Endearing, vibrant tales from Manipuri mythology

A well-known curator and cultural conservationist, L. Somi Roy, is a writer and translator whose work helps bring his native Manipur to the outside world – which he does with elan in “And That is Why” (Puffin), 12 magical tales from the mountain land in the northeast on the border with Myanmar.

Passed down by learned scholars, balladeers and grandmothers over hundreds of years, the retelling of these unknown myths are enriched with beautiful paintings for the book by modern Manipuri artist Sapha Yumnam that introduces the never-seen-before art form of Manipuri manuscript illustrations.

The mythological stories in the book are derived from text and oral sources in the Tibeto-Burman language of Manipuri, or Meiteilon to use its endonym. The oral traditions are from ballads and rituals, while the written texts are found in a very little-known tradition of manuscripts called puya and handwritten mostly in Meitei Mayek, one of a handful of Tibeto-Burman scripts.

The mythology the stories draw upon is that of the Meiteis, the dominant group that established the feudal kingdom of Manipur, and which the author belongs to. They have been gathered from scholars, archivists, and balladeers.

The myths in “And That Is Why” are a part of the pre-Hindu religious practice of the Meiteis, that is largely ancestor-worshiping and animistic, and which continued to co-exist with Vaishnavism and is practiced to this day.

Many stories overlap with or feature adjacent tribal traditions of Manipur, such as that of the Kabui, and minor traditions within the Meiteis such as the Chakpa, Kakching, and Moirang.

Roy’s selection of myths for the book takes into account these smaller traditions while indulging in a personal predilection for tales that feature birds and animals.

Apart from being a cultural conservationist and curator, I. Somi Roy writes on film, culture, Manipuri polo and the preservation of Manipuri ponies (that stand less than 13 hands or 52 inches) for domestic and US publications. He has organized exhibitions for the Asia Society, Museum of Modern Art, Film at Lincoln Center, and Whitney Museum of American Art.

He has also translated the original Manipuri works of his mother, the Manipuri writer M.K. Binodini Devi. His published translations of Binodini Devi include her historical novel “The Princess and the Political Agent”, a Penguin Modern Classic; memoir essays “The Maharaja’s Household: A Daughter’s Memories of Her Father”; her play “Crimson Rainclouds”; and screenplay “My Son, My Precious”.

Roy is the founder of Imasi: The Maharaj Kumari Binodini Devi Foundation in Manipur.