The nupi maanbis are a man to woman transgender community of the contemporary Manipur (the essay exclusively discusses transgender women, although other queer communities need crucial attention). The 21st century nupi maanbis occupy a paradoxical place in the Manipuri society. One may observe that many nupi maanbis are accommodated in family and society, mainly for the social roles they perform today, such as a beautician or a designer or a breadwinner for the family (it is still very common for people to mock a lay nupi maanbi on the roadside). (The role of the beauty parlour industry in bringing a social role for nupi manbis requires a deeper analysis). The act of “accommodation” however does not ensue cultural legitimacy, which would involve a wider acceptance of the values necessitated by a gender variant identity. In this intersection of denial and cautious inclusion, nupi maanbis’ social relations are framed by “tolerance”, not “acceptance”. However, in the last 10 to 15 years, nupi maanbis have begun to mark their presence in the Manipuri society albeit entrenched marginalisation, they have acquired different means of articulating identity and community, and socio-cultural legitimacy that were not feasible in the past. What makes the contemporary period an unprecedented one for the visibility of nupi maanbi subjects? The global movements for gender and sexual minorities (including queer initiatives in India), aiming at acquiring civil rights for queer subjects, is a broad spectrum within which the visibility of nupi maanbi community in Manipur is contextualised. Alongside the discourses of democracy and human rights, the age of information has seen people from different minority positions documenting their struggle in social media, culture, cinema, fashion and beauty industry, etc. Conterminously, there are structural interactions between the society and various minority groups mirroring each other’s politics; a crucial outcome of these interactions is the element of cultural subversion. In this trajectory, the nupi maanbi identity today poses challenges to the conventional understanding of gender in general and the societal construct of womanhood and femininity in particular.
In order to analyse the anxieties that a nupi maanbi identity poses to the heteronormative economy of gender and sexuality, the current essay comments on thabal chongba, a communal dance festival of the Manipuri youths, in the context of the nupi maanbi community. More specifically, the essay deliberates on two aspects of thabal chongba for nupi maanbis (as a communal event, thabal chongba originated in the heteronormative culture, the nupi maanbi community’s appropriation of thabal chongba is only a 20th century phenomenon): first, nupi maanbi thabal is a space of community and solidarity for the subjects; second, nupi maanbi thabal is a space for resisting rigid social boundaries around gender and sexuality. Before we discuss the critical importance of nupi maanbis thabal, it is required to briefly dwell on the role of thabal chongba in maintaining gender boundaries and sexual morality in the Manipuri society.
Thabal chongba and gender norms
As a popular form of entertainment, thabal chongba is ingrained in the folk and communal living of the Meitei community. The communal character of thabal chongba can be seen to be expressed in a few structural organisations – young men and women hold hands and dance in an open space, a wider participation of men and women both as dancers and audience, and organisation of thabal chongba around popular festivals, such as Yaosang, Durga Puja, Ningol Chakaoba, etc.
Thabal chongba is considered a culturally sanctioned space where boys and girls, often lovers, come together for a permissible enjoyment. It is not uncommon for parents and guardians of the girls to watch the thabal as a way of monitoring the latter, and in this sense thabal chongba is constructed as a composite space that does not entail a separation between children and their guardians. The cautious permissiveness of thabal chongba is implicated in the heteronormative concept of boys asking out girls of their choice, under the watchful eyes of the community members. In this manner, thabal chongba is different from other newer forms of romantic engagements between men and women, for instance a romantic date in a park or a restaurant. In the latter it is only the partners who meet, guardians are absent.
Traditionally, boys do not take part in the thabal held in their own neighbourhood, and therefore they usually travel to other neighbourhoods to participate in the thabal. This etiquette of exclusion and inclusion might be arising out of an important social code in the Meitei community, in which the social relationship between boys and girls belonging in the same neighbourhood are considered to be bound by a sanctimonious familial affinity. This code of conduct can also be seen as a larger reflection of the yek-salai system of the Meitei kinship, which considers intermarriage between a few ancestral clans and sub-clans as taboo (Laisram 2009). This indicates that thabal chongba is built on the fear of sexual transgressions, such as incest taboo and other boundaries of permissible heterosexuality.
