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MYSTERY OF A MANUSCRIPT

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SUMIT MUKHERJEE
The Telegraph, Calcutta, February 28, 1992

Site-owner's Note:

This curious case of a manuscript on Manipuri dance that Manipuris regard as an outright and clumsy forgery is an illuminating example of the Procustean framing of Manipuri culture for inclusion in an official modern Indian culture. It is also a throwback to the early 20th century when many of the Manipuri elite aspired to be a part of Indian culture.

The Bishnupriya origins of Guru Bipin, the accused in the case, with this Assamese community claim to a Manipuri identity based on the community's closer Hindu and Indian affinities, is probably relevant here.

The case is therefore generally seen as an attempt to legitimize the efforts to establish a school of Manipuri dance on the Indian mainland under Guru Bipin.

Ironically, it has probably fueled the anti-Indian backlash in Manipur of the last 40 years.

There have been numerous controversies : but very few, if at all, legal wrangles over any art form. Art has influenced men since prehistoric times and has been a moving force in the onward march of civilisation. Men have either venerated it or kept away.

The people of Manipur, too, preserved and propagated their dance from over the centuries with quiet pride. But the traditional calm of Manipur's dance community of dance lovers has lately been ruffled by a fierce controversy over the Govinda Sangeet Leela Vilas, a codified treatise on dance.

The book is in Sanskrit but in Bengali script, translated into Manipuri by Pandit Brajabehari Sharma. It was published in 1964 and is said to be based on a manuscript written by the state's most celebrated monarch, Rajarshi Bhagyachandra (who reigned during 1759-1761 and 1763-1798, and introduced the Raasleela tradition in Manipuri classical dance). This manuscript was discovered by Manipuri dance exponent Guru Bipin Singh.

Guru Bipin Singh faced a stiff challenge from scholars and gurus on his claim, the most vociferous beingthe late guru Padma Shri Maisnam Amubi Singh, erstwhile principal of the Jawaharlal Nehru Manipur Dance Academy, Imphal. The scholars contended that the Rajarshi had been illiterate and could not have possibly written the treatise.

Moreover, Guru Bipin Singh's inability to produce the original manuscript lengthened the shadow of doubt. The claim that this manuscript was authored by the Rajarshi and represented the only codified text on classical Manipuri dance had sparked concern.

Prof. Chongtham Manihar Singh of Manipur University who is chairman and convener of the Action Committee inquiring into the Govinda Sangeet Vilas, says: "Actually there would have been no trouble had Guru Bipin Singh said the book was his own work. Then it would have been up to the gurus, scholars and the people of Manipur to decide whether or not they would follow the book."

Guru Bipin Singh, however, feels differently. "The original manuscript of the Govinda Sangeet Leela Vilas mentions that it is written by Bhagyachandra. I am not sure whether it is Rajarshi Bhagyachandra or someone else by the name of Bhagyachandra. During his tenure, many works written by the pundits were dedicated to the Rajarshi. The cover of the Govinda Sangeet Leela Vilas, however, mentions Rajarshi Bhagyachandra as the author, for which I am not responsible. My only disadvantage is that I am no longer in possession of the original manuscript," he says.

Guru Bipin Singh had found a supporter in Prof. E. Nilakanta Singh, noted scholar and former secretary of the Manipur State Kala Akademi and Sri Sri Govindaji Nartanalaya, Imphal, who took up the gauntlet thrown by Guru Amubi Singh by way of several provocative articles in Manipur Times. Guru Amubi Singh filed a case (number 13 of 1966) against Prof. Nilakanta Singh but later agreed to an out-of-court settlement and the controversy gradually died out.

Following the death of many of the dramatis personae, including Guru Amubi Singh, the matter went into cold storage. But the dispute has now resurfaced. Guru Bipin Singh and his disciples mentioned the treatise once again in Marg Publications' Dances of Manipur: The Classical Tradition, published in 1989 and edited by Saryu Doshi.

