Pung Cholom – The flying Mridangs of Manipur

The Flying Mridangs of Manipur - Mo Irom
“Pung Cholom” -The Flying Mridangs of Manipur by Mo Irom

I am the dancer

and I am the drummer,

I dance to my beats,

a rhythm like none other.

I make melodies,

from gentle tap on leather tautly strung,

while my feet leaps like the flight of Hermes.

Sometimes with beats far and between

I sing a soulful song;

the silence in between,

even sings its own tune.

And at times, like beats of hundred drums,

a sudden flight of ecstasy;

like a rush of thousand hooves,

bursting forth in symphony.

I drum in ardour,

devotion the soul of my endeavour,

and I dance in fervour

elation in the worship of the saviour.

–    Mo Irom

‘Pung’ in Manipuri stands for the percussion instrument otherwise commonly known as ‘Drum’. Pung is said to have been first used in Manipur around 2nd Century AD during the times of its early rulers which used it as ‘Yaibungs’ mainly to announce the King’s proclamation, sound alarms at times of invasions or summon people at times of emergencies. Slowly it came to be used as a percussion instrument to accompany merriment like songs and dances. Many years of refinement later, ‘Pung Cholom’, the playing of the percussion in Manipuri Sankritana music, came to be an indispensable part of the Meitei culture and traditions.

With the embracing of Hinduism by the rulers of the kingdom of Manipur  in the beginning of 18th century AD and the accordance of royal sanction to the Chaitanya school of vaishnavism at the time of Maharaj Bhagyachandra, the use of ‘Mridang’ as a percussion instrument came to be popularised in the singing of Kirtans, a form of devotional singing  in praise of lord Krishna which originally was started by a Vaishnavite saint from Bengal named Chaitanya or Gouranga Mahaprabhu. In Manipuri Sankirtana the ‘Meitei Pung’ which is a variant of the ‘Mridanga’ came to be used. Unlike the ‘Mridanga’, which originally is a terracotta percussion instrument the body of which is made from mud thus giving it its name “Mridanga” from the Sanskrit words ‘Mrit’ for mud and “Anga’ meaning body, the Meitei pung however is made from wood with two drum heads/faces of differing sizes, one small (Manao) on the right and the other somewhat bigger called ‘Maru’ on the left, the combination of which gives it its distinctive sounds. The instrument is accorded a very revered status in Meitei’s traditional customs, even worshiped, equated with the body of Lord Vishnu during ceremonies and always seen wrapped finely in a thin white cloth as if being dressed. The playing of the instrument ‘Pung Cholom’ is a highly skilled and developed art that is indigenous to Manipur and with no comparison or likeness to its art form anywhere in the world. It is showcased and highly acclaimed all over the globe as part of the Manipuri Classical music and dance.

The ‘Pung cholom’ which generally precedes the singing of the kirtan is a fabulous and enchanting rendering of the instrument with variations in the tempo of the beats ranging from the slow and interrupted rhythm that creates a soulful melody to an energetic and spirited beats climaxing to an explosive rhythm, all the while accompanied by a matching display of fluid and graceful body movements that has been ingenuously incorporated from Manipur’s famed martial art form ‘Thang Ta’ and ‘Sarit sarak’. Highly acrobatic and artistic, the Pung Cholom is an exquisite and quite a breathtaking presentation.

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