Where is Imphal?


Chitra Ahanthem.

What would you do if two people with cameras slung around their necks walk up to you and try and coax you to hold a placard that says, “Where is Imphal?” and pose for the camera? One migrant balloon seller retorted back with “Imphal is certainly not in Kashmir!” Confused?

Well! The two people with camera and placard in hand happen to be IFP editor Pradip Phanjoubam, a tall man (by Manipuri standards) and myself (short, by any standards!). We were looking for places (and will continue to do so) and moods to convey about Imphal city. First stop was the War Cemetery and for lack of any subjects, I had to “model” with the placard that said: “WHERE IS IMPHAL ? ” It was late afternoon and there were only young couples who would look furtively around to see if their pictures were being taken. But two small girls who had come with their grand father saved the day. They became our first models. The next stop was on Bir Tikendrajit Road where a vegetable vendor sat about doing her business with the placard placed near her. Later, we would take pictures of polo ponies and small boys holding the placard inside Pologround; balloon sellers at Samu Makhong and an old gentleman who saw us struggling with putting the placard at the base of the statue. He got a pedestrian walking past to pose with him, both of them holding up the placard. Still confused?

So well! The story starts with a public art project, “WHERE IS HEIDENHEIM?” based in the Heidenheim Zietung, a local newspaper of Hedienheim in Germany. The project format was developed by artists Tina O’Connell from Ireland and Neal White from the United Kingdom who says of their project, “We see public sculpture more as a malleable process informed by broader social contexts, and not bound in form by physical materiality, but through the flux and dynamics of
events, which in turn become the substance and context of our own practice.”

Connecting globally many ‘local newspapers’, the project occupies public space as an exploration of the connection between a community and its own printed voice. The project is made in response to the perceived threat to local newspapers from the internet. The first link paper to take part in the exchange with Heidenheim Zietung in August 2010 was ‘The Wendover Times’ from Utah in the USA. The story of the work was printed on the front page and then reprinted as a whole page inside the Heidenheim Zeitung. Further copies of the Wendover Times were distributed in a vending machine next to a large 6 metre
sign that has been erected in Heidenheim. Newspaper stories continue to be run in both papers thus creating a bridge between two small towns separated by distance but coming together in content and flavor.

The “Where is Imphal?” photo feature will first be published in Imphal Free Press, the newspaper copies of which would be sent to Heidenheim Zietung, the newspaper in Heidenheim in Germany. They will then print the entire page from the Imphal Free press – inlcuding other articles and news on that page, as a full page inside their own paper and order copies of the paper for distribution in Heidenheim.

Sounds crazy? But then, it is a load of fun trying to coax people to hold the placard while we aim our cameras at them. Our plan for the photo feature would be to look not only at landmarks of the city but also at the essence of Imphal city: its pulse, its noise and chaos. Our only stumbling block is the part about talking to people and convincing them to pose for pictures. Candid camera shots are easier and rather than risk the afternoon light from fading too much, we ended up being models ourselves. Me “shooting” my editor and vice versa! In the process, we had our share of “who are those two weird people?” kind of look directed towards us. Sometimes, people would disperse real quick, the moment we walked up to them and stood near to them with the placard.


For this week, if you see the tall man (Editor!) and the human version of the caricature that comes along with this column in IFP (me) approaching you anywhere around Imphal, please smile for the camera and be a sport!


  1. I’ve thought more about this piece. And I no longer believe that the german town is some kind of anagram for Zieg Heil Himmler or some such unless you mispellt it. But it did make me think about reality and truth. You have come to Imphal but due to the diffidence of locals you have had to fill imphal with clones of yourself and and editor. Tall man short gel wait for the art criics to get at that one. I am sure the irish and english artistes with photoshop could mock up a more realistic Imphal.

    Which leads me to international politics, AF(SP)A repeal and the continued detention without trial of Irom Sharmila Chanu. Having spent the last decade selling Colonel Gadafi Fighter and Fighter Bomber Planes the international community now wants to blow them all up because as Mr Cameron put it we care deeply about the human rights of north african tribals. Well he might.

    Then he wants to sell the new regime or emerging first world superpower as you now prefer to be called Eurofighters. To save time these will come equipped with auto-destruct buttons linked to UN Security Council Resolutions. That’s when the truth reality art thing hit me.

    Why not just buy papier mache fighter planes and bombers. If you need to have a war just pre-arrange with the other emerging first world superpower, sometimes they win, sometimes you win the thing back. Everybody makes money here. I hope this will appeal to the Manipuri sense of.

    So the thing with Sir Dick Stagg apparently and I have a lot of documentation to back this. He fully supports the satyagraha of Irom Sharmila Chanu or Ms Chanu as he prefers. He has continually protested to the Indian Government about their use of AF(SP)A violating the rights of Manipuris. Not directly as such. Most lately through the European Union MEP Keith Taylor. But the point is human rights is paramount for him while he is on post in India.

    The Government need to make cuts in the Foreign and Commowealth Office no doubt this is why they are farming out human rights work to anyone else who has a mind for it. Why don’t we replace Sir Dick with if you have seen Toy Story a cardboard cutout with a rope attached to pre-recorded messages. Obviously we would still have to employ a local to check the messages weren’t tampered with.

    And and as long as I am the senior most ranking member of the Brtish Government in Manipur then yes I too believe the international community should seriously consider imposing a no-fly zone over Manipur because if we care about the human rights of north african tribals then presumably we can sell eurofighters to the Indian Air Force too after we blow up all their MiGs.

  2. Did art school really do that to those kids. Over here if I employ an artist then I assume he can create something beautiful that artists from the renaissance used to be able to do but can’t any more. Now the artists in the UK employ the locals here put them together in continually changing praxis and add their brand name. Some English artist has a studio in Mahabalipuram I kid you not. He can’t work stone but he has great ideas and locals can work stone.

    Hell yeah you can take my photo but I hope you stay to take Irom Sharmila’s photo next week. Or does that miss the deadline for where did you say that was in Germany? Send Sir Dick Stagg a copy of me and Sharmila snuggling. People say he makes a fuss of Aung Sang Suu Kyi because she was once married to a British Citizen. Does a dead white British Citizen count more for that self proclaimed defendor of Human Rights Sir (and we give knighthoods for corruption the way you give out cabinet posts here) then a dark skinned British Citizen? Put that on the caption when you send him our photo.


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