After almost three decades, the matter has gone to court again, but this time it is directly linked to the treatise. In the present criminal (complaint) case no. 746 of 1990 in the court of the Ld. Chief Judicial Magistrate, Imphal, against Guru Bipin Singh, Prof. Manihar Singh, convenor, Action Committee Inquiring into Govinda Sangeet Leela Vilas, has mentioned in clause 5 that the accused had credited the book to a deceased person, the late Maharaja Bhagyachandra Singh, intending to be believed that it was authored by the said Maharaja during his lifetime "for the purpose of his personal benefit or gain, thereby amounting to commission of forgery in terms of explanation no. 2 of Section 463 of IPC and every publication or claim of the same would amount to recommission of the offence. "

Yet another chapter of legal wrangling began when the Action Committee for inquiring into the Govinda Sangeet Leela Vilas, constituted on July 29, 1990, sent a legal notice to Guru Bipin Singh asking him not to pursue his false claim or get the book published and demanded a public apology from him. It asked Guru Bipin Singh to write to Marg Publications saying the book was not authored by Maharaja Bhagyachandra within 30 days, failing which the committee would initiate legal proceedings.

Instead of complying, Guru Bipin Singh sent a letter dated August 21,1990 through his advocate, demanding the particulars of the Action Committee and its members and sought to know whether it was a registered body.

At its second meeting on September 6 1990, the Action Committee decided to file the said legal suit against Guru Bipin Singh, accusing him of committing offenses punishable under Sections 465, 468 CrPC read with Section 420 of the same IPC, since the deadline in the notice sent by the local lawyer had expired and no response had been received from the guru.

Prof. Manihar Singh subsequently recorded his statements at the court. On December 14, 1990 an application was filed on behalf of the Action Committee and six days later the cognizance of the complaint was taken before the chief judicial magistrate and "an arrest warrant was issued on the guru", according to Prof. Manihar Singh. The guru, in turn, filed a criminal revision case no. 1 of 1991 at the Guwahati high court, Imphal Bench, against Prof. Manihar Singh and others, praying "to issue a rule nisi in this behalf, to call for examining the records of the case pending in the lower court, to stay the further proceedings of that case during the pendency of this revision, and to set aside the impunged order of the learned trial court and to quash.... "

It may be recalled that the controversies centering around the treatise came to light three decades ago following a number of articles in Marg (Vol. XIV, No. 4, September 1961) by Guru Bipin Singh and the Jhaveri sisters that first mentioned the existence of the controversial manuscript. "It is, however, surprising that the existence of such an important document remained, for centuries, unknown to gurus and scholars. And had the manuscript been authored by the Rajarshi, it would have been recorded in the Chaitharol Kumbaba (the royal chronicle)," says Prof. Manihar Singh. Rajkumar Singhajit Singh of Triveni Kala Sangam, New Delhi holds a similar view: "The concoction is very well proved. It is strange that it (manuscript) could escape the knowledge of the people for 200 years." Maharajkumari Binodini Devi, too, doubts the authenticity of the manuscript's authorship, and feels that even if it was not recorded in the chronicle, it should have found mention in Larei Lathup.

To this Guru Bipin Singh says: "Some people contend that the works of royalty are recorded in the chronicle. If that is so, then why is Srikrishnarasa Sangeet Sangraha, believed to have been written under instructions of the Rajarshi's son, Gambhir Singh, Maharaja of Manipur from 1825 to 1834, not mentioned in the Chaitharol Kumbaba? I feel there are several books which do not appear in the royal chronicle. "

The manuscript was published by Sri Sri Govindajee Nartanalaya, Imphal, in November 1964 when Guru Bipin Singh was its principal. A publication grant of Rs 2,500 was provided by the state government. "Rajarshi Bhagyachandra, who reigned in Manipur in the latter part of the 18th century as a mere trustee of Lord Govinda, wrote the original Sanskrit work. Govinda Sangeet Leela Vilas is the only authority to date on the classical heritage of Manipuri dance and talas," say the blurbs on the book-jacket.

However, Pandit Surchand Sharma maintains: "I still do not want to accept the Govinda Sangeet Leela Vilas as real. I have not seen either the original or the facsimile of the manuscript."

forgery.gif
The manuscript reproduced in Marg

There was a lot of hue and cry in Manipur and Mr N. Kerani Singh, then chairman of Apunba Maharol Marup (an association of youths) was entrusted with the job of conducting an investigation into the matter. He recorded his findings in a book entitled Govinda Sangeet Leela Vilas - A Concoction, published in 1972.

