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 – video is best viewed on mobile phone).
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.
‘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.
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!”
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About the main photo collage: Scenes from the Thabal Chongba event held in Imphal on April 14, 2018. Photo credits: Bonita Pebam