Another crucial function of thabal chongba is the projection of Manipuri womanhood in the mould of male guardianship – women as docile subjects needing protection from male champions of women’s modesty. The ‘‘fragile’’ and ‘‘diffident’’ gestures of Meitei women are subjects of celebration in the thabal, and this is reflected in the usual proceedings of a thabal that underscore modesty and restraint in women, for example in a thabal proceeding, women dance first and men are later invited to join and take women as their dance partners.
Considering the well-defined, vigilant boundary of thabal chongba in maintaining gender and sexual morality how does a thabal chongba for unconventionally gendered persons, nupi maanbis, fit into the Manipuri society? The remaining part of the essay addresses this question. It will be explored that nupi maanbi thabal becomes important not only for its ability to question the heteronormative workings of gender, but also its ability to mark a subcultural space for a gendered minority.
Nupi maanbi thabal as a space for solidarity, and assertion of a gender variant identity
Nupi maanbi thabal can be traced back to the late 20th century. Although rare in the past, it has become more frequent at present. A nupi maanbi thabal is similar to a thabal chongba for men and women (henceforth, traditional thabal) in many aspects – audience and spectatorship; the kind of dance; organisational set-up, such as monetary contributions etc. Nevertheless, a nupi maanbi thabal is different for two crucial factors – shaping of the subcultural space for the community, and assertion of an unconventional gender (and femininity). These factors are discussed below.
A nupi maanbi thabal displays a strong interpersonal relationship among the subjects. The event draws nupi maanbis from faraway places; intimations about the thabal are circulated through social media, mobile text messages and friendship circles. Significantly, friendship emerges as a strong social and political sensibility that goes beyond mere fraternizing; friendship addresses the need for the queer community formation. Various demands like monetary contributions, exchange of costumes, intimations of the thabal event among the nupi maanbis are the contexts in which the subjects are expected to show moral responsibility to commit to the life and festivities of the community. Such little acts accrue to become a politicised consciousness among the subjects, which facilitates to assert a collective presence amidst marginalisation. Friendship in this sense is a strategic ideal that the subjects have to incorporate in everyday life for a fruitful (politically resonant) collective existence. In a powerful and emotional articulation about the praxis of friendship among gay men, Michel Foucault exerted the virtue of friendship; for Foucault, friendship is a ‘‘way of life’’ (Foucault 1981) through which resistance and legitimacy in society can be achieved. The current movements and everyday revolutions among various queer communities in the world today are survived by the existence of communitarian consciousness and interpersonal bonding among the subjects, and this demonstrates the virtue of friendship as a thread of kinship outside the natal space, which have rolled the wheels of queer movements in the modern times. It emerges that friendship entails a ‘‘new alliance’’ and a counter space for assertion and protest, and thabal chongba is one such arena where such an alliance is sustained.
As mentioned above, a crucial aspect of nupi maanbi thabal is the assertion of a feminine identity. That the fact that a thabal chongba can exist exclusive of female-born “women” is culturally radical. The objective conditions for the nupi maanbi thabal arise out of the “conceptual impossibility” of nupi maanbis’ participation in the traditional thabal – the assumption that nupi maanbis are not the “real” women. This exclusion establishes two points: first, nupi maanbis are widely perceived as “same-sex” desiring subjects (the perception of the subjects as “same-sex” desiring results in misgendering and objectification of the subjects) and hence inappropriate subjects of heterosexual courtship and romance; second, nupi maanbis are negligible subjects of strict moral censoring under which the Meitei womanhood is framed in a traditional thabal. It follows that the critical potential of nupi maanbi thabal is the refusal of the subjects to be the impossible subjects of the feminine role; in this regard, the nupi maanbi thabal rightfully establishes nupi maanbis as the feminine partners (of the males) that is denied in the traditional thabal. Nupi maanbi thabal becomes a counter-cultural space where individuals who could not find a legitimate place within the rigid gender binary can find a meaningful space for gendered (feminine) subjectivity. More importantly, the acknowledgment of nupi maanbis as romantic partners for men (or simply a dance partner for a man) decentres the cultural prerogative of female-bodied women in love and courtship. In this process, nupi maanbi thabal evidences the mutability of heteronormative ownership of thabal chongba, although the politics of the very mutability is also questioned (as I will discuss later).