What stirred the cauldron of controversies was the fact that Guru Bipin Singh, after having recovered the manuscript from his guru, Meitei Tomba, went to Bombay to have it deciphered although there were several scholars in Manipur itself who were capable of doing the job.

In a bid to throw light on the discovery of the manuscript, Guru Bipin Singh says: "The original manuscript was initially in the hands of Maharaja Chandrakirti's royal priest. After his death the papers were found suspended from the ceiling in his house (a usual practice of preserving important documents in Manipur). Much later, his family decided to hand it over to the Brahmin pundits of the locality (the Baman Leikei). I got it from my guru who was a resident of the same locality."

It was Padma Shri Guru Maisnam Amubi Singh, first recipient of the Sangeet Natak Akademi award for Manipur? dance, who first raised doubts about the authenticity of the manuscript's authorship through a press statement. Prof. E. Nilakanta Singh, on the other hand, continued to support Guru Bipin Singh through articles written under a pseudonym.

One of his articles, headlined " Unfortunate controversy over GSLV: Time to rise D above prejudices and petty jealousies" was published in the Manipur Times on October 13, 1965. A sensational news item in the same paper shook the whole state: "Principal Bipin Singh dismissed from Nartanalaya for destroying original manuscript" ran the headline. The nartanalaya's governing body, dismissing him on November 12, 1965, said Guru Bipin Singh's failure "to produce the original manuscript" had put the Nartanalaya "in an embarrassing situation."

The acrimonious debate of 1965 turned into a legal battle the following year, with a criminal case (number 13 of 1966) being filed in the Imphal court of magistrate L. Rabindra Singh. Guru Amubi Singh t accused Prof. Nilakanta Singh of committing an offence punishable under Section 500 IPC and prayed that a warrant be issued against the accused. Meitrabak reported on November 27,1968 that the matter D had been settled out of court following an D open apology by the accused.

Guru Bipin Singh, too, tendered an open apology (published in Khollau dated October 8, 1966) saying: "It is true that I have found the manuscript of Rajarshi Bhagyachandra's Govinda Sangeet Leela Vilas. The book was already published and I edited it. To bring the book up-to-date, I took the help of a Sanskrit scholar in Bombay to correct grammatical errors and spellings. Such a modified version of the book was rewritten and I brought it before the pundits as the original manuscript. I destroyed the original one in apprehension that there might be confusion if I kept two manuscripts. I now feel repentant for such shortsightedness and beg pardon from all." Over two decades later he now declares that it was destroyed by his then domestic help, Baabal.

In an interesting development Jogendranath Bhattacharya of Bombay, who has been referred to in the introduction to the book as the person who deciphered the old manuscript, wrote a letter to N. Kerani Singh saying that some Tarkatirtha (obviously referring to Gopal Ranade, a Maharashtrian pundit who deciphered the contents of the manuscript) "wrote out the Sanskrit script at the house of the Jhaveri sisters at the instruction of Guru Bipin Sinha (Singh). I wrote in Bengali script seeing the writing of the Maharashtrian pundit I want to make it clear that I have never seen any old manuscript of the Govinda Sangeet Leela Vilas in any language. "

Prof. S. Nilabir Shastri, noted scholar and litterateur, and former secretary of the Shri Shri Govindajee Nartanalaya still has reservations about the book in question. "I don't think the book is a genuine one. When asked for the original manuscript, Guru Bipin Singh kept insisting it was in Bombay with Nayana Jhaveri. Prof. Nilakanta and I went to Bombay where the Jhaveri sisters showed us the manuscript written by Madan Gopal Sharma."

Although Guru Bipin Singh has been the cynosure of all eyes in the controversy, Marg's role, too, cannot be undermined. A skeptical Guru Singhajit Singh lashes out at Marg: "This book tries to lionise an individual and his work rather than focus on the entire spectrum of Manipuri culture. For a publication like Marg, I think it is too unbalanced. The book gives positively wrong information about various factors."

