Pena: The Royal Court Music of Manipur


The government must frame a policy for preserving the valuable indigenous art forms of various communities in Manipur.


By: Seram Neken


Pena is more than a mere folk art. It embodies the rich heritage reflecting the mythology, philosophy, history, lifestyle, literature, martial art, festivities, healing practices, rituals and evolutionary theories pertaining to the Meitei community. Every component of the instrument and every verse of the Pena recital has its aesthetic values. An extensive research, rejuvenation and popularization of this age-old performing art will reveal the true identity of the Meiteis.  Indigenous art forms must find a place in school curriculum, so that the posterity revives the rich elements that narrate the unique identity of native peoples. The State Government must frame a concrete policy to hunt and preserve the varied indigenous art forms of different communities residing in Manipur.


PENA: THE ROYAL COURT MUSIC OF MANIPUR – Photo from our archives

Pena is not a mere musical instrument for entertaining the audience. It signifies creation and evolution. As a primordial art form, Pena had medicative values in the days of yore. A Pena artiste is usually a healer of a variety of ailments. It is said that the Meitei kings patronized this art form so much so that they used to accompany a Pena artiste while heading for voyages. It is said that Chandrakiti Maharaja accompanied a Pena artiste in his Jilla Darbar trips for the purpose of interpreting topographies and also for entertaining him. Pena may rightly be described as the royal court music of the Meiteis, as almost all civilized nationalities had such an institution. The Japanese too had paid high respect for their imperial court music.


Considering the importance of rejuvenating this art form, the Hueiyen Lanpao Columnists’ Forum (HLCF) organized two interactive academic sessions on the aesthetic values of PENA on 12th January, 2013 and 24th February, 2013 respectively at the Literary Hall of Hueiyen Lanpao Daily. Resourceful cultural activists, writers and columnists of the state participated in the programme called ‘The Hueiyen Rendezvous – 1 & 2’ and expressed their desire for pressing the state government to pay attention towards preservation of this highly valuable, but vanishing art form.


Dr. Makhonmani Mongsaba, scholar and cultural activist addressed the session with his resourceful lecture in the first rendezvous. Padmashri Khangembam Mangi, renown Pena artiste presented his performance as part of the programme. In the second rendezvous, Musicologist N Tiken gave resourceful lecture on PENA. Prominent cultural enthusiasts, columnists, writers and media persons took active part in the discussion-cum-demonstration rendezvous.


Hailed as a Shumang Lila artiste in the early period, Padmashri Khangembam Mangi is renown Pena performer who has made superb contribution in the preservation of indigenous music of the Meiteis. Right from 11 years of age, Shri Mangi started learning Pena from famous teachers such as Ahongjao, Kanhai, Mohon, Pandit Achouba and Kullachandra. Before retirement from JN Manipur Dance Academy as Visiting Guru, he visited various countries including Russia and United States for demonstration of Lai Haraoba Pena music.  Besides being the president of LAIHUI, he is presently holding the charge of Lupa Leikham Sanglakpa at Sana Konung. Shri Mangi is also advisor of the Umanglai Kanba Apunba Loop (UKAL). In the first Hueiyen Lanpao Rendezvous, this prominent Guru enthralled the audience with his ‘Kao-Phaoba’ episode.

It was indeed a meaningful rendezvous which hunted the rudiments impounded in the dying art form ‘Pena’. The discussion brought forth the need for more research and further discussion on the origin and style of the evocative musical art of the Meiteis. It is high time, rather late, for the present generation to explore the aesthetics inherent in this indigenous art form.


Every component of the instrument has its own meaning. Every posture and every movement of the artiste playing Pena has significance. Pena embodies traditional healing practices, martial arts and evolutionary theories of the Meiteis. For instance, the performer’s fingering on the Pena strings resembles the healing message on the body of a patient. The up and down movement of Pena which identifies with a rhythm symbolizes the heart beat of human beings. The parts of Pena such as the strings, main body, tube, handle etc. indicates the highly skilled artistic creations of the Meiteis. The technology is truly civilized and outstandingly hi-tech.

Without any script of its own, Pena artistes amazingly play and recite stories with highly literary verses moulded entirely with their intelligence and oratory. It reveals how skilful and intelligent our Pena performers of the yore were.  The famous poet Hijam Anganghal extracted the valuable narrations of Pena artistes of his time to compose the legendary epic ‘Khambi Thoibi Seireng’. Pena, therefore is a precious and unique literary source of the nation.

According to Padmashri Mangi, ‘Pena Phamsak’ style has been dying in the contemporary Manipur, due to various reasons. Lack of encouragement on the part of the government and the general people has led to diminishing values of this aesthetic art form. Popularity of Pena has reduced radically nowadays. Learning of Pena has not been institutionalized so far. State patronage is highly called for in the revival of the dying art form.

The Art and Culture department of Manipur needs to put extra efforts to enliven the teaching of and research on Pena music. It has a lot to do in tracing the pre-historic beauty of the Meiteis, thereby preserving the identity of the Meiteis. Moreover, with due scientific studies and improvement, Pena may well be developed as a valuable world-class musical instrument.  It has all the elements of being at par with other contemporary classical music forms.  It is however unfortunate that there is no institution for learning the valuable Pena art form in the state. Not only Pena, almost all valuable indigenous performing art forms in Manipur are continuously vanishing.  It is high time the government framed a concrete policy on Indigenous performing Art forms of Manipur to preserve the native art forms of varied communities residing in the state. Such a policy will surely enliven the emotional integrity among the various native peoples of the composite Manipur nation and heighten the richness of our heritage.

The Hueiyen Lanpao Columnists’ Forum through a memorandum suggested to formulate a concrete policy on Indigenous performing Art forms of Manipur to preserve the native art forms of varied communities residing in the state. Such a policy will surely enliven the emotional integrity among the various sections of the composite Manipur nation and heighten the richness of our heritage. It also recommended the state government to make arrangement for inclusion of ‘PENA’ and ‘KHONGJOM PARVA’ as subjects in the Shri Balmukund-dev Government Music College curriculum in order to preserve these art forms for the posterity of Manipur.


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