THE LITERATURE OF M.K. BINODINI DEVI
 
From:
A PRINCESS REMEMBERS:
THE MAKING OF A MEMOIR
Nahakpam Aruna
I do not know how to write except from what I hear, from what I experience. I write from what I encounter in life, from what I hear around me.
This statement is from Maharaj Kumari Binodini Devi [1922-2011], whose novel, short stories, plays, screenplays, essays and lyrics place her as a pioneer among women writers in Manipur and in the ranks of Manipur’s most distinguished literary figures.

Churachand Maharajgi Imung(The Maharaja’s Household, 2008) was the last book published by Binodini, as she signed her works, during her lifetime. And what an expansive and astonishing treasure trove of experiences and memories it contains. The household she constructs in this memoir encompasses the king, the royalty, his queens and ladies of the court, princes and princesses, noblemen and other men of distinction, his staff and servants, the wet-nurses, and many others. The publication of this memoir singularly illuminated her life in letters for her wide circle of devoted readers in Manipur. It clearly showed the literary founts of a beloved writer, a writer who could not write except from her real life experience.The writer who described this vast royal household was the daughter of Maharaja Sir Churachand, K.C.S.I, C.B.E. (1891-1941), the monarch of Manipur appointed by the British in 1891, and his queen, Maharani Dhanamanjuri Devi, the Lady Ngangbam. Better known in the land as Sana Wangol or Princess Wangol, Binodini was the youngest of the five daughters of the monarch who built modern Manipur and the Lady Ngangbam. The mother of Binodini, the queen, did not produce a son.
In this memoir Binodini takes a fresh look, in her later years, at her long-ago life in the royal palace. The Maharaja’s Household begins in 1891 when Maharaja Churachand was but a boy, and runs until his death in 1941. Binodini remembers her father’s activities, the sports, dance, music and theatre that played a major role in the building of modern Manipur. The memoir does not only focus on her father. Rather, Binodini looks, through a woman writer’s lens, at important people in the palace and court life, as well as women and common folk. She gives us rich detail about their lives that were so closely intertwined with the royal palace during the reign of Maharaja Churachand.

The Maharaja’s Household offers the reader a precious fragment of history : a princess’ recollection of the fading memories of life in the royal palace. Hers is that rare book that offers us an insider’s view of that cloistered world of privilege, the Manipuri monarchy. The world of The Maharaja’s Household is one that only Binodini could have shown us. But she claimed she does not write as a historian. She wrote as an artist, spinning a thread from the memories that formed her and expressing them with the rhythm and beauty of an artist. Building on her own memories and recollections, anecdotes and hearsay, Binodini produced a work of art using the tools of historiography. The royal lifestyle of Maharaja Churachand, the king of Manipur, until whose time a long tradition of palace events, equestrian sports and elephant hunts was unbroken, but who also built a modern Manipur and stood up to the might of the British towards the end of his life, had become a vanishing world. By delving into the depths of her memory, Binodini shone a light upon a glittering world that had receded into the shadows and showed it to Manipur’s contemporary generations.
The writer as a student in Shillong
[The Maharaja’s Household] was not written to include all the events that took place in the enormous household of Maharaja Churachand. Instead we see those incidents that touched the artist Binodini’s heart at each bend and turn of her memory stream. Just as a river flows, her memory starts with her encounter with her childless mother Tampak and runs through her childhood until the death of her father Maharaja Churachand. Even though the book contains bits of history, having lived close to the core of important historical events, the writer averred that she did not write as a historian. Instead, the core of the book is shaped by the emotions of an artist and her expressions. The writer felt this deeply and brought in Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore’s perspective into her own realization: ‘But as I opened the door, I discovered that memories are not history but original creations by the unseen artist.’
The writer and assistants, 2008.
This is the moment of Binodini’s epiphany when she recognizes the nature of her own memory, of her essay-memoir and her creative process, through the words of Tagore. She finally sees her book for what it had become, for what it was. It dawns upon the reader that for Binodini, the creative imagination of the artist towers above all. She demanded that she be freed from definitions and identifications, while yet enriching the feminism, leftist thinking, historiography and activism in Manipur with which her literary legacy is sometimes associated. The author of one of Manipur’s most beloved and acclaimed historical novels, the 1976 Sahitya Akademi Award-winning The Princess and the Political Agent, and numerous essays on untold, alternative histories, Binodini always said that she was not a scholar or a historian. Yet she is unafraid to boldly break the flow of her prose with lists of queens’ titles, cricket players and palace musicians. She balked at being called a feminist, and was impatient with women who paraded the superficial trappings of feminism, yet founded Leikol, the women writers’ circle of Manipur. She remained left-leaning her entire life but refused to march under any banner. She was a social activist who was dismissive of exploitative, careerist activism. She saw beauty in the weaknesses and foibles of human beings and translated it into the beauty and poised elegance of her prose.
Raised in a palace during a monarch’s reign, looking at the world through the eyes of a woman writer, and immersing herself among the people by leading a life as an enlightened commoner, Binodini, the writer, gazed out upon the waves on her stream of memory in her evening years and, capturing a multitude of voices, made a ground-breaking contribution to Manipuri literature with The Maharaja’s Household.