The 1989 issue of Marg on Manipuri dance has virtually rocked the state's cultural world. "We were shocked to find Dr. Kapila Vatsyayan quoting the Govinda Sangeet Leela Vilas," says Prof. Manihar Singh. "I have written to her and she said it was quoted from her earlier book, Indian Classical Dance, published in 1974.

"Then I wrote to the editor of this Marg book, Saryu Doshi, who replied in very strong terms: 'Even Shakespeare is controversial.' But all controversies about Shakespeare's works are kept alive only to continue the sustained interests in his writings. In our case, it affects our culture, our traditional dance form."

Even Guru Bipin Singh holds Marg partially responsible: "The facsimile printed in the Marg book along with my article has been wrongly credited to the Rajarshi. In fact, it is the one written by Madan Gopal Sharma. This (facsimile) was published without my knowledge. "

As the case fights its way out of the labyrinths of the law courts, Manipur and its cultural heritage stand witness to another blasphemy. The roles played by the people involved are not yet clear, but a popular verdict is in the air. "The 1989 issue of Marg Publications' Dances of Manipur: A Classical Tradition has printed a facsimile of the Govinda Sangeet Leela Vilas manuscript. This is unfortunate and a mistake on our part. For, the one which is printed is not the original manuscript. Also, the word 'Rajarshi' on the jacket is a printing lapse, " says Guru Bipin Singh.

The Govinda Sangeet Leela Vilas, according to Prof. Manihar Singh, is a commendable work on dance. But it betray a cetfremvards base personal gain by playing on the sentiments of the people. "The contents of the manuscript are no doubt beautiful. But the forms and rules of dance (in the book) followed by Guru Bipin Singh are against the traditionally accepted form of our dance. The main controversy arises out of this."

The guru, however, is totally unperturbed by such allegations. "Some contend that the book contains talas and matras used by me, but then all these are same in every text. I follow Narahari Chakraborty's Bhaktiratnakar, the book followed by almost all Manipuri gurus."The book is a general treatise on music and dance and does not conform to any particular classical style. Some are also of the view that Manipuri dance does not follow the Natyashastra tradition. Then tell me why the Bharata Natyam hastas, as laid down in the Abhinaya Darpan, are used in Guru Amubi Singhis famous composition, Smita kamala?

Besides, his book, Chali, has a chapter on Nartan hasta which contains terms from Abhinaya Darpan and gestures practised in Bharta Natyam. Prof. N. Tombi, former state education minister and Congress (I) MP, sums up the views of a large cross-section of people in Manipur: "The whole trouble arises out of the manuscript being published again in Dances of Manipur: A Classical Tradition. And also the manner in which it has brought it out. This time, Marg Publications has come out with two editions of the book, an abridged, paperback version and a hard-bound one. Only the paperback one, which did not contain the facsimile, was circulated in Manipur. I got to see the hard bound edition in Bombay. Now tell me who could be behind this mischief, especially after the first case was settled out-of-court? It could be Guru Bipin or the Jhaveri sisters, or any interested party, I don't know. But whoever is doing this is taking advantage of the 30-year phase during which the controversy has faded from people's memories.

"What Guru Bipin and the Jhaveri sisters present are stage versions of Manipuri dance and not the social and traditional forms. In order to make their presentation more effective, they must have wanted to build up a shastra because Indian classical music has been systematically codified by Bhatkhande. If Guru Bipin likes to do the same with Manipuri dance, he is welcome. But how has he done it? From the very beginning his intentions were dishonest and did not use his own name as he was aware that our tradition does not permit even the most learned guru to claim that he is a guru.

"If he is still amenable and genuinely loves Manipuri dance, he should say that he has manipulated the Govinda Sangeet Leela Vilas and admit it was a mistake. He should be truly repentant. Only then shall be on his side and extend all possible support to him."

Guru Bipin Singh maintains a stoical stand. " Even if I am put on the gallows I shall never admit having written the Govinda Sangeet Leela Vilas myself," is all he has to offer.


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Information about the first controversy based on Govinda Sangeet Leela Vilas - A Concoction by N. Kerani Singh
The Telegraph, Calcutta, February 28, 1992
The Telegraph. http://www.telegraphindia.com/