenplay from the radio play. Translated by L. Somi Roy. Published by Cinewave, Calcutta 1981

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