The subversive nature of nupi maanbi thabal is also discernible in the comments and mockery of the audience. While many look upon the nupi maanbi thabal as an “exotic” sight of entertainment, a great number of Manipuris have vociferous disliking for the nupi maanbi thabal and often termed it as “clueless”, “directionless”, “feast for the eyes”, etc. The state of being “nuisance” attributed to nupi maanbis’ “noisy antics” is celebrated in the twin moments of gender assertion and cultural protest; such a reversal is common in the history of non-normative genders and sexualities, for example the progress of the word “queer” from having a strange and unacceptable identity to the state of pride and celebration.
However, one has to be careful while deliberating on the politics of subversion implied in the nupi maanbi thabal. Notwithstanding the overturning of cultural complacency, thabal chongba evinces a parallel space that is not free from the heteronormative economy. One such anxiety is configured around phanek (traditional clothing for Manipuri women) as a dress code for nupi maanbis; significantly, the sartorial code is imposed from within the community. This act of public policing among nupi maanbis is also born out of a few frictions in society. In the recent time, a parallel criticism, both formal and informal, of nupi maanbis has gradually emerged – bold and vibrant sense of dressing being one such criticism. In the complex situation of the Manipuri society today, the community is well aware of the cultural sensitivity and the consequences of the failure to abide by the tradition. Wearing phanek as a dress code for thabal is a crucial regulation, as it could signal an alliance with the Manipuri womanhood. The sartorial regulation needs to be located in the larger cultural and ethnic bearings that have emerged in Manipur over the decades. It may be mentioned that there have been various attempts in Manipur to regulate the sartorial code for women, and in this milieu, various civic organisations have prescribed phanek from time to time to ‘”preserve the native culture and tradition”.
The brief discussion above shows that despite its transgressive potential, nupi maanbi thabal is a paradoxical space. While being a space for expressing difference, nupi maanbi thabal is also a space for reinforcing “normative” cultural expressions of the Manipuri society. However, one cannot ignore the complicated politics of exclusion and inclusion and the resultant anxiety that queer politics in Manipur has to deal with. Here, one can detect the parallel emergence of moral scrutiny and indifference with regard to the queer community.
Despite all the differences in subtext and participation, nupi maanbi thabal nevertheless appropriates the “normative” regulations with regard to modesty and propriety of Manipuri womanhood. Does this suggest that nupi maanbis are not free from moral codes and conducts prescribed by the “moral guardians” of civil society, even though there is a consistent effort to exclude them from such considerations? Or is it an attempt by the nupi maanbi community to reorient themselves in the heteronormative structure of the Meitei society so as to legitimise their own participation? One can further analyse such anxieties by pondering over a few realities of our times – nupi maanbis stand at the intersection of cultural denial and affirmation of a gender variant identity and its repercussions in the society. Even as Manipuris are not willing to deal with various ruptures and peculiarities created by the nupi maanbi community, it is also true that the various anxieties surrounding morality and appropriateness of Meitei womanhood are projected on the site of a nupi maanbi identity. In this sense, thabal chongba for nupi maanbis remains a critical signpost where identity and tradition are both contested and affirmed.
Laisram, Rena. (2009). Early Meitei History: Religion, Society and the Manipur Puyas. New Delhi: Akansha Publishing House.
Foucault, Michel. (1981, April). Friendship as a way of Life. Interview by R. De Ceccanty, J. Danet, and J. Le Bitoux. Gai Pied. Retrieved from http://caringlabor.wordpress.com