The present Manipur chief minister, when he was a minister and an MLA, was keen on installing a huge statue of a polo player on horseback at Heingang hill, insisting that it should be the first to attract the attention of visitors while still on air in their flight and when the plane was circling before landing. Some objects, saying that the focus should be on Lord Marjing; regarded as the presiding deity of Sagol Kangjei. Their argument is that the monumental statue will attract local tourists but hardly anyone will come all the way to Manipur just to see the statue, insisting that whosoever visits the shrine may continue to offer small statues of pony or small replica polo mallets as was the practice.
The chief minister convinced the then leadership and the project was started but due to Covid-19 restriction it was delayed. But now it is coming to fructify. The statue will be dominating the area but the cost of the community forest is immense.
Unfortunately, when the fabrication of the statue was in the final stage, the overall anatomy of the pony does not look like a Manipuri pony, as the tail is touching the ground. No Manipuri polo pony had its tail sweeping the ground and even some polo ponies had their tails clipped shorter.
Very small ponies like the Shetland pony have tails touching the ground. It was clarified that this was needed to properly anchor the huge statue so that it is stable even during an earthquake and the changes were forced due to the extreme load.
The fabricators and engineers ought to have consulted subject experts so that the modifications were discussed threadbare before the final casting was carried out. With the four feet of the pony firmly on the ground, the stability of the statue may not have been a problem but that will depend on the advice of the structural engineers.
Some people then insisted that to attract tourists on the location, rather than cutting down large pine trees, it would be better to construct small neat traditional huts where tourists can stay overnight and then pay their obeisance to Lord Marjing in the morning after ablution. The beautiful sunrise could have been an added attraction and with a short climb it can be an attractive tourist destination.
A small cottage industry in the locality can come up, manufacturing small pony statues of different sizes and small replica polo mallets from different materials which can be offered to Lord Marjing and to take home as souvenirs.
Now, the monumental statue is in the last leg of fabrication but the pony will look a bit different from the traditional one, with an extra long tail anchoring on the ground behind.
Earlier, there were design competitions for various items. One can recall the design competition for the logo of the Vth National Games, where there were a large number of designs submitted and an expert committee went through all and identified the best design, taking into consideration various aspects till a final one was selected. The designer of the selected design was compensated monetarily.
Similarly, when the Nupilal Memorial was constructed, there was a design competition and the present one is after combining two top designs and after the changes were made it was put on display for the public to make their comments and observations. There was tender when the heritage site at Hapta Kangjeibung was developed, with the condition that experts must be roped in to portray authentic design and decorations. This is the tradition elsewhere also.
The selection of the best design seems to have been discontinued as there was no such competition for two important structures, one being the heritage village at Moirang Khunou and the other one being the memorial at Mount Manipur in Andaman as no advertisement for such competitions was seen.
There were long discussions by experts on the design of the Khongjom War Memorial, its gate and the installation of the Thongngapa and Thongngakpi statues at the gate. Even the English rendering of the passage from Cheitharol Kumbaba, which this writer had the privilege of doing, was sent to reputed translators, who made few suggestions which were incorporated before committing on black granite.
Discussion and consultation of subject experts are necessary as there are do's and don'ts of many of the cultural artefacts and traits and it will be improper to violate the mores, particularly so if the structure attempts to signify Manipur and its people. Younger generations have little idea of taboos on the use of cultural symbols.
The design of the Memorial at Mount Manipur, received the gold award in the architecture design for memorial conducted by MUSE in 2022. The entry for the award was perhaps done before the government approval because the name of the client is missing. The overall design has to be good to be able to garner the award, though the prestige of the award is well below such as Pritzker Architecture Prize, Architecture MasterPrize, The Aga Khan Award for Architecture, AIA Gold Medal etc.
It is not clear whether the client government had indicated its need. However, except for the two Kanglashas, there is no Manipuriness in the concept design which was claimed to be based on the back of the royal elephant with the museum, royal sword monument, galleries, an outdoor auditorium, cafeteria and a garden surrounding it all.
In fact, there are a few incorrect statements in the writeup such as Yuvaraj Tikendrajit and Thangal General was hanged at Fida (not Pheidapung), and Maharaja Kulachandra and 22 others were sent to Kalapani (1891). Of the 23 interred in Kalapani as per the research till now, Prince Narendrajit (Sana Chahi Ahum) was not related to 1891 but to the 1857 revolution. This unfortunately does not inspire confidence regarding the understanding of the historical incident.
For a memorial or monument relating to Manipur within or outside the state, there has to be elements of Manipur to bring its uniqueness so that any visitor can identify with Manipur, which in this instant case is attempted to be done through the two Kanglashas.
There is a need for debate whether the Kanglashas can be appropriated for any structures other than the seat of power and whether it can be installed in any building, including private residences. There was a belief that the Kanglashas are bad omen and whoever comes to visit the king was made unlucky after seeing the two Kanglashas and thus the king will always have an upper hand in any negotiation, etc.
Experts on the subject can debate and a conclusion arrived at as to whether its installation is permitted by norms. Aesthetics is one aspect but tradition is also equally important. The High Court of Manipur Building is aesthetically pleasing but it does not carry the dignity and looks more like a resort.
There is still time for the memorial at Mount Manipur and even if the government had approved the design, it should be open to the public and experts to offer their comments and suggestions so that mistakes of impinging on our culture are avoided and the memorial portrays the uniqueness of the state. It can be a state of the art building with modern amenities no doubt. It should not be like the son et lumiere at Kangla which has been completed but is yet to be open to the public after spending huge amount due to incorrect portrayal of the history of Manipur with a few fun elements added which does not gel with the overall presentation.
The technology is top class but the text and the presentation leaves much to be desired.
When this writer was invited for a premiere some years ago, he made a long list that needs modification due to incorrect portrayal of the history and culture of the state and though some corrections have reportedly been made, it still contains elements which the public may find uncomfortable.
Some of the corrections were simple like that there were 83 kings from Nongda Lairen Pakhangba while there are only 76.
Some corrections which are difficult to make without reshooting are the portrayal of Yuvaraj Tikendrajit, who is a historical figure with his B/W photos available and the artist who portrays just does not look like him. The point is that before work starts, all aspects need to be considered and discussed threadbare so that mistakes are avoided.
Even for the heritage park at Moirang Khunou, as the materials used are different from the traditional ones, there is a need for close monitoring by community experts that there is no incorrect portrayal of the design.
Despite using modern materials for longevity, the final product should be such as if traditional materials were used and people from each community can easily identify with the particular hut of his or her community. It should be a place for all to understand and appreciate the diversity within the state, for which authenticity is supreme.