Transgender assertion and joy through Thabal Chongba in Manipur

This main illustration is a collage of two photographs and an accompanying text box. The photographs show scenes from the Thabal Chongba event held for transgender women in Imphal on April 14, 2018. In each photograph, a number of individuals dressed in colourful and traditional Meitei attire can be seen holding hands in a long human chain and dancing merrily to the sound of music. The participants are a mix of many genders, though most of them are transgender women. The event venue is an open ground, lit up brightly with LED lamps attached to bamboo frames erected at the edges of the ground. In the background, a number of onlookers can be seen sitting on benches or standing around. Behind them are houses and shop fronts with shutters closed. The accompanying text is a quote from a participant at the event: “I’m happy with this event where we’re empowered to come out openly in public with our trans identities. I wish the organisers are able to repeat such events every year!” Photo credits: Bonita Pebam

Manipur Diary, Happenings, May '18
For transgender women in Manipur, Thabal Chongba, a popular folk dance associated with the Yaosang or Holi festival, provides a welcome respite from a stigmatized existence. Bonita Pebam reports on a Thabal Chongba event organized by and for transgender women last month in Imphal

Imphal, April 14, 2018: Nearly 400 transgender women got together in the Singjamei Bazar area of Imphal today to dance their hearts away in a Thabal Chongba event. The event started at 8.00 pm and as it progressed, other people also joined in, holding hands in large circles and moving to the rhythmic beating of drums. A crowd of many more hundreds from different localities of the city witnessed the celebration (watch video here).

Among the largest events of its kind, it attracted participation by transgender women not just from Imphal but also several other districts of Manipur. The event took place in an open ground decorated with hundreds of LED and other lamps. Meira Paibis or women’s groups in the Singjamei Bazar area kept watch to make sure no untoward incident took place to disturb the event.

Inset: Community voices at the event: “We transgender people feel proud that because of this event we were able to enjoy ourselves in our preferred attires, just like other people” – Poison Khurai, Secretary, Cine Makeup Artist Guild, Imphal; “This is a special day for our community as we were able to express our gender identity and existence in society” – H. Ashananda, a beautician from Bishnupur; “The importance of this event lies in bringing transgender people together to assert their unique identity” – Madhuri Seram, a makeup artist from Imphal‘Thabal’ means ‘moonlight’ and ‘Chongba’ means ‘dance’. This community dance by the moonlight has for long been performed in connection with the five days of Yaosang or Holi festival of Manipur in spring. Speaking about its origin, prominent intellectual Dr. Laifungbam Debabrata Roy said, “The origin of Thabal Chongba can be traced to the Ke-Kre Chongba. The ancient scriptures say that the Meiteis have been performing this dance since the pre-Hinduism days in the form of Kei-Yen, dance encircling Pakhangba, the supreme deity of the Meitei pantheon of gods.”

Elaborating further, he said, “Thabal Chongba is part of the Lai Haraoba ritual. It heralds the onset of spring and invokes fertility, prosperity and a better harvest. Over the years, it also became a socially sanctioned space where young boys and girls could get to know each other, even hold hands with no one frowning, and develop romantic relationships.”

Usually it is the women who organize Thabal Chongba, with men from the neighbouring localities joining in. But this particular event was specifically for transgender women. Apart from providing visibility to the transgender women’s community, the event provided an opportunity for transgender women to display their creativity through the design of their attire. Given that they are already known for being involved in the beauty and fashion industries, this added to the event’s popularity and the numbers of the onlookers.

Transgender activist Santa Khurai provided an interesting insight into the recent history of Thabal Chongba: “During the late 1980s some straight men had organised a similar event at Khurai Konsam Leikai village as a form of recreation during Sajibu Cheiraoba, the Meitei New Year. All the participants were cisgender males wearing female attire. A few nupi maanbis (transgender women) of Khurai area got to know about the event and the following year they too participated. They realized the excitement and sense of liberty in wearing female attire openly through Thabal Chongba. In later years they decided to organise similar events for the nupi maanbi community. The first such event was held in the Khurai Thoidingjam Leikai area of Imphal East district.”

Since then similar events have been organized regularly in different places in Manipur. “The community finds a space to express their identities freely through Thabal Chongba and enjoy a sense of freedom,” Santa Khurai added.

Inset: About the ‘Manipur Diary’ column: 'Manipur Diary' brings you news and analysis on issues concerning queer and other marginalized communities in Manipur. Content published under this new monthly column is contributed by participants in the Varta Community Reporters (VCR) Training and Citizen Journalism Programme. The VCR programme aims to build communication, documentation and journalistic skills among youth and other groups marginalized around gender, sexuality or other parameters. In the process, the idea is also to enhance the employability of the participants. Training workshops, mentoring, and writers workshops on issues around gender, sexuality, human rights, communication, documentation and story writing are part of the programme. A six-month pilot of this programme started in March 2018 in Manipur. There are five VCRs, all queer individuals, engaged in the programme. The VCR pilot programme in Manipur aims to provide continuity to outreach and advocacy started under a 20-month training, research and advocacy project to support economic inclusion of queer people in Manipur. The economic inclusion advocacy project was called Sexual and Gender Diversity, Welfare and Precarity in India: Impact, Advocacy and Process. The project ran from August 2016 to March 2018, and was led by AMaNA, a collective of transgender women’s community groups in Manipur, and ETA, a support forum for transgender men, lesbians and bisexual women in Manipur. Implementation was supported by ally NGOs SAATHII, Imphal; CORE Manipur, Imphal; and Varta Trust, Kolkata. The project was supported financially and technically by the Sussex Social Science Impact Fund, University of Sussex, UK. Future editions of the VCR programme will be organized in other parts of India as well – Editor.

A certain amount of flexibility has become a part of organizing Thabal Chongba in other ways too. For instance, earlier only the dholak or drum was used for the music, but these days, modern instruments are also used. In terms of timing as well, the event reported here was organized in April though Yaosang was in early March. But nothing can take away from the fact that Thabal Chongba offers a meaningful opportunity to transgender community members from far away parts of Manipur to get together and share their joys and sorrows.

Beautician Mana Mangemakhong aptly summed up the sentiment behind the event: “I’m happy with this event where we’re empowered to come out openly in public with our trans identities. I wish the organisers are able to repeat such events every year!”

About the main photo collage: Scenes from the Thabal Chongba event held in Imphal on April 14, 2018. Photo credits: Bonita Pebam

Author Photo

Bonita Pebam

Bonita Pebam, 30, has been involved in working for the sake of queer communities in Manipur since 2008. She is based in Imphal and associated with transgender community group All Manipur Nupi Maanbi Association (AMaNA) and NGO SAATHII.

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